Peacebuilding from the bottom up

What should peacekeepers do to keep the peace? Look at the Congo and you see a UN mission awash in violence. Are they doing something wrong?

Eastern Congo is a difficult mission. But Séverine Autesserre says this is a mission made more difficult by a faulty strategy: one that focuses on the top and not the bottom.

Her new book is The Trouble with the Congo. Texas in Africa raves about it here. I like it as well, and it is required reading for the Congo or conflict or Africa crowd.

Beyond being one of the better introductions to the Congo conflict I’ve read, it’s intensely personal and better tied to specific interviews and evidence than many books. You feel like you’re along for the research program. It’s the first time I also felt I could keep track of the incredible complexity. I also like the push for more local knowledge and attention.

Even so, I’m not sure if her Congo experience fully echoes my Uganda or Liberia experience, or my policy inclinations.

Autesserre spent years back and forth to Congo, interviewing peacekeepers and diplomats and locals. She makes clear what a peacekeeping mission should not do. Do not focus on national alliances alone. Do not jump to elections as a cure-all (if at all). Do not ignore local level complexities and conflicts. Unfortunately, she writes, the diplomatic and peacekeeping culture looked at little else.

Her basic premise: the roots of conflict were local. She documents deep insecurities over safety and property, a history of groups competing over land, and a national government that was only too happy to take sides and raise the stakes to fighting. The real root, however, were these local tensions. When the peacekeepers and the international community ignored them, it’s no surprise that the fighting continued.

I began working in African conflict zones a little later than Séverine–in the waning years of northern Uganda’s war, and two years after the end of fighting in Liberia. This might account for the difference I saw, namely intense focus on local conflicts, reconciliation, and peacebuilding.

If anything, the international community in Uganda went too far in their fears of land conflict, or their promotion of reconciliation initiatives, to the exclusion of the things that seemed to matter most to people: education and jobs.

In Liberia, meanwhile, the UN and the Government are obsessed with peacebuilding projects. The money is little but some of the best government and UN minds are centered on programs to lower the risk that local conflicts escalate. Nothing could be better for the country.

This is good news, and evidence that Autesserre and others who share her vision have been effective. But Congo might also have been a special case. There were other national armies and treaties involved; the place is much, much bigger and more diverse; the diplomats and military folks were much more influential. I can’t say for sure. The good news is that the attention to the local is better in nearby places.

My other experience: governments and the UN are not always well-equipped to build peace locally.

There are several good initiatives in Uganda and Liberia, not least of which are the ever-improving security forces. In Uganda, however, the best initiatives were started by locals for locals. The Anglican and Catholic churches, the tradiaiotnal leaders, and women’s and parents groups. Donors were late to support these, and did so unpredictably and incompletely. Here they must do better. But are UN agencies really equipped to do so? That bureaucracy is getting worse, not better.

In Liberia, local organizations also get less support than UN agencies and international NGOs. But at least the UN and NGOs are active, and devoting their best people. Even so, too many programs seem to lack imagination and (possibly) effectiveness. Liberia has a good many rigorous studies underway, to their immense credit, so we’ll know better in a year or two.

Besides obscene bureaucracy, what’s the big impediment to imaginative and effective local programs? This opinion might make some people angry, but senior ministers and international diplomats and donors everywhere share a common handicap: they seldom leave the capital. It’s like a black hole that refuses to release people above the manager level. So long as this persists, I’m skeptical that money on local peacebuilding will target the right issues, or take the best approach.

Paradoxically, this is not an argument to spend less on state- and peace-building. It is an argument to spend in order to innovate, test, and look and learn. And a call to make donors more accountable to provide steady support to local organizations. On the first, Liberia is a leader. As far as I can tell, it leads nearly alone.

A last concern: even if we figure out the right approach, do we know where to target it? The only thing we do worse than “building peace” is predicting where violence will happen. Again this may be a reason to invest more, but (I’d argue) differently than we’re currently doing.

Finally, a closing, terribly academic comment. One of the disappointing bits about the civil war literature is how divorced are the ethnographers and researchers on the ground from the more abstract theory. As I read the book, it struck me that Séverine describes a dynamic very close to the classic “general equilibrium” theories of war (see for instance Herschel Grossman’s work here and here). These get too little attention because most people don’t like math, but the nice thing about models is that they pull out the essential logic of violence, and often bring you to surprising and generalizable conclusions. That strikes me as something that no student of conflict should ignore.

Séverine is a friend, and my hope is that I can get her to write a guest post or comment from her current perch in Goma. In the meantime, read the book or her excellent articles.