On the run

Yesterday, I finished Alice Goffman’s captivating ethnography about the lives of young black men that are bound up with the American criminal justice system from their childhood onwards. Most of us don’t realize it, but prisons in the US are a scary thing. They are a humongous and ugly industry, incarcerating five to nine times more people than western European countries and, far more than the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia. Approximately 3 percent of adult Americans are either in prison, jail or on parole. And what makes these numbers even scarier is that black men, and especially ‘poor’ black men, are much more likely to go to prison and suffer the life-alternating consequences.

But while the statistics are shocking, Goffman provides a powerful highly-readable account of the realities for a group of young men and their loved ones and family, living around Philadelphia’s 6th Street. From her vivid descriptions, the reader comes to understand that entanglement with the law is not just a couple of guys making bad choices, nor does it affect only their lives alone. Rather, the criminal justice system has a central role in shaping poor, urban black communities by pressing young black men into detention and functioning as organizing principles for their communities. Like Goffman during her impressive 6 years of fieldwork for this project, we come to sympathize with the described individuals, and maybe more importantly, we come to feel the injustice.

It is therefore bewildering, that much attention has been drawn to mild inaccuracies and the possibility that the author might have committed a crime during her ethnographic research. After reading the book, I am furious about these accusations, not because I think they are necessarily incorrect, but because they certainly derail the conversation. There is a point in discussing the methods and ethics of Goffman’s research process, for instance, during an anthropology course, but not in the public dialogue about her book, which should be on… you guessed it… its pressing content.

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Timothy Raeymaekers’ Violent Capitalism and Hybrid Identity in the Eastern Congo Power to the margins

Editor’s note: This review will be published slightly differently in the near future.

Timothy Raeymaekers’ assesses that stereotypical and simplistic understandings about state failure and chronic violence in central Africa, such as the thesis of economic greed, have not led to great insights about either the mechanisms at work, or the emerging orders. As a consequence, Raeymaekers approaches the “constant crisis” in eastern Congo through investigating every day decision-making and its long-term consequences in an “ethnography of critical life worlds” (P.4). Specifically, he focuses on a seemingly marginal group of transnational trader networks in northeastern DRC. He describes how these businessmen of the Nande community have dealt with uncertainty and insecurity over the last century, and how these coping strategies have increasingly appropriated the state.

Raeymaekers explains that the Nande played a central role for the capitalist expansion into eastern Congo’s borderland since 1900. He describes how a combination of political marginalization and protestant work ethic led to the development of a high degree of self-reliance and a strong commercial tradition in the Nande community. Nande traders continuously expanded their successful commercial activities and increasingly asserted themselves against colonial domination. They were subsequently able to use Congo’s post-independence turmoil as a business opportunity, thus riding “the wave of the crisis and bending it to their personal advantage (P.66). This capacity seemed to characterize Nande elites through Mobuto’s reign and the international conflicts of the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly during the second Congo war. While most of the East was plagued by violence, the Nande managed to maintain relative peace and stability through paying off armed actors and engaging in de facto governance.

Through the historical descriptions and detailed examples, Raeymaekers argues convincingly that the informal arrangements of Nande businessmen, concerning for example cross-border trade taxation or the provision of security, became increasingly formalized, in this way transforming local political institutions and unexpectedly leading to new forms of hybrid governance. The description cautions, however, that the “broker” role of Nande businessman also made them complicit as “to avoid redundancy, they have to simultaneously maintain the tension” (P.145). Raeymaekers specifies that as much as Nande businessmen stabilized and developed their heartland during the armed rebellion, they also instigated violence and terror in order to maintain the upper hand in the standoff between political institutions after 2003 (P.133-137). This leads to the question of Nande involvement in the mysterious mass killings in Beni territory between October 2014 and December 2015, which arguably give Raeymaekers research and argument an unsolicited actuality. Although the book is mainly based on fieldwork between 2000 and 2008 and therefore not addressing these issues directly, the provided analysis is very useful for making sense of the more recent killings.

