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Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention

by Séverine Autesserre
Cambridge University Press, NY, NY, 2014
329 pp. Paper, $29.95
ISBN: 9781107632042

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Center for African Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Peaceland is a book that should be mandatory reading for everyone working in aid and development and will be of special interest to those interested in understanding why aid programs so often fail or under-perform. Specifically, Autesserre's anthropological study provides a compelling argument about the daily practices and discourses that need to be changed in order to improve the chances of peace-building missions in conflict areas. It is also a textbook case study of how to write clearly about complex issues and get that message across to a diverse potential academic and non-academic audience without compromising academic rigor.

Why do international peace workers fail to understand local contexts? How and why do they alienate themselves from local communities and, thus, fail to achieve their goals? This book raises and answers such questions through rigorous comparative field observations from nine conflict zones, that is, in Burundi, Congo, Cyprus, South Sudan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and East Timor. It is augmented by her aid work experience as an intervener as well as by additional data from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Nicaragua dating back to 1998. Through case studies and comparative analysis, and highlighting exceptions to systemic problematic practices, Autesserre provides a nuanced anthropological critique of a range of peace building projects. Providing a critical analysis of the alienation that results from the politics, discourses, and structures of inequality between international and local workers, she argues that it is this inequality that lies at the core of the problem of aid. In essence, local experts and local communities need to be more fully engaged and empowered. The daily routines involved in peace building need to be changed such as the emphasis on report writing. In particular, the study calls attention to the dominant narratives involved in aid how damaging these narratives are in practice.

Peaceland provides us with a rare insight into the insular world of the peace-builders and how as technical specialists they move from one conflict zone to another carrying their organizational practices and narratives with them. Autesserre presents the kind of information that is very difficult to gain access to in such insular environments and secretive institutions, the dangerous and compromised worlds of aid work in conflict zones. Her challenge was to collect sufficiently thick descriptions of that work and those conflicts so as to bring together deeply historical and ethnographic comparative insights into these wars and aid operations. Her goal was to demonstrate how effective intervention and peace-building not only depends on this local knowledge but in recognizing the narratives, habits and practices which limit the effectiveness of these missions. To do so, she compares relatively successful versus less successful interventions in very different types of contexts, that is peace-building situations in wealthy and poor nations, in extremely violent states and those less so, and in dysfunctional and functional states large and small. She also contrasts different levels of foreign and national intervention as well as missions in environments with greater and lesser cultural divides between interveners and local populations. As a consequence, the analysis has a global relevance for conflict studies.

It is also important to highlight that Autesserre includes the kind of information that is typically excluded, that is, the critical voices that are usually silenced and ostracized. As a result she is able to account for contradictions and contestations and explore unexpected answers and interpretations that might otherwise not be included in the dominant narratives one reads in organizational reports. She also made an unusual habit of interviewing people who either distrusted her or with whom she had no compatibility. For anthropologists then who tend not to do this, and for anyone working in the aid community, this not only makes for fascinating reading, but it is productive as it will stimulate reflection upon the relevance of her conclusions for practice in wide ranging development contexts not necessarily those specifically concerned with violent conflict. Indeed, the appendix is so all important that for those who would use this book in undergraduate and graduate field research methods classes that I would suggest starting there as she provides a fascinating account of how to gather information and refine one's analysis through constantly oscillating between theory and practice. This has important practical implications far beyond the classroom. Theoretically, it could be useful to the broadest audience including policy makers and those working in development itself as applying this method would have productive consequences for the reports that document the results of their work.

