Private Military and Security Companies Undermine Peacebuilding Efforts

By Peace Science Digest, February 22, 2022

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: de Groot, T., & Regilme, S. S. F. (2021). Private military and security companies and the militarization of humanitarianism. Journal of Developing Societies, 38(1), 50-80.

Talking Points

Based on an examination of research on private military and security contractors in the context of UN peacebuilding missions:

  • The presence of private military and security companies promotes militarization in humanitarian spaces and undermines non-militarized approaches to security.
  • Private military and security companies’ commercial self-interest in selling their services leads to an inflation of threats, which militarizes humanitarian spaces.
  • Based on the creation of physical and psychological barriers between local communities and those who came to aid them, private military and security companies contribute to the “bunkerization” of aid, which tends to create a greater sense of insecurity for local communities.
  • By not considering local knowledge on security matters, private military and security companies prevent interveners from understanding the root causes of violence in their respective areas of intervention.

Key Insight for Informing Practice 

  • Militarization of security undermines peacebuilding effectiveness. The peacebuilding community can build on principles of local agency and unarmed civilian protection to challenge the largely uncontested security discourse.


Private military and security companies (PMSCs) are a common and often controversial presence in contemporary zones of political conflict. During the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, PMSCs constituted 50% of the forces. As PMSCs were criticized publicly for their activities in conflict zones after multiple scandals, they emphasized their contributions to humanitarianism. Simultaneously their clients (broadly speaking, the international humanitarian community) normalized military outsourcing. PMSCs now are considered legitimate and indispensable providers of security worldwide, including in peacebuilding missions alongside the United Nations, NGOs, and corporations. In this theoretical study, Tom de Groot and Salvador Regilme examine whether the widespread use of PMSCs undermines the effectiveness of UN peacebuilding missions. The authors argue that the presence of PMSCs promotes militarization in humanitarian spaces and undermines non-militarized approaches to security.

Research around this topic, although sparse, proceeds in two different directions. One strand considers PMSCs a positive policy tool to address security issues. The more critical strand suggests that PMSCs’ power to frame problems as security threats, the focus on short-term solutions, and the overall militarization of humanitarian/peacebuilding missions all overemphasize militarized security and undermine alternatives. The authors build on this more critical strand to develop their own twofold theoretical claim. First, driven by commercial interests, PMSCs needlessly militarize humanitarian contexts and thereby undermine peacebuilding effectiveness. Second, the structure of international peacebuilding programs grants PMSCs the sole authority in determining security risks, thereby excluding local actors and marginalized communities. PMSCs’ claim to expert authority over security issues weakens non-militarized alternatives to addressing security risks in peacebuilding missions.

Focusing on every-day dynamics in the context of peacebuilding missions, namely the relationship between the affected communities and the interveners, the authors identify three ways that PMSCs (through the U.S. military-industrial complex) show up in the peacebuilding space. First, related to the question of whether PMSCs contribute to public safety and further the peacebuilding missions, PMSCs’ commercial self-interest in selling their services leads to an inflation of threats, which militarizes humanitarian spaces. Even in contexts with low actual security risks, barbed wire fences, armed security, and protected convoys become part of the appearance of humanitarian interventions.

Second, based on the creation of physical (e.g., walls, barriers, and armed guards) and psychological (e.g., inaccessibility, intimidation, unequal power relationships, and feeling unwelcome) barriers between local communities and those who came to aid them, the authors suggest that PMSCs contribute to the “bunkerization” of aid, which tends to create a greater sense of insecurity for local communities. With the militarization of important civilian spaces, peacebuilding efforts are undermined. Third, by not considering local knowledge on security matters, PMSCs prevent interveners from understanding the root causes of violence in their respective areas of intervention. This takes place through the disruption of routine and necessary social interactions and relationship-building between local community members and interveners. While peacebuilders are technical experts, they might end up talking more to each other about the problems instead of talking to local communities and understanding how they frame and solve their problems.

