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Give Peace a Chance

Séverine Autesserre’s apologia for international peacebuilding

The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide To Changing the World by Séverine Autesserre. Oxford University Press, 240 pages.

In 2001, as the United States began its war in Afghanistan, a whole industry geared up to wage peace. While America’s armed forces filled the Afghan skies with drones, the peace industry’s tools were more insidious. Thousands of consultants came armed with workshops, white papers, and ample per diems, ready to plunge into a bewildering alphabet soup of NGOs and think tanks. From 2002 to 2013, donors spent just over $50 billion on activities that ranged from organizing Afghanistan’s finances to arranging conflict-prevention seminars. Business was lucrative, until Kabul fell to the Taliban this year and the last peacebuilder presumably took a flight out to Dubai, pending a posting elsewhere.

In 2018, there was a fashion—for donor funding also has its seasons—for “incremental peace in Afghanistan.” After seventeen years of rapidly achieving peace, peacebuilders decided that it would now have to be a long-term objective. In a preface to a report put out that year by the organization “Conciliation Resources” and funded by the British government, the noted war criminal and then-chair of the Afghan Peace Council, Mohammad Kareem Khalili, praised the internationally-funded, consultant-driven peace process as Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. In 2019, as U.S. warplanes dropped 7,423 bombs on Afghanistan, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) declared that top-down negotiations were inadequate and that it was time to build peace from the bottom up. To read the USIP report is to enter a world in which conflict results from local misunderstandings and the United States is not waging its war on terror. Evidently, no one at the institute had looked up into the Afghan skies. When it comes to peacebuilding, it pays to stare straight ahead.

The consultants hawking incrementalism in Afghanistan make up but one node in a booming global business nicknamed “Peace Inc.” by French political scientist Séverine Autesserre. For the last fifteen years, she has been one of its leading critics. In three books, Autesserre has painted an unflattering picture of a multi-billion-dollar industry run by bureaucrats who are well versed in United Nations procedures but lack anything beyond the most basic knowledge of the places in which they work. Whether in Afghanistan, Colombia, or South Sudan, the denizens of Peace Inc. stay in secure compounds, among people they probably met on missions elsewhere. Careers are made in movement; staying put for too long can make it seem that one has gone native. All this contributes to what Autesserre describes as a pernicious “peacebuilding culture,” which blinds experts to the reality on the ground.

Absurdity is the standard operating procedure for Peace Inc.

In her new book, The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World, Autesserre tells a possibly apocryphal story about a UN report on its political program in Kosovo, in which entire sections are focused on Liberia. The poor official tasked with “writing” the report had used an older document as a template and forgotten to replace all mentions of the other country. Every nation in which there is a UN mission has a version of this story. In South Sudan, where I often work, the roadmap for constitutional design, drawn up by international peacebuilders, kept mysteriously referring to Fiji. It’s thus hardly a surprise that Peace Inc.’s efforts often don’t seem to work. Autesserre sets out the problem starkly: “Imagine I were to tell you that the United Nations had tasked a conflict-resolution expert from, say, Kazakhstan, with ending gun violence in Baltimore, but neither this expert nor any of her bosses were familiar with American racial politics, police-community relations in the United States’ inner cities . . . or even spoke English—you would think this is absurd, wouldn’t you?” Absurdity is the standard operating procedure for Peace Inc.

If Autesserre feels the failures of Peace Inc. deeply, this is because they are her failures, too. From an early posting in Kosovo with the human rights organization Doctors of the World, through later missions in Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Autesserre has long been a member of Peace Inc. Despite the idealism of her colleagues, she noticed their missions were failing. Kosovo is today a shell of a nation; Afghanistan remains fractured after all the billions spent there; South Sudan careened from independence to civil war; elections in the DRC in 2006, supposedly the capstone of the peace process, were accompanied by violence that soon engulfed the east of the country. At the end of busy days, while drinking Tajik vodka at the World Food Program compound in Kabul, or dining at Le Chalet, a chic bistro in Goma where humanitarians go to see and be seen, one question obsesses Autesserre: “Why do peace interventions regularly fail to reach their full potential?” Early in her career, her answer is what one might expect from a member of a growing business: “we required more financial, logistical, and human resources.”