Autesserre's aims are ultimately practical. She proposes fundamental changes to the way in which intervening organizations operate. Among the many suggestion made here are a few. These organizations should recruit and empower local staff as they have the language skills and local knowledge that make the crucial differences between failure and success. Local staff should be able to provide critical evaluations of expatriate performance as part of an effort to reduce the inequalities that hinder operations. Foreign staff should be given rigorous training and testing on local conditions by these local staff. The lengths of the standard six-month deployment should be considerably extended to long term contracts lasting from a minimum of two and up to five years. Expatriate workers need to be integrated into local cultural contexts. They need to foster stronger relations with local employees and especially local partners in civil society. Collaborative learning projects involving innovative local programs should be developed towards an extended handover phase. All in all then, systematic reforms need to be instituted in the politics of knowledge and practice. Though these would slow down rapid interventions they are necessary as only with adequate local knowledge and partnership can aid be made more effective. Above all, Autesserre emphasizes that concerted institutional efforts are needed in order to "defuse the pervasive feeling of humiliation" found amongst local partners in peace-building operations precisely because the inequalities and lack of accountability are so deeply detrimental for these institutions. Apparently aid staff will need to get out of their offices more often and into the field. They will need to spend less time writing reports and more time building presence through working with local counterparts in empowering ways. They also need to make concerted efforts to work with as opposed against each other. Moreover, interveners should be allowed to bring their families with them and encouraged to become directly engaged with local communities rather than living such completely separate and highly privileged and securitized lives. As she emphasizes, when this acceptance approach has been applied it has proven to be safer and more effective than the current bunker mentality. Lastly, Autesserre adds a wholly fascinating piece of advice, that instead of the current emphasis on visibility, literally on branding aid, it should be exercised with the utmost discretion and in a manner that acknowledges the local community first and foremost and towards building long term locally led sustainable projects.

All these observations and thoughts are profoundly grounded and conceptualized in practice theory, mainly in the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Pouliot and Adler (2011) amongst others. [1] Tables 1 and 2 in Chapter One (p. 30 and pp. 36-37) provide concise and powerful syntheses of the book's findings and conclusions. In the first case, the dominant practices, habits and narratives that characterize the culture of international interveners are listed and in the second case, the resultant negative impacts. The author's unique contribution that sets her work apart from other critiques is to show that the problem with international peace interventions lies in the imposition of these everyday practices. She expands upon the work by other scholars who have similarly shown that the only way to succeed is to learn from and rely on the local population, an approach that has been increasingly used in international aid as in the collaborative learning initiatives. [2] Autesserre thus brings attention to vital changes taking place in development practices. As a consequence this book will be important to those working in aid and non-governmental organizations working in conflict zones or not, whether directly involved in intervention or not, for it emphasizes how organizational cultures with top-down international/national/local hierarchical structures and habits impede communication and effectiveness.

While all the chapters variously provide ethnographic context for these observations, Chapter 4, "Fumbling in the Dark" will be directly pertinent to those concerned with the ongoing wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere in central Africa. It builds upon Autesserre's previous book The Trouble with the Congo (2010) and addresses the unintended and perverse consequences of the dominant narratives concerning the assumed drivers in this conflict, namely conflict minerals, sexual violence as a weapon of war and a failing state. [3] For instance, she argues that these narratives exacerbated the problems, that they resulted in an increase in the use of rape as a weapon of war as a bargaining tool and empowered a predatory state to replace one group of perpetrators of violence and abuse with another without reducing impunity and strengthening the justice system. In providing a fascinating critique of the singular reliance on the idea that state building was the only and ultimate solution, Autesserre argues that there are alternatives that take into account the full complexity of the reasons for the conflict and that these could more effectively result in peace-building, namely to work with insurgent groups, to support local power centers and even to ignore areas of resistance.

In conclusion, Peaceland could and should I think become a field manual for innovators working in international aid, specifically on peace building in war zones for it will validate the work of those who are already instituting such suggestions for change and would be useful for organizations which are seeking to review and improve their effectiveness.


[1] Vincent Pouliot and Emanuel Adler eds. International Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Also see David Mosse, ed. Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development. Studies in Public and Applied Anthropology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[2] Lise M. Howard. UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Also see Mary B. Anderson, Dayna Brown and Isabella Jean. Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012. For examples of how aid agencies and non-governmental organizations are proposing and using such models of assistance in peace-building, see Patrick Barron, Erman Rahman and Kharisma Nugroho. The Contested Corners of Asia. Subnational Conflict and International Development Assistance. The Case of Aceh, Indonesia. San Francisco: The Asia Foundation, 2013, pp. xxvii-xix.

[3] Séverine Autesserre. The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Also see, African Security Review, "Book Symposium on the Trouble with the Congo." African Security Review 20(2):56-124 and Maria Erickson Baaz and Maria Stern. Sexual Violence as a Weapon of War? Perceptions, Prescriptions, Problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). New York: Zed Books.

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