Approaching Security Cooperation through a Monitoring and Evaluation Lens

When most Americans picture a U.S. service member abroad, they very likely imagine a soldier fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria. But while combat operations are the most visible sign of military presence, the U.S. military also carries out security cooperation programs nearly all over the globe. Security cooperation activities are defined as efforts, “to build relationships that help promote US interests; enable partner nations (PNs) to provide the US access to territory, infrastructure, information, and resources; and/or to build and apply their capacity and capabilities consistent with US defense objectives.”

Under the rubric of security cooperation, the United States has trained military lawyers in Botswana, provided operational training to military forces in Romania, and conducted maritime interdiction training in Honduras. It is one of the military’s oldest missions, and serves a number of important purposes for U.S. interests: building access and relationships in strategic regions, improving the capabilities of potential coalition partners, reducing the need for U.S. troop presence abroad, and more.

But old as these missions are, their fundamentals have remained relatively unexamined. Interest in the security cooperation mission waxes and wanes, both in Congress and even among defense leaders. From time to time decision makers ask what the benefits are to spending billions of dollars in military aid. But they have tended to be mollified by assertions that the benefits to bilateral security relationships cannot really be measured. The return on investment is sometimes further explained in shorthand, something like this: In fiscal year 2019, the government budgeted roughly $1.2 billion in security cooperation assistance, but $67.6 billion in overseas emergency and contingency operations(1). Therefore, even if security cooperation has only a remote chance of saving the United States from going to war to support our partners, it is still cost effective to do it.

While there is truth in both these arguments, they still don’t tell us whether security cooperation actually does improve relationships or make partners independent. For decades, very little was done to regularize security cooperation programming and thereby make it possible to answer these questions. That tide began to shift in 2013 with the publication of Presidential Policy Directive 23, which codified the overarching goals of security sector assistance and the need for alignment between national objectives and security cooperation programming. It continued in 2016 with the development of the landmark National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which reformed the field in many ways, among them, centralizing budget authority and requiring better accounting for spending, and requiring a monitoring and evaluation system for security cooperation efforts. This was followed in 2017 with more reforms to build monitoring and evaluation, as laid out in Department of Defense Instruction 5132.14: Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation Policy for the Security Cooperation Enterprise.

As it has sought to measure security cooperation’s value, the Department has leveraged best practices from the international development community to do so. This reflects the long history of monitoring and evaluation work being done in this field, from USAID to The World Bank, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and others. In particular, USAID went through its own reckoning with evaluation in 2011, reshaping its policies to become more evidence-based. While USAID’s model is not perfect, it does represent a useful point of reference for DOD as it seeks to improve its own efforts.

The success of USAID’s monitoring and evaluation work stems not only from effectively implementing a monitoring and evaluation program, but from the close integration of that program into the USAID Program Cycle. The program cycle builds a loop from strategy and policy to program design, and from there to implementation and evaluation. It recognizes that for evaluation to be effective, there must be clear strategic goals that provide logic to the program’s design, and which define baseline data to be collected and expected results to be measured. And that these evaluation results must then inform the next generation of strategic choices, beginning the cycle anew.

To link objective setting to program design, the development world utilizes the theory of change. A theory of change describes how program activities lead to larger results, and makes explicit both the mechanisms by which change occurs and any assumptions made by planners. A results framework then translates the theory into a verifiable set of expected results. This sets clear expectations for what data to collect, and also keeps everyone honest about how the project will be graded at the end. These documents make sure the program is designed in such a way as to support U.S. strategy, highlight all of the steps needed to achieve that strategic objective (even if they are beyond the scope of the program), and tee up a rigorous evaluation. Just as important, when a program isn’t succeeding, a theory of change can help diagnose why. Were the assumptions wrong? Were inputs lacking? Using the tools of the program cycle gives programs a better chance of succeeding and enables learning over the long term.

Each piece of the program cycle is understood by DOD, and to some degree has been tried already. But the Department has struggled to reach full implementation. The difficulty in translating lessons from the program cycle to defense security cooperation is at root a cultural one of this concept. Where USAID comfortably sees itself as managing programs and initiatives, military forces are more apt to view their work as conducting operations — the former are continuous but the latter are finite missions. So where USAID thinks in terms of a program cycle, the Army, for example, uses the linear military decision-making process (MDMP), in which the final step is to give the order to execute and move on(2).

This isn’t an indictment of the military’s leadership style. That style is purpose-built to make the best decisions in an environment of chaos and limited information, and while security cooperation may be the military’s ubiquitous mission, combat is its existential one. But as it does in so many other ways, the security cooperation enterprise must learn to adapt and overcome, to build a mindset of continuity and a programmatic approach to this global mission.


  1. The total figure for security cooperation is actually $3.4b, including base and overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding, but the $1.2b figure excludes OCO because it is already counted in the larger pool of OCO and emergency funds.
  2. There are portions of the defense enterprise that do think programmatically, but these are typically either institutional military or civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). This may help to explain the disconnect between how institutional capacity building programs (run out of OSD) are managed and how most of the rest of security cooperation enterprise functions.

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