Lessons and Limits: An Examination of the Social Implications of Traditional Approaches to Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Programs

Althea Lloyd

“The difficulties of attaining a durable peace in contexts of protracted violence suggest we know more about how to end something painful and damaging to everyone but less about how to build something desired.” John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination


Conflict has been characterized as a constructive, dynamic part of life that drives of human existence. An important aspect to note is that conflict is entirely dependent on the people involved. It is contingent upon on their having a particular point of view, which may or may not have independent facts and evidence to support it, and on how they behave when they encounter an opposing point of view. When conflicts escalate into the threshold of violence, destruction, and killing, it is no longer a productive function of social interactions. Violent conflict solves few problems, creates many, and tends to breed subsequent systems of violence.

Conflict, whether between individuals, groups, or nations, has characteristics of its own, and it is possible to analyze its structure and behavior. When conflict is understood, it is easier to initiate processes of resolution and, ideally, transformation. The first thing to examine is the immediate cause, the trigger event. Furthermore, it is necessary to look for the underlying causes - the state of affairs - which contributed to the outbreak. It is the underlying causes that are particularly important to understand in order to reach stated aims of reconciliation and long-term peacebuilding.

The nature of incompatibility can result in the use of arms in attempts to promote a particular position in both interstate and intrastate conflicts. In order to regulate the conflict behavior of warring parties in an armed dispute, interveners often call for a ceasefire between all factions involved. An additional peacebuilding measure that has been employed in some interventions to avoid the perpetuation of violence include disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs. DDR programs have been a feature of post-conflict reconstruction for the last 25 years and have produced both positive and negative results (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010a, 2). To this end, traditional approaches to DDR programs have focused almost exclusively on security objectives, resulting in these programs being developed in relative isolation from concerns of historical clarification, justice, and reconciliation (Theidon 2007, 67). This paper seeks to determine the social implications of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration processes by assessing the impact of the DDR process, the resources and dynamics involved, and the roles of varying actors in policy-making and implementation.

What is DDR?

Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants are applied strategies that play a critical role in post-conflict stability and recovery. The process of disarmament entails the physical removal of weapons, ammunitions, and other means of combat from ex-belligerents. Within this phase, the arms in the possession of combatants as well as the civilian population are collected, documented, and, in most cases disposed of or destroyed. The commencement of disarmament involves the assembly of combatants, often in an area guarded by external forces; the collection of biographical information; the collection of all weapons; establishing conditions of eligibility for benefits; and transportation to a demobilization center (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010a, 4).

Demobilization requires the formal disbanding of armed groups. At this stage, combatants are generally separated from their units and commanders then transported to temporary quarters, where they are able to receive basic necessities and counseling. Following this phase, the ultimate goal, traditionally, is to transport these ex-combatants to a local community of their choice to live permanently (Ibid.).

When labelling target groups for disarmament and demobilization, a criteria needs to be determined in order to identify members of armed groups. Proof of membership in an armed group is essential to the disarming and disbandment of such groups. One of the most prevalent criterion used is the possession of a weapon simply because it is an easy condition to meet and prove objectively through an external evaluation. However, it is important to note that smaller arms and light weapons are usually hidden by armed groups and tend to resurface in urban (Muggah 2005, 241).  Another method utilized is the submission of a list from leaders of the armed groups verifying their members (United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Resource Center 2015, par. 3-4). For example, in Sudan, the SPLA provided the UN with a list of individuals for voluntary and immediate demobilization which consisted of those they considered ‘non-essentials’ (i.e. elderly, disabled, and child soldiers), but neglected to demobilize its core fighters, which undermined the credibility and purpose of the overall DDR program (Munive 2013, 592).

Reintegration is the process of reincorporating former combatants into civilian society to prevent the resurrection of armed conflict. The objective is for ex-combatants to acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income. This phase is essentially a socioeconomic process with a flexible time-frame, primarily taking place in communities at the local level. Due to the prolonged period of implementation of reintegration processes, transitional assistance is offered to ex-combatants during the demobilization phase as longer-term reintegration begins. Such assistance typically includes cash payments, goods and services, and vocational training (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010a, 4). Reintegration also focuses on processes of return and resettlement of ex-combatants based on the economic and social conditions of the areas of return, including access to resources, infrastructure, security situation, social capital, and perceptions of community members and their willingness to accept ex-combatants (Nazam and Marc 2009, 5). Reintegration is part of the larger development of a post-conflict nation, and often necessitates long-term external assistance (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010a, 4).

