.
O

ne of the more curious, but exceptionally enjoyable, things to take place during the Covid pandemic were surprisingly frequent conversations with a great friend of mine who was deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Africa. For one, the marvels of modern communications that made this possible were nothing less of incredible, but it was the day-to-day insights that his experience offered into something that I had only studied at King’s College London. Peacekeeping is a maligned, often misunderstood, but critical function of the United Nations. Its failures are well-known and publicized, but its successes are much less appreciated, if acknowledged at all. In most cases, the absence of conflict is some measure of success, as certainly was the case (at least until the end of his deployment) with my friend’s experiences.

The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World | Severine Autesserre | Oxford University Press | March 2021.

It was nothing short of challenging—working with a multi-national, multi-lingual force (a small one at that) far from anything approaching an urban center, in between two hostile forces, the escape from which would have been an overland route through a minefield, or an all too infrequent helicopter flight. My friend was at the very end of a very long stick that started in New York at the United Nations Headquarters, went through his home country’s capital, all the way out to this remote location, and unfortunately, was at the very end of the associated governmental bureaucracy, as well. Challenges aside, his presence was indicative of a diplomatic success and what can be achieved at the high-levels of what Severine Autesserre calls “Peaceland” in her book “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World.”

Autesserre, however, refreshingly flips the narrative looking not at the top-down peace initiatives, but from the bottom-up—grassroots peacebuilding. Autesserre, a development expert with extensive experience in the Congo, argues that there is much to be learned from these small micro-peace initiatives, which are considerably cheaper and potentially longer-lasting than the high-level diplomatic peace efforts. Here, she rightly notes that not everything can be solved in the European or African capitals, or by foreign development experts swooping into the latest hotspot. Rather, she argues that peace can be built in small areas by capitalizing on local power networks, empowering the local population, and relying on local expertise with limited foreign support.

She provides a number of impressive examples where locally-driven peacebuilding initiatives met with success, such as an island in Lake Kivu near the Rwandan border where, despite its proximity to the conflict, the population achieved a measure of stability and success. This was achieved despite the absence of the government and military by relying on local power networks and community leaders, the Catholic Church, and community policing. This is not to say it was an idyllic environment all of the time, but that it was able to resist many of the pressures to descend into inter-communal violence.

Autesserre is polite in her excoriation of what could be called the development-industrial complex or, as she calls it, “Peace Inc.”. Here, according to Autesserre, the roving bands of non-governmental organizations, donors, and foreign experts parachute into conflicts about which they ostensibly have little knowledge, throw incredible amounts of money at problems, ignore local expertise often importing copied and pasted solutions from other countries, and then trumpet their own successes. She is remarkably candid about her own experiences in Peace Inc. noting that she often couldn’t help adopting their often-condescending attitudes towards those with whom they were working and supposed to be helping, parroting clichés and stereotypes of this group of people being lazy or that group being corrupt.

Well-meaning development experts with academic credentials are often put in positions that would seem strange anywhere else. As Autesserre writes, in one of her first positions she was tasked with overseeing a highly qualified doctor—the only doctor in the area—attempting to improve the efficiency of her rounds. In her telling, the relationship (and others) should have been flipped and she should have been helping the local national expert, rather than the local national working for her.

This is not to say that all of “Peace Inc.” or “Peaceland” is all bad, far from it. Foreign experts bring with them attention, money, and ideas, all of which are needed to address the systemic issues at play, but are insufficient alone. Successful programs, such as those outlined by Autesserre leverage the local community to a far greater degree than many of those top-down efforts. In her view, the foreign expatriates should take a backseat, hands-off approach, empowering their local counterparts to a far greater degree than many programs to at the moment.

The theme of developing local knowledge and expertise is one that is not restricted to peace-building initiatives. Autesserre notes that many of the shortfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan could be traced to this lack of local knowledge and cultural awareness, and the concurrent minimization of those very few experts (local or otherwise) who did in fact know what was the art of the possible. In one poignant example, she flips the narrative and suggests an equivalent would be parachuting a Central Asian law enforcement expert into the middle of Baltimore and telling them to solve the city’s murder rate—he or she would have no knowledge of the politics, cultural landscape, or possibly even the language, yet would be tasked with solving the problem. The fact that he or she could stream The Wire would probably give them a leg up compared to what his U.S. counterpart would have to understand Pashtun politics.

She cites one example of a community in the Congo that was, at first glance, affected by a militant group that was raiding and harassing the local population—a population that was cowed into fear and refused to cooperate with development experts, parroting the narrative that it was a band of politically-motivated brigands. After further investigation and development of local relationships, it emerged that the feared militant group was, in effect, more of a group of violent cattle rustlers rather than part of the broader geopolitical conflict in the region as was initially thought.

