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This book explains when peacekeeping works — and when it doesn’t

To give peace a chance, start with the grass roots, not the treetops.

- August 19, 2021

What creates peace in war-torn countries? Since the early 1990s, conflict within countries has been responsible for the vast majority of war-related deaths. Getting the answer wrong has immense, wrenching consequences, like those unfolding in Afghanistan. Conflict dynamics and their aftermath are complex, making peace-building a quintessential “wicked problem.”

Analysts know a lot about why peace-building fails. Bargains collapse among warring-party elites and intervening powers are focused on their own objectives. Economic stress, reactivated local-level grievances and climate shocks can all lead to further conflict. And contradictory aims and inconsistent implementation bedevil interventions themselves.

We know less about how building peace can go right. This is the premise of Séverine Autesserre’s extraordinary new book, “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World.” Frustrated by the focus of so much scholarship — including her own — on peace-building failures, Autesserre examines surprising instances of successful peace-building in otherwise violent contexts. While acknowledging that circumstances and specifics differ across place, she distills several principles for constructing and maintaining pockets of peace. (Full disclosure: Autesserre and I are longtime colleagues who work on similar topics.)

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Success is more puzzling than failure

Autesserre crafts a new picture of the successful approaches to creating lasting peace from the ground up across different contexts. She begins with Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where Idjwi’s 200,000 residents live in unlikely stability at the epicenter of the Congolese civil war.

Autesserre attributes this surprising success to the island’s self-pronounced “culture of peace.” A diverse network of local organizations, from the Catholic Church to youth and elders’ groups, along with traditional beliefs and practices, such as blood pacts, underpin a shared commitment to nonviolent, community-based conflict resolution. Idjwi’s residents have created a flexible fabric of societal resilience that enables them to mediate normal disagreements away from outright conflict and into peaceful coexistence.

More key lessons come from the Ruzizi Plain in Congo’s South Kivu province. Here, Autesserre highlights the method of participatory action research implemented by the Life & Peace Institute (LPI), a donor-funded peace-building organization. In contrast to typically rushed conflict analyses conducted by external parties, LPI and its local partners worked over three years with the parties to and victims of the conflict to help them share perspectives, analyze problems and develop their own solutions. Autesserre credits this deliberate, small-scale, participatory process — involving those to whom the outcomes most mattered — with developing creative and highly specific solutions to address disputes through mediation and reduce conflict accordingly.

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‘Peace, Inc.’ the bad, the ugly … and the good?

The counterpoint to these hyper-local peace-building successes lies in the expensive, multidimensional interventions that the United Nations and a host of other governmental and nongovernmental organizations have perpetuated with limited effectiveness in war-torn areas. Autesserre attaches the label “Peace, Inc.” to the top-down, outsider-driven and elite-focused approach that has served as the international community’s main template for post-conflict intervention. Reprising the themes of her pathbreaking earlier book, “Peaceland,” she delivers a trenchant critique of this standard approach, without unfairly dismissing the good intentions of the vast majority of the expatriate technocrats who staff Peace, Inc., around the world.

Autesserre’s self-reflection about her own past involvement in Peace, Inc., gives her clear-eyed appraisal some real bite. She thus adds texture to the long-standing and rich critical scholarship that has sharply condemned expatriate peace-builders’ myopia about local, indigenous practices of governance and argued that peace-building should better resonate with the specific needs of the society emerging from conflict.

Yet it is crucial to acknowledge that the indigenous successes celebrated in “Frontlines” are small-scale and, almost by definition, difficult to enlarge and expand. Some roles in post-conflict interventions can be played only by national elites and international organizations focused on large-scale processes and contexts. Autesserre hints at the necessary connections between the bottom-up and the top-down — or, in her words, the grass roots and the treetops.

The section on northern Somalia’s autonomous Somaliland region highlights this issue. Certainly, analysts of Somaliland credit its successes in building political order, peace and socioeconomic stability to indigenous processes that were made possible, in part, by benign international neglect, not intervention. Autesserre characterizes Somaliland as the largest case of bottom-up peace-building she has identified. Yet the scale of success there has depended as much on indigenous top-down state-building strategies and political settlements as on the grass-roots work emphasized throughout the book. Even in the case of Congo, Autesserre allows, properly re-conceived international approaches can complement and amplify bottom-up initiatives.

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Pockets of peace

Perhaps the boldest and most surprising claim that Autesserre makes in “Frontlines” is that the principles she gleans from Congo, Somaliland, Timor-Leste, Colombia and their post-conflict kin can and should be applied to societal violence in advanced, industrialized countries. I was skeptical when I first read this assertion. But Autesserre draws a delicate distinction between the wildly different contexts — backgrounds, people, types of conflict — and the surprising similarities in process that can aid and sustain peace-building. Crucially, it is local people who have the knowledge and skills necessary to identify the root causes of the conflicts they experience and to find and maintain ways to resolve them. Similarly, although there are inevitable trade-offs associated with peace-building, doesn’t it make sense for those living with these decisions to make them? These could be surprisingly simple principles to live by.

What truly sets “Frontlines” apart is Autesserre’s voice. With deep scholarly expertise and wide-ranging personal experience, she is among a handful of people who could write a book like this with authority, credibility and compassion. She delivers a unique narrative illuminated by her research and the lived experiences of the hundreds of people she has interviewed and interacted with in conflict-affected situations.

With this latest book, Autesserre has given readers an original, deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking rendering of the vitally significant topic of peace-building — and a stellar example of what engaged and policy-relevant scholarship can produce for a wider audience.

Naazneen H. Barma is director of the Scrivner Institute of Public Policy, Scrivner Chair and associate professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She studies peace-building, foreign aid, the political economy of development, and global governance. She is one of the founders and a co-director of Bridging the Gap, an initiative devoted to enhancing the policy impact of contemporary international affairs scholarship.

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