For Lasting Peace, Exceptions Must Become Rule: Q&A with Séverine Autesserre

United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo await the arrival of the DRC communications minister. Kanyabayonga, DRC, June 5, 2014. (Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo)

Despite an increased spotlight on the disconnection between international peacebuilders and the communities in which they work, the situation does not appear to have improved dramatically in the past year, according to Séverine Autesserre, Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University’s Barnard College.

Dr. Autesserre, whose 2014 book Peaceland is credited with bringing the problem to wider attention, said there may have been a change in discourse, but not in practice.

A major issue is that many people and organizations think that they are the rare exceptions to the rule, she said in a conversation with International Peace Institute Policy Analyst Margaret Williams.

“People may agree with the analysis and the need for change, but they may feel it is only for other people,” she said. “That may be why we haven’t seen so many changes in the past year.”

She said policymakers, practitioners, peacebuilders, local authorities, local populations and others have at least shown a greater interest in the exceptions, and these could be highlighted as models for reform.

“Instead of trying to invent something, reform attempts could follow the existing models of those exceptional individuals and organizations,” Dr. Autesserre said. “Again, there are many organizations that have managed to find a better balance in terms of the value of local knowledge and thematic expertise.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

It’s been more than a year since you released your influential book Peaceland. Do you think the lessons it offers have been taken up by the peacebuilding community?

I know the book has generated discussions within various United Nations agencies, within NGOs, among donors, and among foreign ministries. I actually know of one NGO going through an internal process to think about what the lessons from Peaceland mean for them, and whether they might need to change their ways of working.

However, I haven’t seen many differences in practice. Maybe there has been a change in discourse, but I have not seen a change in terms of behavior. That might be due to the fact that I’ve been in New York and there might be changes that I will see the next time I travel to the field. The other possibility is that there are indeed no major changes.

The most common reaction to my book has been to describe it as completely true, and to emphasize that it depicts other people and other organizations very well. But most people then say “I am different, my organization is different. We are the kind of exception that you are talking about.” So people may agree with the analysis and the need for change, but they may feel it is only for other people. That may be why we haven’t seen so many changes in the past year.

How has the reaction influenced your subsequent research?

What policymakers, practitioners, peacebuilders, local authorities, local populations, and everybody else are most interested in are the exceptions: the things that go well and could serve as models, the stories, the concrete ideas that they can get from my research. So my new project is looking at the causes of peacebuilding success; it’s looking more closely at the things that go well that we could replicate in other places. Of course, I’m still focusing on international actors, and on the local, bottom-up dynamics of peacebuilding, and the project will still be based on very extensive field research on the ground. But instead of looking at things that don’t work, now I’m really starting to look at things that work well.

According to your past research, those things that didn’t work well were largely the everyday routines and habits of international peacebuilders that prevented connection to local communities. Can you elaborate on that?

International peacebuilders face many challenges when they want to connect socially with local communities. One thing I hear all the time in conflict zones is that peacebuilders tend to live in a kind of bubble, meaning that they interact mainly with other foreign peacebuilders and lack contact with host communities. But there are also many challenges on the part of local communities and this happens in nearly all areas of intervention. In Peaceland, I emphasized the role of everyday dimensions of international peacebuilding on the ground in conflict zones in explaining this.

There are two main elements that account for the lack of interaction between foreign peacebuilders and local communities. The first is what I call the “politics of knowledge,” which refers to the fact that international, diplomatic, and non-governmental organizations value thematic expertise rather than local knowledge. In the current system the most valued expertise is that of interveners trained in peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development techniques, with a lot of experience in different areas of the world. Though there are many exceptions, the knowledge of country specialists is much less valued, and the knowledge of local people is usually trivialized.

The other main reason for the separation between international interveners and local people is a host of everyday routines like where international peacebuilders like to have a drink in the evening, who they feel comfortable talking with in their spare time, how they collect information, what kind of standard security routines they follow, how they search for neutrality and impartiality, what kind of results they look for. All of these create a lot of challenges for social connections. At the same time, there are many people who manage to break these barriers, and I think we can learn a lot from them, not only to create better social relationships but also to increase the effectiveness of international peace efforts.

Are there also barriers created by local counterparts?

