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Topics / Sustainable Peace in Africa

Peacebuilders: International Interventions

Is it the end of an era for large, international peacekeeping missions?

Hosts Aaron Stanley and Scott Malcomson speak with experts from the region in this second episode of the Peacebuilders, a Carnegie Corporation podcast series.  

In this episode: Severine AutesserreSusan WoodwardSagal AbshirRashid Abdi

STANLEY: Welcome to Diffusion, a podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York. This is the second in our series on peacebuilding in Africa. I’m Aaron Stanley.

MALCOMSON: And I’m Scott Malcomson. International interventions to prevent or reduce conflict have been a hallmark of the post-World War II global system. After the end of the Cold War, United Nations-led interventions grew markedly in number and scope. But, increasingly, international interventions are seen as an ineffective solution at best, and at times as part of the problem. This is perhaps particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa.

STANLEY: We interviewed Severine Autesserre, a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and author of Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention.

MALCOMSON: Severine, how did you wander into Peaceland, and why?

AUTESSERRE: My dad was a journalist so he actually covered the former Yugoslavia, and he was a — well he was a sound engineer, a sound technician for the French radio station, Radio France, so he would come back from covering the world between Iran and Iraq or from covering the Rwandan genocide or places like that, and he would always tell me stories.  And so I wanted to go there and I wanted to—

I thought well, there are people who are going through a lot of horrible things and my dad would always say, look at this person and look at what he did to help the other Rwandan people who are on the road. He was a very social person so he would make friends everywhere. And so he had all of the stories about people who helped and people who managed to make things a little bit better in situations that are absolutely horrible. 

And so I wanted to go and I wanted to be like these people and I wanted to help these people and I wanted to do something as well.  You know, it’s super naïve, I was like five or 12 or 17.  And I thought well, because my dad also always, he was the hero in his stories, so…

MALCOMSON:  Right, right.  Sound engineer with a cape and mask.

AUTESSERRE:  Oh yes, the superhero.  So I wanted to be the superhero as well.  So when I graduated, I went to work in humanitarian aid and so I worked for a couple of years in the field — what we call “in the field”, meaning in different war situations, in Kosovo, in Congo, in Afghanistan — and I became very uncomfortable with the way things worked on the ground, for two reasons.  The first one is that as humanitarian aid workers, at the end I was working for Doctors Without Borders — before, it was Doctors of the World — and I felt that we were addressing the consequences of the problems but never the causes. 

And I started being really fed up with, especially I went several times to Congo, a couple of years apart, and I would face the exact same problem.  And I was like: We can do better.  Rather than just responding to the same crisis and helping people, and these people are all going to be displaced and they are going to be tortured again in two years because we haven’t addressed the causes of the problem.  So I wanted to address the causes rather than the consequences.  And also I was very uncomfortable with the entire expatriate bubble, with the way my colleagues were talking about local people, about even their local colleagues.  I heard a lot of things that were shocking.  Generalization about whole populations saying, oh, they’re — you know Congolese people are lazy, they're inherently violent, they're stupid.  And I’m like, these are like my colleagues, are people who are well meaning, they sacrifice a lot to work on the ground in a conflict zone. They put their lives on the line.  So how can good people actually have this kind of discourse and have this kind of attitude towards the people they are meant to help?

STANLEY: With us for this conversation in New York was Susan Woodward. Susan is a professor at CUNY Graduate Center and author of The Ideology of Failed States: Why Intervention Fails.

WOODWARD: People learn what their functional expertise is, they don’t learn about the country, nor do they really care about their country, because they’re convinced they’re right. If you really push them, as Severine says in the book, they’re really quite arrogant about what they know and how to value the people they’re working with. And the second thing is, this criticism that I think everyone agrees on in peacebuilding, regardless of what their particular — whether they’re liberal peacebuilders  or emancipatory ones or whatever camp they belong to in discussions about what would be appropriate policies — the people agree that part of the problem is templates. That these are organizations that not only do not have in-house expertise, but in order to move fast, to shift from one place to another — Severine might have a better explanation for why we can’t get away from this one-size-fits-all template going in that is immune to local knowledge, no matter how you might characterize it.

