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Good News! PSCs and NGOs Get Along…Sometimes Print
Special to Serviam by David C. Walsh

When drafting this story, I’d hoped it would end up a “good news” piece—an antidote to the dismal media coverage of private security contractors (PSCs). Surely something cheery could take the curse off last September’s Nisoor Square (Baghdad) nightmare. After all, the two “sides” work in common geostrategic neighborhoods


Two things, though, became clear early on. One, employees of PSCs and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are hardly comradely. And two, modalities for changing attitudes—even if the two sides wanted to—don’t exist. In short, their relations are lousy. Most officials have precious little to say on the record. An individual close to the PSC industry suggested that a reporter log onto chat rooms. CARE, a humanitarian organization, among other leading outfits, couldn’t even manage a “sorry.” PSC and NGO Web sites convey zilch of substance on the issue. Clearly, each side is mentally bunkered, and these bunkers appear off-limits to reporters.
Profit vs. Altruism

The reasons are varied. Some analysts offer speculations about institutional biases and vastly different philosophies, positing a save-life/take-life dichotomy. It’s true that the sides have very different roles and missions. Cooperation isn’t easy. PSCs’ first obligation is honoring their contracts. Firms exist to turn a profit, earn employees a livelihood and keep shareholders happy. Circumstances permitting, they may, and do, go beyond this (read on).

Conversely, altruism motivates NGOs and similar collectives. Their goal is improving the daily lives of poor people, and tending to them in disasters man-made and natural. That’s the basis of caregivers’ happiness. Being near armed men of any kind raises worries, and, specialists on both sides say, even alarms. Which is understandable. Aid organizations, by charter or philosophy, typically emphasize not ties to government (or government contractors) but independence from it. Being thought a part of any “armed force” could endanger expatriate and native workers alike. On this point at least, there’s wide agreement.

The concern—and perhaps the chief source of PSC/NGO tensions—is antigovernment radicals exploiting the sides’ physical proximity. Propaganda gets crafted to show nonexistent PSC/NGO links. The object: persuading naive residents to believe that humanitarians and security workers are in league with pro-Western governments to “oppress the people!”

Two Experts, Two Viewpoints

 The two sides’ views are encapsulated by Doug Brooks, president of Washington, D.C.-based International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), and Jean S. Renouf, consultant and doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics. Each has published on and thought a great deal about the PSC/NGO divide.

Brooks tells Serviam that the relationship would “always be tricky.” That’s largely because, in principle, NGOs’ “institutional donor bases disapprove of PSCs’ work.” And security firms aren’t eager to embrace people who find them distasteful. Yet, Brooks says, “To their credit, some [PSCs] certainly maintain better relationships with NGOs—either for potential business reasons or because they find it useful to cooperate in the field.”

Brooks says that IPOA “fully advocates that our member [companies] work as closely as possible with the NGO community in the field—they have a great deal of expertise and often more time in-country than the companies.”

As well, Brooks acknowledges, “There are legitimate reasons NGOs may be shy about working with the private sector, especially with the PSCs.” The very notion of for-profit work—especially involving weapons—rankles. “That reality must be recognized” and way to work around it found, the association chief argues. “In many cases, it is victory enough that NGOs simply are less/not hostile to the private sector; there is certainly no need for enthusiastic endorsement.”

The most that might be expected, Brooks says with a sigh, is “attaining a quiet behind-the-scenes communication and cooperation on issues of mutual concern.”

This over-the-horizon (or standoffish) approach is apparently fine with the other side. Renouf, though an independent researcher, seems to come down more in favor of the “antigun” proposition. Asked about PSC assertions of helping promote stability and aiding in peacekeeping, he tells Serviam that his colleagues are “shocked” by them.

 “Humanitarian workers,” Renouf says, “do not perceive themselves as ‘global stability providers’ but more humbly as relief or aid providers. Further, the term ‘global stability providers’ somehow encompasses a political notion that aid workers do not share.” As well, “it creates grave confusion [to equate] NGOs with private security companies, whose mandates are radically different,” Renouf emphasizes. “The danger caused by this confusion is real: NGOs are increasingly targeted because the local populations and the various insurgents or rebel groups do not have the keys to differentiate between NGOs and PSCs.”

