Context Sensitivity

Too often, international assistance to post-conflict police reform fails to acknowledge local contexts with their specific dynamics, challenges, and police-community relations. Instead, reform processes tend to be top-down, operate with a narrow sense of security, and apply a blueprint approach. Attempts to promote COP also fall into these pitfalls, directly contradicting the COP’s original emphasis on local needs and ownership. COP initiatives stand little chance of succeeding if they are not based on an in-depth understanding of the broader local security context, including the often-different needs and priorities of various actors at local levels.

As someone involved in implementing COP in post-conflict settings, you should identify and critically examine your own – as well as your agency’s – assumptions about the context where you work, including the nature of local community-police relations. This type of reflection will assist in the promotion of a context-sensitive approach to police reform. You may begin by asking yourself:

  • What kind of assumptions do you, and the agency you represent, have of the context in which you work/are about to start working? Assumptions are shaped by what is presumed to be universal values and rationality, and they may by based on a “one size fits all” thinking that “what works is one environment (i.e. the West), works everywhere”. Try identifying your assumptions and then challenge them. Then, move to the next question.
  • What is particular to the local context in which you work or are about to start working? What specific political, historical, legal, economic, social, technological, environmental, gender and socio-demographic aspects characterize this environment? What is different from the context you are used to? And what kind of implications may this have for how COP is and may be practiced?

“What I took away from this is how important it is to listen and learn from local actors who know the situation, and to support their solutions, rather than imposing an external agenda”

A. Heather Coyne – having her assumptions challenged when tasked by NATO to support the recruitment of women to the Afghan police. Learn more about her experiences from this Digital Story.

Recruit Into Danger (Afghanistan)

Narrated by A. Heather Coyne

A context-sensitive approach requires understanding and diagnosing local conditions and variations across the society in question. Instead of using “blueprints”, specific policies and practices should be based on local needs and concerns, should (where possible) build upon legitimate local activities and procedures (including those of legitimate security providers), and should take into account all groups of society, paying special attention to marginalized groups and minorities. While you can go a long way in understanding the context yourself, this does not replace the need to work closely with local actors in designing initiatives. It does, however, allow you to better understand different actors’ priorities and strategies as they design their version of COP.

To illustrate this, take a moment to reflect on two common assumptions:

1) “Local communities have a self-interest in peace”.


2) “The state police have a given legitimacy – a right – to create order in society”.


The first assumption overlooks the fact that conflict can be essential to transformation; for certain sectors of the population, a focus on peace may stand in the way of progress. This has especially been true for minority groups that have a history of being discriminated against by, and/or have been in conflict with the central state. You can read more about vulnerable groups here.

The second assumption overlooks the reality that the police may experience low levels of trust, legitimacy, and acceptance at local levels – this is particularly true for societies emerging from conflict during which local populations experienced abuse at the hands of police. In these instances, other actors and informal security providers may be considered more legitimate than the state police. You can read more about the diversity actors of local security providers here and here.