Why do international peacebuilding efforts often fail in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and the Central African Republic? Séverine Autesserre’s work in the DRC suggests that a variety of factors explain these disappointments, including peacebuilders’ failures to engage in local peace building. In her new book, Peaceland, Autesserre argues that the everyday habits of peacebuilders matter as well. I sat down with Autesserre for a Q&A about her findings.

Q: The central argument of Peaceland is that international peacebuilders can undermine their own peace building efforts because they live lives that are largely separated from the populations they are trying to help. In my experience, most aid workers, diplomats, and peacekeepers in places like Democratic Republic of Congo would love to interact with ordinary people more, but they’re prohibited from doing so due to security concerns. How do we strike an appropriate, practical balance between security & improved interaction between populations and peace builders?

Autesserre: I would say that the central argument of Peaceland is that international interveners’ everyday practices, habits, and narratives undermine their own peacebuilding efforts. One of the many ways these everyday elements preclude successful peacebuilding is by separating expatriates from the populations they are trying to help. And security routines are certainly a prime offender.  But they are just one among many others, such as the type of knowledge that is valued on the ground, the means by which interveners advertise their projects, the way they ensure their neutrality or impartiality, the kinds of results they look for, and so on.

For all of the everyday elements that I analyze in the book, I show that there is a dominant way of acting – for instance, not interacting with ordinary people due in part to security concerns – and exceptions – people who challenge the dominant ways of acting and suggest alternate solutions. Take the example of the security concerns that you mention: There are two main ways to protect your safety in conflict zones. One is to isolate yourself from your surroundings and live in a fortified compound, drive with doors locked and windows closed, and limit your interactions with ordinary people – as do the aid workers, diplomats, and peacekeepers that you mention. The other way is to use an acceptance approach, meaning to keep a low profile, blend as much as possible in the surrounding communities, and develop good relationships with local people, including armed groups and power brokers. What’s really interesting is, in many contexts, acceptance is more effective than isolation – see notably Larissa Fast’s latest book and the 2011 report by Jan Egeland, Adele Harmer, and Abby Stoddard. And using an acceptance approach to security does not have the counterproductive consequence of separating interveners from the populations that they want to help, rather the opposite.

Q:  You argue that factors like with whom peacebuilders have after-work drinks, where they dine, and who attends expat-oriented parties actually affects the effectiveness of international interventions. Could you explain for our readers how & why that is?

Autesserre: This is such an important example because so many interveners see their social lives as separate from their work abroad – and these types of practices go under the radar of policy-makers when considering how to improve peacebuilding because, at first glance, it seems so trivial. Yet, as we have already discussed, everyday practices create firm boundaries between international peacebuilders and the populations whose cooperation they need to implement their projects. Social habits – with whom you have after-work drinks, parties, and dinners – can either reinforce these boundaries or break them.

If you only socialize with other expatriates, you end up living in an expatriate bubble where you are disconnected from your surroundings and don’t understand well enough the local realities that you want to change – so you can’t be very effective. On the other hand, when you socialize with local people, you get a better understanding of the country or village where you work, and that makes you better at tailoring your programs to the problems at hand. You also have a better chance at gaining acceptance into local communities, thus ensuring you have better access to information to predict when tensions may be on the rise and advocate for interventions to prevent violence. You get official approval or cooperation for your programs much more easily than the other expatriates who have no local contacts. You are perceived as more respectful by the communities in which you work, and that diminishes their incentives to adapt, distort, or reject your programs. You are better able to contribute to capacity development because “relationship building” is essential to that. And so on and so forth (I have an entire chapter on this topic in the book).

And, of course, I’m not the only scholar who has made this observation. Anne Holohan and Adam Moore (among others) have shown that the effectiveness of the same international program varies widely depending on whether its implementers socialize with their local counterparts.

This would in fact seem like common sense to anybody who does not live in “Peaceland” (the term I give to the international peacebuilders’ world). But the habit of socializing only with other expats is currently so ingrained that interveners rarely put this idea into practice – they do not even talk about it.

Q: Peaceland takes an innovative approach to studying peacekeeping and associated peacebuilding interventions: ethnography. Why did you choose the ethnographic approach?

Autesserre: I wanted to see whether everyday practices and habits had any influence on peacebuilding effectiveness. The problem is that everyday practices and habits are usually implicit, automatic, and taken for granted. Vincent Pouliot has a fantastic sentence in “The Logic of Practicality” to explain what it means in terms of research methodology: Asking people to identify their everyday practices is usually about as productive as “asking fish, if they could speak, to describe the water in which they swim.” In other words, common political science methodologies like surveys, interviews, or document analyses are great to study things that are explicit and deliberate, but they don’t work well if you are trying to understand everyday practices. What researchers need to do is to experience those practices and habits personally. So I used participant and field observations to get at practices and habits, and I complemented these methods with in-depth interviews and document analysis to study policies, strategies, institutions, and narratives.

Q: What does this approach contribute that’s missing from other International Relations scholarship?

Autesserre: It helps complement the existing IR analyses that usually focus on macro-level policies, strategies, institutions, and discourses. But, despite the work of people like Charli Carpenter, Vincent Pouliot, Ed Schatz, and Lisa Weeden, this approach remains quite rare in international relations because it presents several complications for researchers. Its emphasis on direct contact requires researchers to gain privileged access to organizations that have a culture of secrecy, such as diplomatic missions or the United Nations. It poses an additional challenge to scholars of war and peace, as it requires us to spend extended periods of time in the dangerous environments where intervention actually takes place – something that is often impossible for academics due to security concerns, family imperatives, and teaching obligations. As a result, we still don’t know enough about the influence of everyday practices and habits in international relations.

Q:  There have been many changes in peacebuilding efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the last few years, in part due to the influence of your first book, The Trouble with the Congo. What’s working there in terms of peace building, and what needs to change?

Autesserre: A lot has changed over the past few years, but the overall patterns that I analyzed in The Trouble With the Congo have remained the same. Most international interveners still use a top-down approach to peacebuilding and focus on initiatives like big international conferences and elite-level peace processes.

There is a bit more attention paid to local conflicts than before, and that’s heartening. When I started my Ph.D. research in the early 2000s, donors, diplomats, and United Nations peacekeepers usually did not understand what I meant when I asked what they were doing to support local conflict resolution (they would answer by telling me about their projects to treat victims of sexual violence or provide humanitarian aid). When they did actually understand my questions, they often started laughing at me, as if supporting local conflict resolution was an absurd idea.

Now, even the United Nations Special Envoy for the Great Lakes mentions local conflict resolution as something that we should support. And there are more funds and programs to support local peace building actors. The financial investment is still very small compared to the needs, and the acknowledgements by high-level officials often sound a lot like just paying lip service to the idea, but we are on the right track, and that’s very good news for peace building in Congo.

Q: What’s next on your research agenda?

Autesserre: I am actually on my way to Congo to test two ideas for my next project: one on the reasons for peacebuilding success and the other on the production of knowledge on civil and international wars. Both ideas are very much in line with what I have done in the past – a focus on on-the-ground dynamics and an interpretive and ethnographic approach. It seems like the scholarly world has done a pretty good job analyzing why peacebuilding doesn’t work, but we still know so little about why and when it does work. To me, that is the next step to improving international peace interventions.