The U.S. government spends $20 billion every year building the security capacity of foreign governments – more than double the amount it spent in the year 2000. Over the last twenty years, governments around the world – including many of the beneficiaries of U.S. security aid – have placed significant restrictions on independent civil society, leaving security institutions to operate with little oversight or accountability, and blind to a critical source of insight into public security needs.  Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions, the vast preponderance of U.S. security sector assistance decisions have been made by the U.S. government in consultation with officials from partner governments, with little involvement of the public or independent, local civil society in the countries where the activities take place.

This report,Having Their Say: Guidelines for Involving Local Civil Society in the Planning, Design, Implementation, and Evaluation of U.S. Security Assistance and Cooperation, contends that the United States government should more deliberately engage a broader array of affected publics, where possible through civil society, in the countries where it undertakes or plans to undertake security cooperation and assistance decisions. This contention is based on three premises: first, that legitimate governance in democratic societies requires adequate public participation in policy decision-making. Second, that justice and security service delivery, formal security sector oversight and accountability, and security sector reform processes depend heavily on civil society to perform effectively. Finally, the volume and nature of U.S. security cooperation and assistance imparts a responsibility on the United States government to ensure its programs serve the right and intended purposes without doing harm.

The report argues that engagement may take one of four major forms:

  1. Informing independent civil society;
  2. Consulting independent civil society;
  3. Involving local civil society;
  4. Supporting local civil society;

Designing a process for engaging independent civil society on matters of security cooperation or assistance confronts a number of challenges, to include the risk of exposing civil society representatives to government reprisals; empowering non-representative elements of civil society with disproportionate influence; and setting unrealistic expectations.  Rather than providing program or agency-specific recommendations, this report provides fifteen guidelines for constructing a policy framework for including local, independent civil society in the most important decisions relating to security cooperation and assistance.