The trouble with the Congo (a response)

This is a guest post from Séverine Autesserre.

Chris, I am very pleased to find a comment about my book on your blog. What I found most interesting is that your two main points of disagreement actually reinforce the central claims of my book, so I think we are very much in agreement about what needs to be done in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The first major way in which your perspective differs from mine is that, to you, what I describe does not align with your experiences in Liberia and Uganda. Your comments on Liberia and Uganda, however, fit perfectly with some of the central points I develop in the book: first, local peacebuilding is critically important to make peace sustainable, and second, we need both top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding.

Just as top-down approaches alone result in a fragile and short-lived “peace,” bottom-up peacebuilding initiatives alone create a similarly unsustainable peace.

As a second major point of discussion, you argue that UN and government officials are not the best actors to conduct local peacebuilding programs. I totally agree with you. The best option is to put local actors in the driver’s seat (see the long spiel about that in the conclusion of my book). But these local actors often lack the logistic and financial means to implement their programs.

Whether we like it or not, those means are in the hands of international organizations and governments, so these actors are currently in the best position to support local peacebuilders.

However, I totally agree that more needs to happen for this support to be effective – diplomats and donors need to get out of the capital more often, they need to acquire a better understanding of local conflict dynamics and local actors, etc — all problems that I try to address in the policy recommendations at the end of the book.

One final point on whether the Congo is an exception – I don’t think so. In the conclusion to the book, I evaluate how widespread the dynamics I describe in the book are, and I find a lot of similarities with cases of international interventions around the world – whether in Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, or many other places.

Consider this: the UN still has no formal structure to support bottom-up peacebuilding. Although there are exceptions, most diplomats usually don’t even consider that they might play a role in supporting grassroots actors. Local peacebuilding organizations are still fighting to prove that their bottom-up approach is legitimate.

In sum, my sense would be that the Congolese experience is much more widespread than you think and that the focus on local peacebuilding in Uganda and Liberia is much more exceptional and praiseworthy.

Uganda and Liberia may benefit from more attention to local peacebuilding because they are considered to be in a more “normal”, “post-conflict” situation than the Congo during the time that I focus on in the book (the transition to peace). I have been back to the Congo for a couple of months this year, working on another research project, and was heartened to see much more international support for local peacebuilding initiatives than before.

Even more striking, international actors now identify land conflicts as a significant cause of violence – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. It may, thus, be the case that your experience in Uganda and Liberia was shaped by the timing of your arrival in these countries.

That said, we need much more in-depth research on these cases, and on the many cases of international intervention around the world, to assess how representative the Congolese, Liberian or Ugandan situations are. It’s a least a five-year, book-length kind of project. Any comparativists interested ;)?

Thanks again for the opportunity to respond. I hope we will have the chance to talk more in depth about that soon – maybe during a panel at one of the big academic conferences?

6 thoughts on “The trouble with the Congo (a response)

  1. These discussions just make me weary. These peacebuilding analyses (like discussions about “development” in general) always end with the same bromides about the need for more research, more of a local focus, better evaluation/learning, top-down/bottom-up blah blah blah.

    I for one disagree with the notion that getting donors and diplomats to park their SUV’s in conflict prone areas for a few more hours will make much of a difference. The common critique of telling people to “get out of the capital” is just part of the constant escalation of smugness among international workers in developing countries. The country office people deride the people at HQ in Washington (London, Geneva, etc.), the regional field office people scoff at the ignorance of the country office people, the researchers who spend 2 weeks in a village lament how regional field offices are too focused on their organizational protocols and not enough on the communities, and the Peace Corps volunteers piss on all of the above for seeing villagers as “beneficiaries” and objects of study rather than friends and extended family members.

  2. It distresses me that discourse on UN ‘peacekeeping’ in Eastern Congo is completely divorced from debate over strategies of occupation and counterinsurgency (e.g Afghanistan) generally. The supposition seems to be that What We Are Doing To Help Those Poor People in Congo is somehow qualitatively different from The Bad Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But that’s nonsense.

    Peacekeepers face the very same problems as regular military during a long occupation: degradation of morale and discipline, mission creep, crowding out natve state capacity and political settlement, resentment from the populace, etc.

    Ms. Autessere’s post above has eerie echoes of neocon discourse on The War on Terror – in particular the ‘Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy’ – that everything is just a matter of will. As if there is no constraint on the occupier’s ability to stay than the will to stay. That is a very dangerous attitude, in the humanitarian-military field no less than the regular-military field.

  3. Ignoring the bit about research (I think that’s academic-speak for “I think you’re wrong, but you’re a smart person), it is interesting to me that the UN has no formal bottom-up peace program.

    Kind of like how the IMF has no formal program for training or funding the collecting of basic economic statistics for its member countries. Just . . . how does that work?

  4. You might be interested in the Peacebuilding Compared project at Australian National University. But it is 20 years!

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