There are more private security personnel in the world than there are police officers, according to the Small Arms Survey, an annual yearbook of issues related to armed conflict by researchers at the Graduate Institute of Geneva – a statistic that indicates that there may be a global demand for more security than states can provide.
Using data from regional industry reports, media reports, and academic articles, the Small Arms Survey found that 19.5 million private security personnel operate in 70 countries outnumbering police officers two to one.
In some countries like Guatemala (120,000 private security personnel, 20,000 police officers), India (7 million private security personnel, 1 million police officers), and China (5 million private security personnel, 2.7 million police), the differences are fairly substantial.
The Small Arms Survey says a combination of government changes and changes to the security industry are what drove such rapid growth of private security companies (PSC) and reasons vary from cost to convenience to public support.
As governments downsize to cut costs, PSCs are filling more core functions like airport security, prison surveillance, and immigration. In the past, these roles would have normally been covered by government agencies. Lawmakers in England announced just today that they would be closing two prisons and privatizing nine because of budget cuts, for example. Using PSC to manage the prisons will save 4.9 million pounds, the Guardian reported.
Western militaries are increasingly relying on contractors for maintenance and training on high-tech weaponry to free up soldiers for combat operations. Additionally, PSC personnel can be “hired and fired faster than uniformed personnel and can therefore be deployed more flexibly, which is more affordable in the long run than maintaining a permanent in-house capability,” the report states. These private security companies vary in size from a dozen to several thousand employees.
Many countries welcome the use of PSCs over government agencies. In Africa, where countries often border conflict zones or face their own security problems, PSCs are welcomed by the public, according to data from a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime survey that are included in the report. In Ghana, 93 percent of respondents said they thought the increasing responsibilities of PSCs were a good development. Security companies say the growth comes from clients’ greater awareness of security threats.
Small Arms Survey didn’t include the number of people participating in informal security arrangements, but estimates more than 2.5 million personnel in South and Central American participate in informal security arrangements and notes that armed militias are often used in African countries to secure neighborhoods. “Informal schemes ranging from neighborhood watch to armed vigilante groups can be found across the globe and provide additional evidence of a global demand for security that exceeds what states can offer,” the report states.
But with more personnel to regulate come more issues to address. Researchers warn that the increased use of PSCs could increase the gap between the rich and the poor. “One of the principal concerns regarding the private security sector is that, like other commercial service, only those who are able and willing to pay will benefit from it,” the report states.
There’s also the issue of what services should be left to the government. In 2009, the CIA came under fire for hiring Blackwater to perform hits on members of al-Qaeda. Intelligence officials said that the decision to use PSCs would “pose significant legal and diplomatic risks.”
The amount of vetting, training, and oversight of PSC personnel are additional concerns highlighted by the report. Doctrine hasn’t evolved to keep up with the effectiveness of new weapons and few mechanisms are in place to prevent people with seedy backgrounds from being hired and armed. A firm in Tanzania found that 30 percent of its employees had criminal records.
The U.S. said it would oversee its contractors, but it’s a conflict of interest when a state takes on the role as both the client and the oversight as the government did in Iraq when they granted PSCs immunity from Iraqi law. Becasue of this, very few abuses by PSCs in Iraq have been prosecuted, the report states.