Autesserre is also rightly critical of the “boil the ocean” approach to development where everything must be done all at once or, certainly from an American perspective, that democracy must precede everything else. This is not to say that democratic promotion should not be a priority, but successful democratic development takes generations and is not something that can be imposed from above (as Washington found out in Iraq and Afghanistan). Security, stability, and economic progress must precede democratic development, as the latter cannot exist successfully or sustainably in the absence of the former. Here is right in stating that sometimes priorities must take a back seat. Trying to change a society’s cultural norms cannot happen at the same time as one is trying to secure a measure of sustainable peace. Some things must take a backseat, as she writes.

While Autesserre is rightly critical of the top-down approach of most peace initiatives, there is still a place and a need for those high-level efforts, even if they are often aloof from the realities on-the-ground. She recounts a diplomatic dinner on the Congo hosted by the French Ambassador at which all the participants patted themselves on the back and said how wonderful things were going. Yet, in her experience, the situation in-country was just as violent as ever and the “success” they were applauding was anything but. When she, at the ambassador’s request, opined on the matter revealing these facts, there was mostly silence and she wasn’t invited back to another event. Those micro-peace initiatives, however successful, cannot sustain themselves in the broader political context if unstable and teetering on violence.

The challenge readers identify in reading Autesserre, but which is unaddressed in “The Frontlines of Peace”, is how to connect those micro- ground-level initiatives with the high-level diplomatic efforts—the squishy middle of peace, if you will. How does the United Nations or other third parties connect these amazing on-the-ground efforts, which have proven successful, with the broader campaign to resolve long-running conflicts. Is there a grand unified theory of peacebuilding that links the great and grand with the small and important?

At its core, the path Autesserre outlines is fairly straight-forward and common-sense: develop deep insights and awareness into the community in question before acting, rely extensively on and empower local experts, leverage their knowledge, keep the expatriates in the background, and build from the ground up. The challenge is that this flies in the face of much of the development-industrial complex, which is incentivized and predisposed to large top-down, foreign-heavy programs and projects. Foreign donors are, at least for the most part, more inclined to support a flashy, expensive program as opposed to a small-scale micro-peace building effort. Changing those incentives and priorities will remain a challenge, but Autesserre is a fantastic advocate for this model and one hopes it meets with more success and widespread adoption.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Building Lasting Peace from the Bottom Up

Photo by Sunguk Kim via Unsplash.

September 25, 2021

Peace can be built in small areas by capitalizing on local power networks, empowering the local population, and relying on local expertise with limited foreign support, argues development expert Severine Autesserre in her new book "The Frontlines of Peace.”

O

ne of the more curious, but exceptionally enjoyable, things to take place during the Covid pandemic were surprisingly frequent conversations with a great friend of mine who was deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Africa. For one, the marvels of modern communications that made this possible were nothing less of incredible, but it was the day-to-day insights that his experience offered into something that I had only studied at King’s College London. Peacekeeping is a maligned, often misunderstood, but critical function of the United Nations. Its failures are well-known and publicized, but its successes are much less appreciated, if acknowledged at all. In most cases, the absence of conflict is some measure of success, as certainly was the case (at least until the end of his deployment) with my friend’s experiences.

The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World | Severine Autesserre | Oxford University Press | March 2021.

It was nothing short of challenging—working with a multi-national, multi-lingual force (a small one at that) far from anything approaching an urban center, in between two hostile forces, the escape from which would have been an overland route through a minefield, or an all too infrequent helicopter flight. My friend was at the very end of a very long stick that started in New York at the United Nations Headquarters, went through his home country’s capital, all the way out to this remote location, and unfortunately, was at the very end of the associated governmental bureaucracy, as well. Challenges aside, his presence was indicative of a diplomatic success and what can be achieved at the high-levels of what Severine Autesserre calls “Peaceland” in her book “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World.”

Autesserre, however, refreshingly flips the narrative looking not at the top-down peace initiatives, but from the bottom-up—grassroots peacebuilding. Autesserre, a development expert with extensive experience in the Congo, argues that there is much to be learned from these small micro-peace initiatives, which are considerably cheaper and potentially longer-lasting than the high-level diplomatic peace efforts. Here, she rightly notes that not everything can be solved in the European or African capitals, or by foreign development experts swooping into the latest hotspot. Rather, she argues that peace can be built in small areas by capitalizing on local power networks, empowering the local population, and relying on local expertise with limited foreign support.

She provides a number of impressive examples where locally-driven peacebuilding initiatives met with success, such as an island in Lake Kivu near the Rwandan border where, despite its proximity to the conflict, the population achieved a measure of stability and success. This was achieved despite the absence of the government and military by relying on local power networks and community leaders, the Catholic Church, and community policing. This is not to say it was an idyllic environment all of the time, but that it was able to resist many of the pressures to descend into inter-communal violence.

