Courtesy of Séverine Autesserre
Séverine Autesserre is the author of "The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider's Guide to Changing the World."

She’s seen peacekeeping fail. Here’s her advice on getting it right.

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Why do peacekeepers so often fail to keep the peace? That’s a question Séverine Autesserre has been exploring for years – first as a humanitarian worker, and later as a researcher. 

But Dr. Autesserre’s new book changes tack. Where and why is peacekeeping succeeding? In “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World,” she writes that places avoiding conflict against all odds have something in common. They have peacekeeping efforts led by locals.

Why We Wrote This

As a humanitarian worker, Séverine Autesserre watched many peacekeeping efforts fail. Today, as a researcher, she asks why some communities keep the peace despite great odds – and finds a common denominator.

“There’s often a belief that only outsiders have the required skills and expertise to build peace,” she says. But from Colombia to Chicago, she found, peace succeeded when “everyone, truly everyone, was involved, including the poorest and the least powerful members of the community.” 

That principle, she argues, should reshape the way international organizations do business. “They need to ask, not assume,” she explains. “They need to follow, not lead. They need to support, not rule.”

In this interview, the Monitor’s Ryan Lenora Brown speaks with Dr. Autesserre about conflict, peace, and, as she puts it, why “all of us can change the world.”

Every year, the world invests billions of dollars in peacekeeping. Peacekeepers patrol war zones. World leaders pledge an end to the fighting.

And yet, around the globe, violent conflict persists. More than a billion people live in a conflict zone. The past five years have witnessed the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. Wars cost the world about $10 trillion annually, or $4 a day, every single day, for every person on earth. 

Séverine Autesserre, a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, has spent much of her career trying to understand why. First as a humanitarian worker for organizations like Doctors Without Borders, and later as an academic researcher studying the peacekeeping industry, she watched as efforts to make lasting peace stumbled again and again, from Kosovo to Congo to Palestine.

Why We Wrote This

As a humanitarian worker, Séverine Autesserre watched many peacekeeping efforts fail. Today, as a researcher, she asks why some communities keep the peace despite great odds – and finds a common denominator.

In her new book, “The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World,” Dr. Autesserre decided to ask a new question. Much was going wrong, that was clear. But what was going right? She discovered that around the world, from Medellín to Baltimore, peacekeeping tended to work best when it was led by locals and organized at the grassroots.

Q: You’ve written a lot in your career about how and why peacekeeping efforts in war zones keep failing. What made you decide to devote a whole book to what’s working?

What I set out to do was write a book about hope. It’s a book about how each and every one of us can change the world. I know, personally, intimately what violence does to an individual. I experienced that as a kid and it really shaped my whole being. So I’ve devoted my life to countering violence in all its forms. And the thing is that violence is widespread. Today, when you look at the number of people who live under the threat of violence, you see that it’s more than 1.5 billion, in more than 50 conflict situations around the world. And even when you look at countries that we think of as peaceful countries like the United States, we see that they face an increasing number of violent acts like hate crimes, gang fighting, and terror attacks. So to me, it’s really critical that we do something about it.

Q: In your experience, why do internationally led peacekeeping efforts so often fail?

Governments, diplomats, and peacekeepers often fail at improving the situations in war-torn countries, in gang-ridden neighborhoods, at sites of mass violence, because they use the conventional way to build peace. That relies on presidents, governments, rebel leaders, and foreign peace builders based in capital cities and headquarters, and usually it excludes local activists and ordinary people. It’s something we’ve seen all over the world, in Afghanistan, in Congo, in Colombia, in Iraq, many other places. There’s often a belief that only outsiders have the required skills and expertise to build peace.

Q: You write about how in your work in the humanitarian sector, you saw a wide variety of places where people were making peace work against the odds. What did those situations have in common?  

The main common thread in all of the stories I tell in the book is that the residents have achieved peace thanks to grassroots, bottom-up efforts. Everyone, truly everyone, was involved, including the poorest and the least powerful members of the community. And they all built on their specific, unique local history, politics, and cultures and circumstances.

Q: Can you give us an example?

My favorite is the story of Idjwi, which is quite literally an island of peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the past 20 years, one of deadliest conflicts since World War II has raged around Idjwi. Despite the fact that one of the largest and most expensive United Nations peacekeeping missions in the world is present and active in Congo, several million people have died. Hundreds continue to die every day. But for the past 20 years, Idjwi itself has avoided mass violence.

It’s located right at the border between Congo and Rwanda, two countries that have been at war regularly since the 1990s. It also has mineral resources, ethnic tensions, lack of state authority, extreme poverty, local conflict over land and traditional power, and many other features that have caused mass violence in neighboring provinces. But the island is peaceful because of the active, everyday involvement of all of its citizens, including the poorest and the least powerful ones. They do this by fostering what they call a culture of peace, by organizing in grassroots associations and local structures that help resolve conflicts. And by drawing on strong beliefs that have detoured violence by both insiders and outsiders, such as blood pacts – traditional promises between families not to hurt each other. And it works.

Q: You make the argument in the book that it’s not the case that international organizations need to get out of the way entirely. They just need to do their work differently. What do you think, ideally, would be the role of international institutions in peace building?

The short answer to this is: They need to ask, not assume. They need to follow, not lead. They need to support, not rule.

Q: A lot of the places you write about in this book might feel far away to its readers. But you argue that the same kinds of peace-building methods can be used in the United States. Can you talk a bit more about this?

There are three specific things that I think all of us in the United States can learn from the inhabitants of war-torn countries so that we can help combat extremism and violence in our own communities. To start, we can develop informal relationships with our opponents, whether these are political, religious, or cultural opponents.   

The second big idea is that we can all use the elements of our own local cultures to help smooth out tensions. Do you know the story of the association called Mothers Against Senseless Killings in the South Side of Chicago? There was a group of women who were really fed up with seeing so much bloodshed around them. So they decided to just hang out on street corners. They brought folding chairs, and they sat on them for hours and hours. And the thing is that in Chicago, nobody wants to kill someone in front of their own mothers, so over time, the number of shootings in the community has decreased a lot.

The last crucial thing we can all do is support grassroots, bottom-up associations with time, money, effort, whatever we can spare. Of course, our new administration and Congress also have an important role to play because we all know that real peace lasts only when it’s built both from the top down and from the bottom up. But the important point is that all of us can help. All of us can change the world.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to She’s seen peacekeeping fail. Here’s her advice on getting it right.
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2021/0419/She-s-seen-peacekeeping-fail.-Here-s-her-advice-on-getting-it-right
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe