Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) initiatives occupy a central place in the imagination of peace, security and development experts. And over the past three decades, the expectations of what DDR can achieve have grown. Rather than being restricted to a discrete set of activities at war’s end, DDR is now pursued in the midst of full-fledged armed conflicts and settings gripped by gang, criminal and terrorist violence. DDR is no longer the preserve of peacekeeping forces alone, but is routinely included in wider peace-building activities, counter-insurgency and stability operations, and in tandem with counter-terrorism and anti-crime measures (Ozerdem and Jacoby 2008; Muggah 2013, 2014a, 2014b). DDR has transformed from a carefully sequenced set of activities undertaken in the wake of negotiated peace deals to a widening cluster of measures that can include negotiating (and even implementing) the terms of peace itself.

There are several reasons why the goalposts are shifting and forcing an expansion of the parameters of DDR. For one, fundamental changes in the dynamics of organized violence in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are precipitating adaptations in conflict prevention and stabilization strategy and tactics. Policy makers and practitioners are grappling with how to adapt DDR programs to these ‘new’ realities. An especially tricky dilemma relates to the question of youth associated with radical, extremist and terrorist groups. Many organizations operating in war zones (and also outside of them) are struggling to identify ways of ‘disengaging’ Al Shabaab in Somalia or northern Kenya, Jihadi fighters in Syria or Iraq, Taliban remnants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Boko Haram militia in Nigeria and their surrounding neighborhoods. There are increasingly complex legal and operational challenges for those involved in DDR about when, how and with whom to engage.

In order to effectively engage with these dilemmas, it is useful to trace out the evolving form and character of DDR programs. It is possible to detect ways in which the scope, timing and expectations of DDR have shifted in line with changes in the wider peacebuilding, state-building and now, countering violent extremism (CVE) agendas. These transformations are coinciding with the emergence of new forms of regional and domestic fragility, the fragmentation of armed groups in many conflict settings, the direct and indirect involvement of civilians in war fighting, and the insidious nexus between conflict and organized crime. The article considers a host of opportunities and obstacles confronting the DDR enterprise in the twenty first century, offering insights on its future trajectories. There has been deep and valuable experience gained by DDR practitioners and scholars over the years, including examples of innovative practice. However, to meet future challenges, researchers, practitioners, and donors will need to revisit core concepts and redefine their expectations. They would do well to develop more effective ways of working together to produce an agreed strategic framework for managing non-state armed groups.

A Short History of DDR

DDR’s First Wave

The sheer scope and scale of DDR activities over the past few decades is surprisingly broad. No fewer than 60 separate DDR initiatives were fielded around the world since the late 1980s (Muggah 2009; Coletta et al 1996). They are not reserved to Sub-Saharan Africa alone, but span the Americas, North Africa and the Middle East, South and Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Most of these programs were originally designed and implemented in the wake of violent international and civil wars. These armed conflicts tended to end following the definitive victory of one of the parties, or as part of an internationally mandated peace support operation. By the late 1990s, DDR assumed a kind of orthodoxy in the peace, security and development communities, especially amongst representatives of the United Nations agencies, the World Bank and a number of bilateral aid agencies.

This first wave of DDR interventions were intended to help bring protracted civil wars raging across Latin America and Southern Africa to an end. Their modus operandi was comparatively straightforward involving the organized cantoning and decommissioning of senior military personnel together with rank and file soldiers with the goal of breaking their command and control. Owing to the emphasis on formed military units, whether soldiers or rebels, it was generally clear who was eligible for reinsertion and reintegration assistance (and who was not). After receiving modest benefits and possibly a veteran’s pension, erstwhile warriors were expected to return to their home communities as civilians. A smaller selection of those passing through DDR initiatives were eligible to re-apply for entry into newly formed security entities, including the armed forces.

The scope, scale and success rate of DDR programs in this first wave varied considerably (Colleta et al 1996). Introduced after civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa, DDR interventions achieved some positive impact, particularly if gauged by the extent to which they contributed to preventing the recurrence of armed conflict (Colleta et al 1996). While far from perfect, DDR processes were surprisingly orderly and carried out with military-like precision. In other cases, however, the outcomes were less propitious. DDR schemes in Cambodia, Haiti and the Philippines in the 1990s failed to collect sizeable numbers of weapons or demobilize fighting forces, much less stem a return to political violence in the short-term (Muggah 2005, 2009). Even so, experiences were collected and digested. These would later inform the United Nations Integrated DDR Standards (IDDRS), based in large part on the lessons drawn from this first wave.

A Second Generation of DDR

Over the subsequent decade, DDR programs began adapting in line with the evolution of global peace, security and development agendas. When the mandates of United Nations peace support operations began expanding in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the policies and practices of DDR unsurprisingly changed alongside them. These shifts were criticized in some quarters. There were concerns that the widening of peacekeeping mandates, and by extension DDR, set unrealistic expectations of what could reasonably be achieved, especially given the short time frames (2–3 years) during which peacekeeping operations were meant to remain in-country. With time, a new wave of new DDR engagements began to emerge. By 2010, building on a growing edifice of security sector and peacebuilding scholarship, the United Nations indicated that a second generation of DDR had arrived.1

Very generally, DDR activities underwent an evolution from a narrow preoccupation with demobilizing and reintegrating ex-combatants—‘spoilers’ in the vernacular—to the much broader goals of building the conditions for sustainable peace (Muggah 2005). The shift effectively implied an emphasis on positive, over negative peace. This subtle, but far-reaching, transformation was barely commented on at the time. The implications were nevertheless dramatic. For one, DDR was now expected to promote reconciliation between erstwhile soldiers and communities, rebuild and reinforce social institutions, and promote economic livelihoods for combatants, their dependents and neighborhoods (Muggah 2009). Supporters of this second generation of DDR advocated for security and stability in the short term while simultaneously creating the conditions for longer-term development (Coletta and Muggah 2009). This shift did not occur in a vacuum. Many donor governments and multilateral agencies, notably the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), were intent on pursuing more comprehensive approaches.

The second wave of DDR programs were especially common following the wars in West and Central Africa, the Balkans and Southeast Asia. Many of these settings were experiencing rolling internal conflicts, where soldiers, rebels and civilians were conflated during wars, but also in their aftermath. The lines between what constituted a ‘combatant’ and ‘civilian’ were increasingly blurred, with implications for how to construct a fair and durable post-conflict peace settlement. Cease-fires and peace agreements, where established, were seldom successful in fully bringing organized violence to an end. These ‘civil’ or ‘internal’ conflicts also exhibited regional and transnational dynamics and were increasingly sustained by organized criminal networks dealing in illicit minerals, timber, people, drugs and arms. Second generation DDR interventions were therefore expected to contain and reduce multiple forms of violence, while also neutralizing spoilers, building bridges with communities, and contributing to legacy public goods.

An indication of just how much DDR had evolved emerged following the 2004 crisis in Haiti. Notwithstanding early attempts to undertake a conventional (or first generation) DDR program, it became quickly apparent that such an approach was ill-suited to urban armed gangs with ties to political elites and organised crime (Muggah, Halty and Molloy 2009). A new community-oriented model was swiftly developed to address gangs, who in form, behavior and motivation were distinct from the military-style units that were typically the focus of DDR programs around the world. Building on crime and violence prevention models tested in Latin America and other parts of the world, MINUSTAH developed a Community Violence Reduction (CVR) program. Although the outcomes of CVR were clearly mixed2 the explicit shift in approach triggered a rethink of DDR across the United Nations system.

Notwithstanding signals that DDR needed to adapt to the new realities of twenty first century conflict, many planners and practitioners continued doling out the same medicine. There was still an insistence on a formulaic approach to DDR. Concerns that DDR was not working began to accumulate. Reintegration, in particular, was (and continues to be) routinely castigated for being the weakest link in the DDR chain. What is more, many development practitioners vehemently argued against funding initiatives designed exclusively for soldiers and their families on moral and more pragmatic grounds. Instead of bringing ex-combatants closer together with local communities, narrowly targeted incentives instead reinforced their spatial and symbolic differences. Critics also raised concerns about the ways in which DDR was often disconnected from recovery and development activities intended to benefit traumatized communities. As a result, more and more development agencies began stepping back from the DDR enterprise altogether.

Next Generation DDR

Over the past decade, DDR adapted yet again. The United Nations Security Council and DDR specialists are actively rethinking the approach to tackling what appears to be proliferating non-state armed groups across multiple settings. The frameworks and models advocated in the IDDRS, although offering a useful reference, are inadequate to guide practitioners in contexts where DDR is prescribed. Instead, DDR interventions are becoming increasingly diverse. Take the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where some 20,000 members of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, or FDLR, were repatriated to their home country between 2000 and 2010. There, a new kind of forceful DDR was initiated in the context of ‘robust peacekeeping’ operations in 2012 to neutralize the remaining, approximately 2,000 hard-core FDLR fighters who continued to ravage the Eastern Congo (UN 2014a). The fact that DDR coincided with a more forceful military intervention revealed a new ‘stick then carrot’ approach to addressing non-state armed groups that continued to engage in violence. After ten years of being offered an option to voluntarily join a DDR program, it became clear that an alternative solution was warranted to manage the FDLR.

Somalia offers yet another example of the ‘stick then carrot’ approach. There, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force confronted Al Shabaab in what resembled conventional military confrontations for territory. This culminated in AMISOM re-gaining control of the capital Mogadishu in 2011. Shortly thereafter, the Somali government was contacted by Al Shabaab rank and file members requesting assistance to leave the group. In turn, the government launched a national program for ‘disengaging combatants’ with support from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM). Amidst heavy criticism, at least four ‘transition centers’ were established in Mogadishu, Baidoa, Beletwyane and Kismayo. Concerns were registered about the legal and operational risks associated with setting up disengagement efforts, not least owing to the heavy involvement of Somali intelligence (NISA). What is more, these interventions were pursued at a time that Al Shabaab remained very active, switching its strategy and tactics from conventional military engagements to almost exclusively asymmetric warfare.

The creation of the transitional centers differs in some respects from cantonment sites established in first or even second generation DDR. In Somalia, the centers were not merely a convenient way to deliver assistance, training or education. Rather, they were an institution designed to protect Al Shabaab defectors from imminent threat. Leaving Al Shabaab is a genuinely dangerous proposition and requires, given the current situation, a secure facility and related protections. In Somalia DDR is expected to facilitate the return of ex-combatants back into their communities under the protection of his (or, less likely her) clan. Reintegration entails a complex negotiating phase for ex-combatants to regain acceptance in their communities of origin, which itself has proven to serve as a strong incentive for ex-combatants to reform.

Meanwhile, DDR in Libya is also an exceedingly challenging exercise. Following the NATO-led intervention, the Libyan government rapidly dissolved and was unable to deliver on even the rudimentary criteria of statehood, including the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. Predictably, armed militia filled the vacuum. And while they initially offered a measure of stability, the situation quickly deteriorated into intra-militia fighting in the absence of a legitimate central authority or political settlement. Notwithstanding calls for DDR, there is in fact comparatively limited space for meaningful international engagement beyond damage control. For example, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Libya worked closely with the revolutionary brigades, or katibas to safely control and regulate their weapons by helping build credible stockpile management systems. The volume of sophisticated arms and munitions abandoned and stolen from the government’s arsenals suggests that these efforts are a drop in the pan (Shaw and Mangan 2014). Yet, even these interim measures can help prevent additional proliferation and accidents, including among young children. In such a scenario, DDR will only be feasible with a modicum of security and more meaningful political dialogue.

Mali offers a more hopeful scenario wherein DDR is literally being baked-in to the overall peace agreement as it is being negotiated. It is also being rolled-out incrementally in line with the overall peace process. Indeed, the United Nations mediation team involved in supporting the peace negotiations in Algiers includes DDR specialists. They are expected to offer technical and political assistance. At present, the draft peace agreement stipulates a period of cantonment (of both the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad, or MNLA, and the Haut Conseil pour l’Unite de l’Azawad, or HCUA rebels), and allows for them to remain armed under the auspices of a UN monitored ceasefire. Meanwhile, community violence reduction initiatives are being implemented near cantonment sites to minimize the likelihood of organized and interpersonal violence.

Next generation DDR appears to be more all encompassing than its predecessors. For one, it is often taking place earlier, even before peace agreements are achieved. In some cases DDR is preceded by interim stabilization measures while the terms of peace deals are being negotiated. What is more, DDR is also targeting groups that may not be explicit parties to an eventual peace agreement with a combination of sticks and, later, carrots. The supposedly ‘voluntary’ nature of DDR – a core tenet of past operations – is being reconsidered in the advent of more robust missions. Indeed, practitioners may be fielding programs in non-permissive security environments and often lack adequate intelligence and situational intelligence.

This new generation of DDR puts politics – including political engagement and outreach – at the center of the picture. In Central African Republic (CAR) (IRIN 2012), Libya (UN 2014b), Mali (UN 2014c), the Niger Delta (Oluwaniyi 2011) and Yemen, DDR activities are being reconceived as dynamic political processes rather than stand-alone or one-off enterprises. DDR is thus being re-imagined as a complex bargaining process connected fundamentally to local conditions on the ground. It is also connected in complex ways to peace negotiations and robust peace operations, justice and security sector reform, and peace- and state-building. Indeed, in all these settings DDR is acknowledged as a central plank of the peace negotiations with practitioners included as key members of UN Mediation Teams, most recently in Mali (UN 2014a).

This new wave of DDR represents a move away from narrowly conceived stand-alone interventions toward activities that are purposefully connected to national development plans. The aim is to avoid unintentionally stigmatizing combatants and dependents. Indeed, there is a sociological dimension to next generation DDR that encourages former combatants to embrace more positive and forward-looking identities, whether as a community leader, a social worker, an electrician or a father (rather than privileging their military status). This is far from straight forward given how the nature, composition and behavioral dynamics of armed groups in contemporary theaters differ from the more conventional, often nationalist, rebels and militias of the past. The groups in today’s conflict and post-conflict settings often harbor poorly defined political goals, erratic command and control, and a high susceptibility to fragmentation. In many cases they are also linked to organized crime and terrorist networks.

Challenges and Opportunities

Today’s DDR practitioners acknowledge that most, if not all, aspects of DDR are negotiated and decided in the context of highly localized political and economic expediencies. An intensely contested period of bargaining, rather than prescriptions set from above, often defines the real parameters of a DDR program. While some of this negotiation takes places in the formal domain—among donors, national state representatives and agencies—much occurs informally, out of sight of the international aid community, among project implementers, former commanders, combatants, community elites and others (Muggah and Reiger 2012). The negotiation of DDR is often stop-start, contentious and rarely satisfactory to all parties involved. What has changed in this latest generation of DDR is that the practitioners themselves are frequently finding themselves negotiating the terms of peace on the front line.

Revisiting Reinsertion and Reintegration

Over the past decade DDR interventions have become increasingly fused with wider stability, recovery and reconstruction operations. DDR is thus increasingly enmeshed in the stabilization and state-building agendas of bilateral aid agencies, even if this is not always explicitly acknowledged. While in principle this can reinforce broader peacebuilding and development goals, it can also generate contradictions. In some cases, DDR is pursued in parallel with counterterrorism and counter-narcotics initiatives, as in Afghanistan, Colombia and Mali. DDR is thus connected, even if unintentionally, to a wider geo-political agenda. In other instances, DDR may be deployed as a substitute for investment in recovery and reconstruction. In the process, expectations of what DDR can reasonably accomplish are expanding beyond what is realistically feasible.3 DDR is thus tantamount to social, economic and political engineering.

