Private security firms eyeing Haiti contracts

Published 22 February 2010

Private security firms eager to gain lucrative security contracts in earthquake-ravaged Haiti; a mid-march conference in Miami would bring together security companies and Haitian officials to examine the market; critics, including some current and former Haitian officials, worry about the trend toward privatizing essential reconstruction services

The economist Paul Romer coined the phrase “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” He meant that both governments and private organizations can use crises to initiate changes and reforms which would be difficult, if not impossible, during more placid periods.

A crisis, or a catastrophe, may also offer opportunities for companies looking for lucrative contracts. Large debris removal and construction companies are already competing for large contracts in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

The umbrella organization for private military and logistic corporations, the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), added a Haiti Earthquake Support Web page to its is site, on which it offers a list of member companies with capabilities relevant to the Haiti situation. Next month, the organization is co-organizing a Haiti Summit in Miami, which aims to bring together “leading officials” for “private consultations with attending contractors and investors” in Miami, Florida.

IPS’s Anthony Fenton quotes IPOA’s director Doug Brooks to say that “The first contacts we got were journalists looking for security when they went in.” Fenton notes that Web site of IPOA member company, Hart Security, says they are currently in Haiti “supporting clients from the fields of media, consultancy and medical in their disaster recovery efforts.” Several other IPOA members have either bid on or received contracts for work in Haiti.

Note that IPS is a left-leaning publication, and its story on security contractors in Haiti criticizes private contracting — security contracting and otherwise — as being more about enriching U.S. and other companies than helping Haiti.

IPOA teamed up with Global Investment Summits (GIS), a U.K.-based private company that specializes in bringing private contractors and government officials from “emerging post-conflict countries” together, to put the Haiti Summit together.

GIS’s CEO, Kevin Lumb, told IPS that the key feature of the Haiti summit will be “what we call roundtables, [where] we put the ministers and their procurement people, and arrange appointments with contractors.” Lumb added that his company “specialize[s] in putting governments together [with private contractors].”

Fenton quotes several critics of private Western companies’ involvement in Haiti reconstruction. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, told IPS in an e-mail that “Haiti doesn’t need cookie cutter one-size fits all reconstruction, designed by the same gang that made same such a hash of Iraq, Afghanistan and New Orleans — and indeed the same people responsible for the decimation of Haiti’s own economy in the name of ‘aid.’”

University of California at Los Angeles professor Nandini Gunewardena, co-editor of Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction, told IPS that “privatization is not the way to go for disaster assistance…. Traditionally, corporations have positioned themselves in a way that they benefit at the expense of the people. We cannot afford for that to happen in Haiti,” she said, adding that “any kind of intermediate or long-term assistance strategy has to be framed within that framework of human security.”

Haiti’s former Minister of Defense under the first presidency of Jean Bertand Aristide, Patrick Elie, told Fenton by phone that he was worried about the potential privatization of his country’s rebuilding. If the U.S. military pulls out and hands over the armed presence to private contractors, “It opens the door to all kinds of abuses. Let’s face it, the Haitian state is too weak to really deal efficiently with this kind of threat if it materializes,” he told Fenton. The history of post-disaster political economy has shown that such a threat is all too likely, Elie said. “We’ve seen it happen so many times before that whenever there is a disaster, there are a bunch of vultures trying to profit from it, whether it’s a man-made disaster like Iraq, or a nature-made disaster like Haiti.”