Nation Building by Reduction

As states fail across the world, the public safety function is increasingly being filled by private security companies. When out of work Mexican drug gangsters started a kidnapping, robbery and extortion crime wave, that country's middle and upper classes didn't turn to the police. They turned to private security. Chinese oil workers in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, upon hearing gunfire outside their compound when local political factions decided to battle it out among themselves, didn't call the local authorities, they called the local offices of the Chinese security firm DeWe for help. Many of DeWe's men were veterans of the PLA and knew how to provide shadow extraterritorial protection for Beijing's citizens abroad.

For Kong Wei, head of DeWe’s Juba office and a veteran of the People’s Liberation Army who retired five years ago, it was the start of a 50 hour-marathon without sleep as he and his colleagues executed an evacuation plan. “Bullets and shells flew over our compound all day and night,” says Mr Kong. ... Details of the operation last year, revealed here for the first time, point to the greater role being played by China’s fledgling private security industry. ...

“The intermingling between PLA and private security contractors often staffed by ‘former PLA’ is a blurry line,” says Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer of RWR Advisory Group, a risk consultancy. Though private, few doubt the groups are solidly under the control of China’s national security bureaucracy. They represent “a parallel security strategy”, as Mr Davenport puts it.

"Parallel security strategy" is a nice way of describing doing the police work local cops can't do. Sometimes the cops are ethnically local -- they just don't work for the government in situ. "Headquartered in Lima, Peru, Defion Internacional is a private military company that supplies specialist security staff who are mostly recruited from Latin America. ... Latin American security staff stationed in the Middle East have been described as 'guns for hire.'"

Increasingly, medical evacuation, kidnap and ransom negotiations and even intelligence gathering services are being offered on a private basis. One African magazine complained that private security was taking over the continent. With so much high-quality military talent left over from the War on Terror, only a fool would continue to rely on the local corrupt gendarmerie when a vastly superior alternative was available. When a friend complained that the Philippine police were now "squads of killers loose with a licence to kill" my first impulse was to say: "stop thinking of them as cops". Because they're not cops. They're killers in government uniforms.

More generally, it is hard to keep thinking of failed states as "governments" when they don't govern anything. The provision of what used to be called "public services" in failed states will be long delayed if the advent of a Westphalian structure is first awaited. The answer to the long-standing problem of "nation building"  may lie in embracing the suck, in exploiting the situation. In many failed states it is really much easier to provide privately operated transportation,  utility provision (including telecomms) and health care than it is to build the public equivalent. Failed states from one point of view are a business opportunity. The key lies in recognizing it.