Aid workers have been murdered in Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other crisis zones.

Renouf insists that he “very regularly meets with aid workers of all types in different places, and I assure you that many if not most are extremely critical of PSCs. It’s an overall common understanding.”

Then there’s what might be called the professional pride or turf-battle angle: “Providing adequate-quality relief to the persons most in need in complex environments is extremely difficult. And that’s why it should be done only by organizations specializing in it.”

In short, Renouf concludes bluntly, “PSCs should stop claiming they are implementing humanitarian activities, because they are not—check the Geneva Convention.”

Still, the French academic concedes that the issue is complex, and solutions are “circumstance-dependent.” In this he agrees with Brooks and unquotable officials of both sides. So there’s a little concord amid the rancor.
Finally, a Positive Note!

A rare optimistic perspective comes from Sean McFate, who tells Serviam, “I have served both in Amnesty International and DynCorp International. There is great potential for PSCs and NGOs to work together for a common good. At present, there are cultural and institutional prejudices that make this partnership challenging—especially at the headquarters level. However, realities on the ground dictate a greater willingness to work together, as NGO workers cannot always rely on the protections of government to complete their life-saving work. Accordingly, the moral imperative of their work will hopefully begin to eclipse dogma about PSCs.” McFate also observes, “PSCs must become [more supple] in their thinking regarding NGOs and their strong belief that neutrality and nonviolence are sources of protection—ideas not generally embraced by most gun-toting security contractors.” When he was a program manager for DynCorp International in Liberia, “we worked in partnership with NGOs while reconstituting the Armed Forces of Liberia under a Department of State contract.”

Specifically, explains McFate, “We worked with local NGOs such as the West African Examinations Council on assessing the functional literacy of candidates for the new military. Also, members of the International Red Cross gave classes on the laws of war to the new recruits during basic training. Utilizing the experience and expertise of both local and international NGOs is a boon for the host nation, builds local ownership and enhances the legitimacy of the program.”

At the same time, McFate stresses, “I would not call this partnership common among industry members or even DynCorp International, being largely driven by the individual personalities on the ground rather than an institutional or corporate philosophy. Unfortunately, much work remains to be done to bridge the NGO-PSC divide.” Or, rather, divides.

But if one digs deep enough, more middle ground can be found—sometimes in the unlikeliest places. Take, say, the Barack Obama campaign. Maj. General Scott Gration lately served in Iraq before retiring to advise the presidential hopeful. Of his decades of experience among PSCs and NGOs, Gen. Gration tells Serviam, “The role of private security contractors has been more clearly defined by our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though plagued by thorny issues like legal status, accountability, coordination with military forces and standardized rules of engagement, private security companies have been considered a necessity for NGOs trying to work in these combat zones.”

Gration adds, “Contracting for local or international security has become an operational necessity for those seeking to venture beyond the security umbrella of national police or the military.” And the prospect of PSCs actively protecting and even working for NGOs? That’s “extremely complicated” and highly dependent on the specifics of the situation, the military careerist argued—a widely held view among those contacted for this article.

Gration is also wary of arming selected caregivers with, say, auto-loading pistols for emergencies. “The vast majority of NGOs and PVOs [private voluntary organizations] operating in developing countries are unarmed,” he notes. “They tend to be politically neutral and are generally focused on doing good. Therefore, it’s natural that they would avoid associating with any protection service that might be perceived as being a combatant or convey the impression of choosing sides.”

An instance when arming aid workers would make sense is imaginable. But this carries “associated risks to NGO and PVO personnel,” and is justified only in an “absolutely critical humanitarian mission,” reasons Gration. Most organizations “opt for a noncombatant evacuation rather than contracting for private security protection,” he adds.

 Renouf’s take is, “From an aid worker perspective, if you feel the need to carry a gun, it means that something is wrong in the way you do your work. As one interviewee told me in Afghanistan, ‘PSCs feel the need to carry guns at all times; they perceive Afghans as potential enemies while we see them as potential friends’; maybe that’s the fundamental difference.”