AUTESSERRE:  But we know people are using templates and models and we know that they shouldn't do that, and we know that nevertheless, they always do because they help from country to country.  And the reason why they help from country to country and they do the same kind of work, they organize their life the same kind of way, they have the same kind of daily routine is to me because of what we are talking about, this emphasis that we put on technical and functional expertise.  And the fact that if you're a specialist in human resources, or in election monitoring or in gender, or in rule of law, one of these functional things, then it's going to be much easier for you to find a job than if you are a specialist on Burundi or Bosnia or Congo or one of the countries in which you want to work.

MALCOMSON:  But isn’t there a worry also that somebody who's an expert on Bosnia will be essentially locally captured, will have friends and you won't have any way as the administrator in London or wherever to like know that in fact…

AUTESSERRE:  First it's the idea of oh, they've gone native.

Which I hate, of course.  It assumes that by being technical functional person, by definition you’re neutral. You don’t have friends in the country and you don't have biases.  So maybe they don't have friends in the country, they stay in the expat bubble, but they certainly have biases. And they certainly can get captured by local politicians and so on and so forth. And I would actually argue that the more you know about the local conditions, the easier it is for you to spot when people are trying to capture you or when people are trying to bias you in a way that would go against the interests of your organization or against the mandate that you have.

But on the other hand there is a role, I think, really, for outsiders. Let me tell you the story of the first draft of the Peaceland book, which Susan actually read, and you remember the first draft of Peaceland… So Peaceland is highly critical of peacebuilding but ends with saying there is a role for international peacebuilders. The first draft said, “Ah, we are doing so much more harm than good, we should just get out.” And so I organized a book workshop, and there was Susan and quite a few other colleagues, and this conclusion came under a lot of fire. And I was like, “Well, that’s okay, these are outsiders, I’m going to think about it but, maybe, I don’t know.” I was not fully convinced.

And then I went to present my book in Burundi, at a conference that was organized by the Life and Peace Institute. And they had invited to that conference people from Burundi, from Somalia, from South Sudan, from Congo — so basically a lot of the people who actually are the intended beneficiaries of international peacebuilding, and who are involved in international peacebuilding as local staff or as partners. Of course there were a lot of expatriates as well. And I presented my book and I got a pretty consistent answer which was, “Oh, we completely agree with the analysis, like all of the problems with international interventions, and we’re so happy that someone is finally writing about, and blah blah blah,” and then the expatriates were very upset with my conclusion that they should get out. And I was like, that’s fine. I expected that. I was not expecting to be the most popular person at this conference.

But what I didn’t expect was to get a lot of pushback from Somalis, from South Sudanese, from Burundians, from Congolese. And they were like, “We do agree with you about all of these problems, and we’re so glad you’re writing about it, but we think you’re absolutely wrong when you say that international peacebuilders should just get out.

And they started telling me — each of them had different stories about what were the actual things that outsiders could bring to their own countries or to their own local situations that they couldn’t find on the ground. So I revised Peaceland, and the published version is much more nuanced, I think, and it sees a place for outsiders. And that’s also what I see in the new book is, again, I’ve heard from Somalilanders that yes, it’s actually good that we don’t have that many international peacebuilders; but also I’ve heard a lot of people tell me, “But they should come, because this is what we need from them.” 

STANLEY: What were some of the things that people mentioned at that conference? What were some of the areas that they thought were really positive that peacebuilders were…

AUTESSERRE: So at that conference the first thing that someone mentioned, and it was a Somali woman who was very respectful and very sweet, and she said, “You know, professor, you’re really wrong.” And so what she said is that, for her, what was important was to have people come and give us ideas from elsewhere, and give her different ideas, and she says “Well, you know, we’ve tried different things and sometimes we see that they don’t work and we’re trying to think about other potential solutions, and to have an outsider arrive and tell me, ‘This is how things have worked in Afghanistan, or in Congo, these are the strategies that people have tried and this is what has worked and this is what hasn’t worked.’” And she said, it’s not that, you know, she’s not going to think “I’m going to take this template and I’m going to reproduce in Somalia what has worked in Afghanistan.” She’s much smarter than that. But she says, “It’s going to give me other ideas. It’s going to give me another way to look at my own situation, it’s going to give me insights that then I can adapt to my situation and see maybe there is another way for me to go about resolving my own problem.”