Book review: Thomas Turner (2013) “Congo”

I have just finished a review of Thomas Turner’s book ‘Congo’ that will be published as a slightly different and edited version. Turner is an American academic who works as a DRC country specialist for Amnesty International. He has taught in Congolese, Rwandan and Kenyan Universities and is married to a Congolese. It is probably this mix of academic background, relevant research experience and special ties to the region that enabled him to write this comprehensive yet compact and accessible book. Excellently researched and well-written, the text comes with many advantages, but none of the disadvantages of its academic peers. I recommend it as a substantial but digestible introduction for everyone working in and on the country that also offers a large number of facts and interesting reflections to those that are more familiar with it.

The chapters are organized along the lines of the most pressing issues – resources, identity, sexual violence and external involvement – yet their analysis is far from simplistic and goes beyond the usual headlines. The author skilfully draws from a substantial knowledge of the country’s different historical periods, from pre-colonial times to the Congo Free State and Zaire, to ask the right questions. He wonders, for instance, how the exploitive Belgian regime relates to Mobutu’s dictatorship and the status quo. But Turner also convinces with the way he makes his arguments: Instead of giving simple answers, he carefully balances the work of other scholars to make sense of complex realities. So when responding to the above question, Turner refrains from establishing direct causal links and instead summarizes psychological, structural, traditional and economic explanations for the persistence of structural and physical violence in the country. The particularly captivating concept of a ‘chosen trauma’ by psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan is, for instance, introduced to explain the trans-generational transmission of memory and behaviour. According to Volkan “trauma tends to generate or reinforce a political ideology of entitlement to violence” (p.135), which leads subsequent generations to respond to the pain and humiliations of the past. Through oversimplifications of the violent events, each side denies the chosen trauma of the other and instead focuses on their own victimhood, as it is tragically the case with Hutu and Tutsi.

The idea of Congo as “a playing field” for powerful Western states as well as its African neighbours, particularly during the ‘Congo Wars’, is developed over two chapters. While the analysis of western hegemony in Congo is painted in classical realist terms, the games of pawns and proxies are presented more complex in the intra-African context as “central African states are dependent on the more powerful” to advance their interests (p.72). When reflecting on the violence of the two Congo wars, Turner highlights “the number game” stating that “the topics of “mass deaths and mass rapes have generated international controversies, pitting researchers and humanitarian activists against each other” (p.212). Many readers will be familiar with the contested estimation by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) of five million war related deaths in Congo between 1998 and 2008. In a similar vein, a 2011 article published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated the number of rapes at 48 per hour. Turner holds that it is undisputed that too many people have died from hunger or disease and that the number and style of rapes have taken horrendous forms. But he also clarifies that these numbers have severe flaws given the absence of population statistics, the generalization of limited data and the interests of beneficiaries and aid agencies.

In another chapter, Turner explains how identity factors such as ethnicity, language and religion have been developed and reinforced through colonial favouritism and subsequently used by Congolese politicians to play different groups against each other (e.g. Mobutu) and gain electoral advantages (e.g. Bemba). After describing the dynamics between autochtones and allochtones in Katanga and the Kivus, Turner highlights the striking absence of class in Congolese analysis and policy-making despite the Marxist background of many Congolese intellectuals. He suggests that Congo’s Ethno-nationalism obscures questions of landownership and control over the means of production. This remark is typical for the book in so far as it demonstrates great understanding of the Congolese context, while also bringing in new perspectives. It is thus unsurprising that Turner ends on the important question of who will be protecting Congolese civilians. In the last chapter he examines the interaction between protection norms and practices, and draws a grim picture of the future. While clearly outlining the failure of the international community to bring change to Congo, the author also highlights the responsibility of the Congolese. Going beyond the standard and somewhat empty wisdom that the protection of civilians primarily is the responsibility of the Congolese state, Turner writes that “they will have to stop promoting the “myth of the yoke”, according to which all their problems come from outside, even though this myth is partly valid” (p.204). Having heard many similar stories about how the Rwandans are responsible for the current economic, political and social situation, and/or how peacekeepers are not doing there job, I full agree to this. To be sure, it is not a question of blaming my Congolese friends into being passive. Taking action in this context is easy said from the outside but difficult to implement from within. Rather, the idea is to nuance discourses on responsibility so that claiming protection or accountability from officials becomes conceivable for ordinary people.