Certain preconditions do need to exist in order to increase the chances of facilitating a successful DDR program. These prerequisites include:

  • Security: Armed conflict in the targeted areas must be halted and external forces must be in place to deter the renewal of conflict. Without the cessation of violence, DDR programs cannot be effectively implemented, as trust between former belligerents - an integral part of the DDR process - cannot develop. 
  • Cooperation: The absence of cooperation and adherence to the conditions set between all armed groups leads to ineffective DDR programs. Unless all factions are disarmed, the potential for a resurgence of conflict will continue to exist
  • Funding: DDR programs cannot persist without sufficient funding. The incompletion of any phase of DDR yields possibilities for the perpetuation of violence.

It is imperative to recognize the challenges posed in achieving such prerequisites, some of which are the unwillingness of the key actors to begin downsizing their militias and implementing the complex process of DDR as well as the different perceptions about what the program is supposed to achieve and overall lack of confidence in the system (Munive 2013, 585).

In the twenty years since the first application of a DDR mandate in Central America, the international community continues to recognize DDR as an important tool for post-conflict countries to pave the way for sustainable peace, recovery, and development (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010a, 2). The United Nations remains the leading administrator of DDR programs, with an immense portion of such operations being conducting in Africa due to the high frequency of conflicts. However, a number of agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and aid groups are also typically involved in administering DDR programs. For example, UNICEF plays a pivotal role in the conduction of youth DDR programs for combatants seventeen years of age and younger. Other organizations involved DDR operations include the World Food Program (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), ActionAid, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the World Bank, who ran the largest DDR program on the continent of Africa. Their program was a multi-country initiative in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa known as the Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Program (MDRP), run in conjunction with forty Western and African governments, NGOs, and regional organizations. Though the program did not include the disarmament phase, as World Bank policies prohibited it, it supported more than a quarter million ex-combatants (World Bank 2010, 11-15).

Challenges of DDR Programs and Its Social Implications

The original focus of DDR programs revolved around short-term disarmament and demobilization and quick pay-offs without proper attention to developing mechanism for long-term stability and peace. This leaves reintegration as the least developed phase, in some cases confined to vocational training in one or two fields for thousands of ex-combatants. The purpose is to provide an economic alternative to living life by the gun. Still, in a vast majority of post-conflict countries, job opportunities are scarce, and, moreover, some communities businesses are hesitant to employ ex-combatants considering the stigma around their former endeavors (Muggah 2005, 241). The linear progression of most DDR programs also creates numerous problems. Ex-combatants face the reality of living in temporary camps for several months before being able to return to their communities. Also, in some cases, by the time organizations administering DDR programs reach the reintegration phase, allocated funds have been virtually depleted (Ibid., 246). This, in turn, creates a host of issues including delays in transitional employment of ex-combatants leaving them without a means of support. The donor community tends to overlook the fact that these people need assistance to become productive members of the society—psychological counseling, trauma healing support, and access to employment. They assume that once the guns are out of their hands, they will suddenly be able to adapt to civilian life again, but this is not the case at all.

Even so, the systematic processes of DDR are highly political, in which implementers typically take a top-down approach working through governments and former militia leaders, excluding the concerns of local populations in specific regards to the reintegration process. One of the larger issues that persists include combatants who participate in DDR solely to reap financial benefits, which tends to lead to systems of patronage. Former commanders of these armed groups are encouraged to cooperate and surrender militia units to the DDR process. Often times, members of their units are hesitant so as a bargaining chip, a culture of patronage is fostered. Thus, organizations have a difficult time determining who is truly eligible due to this abuse of the system and lack of legitimate background information of former combatants (Munive 2013, 586). For instance, in the Philippines, the reintegration process more of a resemblance of a rewards program in which the MNLF managed to inflate the number of said ex-combatants so that their closest supports could claim benefits (Muggah 2005, 247). Furthermore, the SPLA in Sudan exercised this practice of patronage as well in their role of drafting the master list for DDR participants. A large share of those who made their way into the program simply had ‘good standing’ with the SPLA but were not actual ex-combatants (Munive 2013, 595). 

An even more compelling example of the pitfalls of DDR programs is that policies are heavily focused on disarming adult male combatants, marginalizing women and children associated with armed groups. On the other hand, it has been observed that very few women enroll in DDR in which cultural stigmas have been identified as a primary factor (Ibid., 588). This grave mismanagement of the system is not only insensitive to victims but also fails to give sufficient consideration to the host communities and their conceptions of what constitutes the rehabilitation and re-socialization of ex-combatants. Thus, it is imperative to design programs tailored to the specific needs of these marginalized groups as often find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of violence, poverty, illiteracy and social exclusion (United Nations 2009, 9 ).

