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POLITICAL ECONOMY
Outside View: Stability operations association meeting opens
by Whitney Grespin
Washington (UPI) Oct 15, 2013


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As the Western coalition negotiates official troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the U.S. military looks to streamline commitments and the broader international community seeks to increase security worldwide without putting more personnel on the ground, hundreds of private industry providers are convening in Washington to facilitate those goals.

The International Stability Operations Association's 2013 Annual Summit is the premier event of the stability operations community. By bringing together policymakers, industry leaders, practitioners and a variety of subject-matter experts, the meeting enables networking and collaboration for organizations working in fragile environments across the globe.

Participants of the conference generally come from the contingency contracting field, which is defined by the Office of the Secretary of Defense as encompassing "all contracting performed in a contingency environment, including military operations, stability operations, natural disasters, humanitarian and other calamitous events."

Convened at the National Press Club, industry experts and government representatives sit on panels to offer insights about the ways in which private providers have been instrumental in achieving client goals and additional avenues through which companies may be able to adapt their services for future -- and constantly evolving -- government requirements.

As Doug Brooks, private consultant and president emeritus of ISOA said, "The ISOA summit can be especially useful to the stability operations industry by helping firms redirect their services to the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan environment. U.N. and regional peacekeeping operations, disaster relief, refugee services, security sector reform and other capabilities will have a great deal of value over the next decade and should see an growing utilization of the industry."

This meeting isn't about contracts, billets and wrap rates though; it is about the practical value and real world applications of the skill sets the companies have honed over years of challenging operations.

While the narrative of industry efforts portrayed in public media is often less than complimentary, with examples taken often out of context and little attention paid to the performance requirements written into the contracts, there is an interconnected community whose participants volunteer to work in consistently challenging -- if not outright dangerous -- conditions at profit rates so low and operations so closely monitored that few other industries would tolerate such uncertain returns on investments.

Many in the community choose to stay in the field because of the simple fact that most of the U.S. government's most challenging and sensitive efforts couldn't succeed without the support currently provided by the private industry. As one industry executive acknowledged, "We do the high risk work because that's what needs to get done the most."

The work of these companies often comes down to outcomes that are meaningful on an individual basis. From translators and training to logistics and life support, the contingency contracting industry contributes vital capabilities across the world to the U.S. government's efforts to improve partner capacity and protect U.S. interests.

For example, one session of the meeting will feature Jessica Buchanan, the U.S. aid worker kidnapped by Somali pirates -- including child soldiers -- and held for ransom for months until her rescue by the U.S. Navy's SEAL Team Six in January 2012.

Having been a veteran of humanitarian work herself, Buchanan is familiar with the challenges faced by private companies, non-government organizations and government project implementation partners in complex environments. Perhaps she was less familiar, though, with the services that ISOA members routinely provide to the Special Operations community that saved her.

Although many U.S. government representatives are to speak at the conference, it is possible that the current budget situation and partial government shutdown will prohibit their participation.

Even with this threat and a constricting field of contract opportunities, registration for the conference remained on par with previous years' attendance.

This ongoing commitment of the private industry to providing services yet again illustrates private industry's consistency and commitment to U.S. government efforts in times, and places, of uncertainty and austerity.

(Whitney Grespin has overseen education and security sector capacity building programs on five continents. She was recently named to the 2013 class of Top 99 Under 33 Foreign Policy Leaders.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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