Review of Séverine Autesserre’s new book ‘Peaceland’ – an ethnography of peacebuilding

International peacebuilding efforts regularly fail to be effective for a variety of reasons such as lack of political will and resources, complex dynamics of conflict, and vested interests. Instead of following these more established pathways of peacebuilding research, Séverine Autesserre has opted for investigating the way international peacebuilding interventions function on the ground. Her new book – Peaceland – is an ethnography of international interveners, explaining how their everyday impacts peacebuilding outcomes. The book draws on the author’s extensive, almost fifteen-year experience as a researcher and practitioner in various peacebuilding contexts. While most of the ethnographic research was conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Autesserre tested her global argument and its underlying observations in six other theaters of intervention.

Building on Raymond Apthorpe and the recent Anthropology of aid, Autesserre defines ‘Peaceland’ as a separate world with its own time, space and economics, and as she insists, its own “system of meaning”. The author explains that practices, habits and narratives shape interveners’ understanding of the world as well as their perception of appropriate, legitimate and effective actions. In return, these actions reproduce and reinforce existing practices, habits and narratives. Based on the notion that outsiders are needed to solve the complicated problems of conflict-ridden states, interveners, for instance, assume the superiority of thematic expertise over local knowledge. This attitude leads to, and is reinforced by, a number of practices. Autesserre argues that it results in the depreciation of local voices and input, and that it inherently gives interveners the moral high ground, sometimes leading to condescending behavior. She also states that within international circles, the acquirement of local expertise is disincentivized: It is not a required qualification for recruitment and the quick turnover rate does not make it worthwhile. The head of recruitment in a peacebuilding institution once told me that country expertise is generally not helpful as it makes implementation much more difficult. In practice this means that many of my colleagues in the DRC did not master French and almost no one spoke Swahili or Lingala. They largely remained unaware about the country’s history, the political dynamics in Kinshasa or background of armed groups. Most of them, however, had served in other conflict areas and knew a thing or two about international organizations, their terminologies and activities.

The inhabitants of Peaceland normally do not see themselves as a homogeneous group. They are recruited globally and represent various organizations with different values and positions. Autesserre, however, points out that these people form a “transnational community of expatriates” which has much more in common with each other than with host populations. This expat bubble is constructed and maintained through dinner parties, coordination meetings and tight security regulations. In many places, interveners are discouraged or even forbidden to interact with locals. From my own experience, I remember that one of my friends from MONUSCO thought that the West African music that we usually danced to was from Congo. Living and working in a fenced-off parallel world, he had no clue what Congolese music was despite its huuuuge importance for the country and the continent. Ironically his name is featured in a song known practically by every Congolese as the term for a man that does not own anything and depends on a sugar-mama. Being aware of this image would probably be important when introducing himself to a bunch of locals and actually be a great ice breaker.

This is not to say that the interaction with locals is easy. Quite to the contrary, differences in education, culture and income in a post-violence context make it often challenging. Most expats have made disappointing experiences and value their time after a long and stressful day. But depending on the culture of the place activities like dancing, soccer or religion would offer the opportunity for positive interaction. It is for similar reasons that I argue against R&R (Rest and Recuperation) – the custom that internationals in conflict areas take enforced vacations after six to ten weeks of service. Of course these environments are stressful but working even more intensely to then fly to some distant and totally unrelated place like Zanzibar does not change the stress factors. Would it not make sense for interveners to regularly take more time and pick up a habit that supports you in being less stressed and better integrated?