So, ideas coming from elsewhere, and then — I mean, I have an entire chapter on that in my current book — resources, financial resources, logistic resources, are things that often you need to get from the outside. And knowledge. Sometimes people tell me, “It’s really useful for us to have some kind of training — not necessarily on peace and what is peace, because they know what is peace, or the kind of training we give now on sexual violence, and telling policemen “It’s bad to rape. You didn’t know that; right now I’m going to tell you. Oh, raping is bad.” — no, not this kind of training. But more the kind of training like in the latest technique of participatory action research, which is the big thing that Life and Peace Institute is doing in Congo When I was talking with their local partners they all said, “It was really interesting for us to be trained in participatory action research, because we know about peacebuilding, we’ve read about peacebuilding, but we didn’t know this specific technique and it has helped us engage with local communities and be better peacebuilders.” So plenty of different things. 

WOODWARD: The one thing that Severine just said that I do think matters is what she called logistical support, that building roads and building railroads and whatever else it is, the logistical part is really important, and that’s something outsiders can do but at the moment the only people who seems to be thinking that’s in their interests are the Chinese.

MALCOMSON:  On the one hand you could look at our current situation and conclude that whatever was bad about liberal internationalism, surely what we’re getting now is going to be worse.  But you can’t pick your historical transition periods. And it is equally true that maybe the diminution of interest within the West, and within the funding countries, in the problems of the rest of the world could present some opportunities as well. The White House is shifting to a view that we are in a period of great power conflict, one of competition between principally the United States, Russia, and China.  And you could say well, this is a return of the Cold War, but you could also say this is an abandonment of the idea that failed states actually are the principal problem, whether as a source of terrorism, or a breeding ground for disease or all the other things that were sort of the reigning clichés up until a couple of years ago.

WOODWARD: The literature in the United States and international relations assumes that the stability of the post — of the Cold War period, '45 to '90 in their argument — had to do with international institutions that the US crafted.  And I say, no, it had to do with competition.  That there were two blocs, each with their own allies, each with their own approaches to development and to justice, one led by the Soviet Union, one led by the United States.

And that gave space, particularly with the United Nations in fact, for people to have alternatives and debates.  And of course it developed a non-alignment movement, where there was a lot of creativity.  That's gone. 

So what I’m thinking, as I say there, is that maybe by focusing on this great-power conflict in Washington, by Washington, might actually give space to more competition.  People are not very happy with what China is doing, let’s say in Africa, but I think they are looking only at part of what China is doing, and maybe by focusing more on what they do that's good, apropos of what Severine’s doing with her book, maybe they'll have a chance to say, okay, here's some things that we think we should do.  Because there, for example, it’s very clear that the problem is not state failure, but development.  And so at least they, I think, are putting a focus on the right way.


MALCOMSON: Sagal Abshir is a lawyer, former Somali government advisor, consultant and researcher. We met with her in Nairobi.

ABSHIR:  The international community of the early ‘90s was a hopeful… hopeful is the word I would use.  I think there was this — there was a kind of — the Cold War had ended, everything was possible.  There were no more enemies in the world and our enemies were things like hunger, and ignorance, and let's just make the world a better place.  And I think that the — it's interesting, because I think that  the Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in the early ‘90s was very much born of this kind of, this new reality of: We don’t need our military for the Cold War, we can use it to feed people. 

I don’t think that had been fully thought through and I think we saw the results of it, right?  We saw the results of what they call a military-humanitarian operation, right?  And I think that was — I don’t know, I mean I’m not aware of other ones but that wasn't… Somalia was one of the early cases, right?  And I think that a lot of the lessons learned from Somalia ended up being applied in other places. 

I think that the international community is … less hopeful in a way.  Or maybe that's not the right phrase.  I would say the international community is a bit more jaded.  It's not the right word either. I don’t see that level of kind of… hopefulness in terms of, okay, let's go in and give those young Somali men and women something to live for.  International attention in Somalia has gone through several different, let's say, eras, and the most recent one of course is: I would call it the security era.  The international community had more or less departed from Somalia, the UN had packed up in 1995.  The focus returned to Somalia after 9/11 and that was because of this issue of the war on terror and could these failed states be breeding grounds for terrorist groups. The state-building project and the peacebuilding project came second to the security focus.  The arrival of the African Union mission and the growth of the African Union mission, they've now been in Somalia for 10 years, they just reached their 10-year anniversary.  Is it an important thing?  I think the African Union's role and Somalia being part of this broader conversation of “African solutions for African problems” is an important one. 

