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Why the Private Sector Is Going 'Neomedieval' On International Crises

From fighting forest fires to clearing land mines to rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, the private sector often addresses international security issues better than governments can.
Imagen por Carmelo Imbesi/AP

Somali piracy vexed the international community for years. Billions of dollars were lost annually, prompting several countries to spend billions more stationing a multinational fleet of ships off the Horn of Africa. But the large naval vessels proved unsuitable for chasing small pirate skiffs across vast ocean expanses, and the legal complexities of processing the few captured pirates were daunting. As a result, the impact of the naval fleet was — and is — surprisingly limited.

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In frustration, some shipping companies turned to private security companies (PSCs) to defend ships plying the waters off Somalia — and the PSCs have proven to be 100 percent effective in protecting cargo and crews. PSCs don't necessarily man ships with squads of highly trained soldiers; instead, it doesn't appear to matter if the ships are protected by former Navy Seals or by Bangladeshi farmers with guns. A display of weapons and some warning shots is typically enough to convince pirates to seek out ships that don't have PSC protection.

Related: In Photos: Europe's Mass Migrant Graveyard in the Mediterranean

The private sector has a remarkably successful track record in addressing international security concerns and humanitarian efforts with innovation, speed, and cost-effectiveness, and it's no coincidence that its growing role as a major player in foreign policy is occurring as the historic supremacy of sovereign states wanes. From humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to media companies like Disney and Fox, private entities continue to take larger and larger roles in shaping world events. It's hardly a new idea; in the 1970s, political theorist Hedley Bull described his theory of "neomedievalism," the emergence of non-state actors and the overlapping of authority with governments.

Increasingly, it is transnational groups that are holding governments to account when they undermine democratic goals and commit human rights abuses. Unlike other governments, these groups are able to bluntly denounce transgressions in a way that transcends diplomatic etiquette. International organizations, not governments, are also the go-to for legitimate security and disaster response. The World Food Program, International Red Cross, and a myriad of non-governmental organizations are often the first on the ground with resources and expertise to address things like refugee movements and natural disasters. Governments certainly continue to play a part — but increasingly, it is a supportive function centered on funding.

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'The Smartest Guy In the Sea," VICE News' video about MOAS

Taking on roles generally thought to be the exclusive purview of governments, private sector entities are increasingly being called on to carry out varied, complex, and often dangerous tasks. Less constrained by international boundaries than in the past, these private sector organizations are able to swiftly tap into a global reserve of expertise and equipment that dwarfs the capability of most sovereign governments; thus we have Ukrainian helicopter firms fighting forest fires in Portugal, Mozambican specialists helping to defuse land mines in Bosnia, and contractors from numerous countries constructing medical facilities to address the Ebola crisis in Liberia.

Last year, Nigeria was losing its war with Boko Haram militants in the country's northeast; the large but corrupt and neglected Nigerian military seemed powerless. Then-president Goodluck Jonathan turned to STTEP, a South African company comprised of former soldiers. In a matter of weeks, they retrained several hundred Nigerian soldiers and then accompanied them in an offensive that recaptured numerous towns and villages from what, until that point, had been thought to be a nearly unbeatable foe.

This year alone, more than 2,000 people have died attempting the harrowing sea voyage from Africa to Europe, and thousands more continue to pile into rickety, overcrowded boats. The European Union response has been somewhat incoherent and only marginally effective, varying from anti-smuggling efforts that force migrants to try ever riskier routes, to running inadequate sea patrols.

Related: 'Open Water,' the VICE News blog covering the international migrant crisis

And so businessman Chris Catrambone and his wife, Regina, invested $8 million to outfit a ship equipped with reconnaissance drones to find migrant craft and assist them. Their Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) has helped thousands of migrants so far — watch the VICE News video about MOAS above — and has probably saved some of their lives. It has proven a simple and remarkably inexpensive way to address an aspect of the migrant crisis that exasperates the highest levels of governments.

Efforts like these do not undermine the noble goals of governments. Instead, they harness the best capabilities of the private sector to achieve results in a speedy and cost-effective manner that governments can often only dream of. There are oft-cited and legitimate problems with the private sector — profit-driven scandals, questions of accountability in regions of conflict, the overcharging of government clients — but if we are moving toward a neomedieval world, the private sector will be an important player, helping governments take care of some of the world's worst problems.

Doug Brooks is a Washington, DC consultant and founder of the International Stability Operations Association (ISOA). Follow him on Twitter: @Hoosier84