It follows that most interveners are not exactly country experts, which is why they generally adhere to simplified understandings and often depend on biased informants. Autesserre builds this part of the book on her excellent work on narratives (2009, 2010, 2012) : In the DRC, mineral resources have for the longest time been understood as the course of conflict, sexual violence as its worst effect and statebuilding as its solution. Although minerals, sexual violence and a weak state are all important factors in the country’s tragedy, reducing the focus on them has not been helpful for addressing them. The legislation that meant to impede the traffic of blood minerals has made things worse. The extreme attention to sexual violence has lead war lords to increase the number of rapes in order to increase their bargaining position. Finally, reinforcing the oppressive and exploitative state also had a variety of negative consequences that Autesserre does not fall short to give examples for.

Autesserre’s argument that minimal local input, ignorance and being perceived as arrogant do not contribute to successful interventions seems plausible. If interveners are insufficiently aware of the realities in the field and how they should be addressed appropriately, they can’t implement or even manage others to do so successfully. Autesserre gives numerous examples of practices that reduce to effectiveness of international interventions. The obsession on quantifiable results, for instance, leads interveners to focus on outputs instead of impact. The need to be visible, runs contrary to local ownership and also ensures that most interveners are present in the same areas (where they can be seen). And neutrality is not necessarily something that comes intuitive to people emerging from violent conflict. Naturally host populations react with resistance, contestation and adaption to programs that they do not perceive to be in their interest. Autesserre describes how some overlook problems to benefit from the resources that interveners might provide. In fact the buy-in for international programs can be so low that “local stakeholders will care mostly about the material benefits that they can get for themselves – the funds hey can gain or steal, the bribes they can extract, the jobs they can provide to friends and relatives – and little about the actual impact of the program for the broader population”. Autesserre found the majority to “drag their feet” by cancelling meetings, forgetting to attend them or creating structures for the sole purpose of pleasing international donors without the intent of using them. From my own experience, the latter form of passive resistance is probably one of the most frustrating experiences in Peaceland and interveners are often pissed off without understanding why these people are not cooperating.

According to Autesserre the dominant modes of operation in Peaceland prevail even when they are counter-productive, because they are part of the culture of intervention. Very rarely are the habits and underlying assumptions acknowledged or questioned, and thus continue “leading well-meaning and intelligent people to contribute to less than optimal outcomes”. Of course, exceptions do happen – people that hang out with locals, learn languages or stay in one country over prolonged time periods. Autesserre states that those at the margins of the interveners club, such as newcomers or people with strong ties to the region are most likely to contest Peaceland. But she also states that by their nature, these people are also the easiest to be brushed aside as unreasonable or broken socially and professionally.

Autesserre believes that change in Peaceland is possible, if individuals discover the detrimental effects of their habits. The difficulty is, of course, that they take their habits for granted and see them as “natural and the only conceivable modes of thinking and acting.” To break with this circular causality between individual and system, Autesserre proposes several steps: First, we are to raise awareness of the existence of these problems and their possible solutions. I like to think that I did my part by summarizing the argument of the book in great detail and sharing this with you. Second, these phenomena should be studied further and collaborative research projects should be established to develop alternative approaches. In this regard, I hope to do my part by possible contributions of the next years. Thirdly, combined top-down and bottom-up reform strategies have to be applied that tackle the ideas front and the practical front.
While waiting for the more elaborate results of future research, Autesserre outlines some tentative policy recommendations that were derived from her observations: recruitment and promotion practices should be changed, local stakeholders should receive more responsibilities, the reporting burden for expats should be reduced so that they can spend more time in the field, social interaction with the host country’s population should be fostered, etc.. While these practical steps are logical conclusions of the argument and probably doable, I would object that they are also to a large degree already part of the discourses in Peaceland. Nobody would argue against reducing reporting, spending more time in the field or the advantage of speaking local languages. Yet it rarely happens.