Terms like “situation-dependent” and “circumstance-dependent” often arise in discussions of policies. Time permitting, workers “go by the book” as published by their headquarters. An overarching guideline for caregivers is the 1992 Code of Conduct for the Red Cross and (Muslim) Red Crescent, signed by some 400 aid organizations (see sidebar page 31). But because of fast-changing conditions in the field, both sides find themselves making ad hoc decisions.

Hairy conditions can arise that lead NGOs to choke down the bitter pill of PSC assistance rather than face gruesome alternatives. Brooks recalls a PSC “dual-role” case from 1999 to 2000, when conditions in Sierra Leone deteriorated badly. While doing combat airfield seizures with U.N.-mandated African peacekeeping troops in MI–8 helicopters, Oregon-based International Charter Incorporated (ICI) “supported humanitarian organizations providing relief to war-torn towns and villages. The company has rescued members of several nongovernmental organizations trapped by war, and on more than one occasion helped evacuate embattled U.S. embassies.”

Even skeptical watchdog groups concede that PSC help can be valuable. A key group, Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI), announced following the Sierra Leone catastrophe, “The fact a small company like ICI has been involved in so many operations is indicative of the changing nature of war. The lean military of the new millennium cannot be everywhere at once, so contractors fill in the gaps. That need grew exponentially when the Bush administration responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks with its war on terrorism.” Seems reasonable enough.

CPI also acknowledged, “ICI’s role in Sierra Leone was to back up the Nigerian troops, providing transport and medical evacuation services. Inevitably ICI personnel were shot at and forced to return fire.” On December 29, 2007, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to wrap up its Sierra Leone “peace-building” mission in September 2008. It also praised democratic elections held in 2007 and moves to professionalize the nation’s army.

 What’s clear, though, is that so much is unclear. A 2006 research project titled Humanitarian Action in the New Security Environment: Policy and Operational Implications in Afghanistan assessed the safety of aid workers there. Here are key findings of the project, by the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute (U.K.) and the Center on International Cooperation of New York University:

* Since the fall of the Taliban, responsibility for security has become diffuse. Security seems to be handled individually and exclusively by each aid agency, in some cases with the remunerated support of the military and/or private contractors. The responsibility of the state for ensuring the security of aid agencies has been weakened by the political challenges of building a viable security apparatus, and by this plethora of organizational responses from aid agencies.

* The accuracy and comparability of security-related data over the past decade are limited. The data collected by independent institutions, including the Afghanistan NGO Security Office and the United Nations, show a lack of systematic analysis, weak understanding of the causes of attacks on aid workers, and a lack of agreement on the purpose and usage of incident data and collection systems—exacerbated by a lack of data integration and/or cross-checking with governmental authorities.

With such scattershot approaches, ineptness, political differences and caregiver rivalries, organizing unified, speedy crisis response appears impossible. Still, the United Nations, unlike many smaller organizations, has the prestige—and more important, the resources—to arrange secure relief deliveries. In mid-December, the United Nations’ Rome-based World Food Program (WFP) announced that a French navy frigate was escorting WFP-consigned supplies to Somalia. The warship was “protecting the WFP food against a plague of piracy this year, and keeping a life-saving supply line by sea open to more than a million hungry people,” the U.N. office said.

The French Navy had “escorted … thousands of metric tons of food from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to the small southern Somali beach port of Merka, where the food is unloaded in small boats.” No pirates had “dared even to approach the French-escorted sea convoys,” said the agency. But the escort operation was due to end in January.

As of press time, the WFP was “appealing to other naval powers to follow the French example and provide ships to escort more WFP food in the coming months to Somalia.” Some observers consider such tasking well within PSCs’ abilities, albeit employing smaller vessels. It’s unlikely security firms will be used, though, given the United Nations’ public opposition to the idea.

Grudge matches and bad blood need not exist between PSCs and NGOs. If nothing else, the conflict is energy-sapping, distracting and a serious time-sink. At worst, such workplace antagonisms may lead to confrontations or even foreshadow tragedies. That would not only set back respective agendas; it could end up harming innocents for whose care the NGOs, directly, and PSCs, indirectly, are responsible.

Renouf says the crux of the matter is a kind of pragmatic truce: “Whether we have a positive perception of private security companies, or we are reluctant to privatize security, we have to admit there is no clear-cut answer.” If there’s any good news here, it’s that mutual tolerance is the norm.
 
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