Book Reviews

Tales from Peaceland: The Nuts and Bolts of International Intervention

Cambridge University Press, 2014

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome this review of Séverine Auteserre’s Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention. (Cambridge University Press, 2014) by Stephanie Hobbis.  The review addresses two key issues in anthropology: need-centricity and the importance of local knowledge.

International interventions are an increasingly ‘normal’ component of the international governance toolbox. Interveners’ motivations differ (from Afghanistan to South Sudan to Solomon Islands) but they frequently share comparable immediate goals: bringing ‘peace’ (often translated as ‘law and order’ following the Western liberal example) to areas that have experienced extended periods of protracted conflict. To this end a new professional class has emerged. As police-builders, policy advisers, auditors or human rights advocates its members spend around six months to two years in a conflict zone before moving on to another with similar thematic requirements. This skill-focused mobility, so Séverine Autesserre, has created a distinct transnational community whose members inhabit their own “metaphorical world” (6) that stands apart from the contexts (and locales) interventions take place in: Peaceland.

While critiques of international interventions abound, especially of their liberal orientations and their often limited concern for local particularities and knowledges, Peaceland itself has received only scant attention. Its nuts and bolts, “the interveners… their customs, rituals, cultures, structures, beliefs, and behaviours” (6) are regularly overlooked. Autesserre’s volume starts filling this gap through a multi-sited ethnography of Peaceland with a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and a more short-term ethnographic (as researcher) and professional (as intervener) engagement with eight additional intervention zones (Afghanistan, Burundi, Cyprus, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Kosovo, Nicaragua, South Sudan, Timor-Leste).

She moves beyond the limitations of ideological considerations (are interventions (too) liberal?) and subsequent discussions that address the potential dangers of (over-)romanticizing the local. Also she does not focus on the pros and cons of external involvement in conflicts (despite her at times harsh critique she maintains that international interventions make significant contributions to ‘peace’ that local actors alone would be unlikely to achieve); and she does not simply chastise those living in Peaceland (herself and her husband included). Instead Autesserre offers an honest and sobering analysis of the everyday, local, international, private and professional challenges that interveners face, and the routine answers they have developed in response. She looks at the structures that “shape people’s beliefs and behaviors” (40) but also at interveners’ engagements with these structures and the impact their choices have on the persistence of significant power asymmetries between interveners (skill-based/ thematic knowledge) and locals (context-based knowledge).

At the core of her argumentation lies a critique of how thematic professionalism and the accompanying careerism – “you need to change missions otherwise it creates problems for your career” (81) – often prevent a more engaged involvement with context-dependent particularities and especially so with the experiences of local populations and their perceptions of the intervening force. In evaluations of their ‘job performance’ interveners are, above all (and at times only), accountable to their employers: the external agencies that participate in the intervention, be it the United Nations, a foreign government or non-governmental organization. As a result interveners narratives and behaviours are outwards-focused in their strategy implementation and reporting (mission-design- rather than needs-centric), outcome assessments (quantifiable, short-term) and networking (career-conscious). The (actual) needs of local populations are pushed to the sidelines and so are everyday interactions between interveners and locals, both on professional and personal levels.

In this context-deprived environment Autesserre finds interveners’ engagement with conflict to be inefficient, ineffective and at times even counterproductive. Reliant on dominant narratives interveners have, for example, treated ongoing violence in the DRC as primarily derived from resource conflicts while sexual abuse has been identified as its worst effect and state-building as its only solution. Yet, on the ground minerals (and their exploitation) are only considered to be one of many sources of violence; a focus on sexual violence is said to have diverted resources from victims of other forms of violence while triggering a spike in sexual abuse as rebel leaders recognized its value as (international) bargaining tool; and a state-centric perspective is viewed as inhibiting more creative (grassroots) responses to a conflict that has also been sustained by a predatory state.

