Project Overview

  • To investigate the growing global role of private security services operating within countries and across borders.


  • Michael C. Williams, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa
  • Rita Abrahamsen, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa

Project Description

  • One of the most striking developments of the past decade has been the massive expansion and globalization of the private security sector. World-wide, the private security services market is valued at US$ 85 billion and has an annual growth rate of 6-8%. To date, however, the increasing privatization and globalization of security has gone largely unrecognized in the study of international politics, and while considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to the role of mercenaries and private military companies, the impact of the privatization of day-to-day security services has received considerably less empirical and theoretical analysis. Situating these developments in the context of globalization and late modernity, this project examines the changing relationships between global and local actors, public and private authority and emerging structures of security governance.
  • The parallel process of privatization and globalization is of particular importance in developing countries, where the unwillingness and/or inability of the state to provide security have long been sources of concern. This project examines the impact of security privatization in sub-Saharan Africa. How is legitimacy and stability in weak states affected when the core public good of security is delivered by private, sometimes transnational, actors rather than the state? Who is secured, or rendered less secure, by these developments? What is driving this process of privatization and globalization, and does it promise greater security or insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa? Through an in-depth examination of the private security sector and its involvement in four African countries (Kenya, Nigeria Sierra Leone and South Africa), this project assesses the political and security implications of private security for developing countries and for policy-making in developed states.
  • While the privatization of security is driven primarily by market imperatives, its impact is often highly political and its implications for development, state authority and social stability vary between countries where the state is either unwilling and/or unable to provide security and those where the state is stronger and more able to perform security functions. In the latter case, the private sector often acts as an adjunct to state security, reinforcing its powers. In weak states, by contrast, the growing role of private security may further erode the authority of the state, as key security functions are privately provided and citizens no longer identify the state as the primary guarantor of safety. In this sense, the emergence of a market in security services may have an impact on state legitimacy. Private security may also influence social cohesion. When security is a commodity, available only to those who can pay, it may lead to a situation where sections of society- whether individuals, communities or enterprises- exist in significant ways separately from the state and from the security conditions of society as a whole. Conversely, it is possible that the availability of private security might facilitate a greater concentration and effectiveness of public resources, hence enhancing the overall provision of security.

Main Research Aims and Policy Implications

  1. The research contributes towards developing a theoretical framework for understanding the role of private security in late modernity and emerging structures of global governance. By broadening the agenda of security studies to include local and transnational private security actors and their relationship to states and civil societies, the study will expand knowledge of how order, authority and security is increasingly influenced by actors other than the sovereign state. In this way, the project will contribute to the analysis of global governance, the evolving dynamics of third world security at the level of states, societies, and individuals, and to understanding of the relationship between development and security.
  2. The research assesses the social, political and security impact of private security in developing countries by examining four specific cases: South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. The project provides a comprehensive assessment of private security, its role and contribution in these four countries.
  3. To date, the following policy issues have emerged as particularly crucial to the development process:
    • The relationship between the private security sector and on-going security system reform programs. While SSR tends to target public security forces, private security in various forms is frequently responsible for the daily security needs of large section of the population. The key role of private security is often ignored in SSR programs, and it is crucial that it is integrated into a broader analysis of security provision and reform in developing countries.
    • The existence or absence of a legislative framework appropriate to making private security a positive contributor to the overall provision of security and development. An unregulated and unsupervised private security sector frequently results in inadequate protection, added insecurity, and the exploitation of labour.
    • The relationship between the public police and the private security sector. Effective and regulated co-operation or ‘partnership’ between public and private security actors can enhance the overall provision of security, making the private sector a ‘force multiplier’. Conversely, the lack of formalized co-operation can result in inadequate security and the use of public resources for private protection.
    • The impact of private security on social stratification, fragmentation and inequality. Private security is available to paying clients, not to the general public, and in order to prevent increased inequality and social fragmentation, private security needs to be integrated within an overall assessment of a country’s available security resources and expertise.

Funding Partner

  • New Security Challenges program of the Economic and Social Research Council (UK)