Autesserre’s narrative had changed by the time she came to write her first book, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (2010). The book asks why—as the country moved from devastating wars in the 1990s into an internationally-backed transition process from 2003 to 2006—peacebuilding failed to prevent massacres in eastern DRC. Her answer is that local violence was depoliticized and attributed to a natural propensity among the Congolese people—regrettable, but hardly the sort of thing in which peacebuilders could be expected to intervene. Overlooking local conflicts over land and resources that were the real engine of violence, they instead focused on state-building in the capital. If there is conflict, the peacebuilders claim, it must be the result of an insufficient state.

Autesserre’s next book, Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (2014), was a more ambitious study of Peace Inc., taking in Cyprus, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste, among other countries. Amid all this globetrotting, Autesserre’s question remained the same: How can people who intend to save a country know so little about it? The problems begin in the HR office. Both the UN and NGOs hire on short-term contracts, prizing a narrowly technocratic portfolio of skills over local knowledge. Having arrived at their postings, the expatriates so hired find it easier to keep to themselves, especially given the restrictions on movement put in place by security-obsessed bureaucrats. Local consultations are summary: a tick-box on a to-do list made elsewhere. Autesserre writes about separate dining messes in Timor-Leste—one for the locals, another for the internationals—and about a Christmas party in the DRC at which one participant confides, “we are all here to help the Congo,” but where there are no Congolese people. Behind hardened compound walls, she tells us, peacebuilders often feel resentful that locals do not appreciate their efforts.

While Peaceland contains a thumping critique of Peace Inc., it ends with a curiously anodyne set of recommendations, which could have been torn from the pages of an industry report. “Rely more on local employees,” reads one subtitle, “continuing the battle over ideas,” reads another. These recommendations suggest that peacebuilding can work—we just need to change its culture. To illustrate the point, Autesserre presents the exemplary figure of James Scambary, an independent researcher in Timor-Leste. Scambary didn’t live in a compound, separated from the people, but among them, and spent his free time talking to his Timorese neighbors. The result? He predicted the riots in 2006 that almost brought the peace agreement to an end—not that anyone listened to his predictions.

The anti-politics of peacebuilding is part and parcel of a liberalism that tries to neutralize actual struggles.

It’s in reading such stories of individual derring-do that the real goal of Autesserre’s work becomes clear. She doesn’t want to save the DRC, or anywhere else, as much as she wants to save the saviors. In each of her books, she repeats a rhetorical gambit, which I have come to call “Pyle’s Dilemma,” in honor of the idealistic CIA operative, Alden Pyle, who brings about such destruction in Vietnam in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. Pyle’s Dilemma is this: How can well-meaning people cause damage in places where they intend to help? “They worked hard, endured many deprivations, occasionally risked their lives, and became frustrated when—to their surprise—the situation worsened,” Autesserre writes. Time and again, she returns to how passionate peacebuilders are, how committed. There must be value, she insists, in their good will.

It is unquestionably true that many peacebuilders are idealistic; I know many such people. But the solution to Pyle’s dilemma is simple: intentions don’t matter. Politics is about material conflict. Peacebuilders might have all the good will in the world, but that counts far less than the structural limitations of the organizations they are part of.

Peace Inc. has flourished since the end of the Cold War. This dating is not accidental. The industry’s rise is bound up with the dreams of the end of history that were so frequently hallucinated in foreign policy circles in the 1990s. The anti-politics of peacebuilding is part and parcel of a liberalism that tries to neutralize actual struggles. Rather than seeing violence as part of some overarching goal—an end to colonial rule, say, or a revolution—contemporary peacebuilding sees violence itself as the problem. Countries might remain woefully unequal and bereft of socio-economic justice, but the peacebuilders have done their job as long as peace is obtained. As Autesserre summarizes, for Peace Inc., war and poverty are “technical problems . . . which can be solved using technocratic solutions based on best practices and a large body of universal, time-tested ideas.”

