Got war troubles? These conventioneers can help
They looked like typical conventioneers - suits and ties, sensible skirts, gathered for a conference in the U.S. capital this week. They swapped business cards, split into break-out sessions, sipped coffee and ate chicken.
Manufacturers, maybe? Engineers? Architects?
No. They belong to a growing industry that thrives on the world's calamity.
Got employees trapped in a revolution? Call Stephan Malvoisin from Paris.
Working in the midst of land mines? Talk to Simon George from Zimbabwe.
Need hired guns? Consult Chris Luchtefeld from Academi - the old Blackwater - in Moyock, N.C.
Members of the International Stability Operations Association inhabit a niche created by shrinking defense budgets, expanding crises and the desire to do business and outreach overseas.
The two-day gathering - held, appropriately, during the government shutdown - drew about 100 people, all pitching unusual wares.
In one corner of a reception hall, Jeff Dakers of Advanced Armored Vehicles handed out brochures on the latest in bulletproof models. In another, Drew Schumann of Stable Outcomes described the cultural advice he gave a power company building a plant in Afghanistan. Over lunch on a linen-covered table, Gregg Fahrenbruch of Av-X Consulting laid out the difficulty of finding fuel at dirt runways in Somalia.
As one speaker told the conventioneers: "Conflicts are still on the rise - happily for our industry."
A smattering of laughter circulated the room. Trouble may be their trade, but members boil it down to business terms: "emerging markets," "metrics," "risk management."
Even the name of the association, formerly the International Peace Operations Association, is somewhat "whimsical," said a keynote speaker, "considering what you all do."
Based in Washington, the association was founded in 2001, just before the Iraq war spawned a rush toward private military contracting.
Its members - roughly 50 organizations - are required to sign a code of conduct pledging that their employees will, among other things, follow the Geneva Conventions and "take appropriate measures to minimize loss of life."
Blackwater, a trailblazer in the industry, was among the group's early members, but the two parted ways in 2007 after the security company began taking heat over the shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians.
Buried in lawsuits and criminal charges, and tainted by a trigger-happy reputation, Blackwater dissolved in 2010. New owners bought its Moyock campus, assumed many of its contracts, purged its infamous name and rejoined the association in August as the more cerebral-sounding Academi.
"We've been kind of boring since the old Blackwater days," said Luchtefeld, Academi's new director of business development. "And that's a good thing."
Members are conscious of image. No one wants to be viewed as a war profiteer. But there's demand for their services, and money to be made.
International aid groups spend $130 billion a year - each project with its own security, logistics and equipment needs. There are also commercial clients, eager to tap new markets, who need in-country expertise, insurance and legal advice.
More and more, they're turning to the "stability sector," as members of the association refer to their industry. They're experts at operating in complex, hostile environments where governments collapse as often as bridges. They see themselves as "the lubricant," arriving after the Hellfire missiles and leaving before actual peace.
Malvoisin says his France-based company, Crisis 24, maintains a network of locals in hot zones who help foreigners evacuate if a host country has a meltdown. Paula Feeney of Cardno, an Australian outfit, figures out ways to provide work for a village's women so its elders will accept an oil pipeline.
"There's a diverse cast of characters in this industry," said Ado Machida, association president. Everything from eggheads to do-gooders to warriors.
The conference offered how-to sessions on landing work with the United Nations, getting a part in disaster relief, taking care of workers in lands where they'll "eat sand and swat flies."
Cocktail conversations were peppered with military acronyms and the tongue-twisting names of faraway power brokers, political parties, movements and militants. Much talk was devoted to wondering where the next coup or crisis or catastrophe will be.
Mike Sheehan, a former assistant secretary of defense, told the conventioneers that, even with the action in Afghanistan winding down, northern Africa and the "Islamic world" will provide work for years to come.
Those countries are at their own inner crossroads, he said, struggling between hewing to old ways or embracing modernity.
When violence explodes, there's little appetite in the war-fatigued United States for major military interventions. Still, it can't be ignored, since despair and poverty breed the terrorism that wants to reach from there to here.
Humanitarian aid and economic development are the best antidotes, Sheehan said, which translates into more clients for the stability sector.
Gino LaMarca was at the conference representing International SOS, which offers medical assistance in 70 countries - "all the finest vacation destinations," he joked.
"It's a crazy world," LaMarca said, "but somebody's got to deal with it."