The challenge on our side has been: How do we build up our security institutions such that we can take the lead in this work? The African

Union can’t be there forever.  And I think that: It then ends up feeding back into our state-building question, because building an army in a country is a very… in a post-conflict country is very important and very — something you need to approach quite carefully. 

It's becoming clear just in the past year in Somalia, the international community has changed. Some of these countries that used to seem all powerful have their own problems.

MALCOMSON:  So if you could just game it out a little bit further, so two years from now, going on current trends in terms of European and American attitudes — and given that the United States and the European countries have such a dominant effect on the international agenda and their control of the United Nations machinery to a great extent and of the funding — what would you see happening if there is a slow but perceptible, and eventually predictable, withdrawal of the international community from the Horn or from Somalia?  I mean, is that like a future that you can imagine? And if so what do you imagine is there?

ABSHIR: I definitely do foresee a redefinition of what the international community is in Somalia. And I think that we may see a drawdown or a lessening or a redirection of some of the focus that we used to get from the US and Europe.  I think it's interesting that Brexit has meant, for example for Somalia, that whereas the UK used to be quite a large voice in the EU for Somalia, some of the resources of the EU may now get redirected to West Africa, in line with France's priorities, for example. 

Any such gap will quickly be filled by other players, and I think this is becoming quite apparent in Somalia now, where we have — Turkey is very present in Somalia, in many different ways, certainly on the security side but also commercially, also politically. I mean this is a small example, but the Turkish embassy in Mogadishu is their largest embassy anywhere in the world.

MALCOMSON: I did not know that.

ABSHIR:  That's just an example.  They've built a military-training academy for the Somali army that’s state-of-the-art.  Those kinds of investments are going to fill that gap. The UAE is quite active in Somalia.  They've been helping to train some of the army; they're investing in the ports.  We don’t have China yet, but they may come. It’s definitely a bit more fluid.

STANLEY: Rashid Abdi directs the Horn of Africa program for International Crisis Group.

ABDI: There has been a phrase coined, which I like, which is “geopolitical recession”.  You know: What happens when a major actor like the United States begins to recede from the world, begins to retreat? You create a space for other regional actors to step in, and that is the process that's happening. 

The Saudis in the Gulf say: We can no longer depend on the United States really to take care of our interests. And we live in a tough neighborhood; we may go to war with Iran.  So all this is part of, I think, also a potential future conflict with Iran, all these maneuverings you see.

Now, countries in crisis, like Somalia, are caught up in this.  They have a dysfunctional international peacekeeping system in place, so these actors come in, and basically do their thing.  So you have the Turks now involved in really propping up — basically creating their own parallel security-sector reform/military support/intelligence support.  So they—

MALCOMSON:  Within Somalia.

ABDI:  Within Somalia.


ABDI:  And that has complicated matters, because you now have what are called S6 in Somalia: six countries, all of them providing bilateral security trainings in Somalia.  This is the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, then AMISOM, doing its own training as well.  So there are about six...

MALCOMSON: That was five.

ABDI: And the United States.

MALCOMSON:  And independently.

ABDI:  Independently, all of them are doing their own bilateral thing.  And they are not coordinating their efforts.  They have made such attempts, to really create a sort of mechanism for coordinating their training.  For example, the Americans will provide hard counter-terror, or counterterrorism skills; then the Brits will provide infantry skills; then AMISOM or the United Arab Emirates will provide radio communication skills.  I think that was the way in which they emphasized the coordination, with each country providing certain skills which they are good at. And that apparently was the plan but it isn't working — again, because of the intensity of this competition.

MALCOMSON:  When you talk about the intensity of the competition, there's a competition among the six players.

ABDI:  Yes.

MALCOMSON:  But there's also a competition among the different Somali players.

ABDI:  Yes.

MALCOMSON:  Who to some degree are playing the six off of each other.

ABDI: Exactly, yeah.  This is a good point.  I think Somalia isn’t just a victim of international politics or geopolitics, it is also a counter manipulator.  You have an elite which has become extremely adept at really playing one power off against the other.  And basically, it's very comfortable with the status quo, has no incentive really to even fight al-Shabaab.  What happens is that tomorrow, if al-Shabaab is completely defeated, everything, all these cottage industries that have grown up around the counter-terror effort in Somalia, will just simply go.  And that I think creates a very paralyzing — it's the dead hand which keeps Somalia not moving forward. 

