Commentary

Amnesty International and Blackwater: Comrades in Arms?

Over the years private military and security companies and their contractors have been compared to many things; most of the comparisons inaccurate and unpleasant. But I’ve never had reason to think of them as, say, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch in drag. However, such famous nongovernmental organizations (NGO) do have one important thing in common with the Blackwater, DynCorp, Aegis Services and KBRs of the world; namely, they are all part of the private sector.

Anyone who has even superficially looked at the issue of private contractors knows that they base their primary justification for existence on the fact that they are private, not public sector organizations; the implication being that the private sector is inherently a leaner, more efficient and cost-effective, less bureaucratically cumbersome organization than its public sector counterpart. That is something, by the way, which is arguable, but is not the subject of this post.

Anyone who has ever witnessed a Power Point presentation by Doug Brooks, founder and head of the trade group IPOA, knows what I mean. In fact, if you listen to him too long you might suddenly think you are listening to the late economist and privatization champion Milton Friedman.

This is not to knock the private sector. It does, in fact, offer many positive qualities which are of huge benefit; especially in the developing world. And yes, there is a reason for the saying that the nine most frightening words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

But according to the authors of the recently published book The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon: Human Security and the New Rules of War and Peace by Shannon D. Beebe and Mary H. Kaldor NGOs and PMCs are closer than realized. They note that since the end of the Cold War, there has been a dramatic increase in the role of the private sector in international operations. To meet this demand the private sector, composed of both NGO and PMC, have greatly expanded to meet growing human insecurity around the world.

While NGO are not new their recent growth is. During the nineties the number of registered international NGOs increased from 10, 292 to 13,206. Reasons for this growth included growing public awareness of global crises; an increased tendency for official aid to be channeled through NGOs which was related to the belief of the superiority of the contracting culture over government bureaucracy

While NOG’s indisputably make important contributions they are not without blemish. And some of the blemishes are similar to those that afflict PMCs. The authors note that NGOs have an accountability problem. They write, “Because international NGOs are usually funded by donors in rich countries they can be more concerned about reporting and proposal writing than they are about their beneficiaries.”

Related to this problem is the “swarming” effect of crises, as NGOs hone in on large-scale funding, which results in considerable inefficiencies, including much duplication, as well as gaps. For example, “In Afghanistan, there is layer upon layer of donors, implementing agencies, contractors and subcontractors, each taking their share of the budget and generating a competitive culture in which the self-interest of each agency comes before the goal of helping Afghans.” Anyone who has ever looked at the tiers of subcontractors for the Army’s LOGCAP contract will understand that perfectly.

The commonality between NGO and PMC is that they exist due to basic human insecurity needs.

The authors note they interviewed Brooks in March 2009 and that he gave his usual response; that there is such a demand for PMC services because of the huge peacekeeping gap. Anyone who has heard him speak on the subject of UN peacekeeping knows that he is very critical of it. And, in fairness, there is much to be critical of. He noted that much of what the PMC industry does is what he calls “humanitarian-security” tasks and also that it mainly used local people as contractors and helps train them.

The authors conclude the “the growth of the private sector as a whole can be understood as a response to growing insecurity. If public security services are restructured to meet human security needs, the private sector will go on growing and this could be very dangerous. It would mark the emergence of a market in violence.”

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.