Yes, there are many barriers that local counterparts can create. The main one is that they can treat international interveners as oddities, as alien, as people separate from them, and as all alike. So an NGO worker is treated the same as a United Nations peacekeeper, regardless of where the person has come from, what kind of background they have, or what they tried to do on the ground. I’ve also heard complaints in Central Africa, for example, of people telling me, “I’m treated like a walking moneybag. Wherever I go, people ask me for something.” There are also everyday local practices that feel alienating to international peacebuilders, like children calling and pointing at foreigners. That can seem cute or funny the first few times, but after a year or two, people start feeling they will never be able to integrate and never have a normal personal life when deployed.

And can you give us some examples of those exceptions you mentioned above; the people or organizations that do make an effort to connect on a social level or emphasize local knowledge in peacebuilding?

Let’s look at the Life & Peace Institute example in Congo. What’s interesting is that instead of arriving and saying “we know what the problems are and how to fix them” which is the way we usually do peacebuilding, which is the “normal” way, they started with an extensive analysis of which local organizations were doing good work and would be the kind of partners with which they would like to work. They have decided to work exclusively in support of these local partners, instead of implementing projects themselves.

One of these partners is Action for Peace and Concord. When its people arrive in a community experiencing ongoing violence—for example, in Congo’s Walungu Territory—they organize consultations with all stakeholders including local chiefs, local authorities, all the armed groups, religious leaders, and everybody who has a say in the conflict. They ask them, “what is the problem, according to you?” Because most of the time people don’t agree, and then they ask “what’s the solution?” and have extensive discussions on how they can resolve the situation. The last question is, “what kind of help do you need from external actors?” Only then does APC start intervening on the ground, with the Life & Peace Institute acting in support.

To me, that’s exactly the way to go, because it’s integrating local understanding of the problems and solutions and bringing external intervention only where needed. It’s not duplicating local efforts or capacities, but enhancing them. They’ve managed to find very creative solutions and local peace deals in places in Congo that have been experiencing enormous violence in the past 15 years.

In your first book, The Trouble With Congo, you studied the DRC during its transitional period of 2003-2006. Could you tell us about the impact of international efforts on the differing structures of local, national, and regional power that existed at that time?

The main point is that international efforts managed to help Congolese people build some kind of relative peace and stability at the national and international levels—at the level of the Great Lakes region—but they did not manage to help at the local level, in the eastern provinces. From 2003 to 2006, international efforts almost completely ignored local conflicts over land, traditional power, administrative power, social statures, and economic resources.

When we look at the causes of this, we see again a culture that’s dominant in international peacebuilding organizations: Western and African diplomats, UN peacekeepers, the staff of NGOs, and all the external actors shared a specific way of seeing the world, the causes of violence, the path toward peace, and the roles of foreign actors. This understanding was based on the belief that the roots of the violence were only national and international. The legitimate role of international actors was seen as only to intervene at those levels, and local conflicts didn’t matter. That’s one of the big reasons why the transition to peace was such a big failure.

How might a greater focus on local and country-specific expertise be incorporated into peacebuilding intervention policy for the UN and NGOs?

Instead of trying to invent something, we could follow the existing models of those exceptional individuals and organizations we’ve talked about today. Again, there are many organizations that have managed to find a better balance in terms of the value of local knowledge and thematic expertise. In addition to the Life & Peace Institute, I think Caritas is a really interesting example, also the Eastern Congo Initiative, and I could go on and on. What’s interesting about all these organizations is that they rely on expatriate peacebuilders only to do things that local people cannot, and they base their interventions on an in-depth analysis of local conditions. Analysis comes first and action comes second, while I think one of the biggest problems in international peacebuilding circles is that we act first and then we think afterwards.

If we want to remodel our practices on the model of the exceptions, one of the big things to do is to change recruitment and promotion practices for interveners. I’m not saying we need to stop recruiting people that have technical expertise and only hire people who have local knowledge. What I’m saying is we need both. We need local people with thematic knowledge and local people with expertise in the specific village or district where they’re intervening. We also need foreign peacebuilders with local knowledge and foreign peacebuilders with thematic expertise. We need to make sure that these different kinds of knowledge and expertise are taken into account during design and planning.

You can also find novel ways to integrate local communities and intended beneficiaries and we need to find a much better way to get input and feedback right from the start of the program, before we even start thinking of intervention. We need to make sure we’re bringing solutions to problems that actually exist and are not just in the heads of the designers and the planners in New York, Brussels, or Paris. Then, given that conflicts are so dynamic and constantly changing, we need constant local feedback, so that when things evolve we are still doing the right thing.