Just as Cold War thinking depoliticized conflict, Autesserre’s obsessive focus on culture depoliticizes the real stakes of peacebuilding. Even if every staffer was like James Scambary, their organizations would still remain answerable to donors, who have their own agendas not necessarily shared by locals. In many cases, as scholars such as Sharath Srinivasan and Mahmood Mamdani have set out, donors can in fact be actively hostile to local organizations, superseding or negating grassroots movements. Where then should decision-making power reside: With local communities, or with donors? This is a very real political disagreement that cannot be elided by pinning the problem on culture.

The technocratic rhetoric of Peace Inc. lives on in the architecture of peace agreements from Syria to South Sudan, all of which lay out implementation matrices drawn up by (and for) foreign interveners. The jury is out over whether we can declare any of these interventions a success. There is a cottage industry within political science dedicated to running the numbers, and its conclusions are fiercely fought over—precisely because the terms are so unclear. Was the UN intervention in the DRC a success because it led to elections, or a failure because violence intensified in the east? Autesserre wants to argue the latter because she believes that peacebuilding is about ending violence. But the situation isn’t so clear. National conflicts have proved problematic not simply because they lead to massacres, but because they threaten regional stability and thus the American-led international order. In this respect, deaths in eastern DRC don’t count, while elections in Kinshasa and a degree of regional stability do.

The “local” is a perspective glimpsed from a plane.

Seen from this perspective, the technocratic formalism of Peace Inc. is a feature, not a bug. If peacebuilding is designed to prevent outright war, then short-term deals between political elites is a rational approach. If stabilization is the order of the day, then setting up a state and giving it international legitimacy—no matter how illegitimate it is on the ground—makes sense. Such a situation pertains in South Sudan and Somalia. Both countries have governments propped up by the international community and armed peacekeepers, and both are almost entirely illegitimate outside their capital cities. Both governments are also responsible for egregious crimes and human rights violations. Nevertheless, Peace Inc. supports them. That’s the path to stability.

Chinese engineers at the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur. | United Nations

In 2016, I was at the Windsor Golf Course and Country Club, in the leafy outskirts of Nairobi, for a conference on the civil war in South Sudan. That morning, over tired croissants and orange juice, I watched ladies from Karen, one of Nairobi’s whitest suburbs, striding off to the tee, as their caddies struggled to keep up. Slowly, the breakfast room filled up with members of Peace Inc., there to discuss the neighboring conflict. Though the war in South Sudan was only three years old, there had already been a peace agreement and several ceasefires. These agreements had become part of what David Keen calls a war system: military actors rebelled in order to gain a seat at the negotiating table, which effectively rewarded military violence with political legitimacy.

As diplomats expertly assessed the fried bacon situation, I spotted an old acquaintance, a former British army officer who had gotten rich training the South Sudanese army that then massacred its own people. He was now part of the team implementing the security accords of the peace agreement. (Members of Peace Inc. excel at failing up.) Later that day, he would give one of the conference’s main speeches. Top-down peace-making, he announced, wasn’t enough. It was vital—and here I paraphrase—to continue bringing together armed leaders in expensive hotels rooms in Addis Ababa for endless talks, but we should also address local grievances. What we need, he told the rapt audience, is a “top-down, bottom-up, trickle-down approach.” This was met with a round of applause. A decade after Autesserre began advocating for bottom-up peacebuilding, variations of that idea were everywhere.

