The tendency today to privatise many activities hitherto considered the exclusive preserve of the state has given rise to sharp debate. The specific nature of humanitarian emergencies elucidates in particularly stark contrast some of the main challenges connected to the privatisation and outsourcing of essential public services, such as the provision of drinking water and health care. Privatising the realms of defence and security, which are at the very core of state prerogative, raises several legal and humanitarian concerns. This article focuses on the roles and responsibilities of the various parties involved in armed conflicts, especially those of private companies engaged in security, intelligence and interrogation work, and in the provision of water supply and health services. It highlights the need for humanitarian and development actors to grasp better the potential risks and opportunities related to privatisation and outsourcing with a view to supplying effective protection and assistance to communities affected by war.