A Rose by any Other Name Would Smell Like a "New Humanitarian"

Remember when in February 2009 Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services? Didn't do much good, did it? Almost everyone still thinks of it as Blackwater, or shades of the other Prince, the PSC formerly known as Blackwater.

It just goes to show you that not every attempt at rebranding works well. Sometimes, in fact, they are major disasters. For example, if the SciFi Channel had done more due diligence before it rolled out its new name it would have discovered that, in most parts of the world, "syfy" is a slang term for syphilis. And being associated with a sexually transmitted disease is never a good marketing tactic.

Of course, rebranding is par for the course for private military and security contractors. The public debate is frequently shallow and sensationalist, and often outright demagogic, so it is hardly surprising that PMSC seek to change the terms of the debate, considering that its critics often seek to influence it by using inaccurate terminology like "mercenary, "dogs of war," or "guns for hire."

Remember that the PMSC trade group, the International Peace Operations Association, which then changed its name to simply IPOA, recently renamed itself the International Stability Operations Association. I see the change as an attempt to broaden their market appeal. Offering an organization that is of use to companies that can lay claim to helping establish stability will, at least potentially, cast a far wider net, that just those involved in peace operations. As both a marketing move and an attempt to attract future member companies it is a smart move.

The sad thing is that for many years PMSC have been notably bad at doing public relations, or, if you want to use military terminology, information operations. Partly it was because in their early years PMSC were, and to some degree, still are headed by former military officers whose initial reaction to the idea of talking with the media is to echo the famous comment, "Off with their heads!" from the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Another reason is that they were simply too cheap to pay for a fulltime public relations person or office. And when you are something on the order of DynCorp or KBR you definitely need a whole office. Or to paraphrase the old sports quote, image isn't everything; it's the only thing.

Given that PMSC trade association have lobbied Congress to consider "best value" when awarding contracts, which involves weighing a company's reputation among other factors, and not just its bid price, you can see why this is important.

So, how's that whole identity politics thing working out? This brings us to another paper presented at the presented at the SGIR 7th Pan-European International Relations Conference, in Stockholm, Sweden, September 9-11, 2010. This is "New Humanitarians? Private Military and Security Companies" by Jutta Joachim & Andrea Schneiker of the Institute of Political Science at Leibniz University Hannover, Germany. They start with the obvious, "Although Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) are gaining increasingly in importance, they still suffer from an image problem... Companies are therefore interested in presenting themselves as legitimate and acceptable contract parties."

And what do they find?

Based on a discourse analysis of the homepages of select PMSCs and the industry association International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), we examine the ways in which they respond to negative labels. Drawing on the framing literature, we find that PMSCs present themselves as "new humanitarians." Not only do they provide increasingly logistics or security for the staff of humanitarian organizations which are confronted with complex emergencies and ever-more dangerous missions, but the respective companies also appropriate the discourses of these organizations. The growing involvement of actors interested exclusively in profit is not without problems. Not only does it challenge the monopoly thus far enjoyed by non-profit organizations with respect to humanitarian assistance and the principles which guide their actions, but it contributes further to the normalization of privatized security.

"Armed humanitarians" is also the title of Nathan Hodge's book which I wrote about previously. Of course, such a rebranding has impact beyond that of image. It goes to furthering the legitimacy and staying power of the PMC industry. After all, who could possibly be against a humanitarian?. It would be like being against the Red Cross or Amnesty International.

For PMSCs to present themselves as humanitarians has implications that go far beyond the humanitarian sector. It contributes to the normalization and power of PMSCs. By presenting themselves as do-gooders and others, including state militaries, international organizations, such as the United Nations, and even NGOs as incapable and less caring for the well-being of others, PMSCs enhance their legitimacy. Outsourcing of military and security-related tasks may, in turn, be more acceptable, easier to justify, and more difficult to resist, if not to say a moral obligation.

In the view of the authors defining oneself as a humanitarian, which is generally considered to be an ethic of kindness, benevolence and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings, is also smart business:

In the case of PMSCs, presenting themselves as humanitarians may enhance their common acceptance and increase their pool of clients, such as NGOs, who might be less apprehensive in relying on their services, as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of RA International, a member company of the IPOA, explains:

One should never underestimate the power of private companies who offer aid. Companies are almost always focused on efficiency, good negotiation, building their reputation (their brand) and getting things done on time and on budget. The basic rules of capitalism that work for the good of the communities they aid can in turn aid them in business and ultimately help post-conflict societies to recover and progress.