Here I would argue for a more critical perspective on the systematic reasons for these unhelpful practices. Autesserre seems to suggest that they are merely coincidental. But what if the negative parts of interventions are substantial parts and can thus not easily be changed? It seems essential to take a closer look at their purpose. As Autesserre highlights, these practices in fact enable interveners to function in very difficult contexts. Their negative outcomes thus need to be balanced against the advantages they bring – a professional class of impartial interveners that are able to work under the most difficult conditions. That would suggest that by trial and error we could find alternative practices with less negative impact. However, the persistence of these practices urges us to dig a little deeper. Michel Foucault’s work is thought-provoking in this context as he highlighted that the prison system is maintained although it has long become obvious that it does not reform prisoners. What then is that purpose of the current way interventions are run? Or put differently – what would happen if all interveners were motivated, well-qualified country experts?

These considerations are by no means an argument against the book or the practical changes that Autesserre proposes. It will come to no surprise for the reader that I concur with Autesserre and I assume that most practitioners would. As in her previous book, she uses simple concepts to build a powerful argument which she delivers well and supports with rich empirical evidence. Her contribution is to peacebuilding practice and academia alike by explaining not only why counter-productive habits prevail, but also how they shape the overall intervention from the bottom up. This is a novel perspective for political scientist and worthwhile as it plays an important part in understanding how policies, institutions and discourses are enabled and maintained.

The Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping

book cover
Last week, I finally had the time to finish de Carvolho and Sending’s book on the Protection of Civilians in UN Peacekeeping. On top of a foreword by former Emergency Relief Coordinator (aka head of OCHA) Jan Egeland, an introduction and an outro by the two editors, the book provides input in nine different chapters. The starting point is PoC’s persistent paradox: while protecting civilians in peacekeeping situations requires a comprehensive approach that combines humanitarian, human rights, security and political processes, the broad understanding results in confusion and makes PoC mandates difficult to implement in practice.

Accordingly, the book begins with four chapters on conceptual developments and the evolution on PoC mandates. Noteworthy is chapter three, which differentiates PoC from its twin concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), stating that “PoC is meant mainly as a guide to how to act, not a trigger for whether to act”. The authors therefore caution that the two should be kept separately to avoid that R2P interventionist character tarnishes the legitimacy of PoC, which largely reflects what the Secretary General said himself in 2012. But the most interesting chapter is Stensland and Sending’s political economy analysis of protection. According to their argument, PoC is the playfield in which OCHA, DPKO, UNHCR and others formulate and advance different aspects of protection to compete for influence and resources. The uncertainty of the term is thus not mere coincidence, neither is it caused by the inherent challenges of protecting civilians, but rather represents the product of differing views and organizational interests. Particularly OCHA had good reasons to press for a vague and comprehensive definition of PoC, as it allowed addressing more issues, secure influence in the UN Security Council, and representing the demands of the humanitarian community.

In a second part, the book then turns to five case studies of PoC implementation in Africa: MONUC (Congo), AMIS and UNAMID (Darfur), UNMIS (South Soudan), MINURCAT (Chad) and UNMIL (Liberia). The empirical descriptions from the field are intended to familiarize the reader with the challenges for implementation, and provide an overview over the heterogeneity of understandings and practice. At the same time, reinforcing the understanding of practice also allows for a more academic perspective of the rupture between headquarters and field and the way that protection discourses are created and influenced on these different levels. However, although giving the reader a useful idea about what protection looks like in practice, the field chapters remain too descriptive and context specific. Instead of this sort of a report style, I would have expected more analysis, the identification of underlying mechanisms and maybe even some use of theory to produce real arguments and insights.

Obviously, this is a must read for people that are interested in or working on how the UN does protection. Originally quite excited about this book, I was disappointed that the leading researchers on protection have mainly restated earlier articles in not very engaging writing.