Suggestions for Improving DDR Programs

In most recent years, DDR practitioners have had to work towards developing innovative approaches to address the identified flaws in DDR operations. The UN has coined Second Generation DDR as an umbrella term for a set of practices that serve the same strategic goals as traditional DDR while incorporating greater stabilization measures such as emergency employment and reinsertion, often targeted at-risk youth, which are focused on reconstruction and recovery programs to facilitate economic and social recovery and restore livelihoods. (Ibid., 25). While traditional DDR focuses mainly on militarized security concerns, Second Generation programs shifts away from military structures towards the larger communities that are affected by the conflict (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010b, 8). The concept of Second Generation DDR first began to surface in the Brahimi Report of August 2000 and was further examined by the 2006 United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on DDR. While there have been commendable DDR efforts in most recent years, significant challenges around effective coordination as well as policy and programming choices that consider cross-cutting, content and context-related issues remain (Ibid., 9-10). Nonetheless, one of the prominent and most successful examples of Second Generation DDR initiatives include MINUSTAH’s Community Violence Reduction program in Haiti (Ibid., 3).

Immense efforts have been aimed at addressing and reducing drivers of conflict in Haiti. The most notable example is, again, the establishment of the Community Violence Reduction Program. Thus far, the program has offered violence-prone populations conflict management skills, tangible rewards for peace, and economic opportunity in the form of labor-intensive projects (Security Sector Reform 2013, par. 2). The program has greatly contributed to the increase of public safety by providing productive employment to at-risk individuals and reducing their vulnerability to gang recruitment (United States Mission to the United Nations 2013, par. 3). Haiti continues its efforts to reintegrate vulnerable populations and ex-convicts, primarily through its Community Violence Reduction Program and the formation of similar programs.

Haiti has recognized that there needs to be an emphasis on involving local communities in the reintegration process by incorporating local reconciliation customs. Community-based reintegration is key in empowering host communities, increasing constructive organizational capacities, and improving effectiveness and sustainability, as these communities serve a central role in reintegration programming and all members of the community become beneficiaries (International Crisis Group 2012, par. 6). Other successes of community-based reintegration include Côte d’Ivoire’s reinsertion projects - include microfinance and enterprise development – and Liberia’s efforts to involve ex-combatants in labor intensive programs, which both helped to reduce security concerns and assist in the reintegration of former combatants who worked alongside their receiving communities (United Nations, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 2010b, 22).

Practitioners in the field also suggest a concerted effort to reshape perceptions of weapons ownership through stigmatization, public awareness, and sensitization campaigns to ‘demilitarize’ the models of power and prestige (Muggah 2005, 245; Theidon 2007, 76).  In regards to marginalized groups, the Second Generation programs have begun separating children and youth from adult ex-combatants to receive assistance specifically designed for their needs (i.e. interim care centers, family tracing, psycho-social support, substance abuse treatment, youth clubs, and recreation). In Rwanda, specific schools were set up as multi-age, multi-grade institutions for child soldiers. These transitional institutions allowed for a period of re-socialization before the children returned to civilian schools. Female ex-combatants also receive assistance specifically designed for their needs and aspirations including, but not limited to, separate shelter and sanitation facilities, treatment for sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive health services, childcare, and other gender-specific services (Nazam and Marc 2009, 2).

Lastly, Theidon (2007) contends that DDR programs should be linked with transitional justice measures (2007, 89). As defined by the UN, transitional justice is the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation. Transitional justice consists of both judicial and non-judicial processes and mechanisms, including prosecution initiatives, facilitating initiatives in respect of the right to truth, delivering reparations, institutional reform and national consultations. Theidon (2007) believes that the incorporation of transitional justice measures will allow DDR practitioners to focus beyond the military and security frameworks in which DDR programs have been traditionally conceived, to the transitional justice processes regarding truth, memory, reparations and reconciliation to include the rights and demands of victims, survivors,  and host communities (2007, 89).


 As noted in this paper, the nature of conflict has changed during the last few decades. Among the paradigm shifts is the fact that the success DDR programs cannot be guaranteed by top-down implementation focused almost exclusively on security objectives, resulting in these programs being developed in relative isolation from concerns of historical clarification, justice, and reconciliation. DDR practitioners must aim to gain an in-depth understanding of dynamics surrounding groups of armed individuals as well as the wider population and develop programs to address the local dynamics of all stakeholders. Such practices should become the agenda of all DDR administrators going forward.


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