And one positive thing that happened when AMISOM suddenly said, “We are leaving,” we saw the ferment, we saw all of a sudden panic, and that is a good thing.  But when these people have a clear — when they are bilateral actors, they’re individual actors, then you have this multinational peacekeeping force.  There is a certain comfort in this stasis, if you see what I mean.  That I think is also one of the dynamics which one also has to recognize: in which a peacekeeping effort becomes, actually, a very comfortable status quo.  Everybody is comfortable with the status quo.

Take the example of Uganda. Uganda's initial motive for deployment was probably Pan-African.  It was sentiment that we need to deploy to Somalia because this is a country in crisis and we need to—

MALCOMSON: We’re going to take responsibility, and so on and so forth.

ABDI: There was an element of that, we shouldn't just be cynical and say it was entirely self-serving or mercenary.  There was a genuine, I think, desire to really fix an African country.  But then also we have to recognize that Uganda itself had a serious military problem.  You had a hugely bloated military, there was a lot of pressure to basically cut it down.  And so what [Uganda President] Museveni actually did was to externalize his problems.  He basically created this massive force in Somalia which will, first of all, deflect that attention away from the military.  Nobody's now putting a lot of pressure on Museveni to really cut defense spending or to reduce the number of his army. 

And then, these people are earning a good amount of money.  I have been to southwestern Uganda, and if you go and see every beautiful villa and you ask, Whose is that?  You'll be told: He's a man who is serving in the mission in Somalia.  So what they are doing is, these people are saving their allowances, and that is about $1,400 a month. Now, if you accumulate that, in a year that's a good amount of money, and they can basically save to go back home and build, buy property and build houses.

MALCOMSON: And that pay rate is set by AMISOM?

ABDI: It’s set by the United Nations.

MALCOMSON:  By the United Nations.

ABDI: Which pays, and also the Europeans contribute to the fund. There's an AMISOM trust fund.


ABDI: So in other words I think the picture I’m trying to portray is that it becomes a self-feeding beast, if you see what I mean.  And nobody is under any pressure really to wrap up AMISOM, because it has become too comfortable for many people.  It isn’t effective on the ground, but that has ceased to be a point.  We're disillusioned with the big peacekeeping and going individual, bilateral.  I think in Somalia, increasingly that is a trend.  We are beginning to see a very strong move, trend, towards bilateral actors.  And the government itself find that, I think, more attractive, because they are fed up with AMISOM and, in any case, after 10 years the relationship has basically broken down.

MALCOMSON: The government, you mean the Somali—

ABDI: Somali government.  The relation between Somali government and AMISOM is poisoned.  Completely poisoned.  I'll just give you one example.  About 10 days ago, an AMISOM convoy was returning to its base, which is close to the seaport in Mogadishu.  And before you reach the AMISOM compound there is a checkpoint which is run by the intelligence service.  Now in Somalia the intelligence service is armed.  So they had their checkpoint. So the AMISOM convoy came, and wanted to be let in.  And the commander of the checkpoint basically told the convoy leader, or the convoy commander also, told him that: “Look, protocol says that at this hour, which is 5:00 p.m., you need to take another, different gate.  You can’t come through this gate.”

So there was a lot of back and forth about the procedure, whether it was right or wrong.  The AMISOM commander said, “Look, we are tired, we had a long tough day and we have no time really to go through.”  So it escalated, it was something that could have been resolved.  The commander just went back and ordered his APCs to fire on the Somali checkpoint.  And there was mayhem there. Somali troops were killed.  It wasn't just a friendly fire, it was an escalated argument. But that tells you the level of how the relationship has become poisonous between the two sides.

The escalation of al-Shabaab in the last one year is a clear signal of what it intends.  It knows that the clock is running out on AMISOM, there's a funding fatigue, and it's become dysfunctional, and at one point or another these countries will make the individual choice of either leaving separately or the whole — the

African Union will just wrap up the mission because of lack of funding.

And so al-Shabaab is calculating that this is a strategic victory for them, and that explains their morale and the escalation of their attacks in the last one year.  They carried out the deadliest bombing in Somalia in October, which killed over 500 people. 

MALCOMSON:  Right, right.

ABDI:  That's a clear signal.  Not of a movement that is finished, but a movement that is sensing victory.


STANLEY: The next episode of this podcast is on militarization of peacebuilding in Africa.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.