The Anthropology of Interventions



Earlier this year, I received an author’s copy of the Handbook on Intervention and Statebuilding edited by Nicolas Lemay-Hébert. The volume covers a wide range of engaging topics from colonial legacies to gendered security sector reform to the role of myths. The editor-suggested title of my chapter is “the Everyday Politics of International Interventions”. If this seems somewhat familiar to you, then rest assured that it is the subtitle of Séverine Autesserre’s 2014 book “Peaceland” (which I reviewed here). Autesserre is a distinguished author whose ground-breaking research has inspired my professional and academic development since 2010. Consequently, her work significantly informed this chapter.

In the text, I summarise the literature on the inner workings of international interventions. The underlying premise is that despite their inherent differences and overt efforts to distinguish themselves from each other, diplomats, humanitarians, development workers and peacekeepers actually share a number of beliefs (for instance, that interventions are necessary and beneficial), practices (e.g. cumbersome administration, security regulations and report writing) and social habits (e.g. after hour drinks, frequent vacations and going-away parties). To a large degree, these mental frames, habits and daily practices determine what is discussed, how it is discussed and with what means it will be. The physical objects of intervention, such as bunkered aid compounds, massive SUVs and exclusive restaurants, exacerbate the distance between aid workers and locals and lead to pre-designed patterns of interaction with national colleagues and intended beneficiaries. As a result, Peaceland becomes a ‘bubble’ with its own social logic, largely unrelated to local realities.

As someone who has worked in peacekeeping, humanitarian aid and development, I find this literature compelling and a potential eye opener to my own blind spots and biases. However, some of my practitioner colleagues and friends have taken offence to being first “spied upon” and then criticised harshly. More generally, concerns over reputation and funding among many aid organisations have led to an overly risk-averse and complacent culture. I believe that ‘we’ – who aim to serve people in need – should be more self reflective and critical for at least three reasons: 1) Contrary to the long list of exogenous factors (challenging conditions, vested interests, limited means, etc.), frames and practices are aspects that interveners can actually address themselves; 2) ‘We’ – those working in and on interventions – have the responsibility and are best placed to make this change; and 3) Pro-active engagement with problematic frames and practices is beneficial for people in need and intervening entities themselves. For example, organisations such as MSF have demonstrated the positive impact of a principled and outspoken stance.

Changing practices might be more difficult than expected, as they are part and parcel of structural conditions (such as the inherent competition in the sector), which cannot simply be addressed on the individual level. Indeed, my research revealed a frustrating and worrisome tendency of delegating responsibility to individuals, while the underlying structural conditions remain unaddressed. Nevertheless, Autesserre seems more optimistic. Pressed on this point during a lunch conversation, she gave the example of how her 2010 book “The Trouble with the Congo” had successfully shifted the focus of policy-makers and interveners to the local conflict dynamics. We can conclude that in addition to timing, how you communicate your concerns might be as important as their substance for stimulating change, whether you are a globally recognised researcher or a cluster coordinator in the field.

UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians

Open debate

Last week I watched the 18th “Open Debate on Protection of Civilians” in armed conflict at the UN Security council. This event takes place once a year and represents an important forum for member states, i.e. the world’s governments, to discuss the issue and position themselves. As this month’s president of the Security Council, Uruguay chaired the debate, and UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, the ICRC’s Vice President Christine Beerli and Oxfam Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor Eveline Rooijmans provided briefings. Subsequently, many member states’ representatives, including Iran, Montenegro and the Holy See, gave their respective statements. As usual, these statements expressed great concern for civilian victims of today’s armed conflicts, but there also seemed to be a sense that “civilians in conflict are in greater risk now than at any time in the UN’s history” (New Zealand), which is reflected by the record high of 60 million displaced people. Statements also referred to this year’s worrying trends. Virtually every speaker condemned the attacks on hospitals in Afghanistan and Yemen, the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Madaya and 14 other areas in Syria, the increasing attacks against journalists and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Speakers were also in agreement concerning the solutions to civilian’s plight in armed conflict, again, referring to the above mentioned documents. Accordingly, they stressed the need for political solutions, specifically for dedicating more attention to preventing and meditating violent conflict. Burundi was often mentioned as a case in point, as the Security Council mission left for the country the next day – quite late but hopefully able to avoid worse. Speakers agreed that compliance to International Humanitarian Law needs to be ensured through applying and reinforcing the existing accountability tools of (international) criminal justice. Statements also referred to a number of operational issues for UN peacekeeping, such as the need for realistic and clear mandates, more engagement with local communities and regional organizations, well-equipped and quickly deployable peacekeepers, and a commitment to zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by UN staff. Speakers expressed hope that the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) would lead to fruitful discussions.

As someone who is interested in practice-theory, I am also trying to make sense of the event on the basis of what actually happened. First, as Jan Eliasson remarked, the high number of speakers suggests that the topic is important for many of the world’s governments. Actually, there were so many registered speakers that the chair urged orators to keep their statements brief and provide longer versions online. Second, this was not a “debate” in the classical sense. Rather statements were given about the same topic but without referring to each other. The Uruguayan delegation had provided a briefing note beforehand, which obviously guided the statements alongside three other documents: the Secretary General’s report on the protection of civilians, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report and the SG’s report on the implementation of its recommendations. Consequently, statements mirrored each other. What was more interesting and differentiated the statements from each other was when speakers took the opportunity to connect PoC to their country’s history and interests. For example, Rwanda focused on the FDLR, Israel mentioned that Hezbollah was responsible for much of the violence in Syria, China stressed the neutrality and impartiality of UN peacekeeping, India talked about its experience in PoC since ONUC, Ukraine described Russian aggression and South Africa underlined the success of the FIB, etc.                Third, speakers obviously adhered to a set of shared norms, spending a good portion of their limited time to thank everyone and subsequently acknowledge previously stated facts and generally agreed-upon points of reference. Finally, the debate was a bit lengthy and repetitive. Some speakers made more relevant connections or, like Samantha Powers, depicted situations skilfully, but you were getting the gist of it after a couple statements. I must be one of the only people that followed it from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and quite frankly that wasn’t necessary. Many of the diplomats just came in for their statement and even the chair rotated several times.

It can be concluded that the “debate” did not seem to be about rethinking PoC or exchanging information, but should be seen more as a political process where member states expressed their commitment to the protection of civilians and broadly agreed to an agenda. While falling short of committing to tangible steps, the strong condemnation of the practice of starvation, for instance, will increase the pressure on Assad. Nevertheless, it should be taken with a grain of salt when many of the member states’ representatives ended by pointing to the forthcoming Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (May 23/24) as “an excellent opportunity to address the issue in a more in depth and comprehensive manner”.