Her latest book is only likely to add to the crescendo. The Frontlines of Peace announces Autesserre’s entry into the world of TED talks and easy wisdom. It has also been well received by critics, with rapturous reviews by such left stalwarts as Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, in the New York Times, and Alex de Waal, in the Times Literary Supplement. Where Peaceland diagnosed the problems of Peace Inc., The Frontlines of Peace focuses on local peacebuilding processes. The reader is treated to a world tour of local self-empowerment—stops include Colombia, Goma, and Sri Lanka—though the places start to feel the same after a while, as with all globetrotting tourism. Each chapter of the book contains a critique of Peace Inc. that often recycles entire paragraphs from Autesserre’s earlier work, a few vivid vignettes of heroic local actors (sometimes also recycled, such as the story of Scambary), and then a happy conclusion. Local people can build peace; local knowledge is important; international peacebuilders are crucial—they just need to get down with the local peacebuilding agenda.

Politics is noticeable by its absence. In its place, the local is fetishized as the source of wisdom and truth. But the problem with this approach is that the “local” is a perspective glimpsed from a plane. The only thing uniting the category is that no locals will recognize themselves in it; in reality, their concerns are resolutely political and particular. And if the local has no coherence as term, it doesn’t have absolute moral value either. In South Sudan, the local includes both the women’s association formed in a displaced peoples’ camp and the militia that burned down the village in which those women used to live.

In reality, The Frontlines of Peace is a story about peacebuilders. The local simply offers an immediate unproblematic moral good onto which they can grasp to justify their work. Just as James Scambary could be cloaked in self-righteousness for living among the locals, so too can the entire industry save its soul through local peacebuilding. Directly working at the local level means avoiding a whole host of awkward questions about the politics of intervention. Bottom-up peacebuilding is not a revolution, but a continuation of Peace Inc.’s anti-political stance.

Peace Inc. has made violence acceptable, as long as it does not threaten the inter-state order.

One of the most telling stories in the book is about Idjwi, an island in the middle of Lake Kivu that is a bastion of tranquility in the midst of a region convulsed by war. Autesserre’s explanation for this is predictable: it’s the island’s culture of peace. According to her, blood pacts and extensive witchcraft have kept down levels of violence, though there remains massive social and material inequality—three families and the church control 75 percent of the land—and omnipresent poverty—82 percent of the population survives on less than $1 a day. The more prosaic reason for Idjwi’s tranquility is the relative absence of the state and international community. Autesserre’s own research assistant remarks that “People say that Idjwi has never been at war, so the government forgets about us and the international community forgets about us. I wonder if they are trying to have us start a war so that we finally get aid projects!”

If Autesserre had followed the central intuition of this story—which resembles many others in The Frontlines of Peace—she might have written a book in the anarchist tradition of James C. Scott about the alternative forms of society created by communities outside the state-based order. That narrative, though just as guilty of fetishizing the local, would have at least had the advantage of coherence. Instead, Autesserre perversely makes the case for peacebuilders. The danger of this approach is indicated by her case study of the Life and Peace Institute (LPI), an organization doing participatory peacebuilding with local communities around the globe. She discusses LPI’s work in in the DRC’s beleaguered Kivu provinces, where its slow, community-based approach seemed to be paying off. Until, that is, Autesserre wrote an op-ed in 2012 in the International Herald Tribune praising the LPI. The op-ed triggered an invasion by Peace Inc. LPI received requests for briefings, partnerships with foreign organizations, and was showered with donor funds. Suddenly, it was no longer responsive to the communities that had brought it legitimacy in the first place. Within four years, having expanded too rapidly and been beset by accusations of corruption, LPI effectively closed all its programs in the DRC.

Perhaps Peace Inc.’s culture can be changed, but its politics can’t. Peacebuilding will necessarily find itself at the behest of its donors. And while Peace Inc.’s goal is the end of war as such, peacebuilding now forms part of a global system in which violence is kept at acceptable levels, as social forces are neutralized. In Samuel Moyn’s new book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, he cites Leo Tolstoy, worrying that humanitarianism could entrench war by making it palatable. Peace Inc., similarly, has made violence acceptable, as long as it does not threaten the inter-state order. To obtain the sort of sustainable peace that Autesserre seems to wish for, in which people live flourishing lives, one should avoid the peacebuilders. For the people of Idjwi, one can only hope that Peace Inc. does not read Autesserre’s latest book.