Autesserre is polite in her excoriation of what could be called the development-industrial complex or, as she calls it, “Peace Inc.”. Here, according to Autesserre, the roving bands of non-governmental organizations, donors, and foreign experts parachute into conflicts about which they ostensibly have little knowledge, throw incredible amounts of money at problems, ignore local expertise often importing copied and pasted solutions from other countries, and then trumpet their own successes. She is remarkably candid about her own experiences in Peace Inc. noting that she often couldn’t help adopting their often-condescending attitudes towards those with whom they were working and supposed to be helping, parroting clichés and stereotypes of this group of people being lazy or that group being corrupt.

Well-meaning development experts with academic credentials are often put in positions that would seem strange anywhere else. As Autesserre writes, in one of her first positions she was tasked with overseeing a highly qualified doctor—the only doctor in the area—attempting to improve the efficiency of her rounds. In her telling, the relationship (and others) should have been flipped and she should have been helping the local national expert, rather than the local national working for her.

This is not to say that all of “Peace Inc.” or “Peaceland” is all bad, far from it. Foreign experts bring with them attention, money, and ideas, all of which are needed to address the systemic issues at play, but are insufficient alone. Successful programs, such as those outlined by Autesserre leverage the local community to a far greater degree than many of those top-down efforts. In her view, the foreign expatriates should take a backseat, hands-off approach, empowering their local counterparts to a far greater degree than many programs to at the moment.

The theme of developing local knowledge and expertise is one that is not restricted to peace-building initiatives. Autesserre notes that many of the shortfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan could be traced to this lack of local knowledge and cultural awareness, and the concurrent minimization of those very few experts (local or otherwise) who did in fact know what was the art of the possible. In one poignant example, she flips the narrative and suggests an equivalent would be parachuting a Central Asian law enforcement expert into the middle of Baltimore and telling them to solve the city’s murder rate—he or she would have no knowledge of the politics, cultural landscape, or possibly even the language, yet would be tasked with solving the problem. The fact that he or she could stream The Wire would probably give them a leg up compared to what his U.S. counterpart would have to understand Pashtun politics.

She cites one example of a community in the Congo that was, at first glance, affected by a militant group that was raiding and harassing the local population—a population that was cowed into fear and refused to cooperate with development experts, parroting the narrative that it was a band of politically-motivated brigands. After further investigation and development of local relationships, it emerged that the feared militant group was, in effect, more of a group of violent cattle rustlers rather than part of the broader geopolitical conflict in the region as was initially thought.

Autesserre is also rightly critical of the “boil the ocean” approach to development where everything must be done all at once or, certainly from an American perspective, that democracy must precede everything else. This is not to say that democratic promotion should not be a priority, but successful democratic development takes generations and is not something that can be imposed from above (as Washington found out in Iraq and Afghanistan). Security, stability, and economic progress must precede democratic development, as the latter cannot exist successfully or sustainably in the absence of the former. Here is right in stating that sometimes priorities must take a back seat. Trying to change a society’s cultural norms cannot happen at the same time as one is trying to secure a measure of sustainable peace. Some things must take a backseat, as she writes.

While Autesserre is rightly critical of the top-down approach of most peace initiatives, there is still a place and a need for those high-level efforts, even if they are often aloof from the realities on-the-ground. She recounts a diplomatic dinner on the Congo hosted by the French Ambassador at which all the participants patted themselves on the back and said how wonderful things were going. Yet, in her experience, the situation in-country was just as violent as ever and the “success” they were applauding was anything but. When she, at the ambassador’s request, opined on the matter revealing these facts, there was mostly silence and she wasn’t invited back to another event. Those micro-peace initiatives, however successful, cannot sustain themselves in the broader political context if unstable and teetering on violence.

The challenge readers identify in reading Autesserre, but which is unaddressed in “The Frontlines of Peace”, is how to connect those micro- ground-level initiatives with the high-level diplomatic efforts—the squishy middle of peace, if you will. How does the United Nations or other third parties connect these amazing on-the-ground efforts, which have proven successful, with the broader campaign to resolve long-running conflicts. Is there a grand unified theory of peacebuilding that links the great and grand with the small and important?

At its core, the path Autesserre outlines is fairly straight-forward and common-sense: develop deep insights and awareness into the community in question before acting, rely extensively on and empower local experts, leverage their knowledge, keep the expatriates in the background, and build from the ground up. The challenge is that this flies in the face of much of the development-industrial complex, which is incentivized and predisposed to large top-down, foreign-heavy programs and projects. Foreign donors are, at least for the most part, more inclined to support a flashy, expensive program as opposed to a small-scale micro-peace building effort. Changing those incentives and priorities will remain a challenge, but Autesserre is a fantastic advocate for this model and one hopes it meets with more success and widespread adoption.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.