New Book Suggests Failures of Peacebuilding Linked to Habits of the Well-Intentioned

An Indian UN peacekeeper stands guard as displaced civilians seek shelter near the UN base in Kiwanja, eastern DRC, 2006. (from the cover photo of Peaceland, ©David Lewis/Reuters/Corbis)

At the heart of Séverine Autesserre’s new book is a conundrum: If international peacebuilders are well-meaning people versed in the latest approaches to conflict resolution, why do their efforts so often come up short?

Unsatisfied with the usual explanations (such as a lack of funding and resources from powerful states), Autesserre embarked on an ambitious project to interview hundreds of UN officials, NGO workers, and local staff in conflict zones around the world in order to study “the everyday”:  their daily work routines, their standard security procedures, and even their social habits. The culmination of years of research is her new book Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention. In it, she captures the culture of “Peaceland,” a frustrating place where well-intentioned expatriates sometimes do more harm than good and even fuel resentment among the local population they had meant to help.

Peaceland offers a refreshingly original thesis, one drawn from Autesserre’s interviews as well as her own personal experiences working as a humanitarian aid worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. The real reason behind peacebuilding’s failings, the book argues, can be traced to the everyday practices, habits, and narratives of the interveners themselves. These business-as-usual actions and modes of thinking, while they may offer some benefits, ultimately lead to ineffective, inefficient, and even counterproductive outcomes. This peacebuilding sub-culture helps to explain how, in the author’s words, “so many expatriates can be intelligent, hardworking, caring people, and yet still find themselves following practices and implementing programs that so often miss the mark.”

When so much current analysis centers on the political, technical, and strategic challenges of peacebuilding, Peaceland’s micro-level lens is a welcome addition to the literature. It deepens similar claims by critical theorists such as Oliver Richmond, but unlike those scholars, Autesserre approaches her work like a trained anthropologist, and her interviews are enlightening.

To make her case, Autesserre first illustrates how these mundane practices lead to unintended consequences. For instance, she closely scrutinizes the recruitment policies that are the norm at many field missions. Hiring managers favor “technical, thematic” skills, such as specialized knowledge of elections or humanitarian aid, over “local knowledge” of the communities in which they operate. Host country nationals, who are rarely hired for leadership positions, are subordinate to international personnel and cut-off from the decision-making process. The result is that well-meaning expatriates too often “stumble in the dark,” misunderstanding the reality of the situation, imposing top-down solutions, and falling back on dominant, simple narratives. Autesserre likens them to somebody walking around with a blinking flashlight, only able to see one image at a time.

Unlike other critical scholarship, Peaceland is both policy-relevant and provides concrete examples from life in the field. The author criticizes “expatriate bubbles” and the “bunkerization” of peacekeeping missions, arguing that this lack of interaction with the local population breeds resentment and misunderstanding among the local population, creating alienating boundaries and exposing international personnel to greater risk in the long-term. One of the strengths of the book is that it shows how seemingly prosaic actions that are part of the social lives of peacekeepers, including things such as expatriate holiday parties, can impact the relationship between mission staff and the local population.

Amusing and powerful anecdotes, drawn from the author’s extensive interviews and personal experience, lend weight to her claims. One story about condoms distributed to South Sudanese by an international NGO, only to have them be repurposed as tobacco pouches, is particularly memorable.

Of course, some of what is written in Peaceland isn’t new. Scholars such as Timothy Mitchell have long warned of the cult of expertise that privileges elite technocrats over local knowledge. The UN has likewise addressed many of the flaws associated with post-conflict peacebuilding in its Independent Review of Civilian Capacities in the Aftermath of Conflict, the report of which recommends that “wherever possible, national actors and institutions should be the primary source of capacity for substantive and non-substantive tasks alike.”

To its credit, Peaceland attempts to explain how ill-advised practices reproduce themselves despite these high-level calls for reform. Here Autesserre dabbles in behavioral psychological (cognitive consistency and cognitive overload) and constructivist theory (socialization and norm diffusion) to explain how forming expatriate bubbles can be seen as a “perfectly understandable response” to the stressful environments faced by international actors. Similarly, the bunkerization of peacekeeping missions might be considered one “reasonable answer” to the logistical and security challenges peacekeepers face. Nevertheless, they result in sub-standard outcomes and ought to be reconsidered.

Although the above line of reasoning could have benefited from greater theoretical clarity, the examples Autesserre recounts from her own personal experience working in the field will ring true with any idealistic junior officer seeking to impress her superiors: “I was so eager to make a difference,” she writes, “that I did not pause to reflect on the practices I followed while trying to accomplish this goal.”

Autesserre concludes by offering a series of policy recommendations aimed at reforming these everyday habits. Practitioners and policy-makers will find much to consider in this section. Recommendations include “facilitate socialization,” such as after-work interactions between expatriates and the host populations, and “rely more on local employees” in order to acquire greater local knowledge. She has cited the US Peace Corps as one possible model from which to draw inspiration.

If anything, Peaceland’s only weakness is that these recommendations may not be particularly groundbreaking, and may even appear paradoxical, to some practitioners who have tried in vain to enact likeminded reforms for years. Habits are, almost by definition, stubborn things, yet the book’s solution is to change the habits. One must look elsewhere for a focused discussion on how to transform bad habits into good. 

But this is a minor criticism of a highly sophisticated and well-researched book, which should be valued both for its ethnographic and analytical contributions. By highlighting the unintended consequences of the quotidian actions of peacebuilders, Peaceland is a micro-level analysis with macro-level implications.  

Michael R. Snyder is a Research Assistant with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.