So, in this view, someone like Adam Smith is really Mother Theresa in drag. And, as it turns out, for one of the few times in their history, PMSC are becoming rather deft and adroit in their public relations.

PMSCs increasingly refer to themselves as "the New Humanitarian Agent[s]" emphasizing, like AECOM, that they "are committed ... to make the world a better place". Their humanitarian identity has evolved over time in response to scandals and crisis in the industry and is reflective of the post-Cold War kind in terms of the professed ambitions. Most indicative of a change in the industry is the way in which the IPOA more recently refers to it. PMSCs, according to the association, belong to the "Peace and Stability Operations Industry" of which the private security industry is only a "subset."
The Journal of International Peace Operations of the IPOA is quite telling in this respect. Ads of companies quite frequently show sad looking girls (EODT), babies being fed (Blackwater), boys laughing and waving at one (IPOA), soldiers rescuing little kids (IPOA), or a globe (Blackwater, IPOA).

Everyone is entitled to their own spin and it is true that in many cases PMSC are just as capable, if not more so that their traditional NGO counterparts such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross. So, should we care whether IPOA et al is putting itself in the ranks of Nobel Peace prize winners?

Well, the authors note a few problems. First, there is what we might politely call the hypocrisy factor:

Analyzing the homepages of PMSCs and one of their associations--the IPOA--provides evidence that companies present themselves increasingly as "new humanitarians" interested in addressing the root causes of conflicts. On the one hand, they employ naming strategies, emphasizing their commitment to humanitarian aims and ethics. On the other hand, however, they paradoxically blame while at the same time align themselves with other humanitarian actors. As much as they consider the reluctance of Western states, international organizations, and NGOs to intervene in ongoing crisis as a problem, PMSCs also seek to benefit from and rent their legitimacy.

Second, is the conflict of interest issue:

First, PMSCs specialize in intelligence and risk assessments. In terms of effectiveness and efficiency, this may be an asset in situations of violent conflicts or humanitarian disasters and a comparative advantage vis-à-vis NGOs or international organizations. Given the kinds of information PMSCs can produce and have available, they may be in a better position to determine where help is most needed, coordinate the assistance and the logistics, or to estimate the effort or the danger involved. From a moral point of view, however, this capability can be problematic. Through their advice, PMSCs may shape and influence our understanding as to what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, who are the victims and who may deserve aid, and who is qualified to assist. Instead of political or humanitarian motives per se, the information companies provide is based on economic reasoning. Whether to intervene or not and offer assistance is, hence, no longer a question of duty or a certain ethics, but one of whether a crisis promises to be a lucrative market.

Third, is the commitment issue:

Similar to NGOs, most PMSCs operate transnationally and conceive of themselves as apolitical, neutral actors. Again, based on the criteria of efficiency and effectiveness, this makes their involvement appealing. Companies can be at site in a relatively short amount of time, are not be held back by cumbersome political debates, and may enjoy greater acceptance because they are not directly associated with the UN or any particular state. Judged in moral terms, however, their constitution may again be a problem. Compared to states, UN agencies or even NGOs which often have ties to countries other than those established during violent conflicts or natural disasters, companies do not have these kinds of relations. Consequently, they may feel less of a commitment beyond their assignment and ignore the long-term implications of their engagement or even the short-term consequences for ongoing conflicts. If problems arise, they may simply leave and set up shop elsewhere. While some might argue that the exit option is also available to NGOs, the implications are different for them than for PMSCs. Contrary to the former, which are forced to reflect whether their behaviour is in line with their ethics and are held accountable by their members and donors, companies, in comparison, evaluate their actions based on profits and the potential responses of their share-holders.

And last, but hardly least:

Finally, apart from moral concerns or those related to efficiency and effectiveness, there seems to be a further implication that has to be considered when PMSCs acquire a humanitarian identity. It contributes to their normalization and may, in the long-run, undermine the role of more traditional actors in the field. With PMSCs gaining in acceptance and legitimacy, international organizations and NGOs may either be increasingly be perceived as lacking the ability to take care of those in most need or may even feel less compelled to intervene.

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