Discussion of the book The Frontlines of Peace by Séverine Autesserre
Riccardo Biggi – Bachelor Student Linguistics University of Amsterdam
Séverine Autessere’s book The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World (Oxford University Press, 2020) is a book about hope. An intriguing start indeed for her presentation of the book at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Thursday 20 May 2021, co-organized by the Dutch Foundation for Peace Studies. Despite recalling, at first, some of the void slogans of the content-depleted political discourse of our times, Autesserre’s message of hope has a real meaning here, and a fresh fizz of enthusiasm can be felt in the audience of very-attached-to-reality peace students and practitioners. What does this real hope consist of?
Not a platonic abstraction, Autesserre’s hope is at least as tangible as the colourful magnificence of people, plants, and sceneries in the pictures that document her peacebuilding missions around the world. For an expert peacebuilder as she is, and an academic with over 20 years on the ground, peace is here, and we are its practitioners. Whether we live in a metropolis in the Global North like Amsterdam or New York, in one in the Global South like Cairo or Kinshasa, or in a small town, village or remote settlement, we have the potential to build peace for our own community. This is the great message of hope Autesserre wants to convey: it’s not just the blue helmets who can build peace.
Autesserre’s book is a critique of current peacebuilding approaches. The cause of the explosive failure of peace operations has been believing that foreign peacebuilders could come with a golden solution to manage unsolvable violent conflicts on the other side of the Earth. This way of thinking has been a major fault of the Western, highly Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Developed countries, the W.E.I.R.D.1, Europeans and Americans first and foremost. Not only in peacebuilding, but also in development and humanitarian aid, the WEIRD have had the tendency to impose their way of thinking and pretend that it worked. But it does not. Autesserre’s approach to peacebuilding, in trying to show the faults of the international community in peace operations, and the capabilities of grassroot communities, is an eminent example of the so-called Local Turn.
So we can do it! is the message, a call to recognize the capabilities of all the people who are struggling on a daily basis to build peace in war-stricken societies. Chapter 1 of Autesserre’s book starts with positive stories of success. Hear, for example, the story of Idjwi2. An overpopulated island on lake Kivu, between Congo and Rwanda, roughly the size of Malta, in one of the most underdeveloped and conflict-stricken areas of the world. Yet, its inhabitants have been able to avoid the violence of the militias just a few kilometres ashore. The island’s inhabitants are not, by Western standards, experts in peacebuilding, but they have something that most peacebuilders do not have – in-depth valuable knowledge of their own territory, people, and culture. They did not follow complex UN agendas to build peace; rather, the people of Idjwi, aided by local NGOs, simply sat down and started talking. Meeting after meeting, they were able to form a peaceful and self-protective network that saved their lives, and a chain of development projects that make it a little heaven in central Africa3.
Another example is Somaliland4 – a place nobody ever knows or hears about in the West because it is officially unrecognized by the international community, despite being much more peaceful than its violent, fragmented but widely recognized neighbour Somalia. Despite international disregard, Somaliland represents a successful experience of bottom-up state-building, where the democratic test was passed with full grades and without bloodsheds. In fact, Somaliland’s democracy was not installed by a Western peacebuilding organization, but it was part of an endogenous process, in which tribal laws were conflated from within into a democratic constitution. The result is a peaceful country with decent infrastructures and a stable democracy.
Indeed, individuals at the grassroots, with their knowledge of the territory and the people, are much better than the foreigners. But Autesserre is careful to avoid to excessively romanticize the “locals”. Indeed, they can be just as corrupt, politicized and divided as the national leaders or the international peacebuilders. But on the other hand, there is no excuse: the come-and-solve-your-problem international peacebuilding approach has been a total failure in many areas of the world. Just to name a few salient ones: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq. In Chapter 2, Autesserre describes what she calls, rather humorously, Peace Inc., an invented society of international (read: Western) peacebuilders that vaguely reminds the U.N., but also many of the NGOs and governmental peacebuilding missions that have so glamorously failed in the past 30 years. The most striking evidence of the fact that global peacebuilding has failed? The fact that more than 1 out of 4 countries in the world are experiencing brutal civil wars right in this moment.