In such simplified understandings of conflicts Autesserre further suggests that interveners’ risk perceptions become exaggerated as well. To manage perceived security threats interveners ‘bunkerize’ (219) in their professional operations (translate: isolate from local communities and rarely move outside of urban centers) and create separate social (personal) spaces that are fueled by often significant income disparities between themselves and locals. To draw from my own experiences in Solomon Islands: Who but externally paid personnel can (regularly) afford to dine at a restaurant that offers a meal for the same (or a higher) price than the annual primary school fees for a child (at least in rural areas)?; and how can adequate responses be developed if interveners have little to no exposure to a primarily rural population that is dispersed across hundreds of islands that interveners can, following their self-imposed security measures, never visit?

Autesserre does, however, believe that not all hope is lost. Peaceland can be transformed, boundaries torn down and in turn the effectiveness of interventions significantly improved: (1) acknowledge the existence of Peaceland (and the habits and structures it maintains); (2) increase the value of context-based knowledge, not by rejecting thematic skill-sets but by creating a better balance between the two (this also means planning for the long- rather than the short-term); (3) identify new ways to encourage participation of local communities and partners in peace-building operations, also by recruiting local experts rather than external advisers unless the position is likely to attract ‘corrupt’ practices (curiously she does not use this word); and (4) tear down professional (security) and social barriers between expatriates and locals, for example, by removing of bans that prohibit interveners from socializing with locals after work (this is currently often as a threat to interveners’ proclaimed neutrality).

The question that remains unaddressed is how to build the trust between interveners and locals that allows for these suggestions to be implemented in practice. Autesserre herself acknowledges that she feels more insecure when she is part of an intervention force than when she is at the same location, during a comparable situation, as researcher or visitor – and even though she is aware of this disconnect. She also highlights the core problem many interveners face: how do you identify local partners that are not in more powerful positions (and therefore more likely to engage with interveners) because they benefited from, or even participated in, the conflict that pre-dated (or continues during) the intervention? On the other side, how can local communities develop more equal relationships with interveners when their presence is often seen as a reflection of local ineptitude (lack of capacity/ skills to solve the conflict), by locals and interveners alike?

Answers to these questions may push too far beyond the scope of Autesserre’s Peaceland, which is, after all, focused on uncovering the challenges posed to effective intervention; yet, without a better understanding of the complex relationships and the emotional insecurities they foster I remain sceptical about how realistic her suggestions are. For instance, at first sight there seems to be validity in the proposition to allow spouses and children to accompany interveners (if the security situation allows it) to increase their commitment to the host country and their involvement with it (e.g. through children’s school friends). Solomon Islands fits this (security) requirement (at least the capital city, Honiara) and many inhabitants of Peaceland have been joined by their families over years. However, especially family members from outside Peaceland appear less willing to adjust to the lower status of living that engagement with local populations requires, and in turn even more expat-dominated restaurants and even shopping areas have been built. In Solomon Islands Peaceland seems, today, to be even more secluded, and the more visible the differences between expatriate and local lives have become, the more resentful are locals about the presence of interveners in general.

This critique notwithstanding (and really it is only meant as food for thought) Peaceland should be a wake-up call to anyone who lives in this world (even if it is only bi-curiously, as many anthropologists are). Possibly the most shocking conclusion from Peaceland is how novel Autesserre’ approach and argumentation are in the context of existing discourses on international interventions. It appears that in between the many frequently political science-based critiques of (liberal) intervention policies and anthropological responses elaborating on local experiences with interventions, the everyday lives of interveners have been lost. Perhaps this is not as surprising after all. With a limited ethnographic toolbox many political scientists (Autesserre left aside) may shy away from such analysis and with an at times excessive focus on the local, anthropologists often distance themselves from the expatriates inhabiting their field sites (advice I was given myself as I headed to Solomon Islands for my research on local participation in and perceptions of intervention-based state-building). Autesserre’s courage for wandering outside her discipline’s comfort-zone (though ethnographic approaches seems to be on the rise) is noteworthy, and perhaps it is time for more anthropologists to do the same to develop a more comprehensive understanding of intervener’s relations with local populations, and the role of everyday habits and rituals therein.

Stephanie Hobbis is a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis at Concordia University (Montreal) and in Social Anthropology and Ethnology at École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS, Paris). Her doctoral research looks at state-, peace-, and nation-building in contemporary, post-colonial, post-intervention, and post-conflict Solomon Islands with a focus on urban-rural comparison.
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