Another concern of DDR specialists relates to the sequencing or ordering of discrete activities (Coletta and Muggah 2009). Indeed, DDR advocates often point to reinsertion and reintegration, as opposed to disarmament or demobilization, as a constructive point of departure (Ball and van der Goor 2006). In other words, DDR programs that offer clear short-term entitlements (carrots) up front, including social and economic benefits, may generate the necessary incentives for eventual demobilization and, possibly, disarmament. However, funding for these entitlements is often uneven and in short supply. The UN General Assembly’s agreement to include reinsertion benefits in the assessed budget of peacekeeping missions in 2007 (UN 2005) was an explicit acknowledgment of a more limited appetite of development donors to provide assistance to former combatants.

The inversion of the DDR formula, or in some cases the separation of the ‘R’ from the ‘DD,’ was pursued in various settings, especially those where strong gun cultures persist, such as Afghanistan. It was also attempted in the wake of negotiated peace agreements where peace provisions called for putting arms beyond use, as in Northern Ireland. Perhaps most interesting, certain lessons related to the prevention and reduction of violence outside of war zones are now being applied in post-conflict settings (Krause and Muggah 2009). And while empirical evidence of the micro-determinants of success are comparatively thin, some of these initiatives—whether gang violence prevention or interventions to recover territory held by organized crime groups—potentially complement and reinforce DDR (Muggah 2013, 2014a). An outstanding question is how to apply these innovations in unstable contexts featuring incomplete DDR and, more specifically, partial reintegration. As part of the package of interim stabilization measures, these newer armed violence prevention and reduction efforts offer a new frontier for experimentation (Coletta and Muggah 2009).

Reconsidering the Legal and Operational Environment

Since at least 2010, DDR has been initiated in ‘hot’ conflicts in the Sahel, North and Central Africa and the Middle East. This is to some extent unavoidable given the ways in which regional and civil conflicts are concentrating in these areas. From Afghanistan and Somalia to Iraq and Libya, there is a real concern about the contagion effects of extremist ‘foreign fighters’ and radicalized mercenaries moving across borders, including to Western countries (Porges and Stern 2010; Wisam Waleed Hussein 2013). The rise of Sunni fighters in Syria and Iraq operating under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is one of many preoccupations confronting the international community (The Economist 2014). The fact that DDR is being pursued in the absence of a formal peace agreement or clear provisions from warring parties raises a host of red flags. A key question, however, is what (if any) role DDR should play in all of this.

There are critical normative implications confronting UN agencies in taking on these new settings. Indeed, some practitioners are understandably preoccupied with the legal implications of assisting individuals who occupy the murky area between former combatant, religious warrior and hardened criminal. And while norm-setting guidance such as the IDDRS can offer useful signposts, they only take the security and development communities so far. In much the same way as humanitarian actors fear being implicated in supporting ‘terrorist actors,’ so too DDR specialists are wary of the consequences of their involvement. Fortunately, there are indications that UN agencies and others are moving away from template-driven thinking and carefully evaluating their capacities and competencies. There is growing acknowledgment that each DDR intervention must be prepared, negotiated and administered according to the specific, and dynamic, circumstances on the ground.

Revitalizing the Research-Practice Praxis

While DDR is neither a discipline nor an official field of inquiry, its study and practice has expanded considerably over the past thirty years. What was once a relatively modest sized community of specialists with expertise in international relations and defence studies has widened to include experts from across the social sciences, including ethnographers, anthropologists and economists. The next generation of DDR operations will require reaching out to an even broader array of experts, which could include international lawyers, military strategists and psychologists.