So, do we have to throw all U.N. peacebuilders out of their offices? That is not the point. Autesserre argues that foreign intervention can bring positive changes to conflict situations. Indeed, when they refrain from their western-centric know-how, foreign peace workers can bring some important things to the table – funds, protection, connections, and ideas. They can facilitate and support local peacebuilders resolve conflicts, sit down and talk amongst community members. But the international peacekeeper must abide by some essential rules. Rule n.1: respect and trust the community and grassroots organizations because they have different, but valuable knowledge. Don’t tell them what to do. Rule n.2: build informal relationships with the community and grassroots organizations, so that they can trust you and your advice. Again, don’t tell them what to do. Autesserre’s point is clear: peacebuilding is a hybrid effort where international, national, and grassroot actors must cooperate for the best result.
Eventually, the peacebuilder’s mission is that of helping local peacebuilders do their job. The New Peace Manifesto that Autesserre proposes in Chapter 3 builds upon fascinating stories of cooperation. But is all that glitters gold? The question is whether Autesserre’s framework could apply to large-scale conflicts. The case-study of Idjwi is particularly problematic – being an island, it may be easier for its inhabitants than for people ashore to defend themselves from the neighbouring conflict. Autesserre recognizes the idiosyncrasy of Idjwi, yet she argues that it is useful anyway to learn important peacebuilding lessons. Indeed, small projects could always scale up and become regional or national. Somaliland seems to be an example of successful local peacebuilding at the national level, but here another issue arises. In Somaliland women are excluded from all decisions. The problem here is evident. The local turn is often presented as emancipatory because local communities are empowered and become the makers of the change. But emancipation is an intersectional concept – the fight for the emancipation of an underrepresented group should correspond with the fights for the emancipation for all underrepresented groups. You cannot call a peacebuilding process emancipatory, if only half of the people involved are allowed to attend. Does it count if the men of Somaliland are freed of international intervention, but the women of Somaliland are not freed of patriarchy? Autesserre’s answer to these questions are also found in her book, but leave the problem somehow unsolved – while acknowledging that it is problematic, she also sees the impossibility of doing everything at one: peace, emancipation, equality, etc. This is an area that further research could focus on to improve Autesserre’s framework.
Autesserre’s peacebuilding framework raises important questions: What is peace, who owns it, and how to build it? She provides pragmatical and ethical answers. The pragmatical part is that she recognizes the need to end counter-productive foreign intervention in conflict zones. Indeed, it is time to acknowledge the know-how of the grassroots. But there is a need of cooperation between the different actors involved. Indeed, locals are not better, but better placed. The grassroots have a better understanding of the context; but internationals have better understanding of what is done internationally. Both knowledges are complementary. The ethical part is that she restores the power of change to local communities. As a call for further research, Autesserre mentions the need to delve deeper into the conditions in which people who are part of violent militias can become peacebuilders with the help of the international community.
There is another important value to the book. One of the most interesting implications of the local turn, exposed in Chapter 4, is that even in our developed, rich, and democratic metropolises we need peacebuilding. Indeed, if local actors can bring peace to their communities, we – yes, this time it’s really about the WEIRD! – can be the peacebuilders of ours. Peace in the Congo is made by Congolese for the Congolese; peace in Amsterdam, by Amsterdammers for Amsterdammers. This is the aspect of Autesserre’s theory that I am the most enthusiastic about, because it subverts old-dated norms of colonial, Western-centric thought, and it is an important step towards the recognition of human agency. More importantly, it is something you can think about when there are problems in your own community. It’s time to do some peacebuilding. Outsiders can help you do it, but it’s on you to take action. Do not hesitate. If you need inspiration, read Autesserre’s book.