These dynamics are boosted by the broader paradigm of militarization in global governance, especially when it comes to addressing the perceived problem of terrorism. By adopting the space as sole experts on security matters and using their positional power, PMSCs are largely driving security discourse. By claiming “expert authority,” PMSCs are dominant actors in peacebuilding missions and undermine peacebuilding effectiveness by separating interveners from local communities and creating a greater sense of insecurity through their presence and tactics. Local ownership of peacebuilding processes is jeopardized. Moreover, PMSCs are private companies driven by profit considerations rather than the desire to build sustainable peace. The study calls upon the international peacebuilding community to genuinely support and respect the agency of local actors and act only with their consent.

Informing Practice 

Can peacebuilding—United Nations missions and beyond—behind the barrel of a gun and a barbed wire fence be effective? In short, this approach is antithetical to peacebuilding; but that reality is not fully reflected in the peacebuilding field. To be fair, many international peacebuilding missions, including those led by the United Nations, have developed thoughtful community engagement guidelines that engage local stakeholders in a meaningful way in all aspects of peacebuilding and local security. However, the militarization of security in the peacebuilding space, heralded by PMSCs, undermines the non-militarized efforts that humanitarian organizations pursue. This becomes even more significant when peacebuilding intervention strategies and operational tactics are framed through the lens of PMSCs, whose commercial interests not only taint their assessment of the actual security context but whose physical presence also becomes the public face of the peacebuilding intervention. Optics matter, especially when it comes to how local communities view external peacebuilding interventions in their communities.

As this research notes, the militarization of global governance informs the broader context of peacebuilding operations. Yet, militarization and militarism are underexamined in the work of international peacebuilding organizations. Perhaps this is in part due to the security framing by PMSCs and their lobbying and advocacy efforts as part of the military-industrial complex, which set the stage in which peacebuilding and humanitarian organizations operate. The peacebuilding community is constantly evolving and strengthening the tools for preventing conflict, ending violence against civilians, and developing just and accountable governance. To be more effective, however, peacebuilders should center the need to demilitarize security as part of their toolkit/work.

First, by using the power of networks like the Alliance for Peacebuilding, community-wide standards aimed at shifting away from militarized security can be set through education, advocacy, and good practices. Principles outlined in CDA’s introduction to “Do No Harm” offer good entry points. Moreover, as noted by Nonviolent Peaceforce, “unarmed civilian protection (UCP) has gained recognition as a valuable method for protecting civilians and contributing to sustainable peace.” These efforts move the peacebuilding community away from “bunkerization” and toward necessary deep engagement with local communities.

Second, peacebuilding principles and practices need to be communicated and defended by peacebuilders considering the overwhelming influence of PMSCs and the military-industrial complex. Practitioners have an opportunity to contest the discursive space of security. By subserving their intervening role to the voices of the communities they serve and emphasizing principles of UCP, peacebuilders build authority to redefine what security means, aligning their programming with the communities they serve.

One should not naïvely refuse to acknowledge actual risks to peacebuilders and the communities they serve. Their safety must be taken into consideration. If the peacebuilding workers are at substantial risk of being targeted, then perhaps more work must be done to create conditions ripe enough where non-military security measures are considered appropriate. In other words, following principles of UCP, peacebuilders should avoid entering into a context of political violence without being invited.

Questions Raised 

How can the safety needs of international peacebuilding missions and those they serve be met without reliance on approaches to security that militarize humanitarian spaces and separate these peacebuilding actors from local communities?”

How can the demilitarization of security in humanitarian and peacebuilding work be folded into the bigger framework of decolonizing aid?

Continued Reading

Autesserre, S. (2021). The frontlines of peace: An insider’s guide to changing the world. Oxford University Press.

Belfi, E. (2021). Do no harm in peacebuilding. War Prevention Initiative Peace Briefing. Retrieved February 10, 2022, from

Hartung, W. D. (2022, January 12). How private contractors disguise the real costs of war. Inkstick. Retrieved February 10, 2022, from

Peace Science Digest. (2020, October 12). Special issue: Local, national, and international peacebuilding.  Retrieved February 10, 2022, from

United Nations. (2020). United Nations community engagement guidelines on peacebuilding and sustaining peace. (2020). Retrieved February 10, 2022, from


Nonviolent Peaceforce:

Alliance for Peacebuilding:

Key words: peacebuilding, security, humanitarianism, demilitarization, private military security companies, PMSCs, unarmed civilian protection

Photo Credit: Håkan Dahlström via Flickr


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