The best of DDR-related research today applies experimental design to gauge impacts.4 A growing number of scholars are investing in statistical assessments from Latin America and the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, South Asia and the South Pacific.5 Researchers are studying DDR interventions to examine the enabling conditions accounting for success, including their contribution to war non-recurrence, homicide reduction and reintegration outcomes (Muggah 2009; Humphreys and Weinstein 2005). There has also been an increasingly constructive engagement with DDR by representatives of multilateral and bilateral development agencies and think tanks to develop creative, practical and feasible alternatives.

Despite these advances in hypothesis testing and monitoring and evaluation, there is considerable room for improvement. Specifically, more interaction is needed between researchers and practitioners. The typical approach to this ‘praxis’ has been through the commissioning of ‘lessons learned’ studies following the conclusion of a DDR program. However, the process by which lessons are determined retroactively and transferred is often questionable. Specifically, the dynamics of researcher-practitioner exchange tends to be ad hoc, occurring principally during conferences and seminars. Research questions are often esoteric and seldom oriented to the needs of project managers. University-based exchanges are routinely extractive, with few actionable findings making their way back to the ground.

What seems to be lacking is a shared platform for DDR scholars and practitioners. Such a platform could usefully define common objectives and opportunities for applied research. It could also set out operational and ethical protocols to reduce transaction costs in any given collaboration. For example, practitioners could offer researchers improved access to the field and on-going operations in return for inputting into the design of research activities. A dynamic and forward-looking relationship could supplant retrospective exchanges. In this way, researchers could provide practitioners with meaningful insights and recommendations that could realign strategies, improve design, and measure the impact of programs and projects.

A common platform could help identify and potentially harmonize the objectives and demands of social scientists and practitioners. Academics are expected to publish work in reputable journals, apply robust scientific methodologies, and produce a meaningful theoretical contribution to knowledge. This takes time and their results may be of less use to practitioners on the ground. This is because project managers and technical experts are regularly under intense pressure to design, implement and evaluate interventions in fluid and chaotic environments. What is needed is ‘real time’ analysis that, while quick and dirty, is sufficient for the situation at hand. In some cases the interests between scholar and practitioner may be incompatible. In others, differences could be bridged with mutual understanding, foresight and preparation. Ultimately, the latter scenario could prevail with the creation of a platform that builds in minimum standards and shared expectations.

Concluding Reflections

The United Nations and countless other entities are grappling with how best to engage the new geographies of organized violence. In the process, agencies are adapting their approach to DDR. DDR programs have evolved across several generations with today’s operations diverging considerably from those of the past. For example, the United Nations is today helping disengage and de-radicalize Al Shabaab combatants in Somalia, requiring new kinds of expertise and a higher tolerance of risk. Meanwhile, in Mali, Operation Serval involves more proactive engagement with extremists, stretching the limits of DDR (Nossiter and Schmitt 2013). In the process, DDR is being re-imagined and older models are being upgraded for the contemporary era.

Emerging practices such as CVR could substitute for DDR in many of the world’s hot spots. In some cases, they may run parallel with DDR programs. In the case of the DRC, for example, a succession of DDR interventions weakened one of the key armed group’s capabilities in the east of the country alongside more robust action to address intransigent armed elements. In other cases, DDR is expanding and fusing CVR with active mediation community liaison in order to manage high-risk caseloads. Such flexible innovations are welcome, but they also require careful evaluation. This means investing in high-resolution data collection and rigorous assessments conducted by joint teams of researchers and practitioners.6

DDR is adapting to address complex armed groups and situations marked by stop-start peace and simmering violence. The good news is that DDR is growing up. Over the past decades it has been shown to help build confidence and trust and buy the necessary time and space for the underlying conditions to ripen. DDR has proven to be uniquely equipped in building a bridge from violence to peace. But the DDR enterprise faces a turning point. There is a sizeable epistemic community prepared to continue investing in planning, implementation and measurement. For it to remain valuable in the twenty first century, it will need to adjust to the changing landscapes of violence, be supported by a highly trained pool of experts, and fully exploit the research-practice nexus.