Seeing Like a Peacebuilder: An Ethnography of International Intervention

Séverine Autesserre, Political Science, Barnard College

Research Grant, 2010, 2011

Why do international peace interventions so often fail to reach their full potential? To answer this question, I conducted several years of research in conflict zones around the world, including in Burundi, Congo, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, South Sudan, and Timor-Leste. My main finding is that everyday elements such as the expatriates’ social habits, standard security procedures, and habitual approaches to collecting information on violence strongly impact the effectiveness of intervention efforts.

A number of interveners challenge the dominant modes of thinking and acting.

The publications based on this research demonstrate that individuals from all parts of the world and all walks of life, who would have little in common outside of the peacebuilding arena, share a number of practices, habits, and narratives when they serve as interveners in conflict zones. These shared modes of operation enable foreign peacebuilders to function in the field, but they often have unintended consequences that decrease the effectiveness of international efforts. The way that interveners construct knowledge of their areas of deployment prevents them from fully grasping the contexts in which they work. Consequently, they tend to rely on overly simplistic narratives that obscure the complex causes of and potential solutions to violence. The foreign peacebuilders’ everyday practices also create and perpetuate firm boundaries and a wide power disparity between themselves and local people. These dynamics create numerous obstacles to the peace efforts and frequently prompt local counterparts to evade, resist, or reject international initiatives.

A number of interveners challenge the dominant modes of thinking and acting. Their peacebuilding efforts are usually more effective than those of their peers who follow the prevailing practices. However, these individuals often end up either forced to conform or so frustrated that they change careers and leave the peacebuilding field. Despite their marginalization, these dissenters are tremendously important: By looking at their alternative modes of operation, we can begin to specify the conditions under which peace interventions can be more effective.

  1. Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Publisher's webpage for the book
  2. "Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences," African Affairs 111 (443), pp. 202-222, Spring 2012.

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