Review by Christoph Vogel – Recently, a Congolese friend of mine taught me how to use condoms to clean your shoes before going out. On average, it takes three condoms per shoe and you come out classy within a few minutes. In South Sudan, condoms are sometimes used to transport the tobacco harvest, as Séverine Autesserre notes in her newly published Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention. The condom case is however, not the only unexpected local use of international aid often ignored and/or misunderstood by external interveners.
After 2010’s much praised The Trouble with the Congo, Autesserre now takes the reader to Peaceland – a marvellous place where expatriates of all sorts and origins meet to make the world a better place. As well as the above, Autesserre offers a wide variety of anecdotes from South Sudan to Palestine to Nicaragua to Cambodia and numerous other places she used to work or went to for comparative and complementary research.
What do these stories tell us about international intervention in crisis zones? What about peacekeeping, peace-building, humanitarian and development work in such areas? Drawing from an impressive wealth of observations and experiences, Peaceland offers a meticulous description and analysis of international intervention in conflict zones. Over almost 300 pages it traces the “˜everyday’ in places affected by armed conflict and external intervention.
From Mali to Syria and Timor Leste the inhabitants of Peaceland (peacekeepers, peace-builders, “˜humanitarians’, diplomats, development workers and many others) show up with pre-existing, often pre-formatted knowledge. According to Autesserre, this is a product of similar educational backgrounds and professional socialisation – once they find themselves in a narrow community in the respective deployment area, such a tendency is reinforced. These conditions serve to create a “˜politics of knowledge,’ dismissing local continuities of understanding and erecting barriers towards the host population which as Peaceland shows, often triggers contestation, critique, or disappointment.
Technical knowledge, the book observes, is usually valued over local expertise. Missions are short and organisations must have their staff ready to re-deploy and de-localise at short notice. In order to extend or get funding, many “˜Peacelanders’ need to engage in proposal writing or general reporting for their organisations, be they the UN or NGOs. As I have experienced with many friends who have worked in Peaceland, these exercises are often disconnected from the actual reality of Darfur, the Central African Republic, or other such places.
A strong bias towards donor policy (linked to the interests of the Western public or Western states) distorts the process and instead of spending time on the ground, many expatriates are bound to their offices where they have to make up such project proposals without having ever seen the actual area of intervention.
Hence, many expatriates are literally “fumbling in the dark.” As Autessere argued in her article; Dangerous tales: dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences a number of endogenous and exogenous reasons often prevent a more grounded empirical analysis of Peaceland. Information often circulates back and forth between the UN and NGOs, competition prohibits better information sharing, and (again) local knowledge remains highly undervalued. Autesserre offers an unparalleled ethnographic richness to understanding the empirical dynamics surrounding these problems.
Peaceland is also the land of boundaries, between the local and the foreign. Its inhabitants, as Autesserre convincingly shows, live in their own bubble (for myriad reasons.) Often, they face criticism arising from the perceived and actual seclusion of international interveners. A series of funny denominations of UN missions – like “˜Vacaciones Unidas’ (instead of “˜Naciones Unidas’) – fit nicely into what I have myself witnessed whilst travelling to and working in similar environments. When I worked in Haiti during the earthquake in 2010 the peacekeeping mission MINUSTAH was tellingly referred to as either TURISTAH or “˜poulet-cabrit’ – implying that peacekeepers were doing nothing but eating chicken and goats.
Moreover, the book highlights how groupthink, inequality, and everyday behaviour influence the enacting of Peaceland. The more risky an intervention area is (or is considered to be) the more the expatriate scene (read a few posts at Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like for evidence) tends to reinforce its “˜gated community’. Not only do individual psychological aspects play a role in this construction, but Standard Operating Procedures are also influential – in particular when it comes to logistics and security (as Lisa Smirl has shown too). Both a cause and a consequence of that is the massive inequality between interveners and the host population, even in countries not struck by abysmal poverty.
In order to provide policy advice to tackle these systemic issues, the book ends with a set of recommendations. Based on her own experience as an aid worker and many years of academic research on peace-building, Autesserre suggests a few strategies to overcoming the shortcomings of the Peaceland mind-sets. Based on my own (much more limited) research on these and linked issues, I strongly agree with all but one of her recommendations. While I am unsure to what extent the “˜community’ of humanitarian and other organisations should really grow more “˜together’ – bearing in mind the attempt to engender greater neutrality, impartiality, and independence of humanitarian action – I am fully in support of longer-term approaches, more discretion, more local involvement and responsibility, as well as a less militarist approach to security.
Peaceland helps us understand the culture(s) of expatriates and the respectively uneasy relationship between the foreign interveners and the local population. While, in the orthodox sense, it does not bring up a new, concise grand theory to analyse external intervention in a larger sense, it is certainly by far the best “˜thick description’ of the expatriate world. Its structure makes it particularly valuable for undergraduate and graduate teaching – each chapter starts with a specific introduction and conclusion. While this may come across as a bit repetitive for pundits in this area of study, it greatly serves educational purposes and is likely to facilitate a broader readership to follow the argument.
As with The Trouble with the Congo, Séverine Autesserre has again come up with a monograph that is relevant to both academics and practitioners. It will be indispensable reading for students and scholars of International Affairs, but also to aid workers, UN staff, diplomats, and other inhabitants of Peaceland.