Séverine Autesserre, a former humanitarian-aid worker, award-winning researcher and professor of political science at Columbia University, has become one of the foremost thinkers on international peace-building in the last decade.
Following “Peaceland,” a book critically exploring the parallel worlds of United Nations peacekeeping missions, and “The Trouble With the Congo,” which examines the failed peace efforts in the country, Autesserre’s newest book, “The Frontlines of Peace,” follows the stories of grass-roots peace activists, or “role models,” from conflict zones to the “home front.”
Through challenging the peacekeeping model pioneered by the UN — which she refers to as “Peace Inc.” — Autesserre proposes an alternative form of peacemaking and ideal for the new international humanitarian: someone who listens, who is in it for the long haul, who knows the local language, doesn’t presume to know what’s best and is flexible.
As she says, “The inhabitants of war-torn countries and onlookers from the outside are really fed up with the apparent inability of governments, peacekeepers and international institutions to end violence.”
PassBlue spoke with Autesserre in May from her base in New York City about global peace activism and presenting her findings virtually to the UN Security Council in April, secretly wearing jogging pants and speaking under Chatham House rules — off the record. Vietnam, an elected Council member, had invited her to speak.
Autesserre was born in Paris in 1976 but has American citizenship as well and has lived in New York City for 20 years. She has a post-doctorate from Yale University, a Ph.D. in political science from New York University, master’s degrees in international relations and political science from Columbia University and Sciences Po, respectively, and a B.A. in political science from Sorbonne University. — CLAIR MACDOUGALL
The interview has been edited slightly and condensed for clarity.
How did you become interested and involved in the humanitarian world?
Autesserre: My father was a sound technician for the French state radio, Radio France, and I remember, growing up, my dad was traveling the world reporting on wars, presidents’ visits, revolutions, and when he was back home he would always tell me stories of what he saw when he was abroad. I thought that journalists were humanitarian aid workers; they were meant to help people around the world because that was what my dad said he tried to do that first by being a journalist [laughs] and that was a disaster. And then I worked for humanitarian aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Doctors of the World and Action Against Hunger. I even interned with Ocha [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] and with IOM [International Organization for Migration] in New York and for other NGOs in Afghanistan, Congo and Kosovo. But eventually, I grew frustrated at addressing the consequences of violence rather than the causes, and so that’s why I became involved in peace-building.
How did you acquire such vast experience as a humanitarian-aid worker at such a young age?
Autesserre: I had a typical career for an international aid worker. I started by doing internships, and I went to do volunteer work in India, Nicaragua and South Africa. Once I finished my master’s degree, I had my first proper job in a humanitarian aid organization. You know how it is — they send you for six months somewhere, and after six months, you move on to another conflict zone and then another. Seeing people in their 20s, very young, who have already worked in quite a few conflict zones all over the world — to me that is typical of the international aid system as it currently exists.
What motivated you to write this book on a new peacemaking and humanitarian-aid model?
Autessere: We need to know how peace-building can actually work, and that’s crucial because violence is so widespread today; 1.5 billion people live under the threat of violence in more than 50 conflict zones around the world. Even countries like France, where I’m from originally, and the United States, where I live now, face an increasing number of hate crimes, gang fighting, terror attacks and violence. When I started working on “The Frontlines of Peace” in 2013, I had written two books and dozens of articles on why and how we fail to stop war and to end violence, so I wanted to look at the successes.
What I had seen in my 20-plus years of work and research on war and peace and my work in 12 conflict zones was that our templates and techniques for approaching war and peace just don’t work. You look at Afghanistan, Colombia, [Democratic Republic of the] Congo, Syria, Ukraine, Myanmar, it feels like the same story we have heard many times before — there is violence, the United Nations got involved and our countries pledged millions in assistance, warring parties called cease-fires, they signed agreements, held elections; these are the headlines, and then a week or two later, sometimes a few days later, violence flares up again and often it never stops, and in many cases it lasts for years after.
Of all ongoing wars, half of them have already lasted for more than 20 years. In just the past five years, wars have spurned the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The inhabitants of war-torn countries and onlookers from the outside are really fed up with the apparent inability of governments, peacekeepers and international institutions to end violence.
The book is about hope and success stories because I found success stories everywhere, even in the most violent parts of the world. I found success stories in Congo, in the middle of the most violent provinces — I found the island of Idjwi, a haven of peace in Congo. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, I found this little village that was founded specifically to demonstrate that Palestinian and Israeli people can live in peace together. I found success stories in Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia. I’ve also seen that lessons from conflict zones can also apply at home. The subtitle of the book is “An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World” — it’s a private joke between me and myself because “Frontlines of Peace” is really a book about how each one of us can change the world and how we can learn from the role models I portray in the book.
Is there insider jargon associated with “peace-building” that outsiders may not get?
Autesserre: It’s really an alphabet soup of acronyms, and I’ve had to learn how to write for people who don’t work in peace-building. I also think I am guilty, as I have created two additional pieces of jargon: “Peace Inc.” and “Peaceland.” Peaceland is the world of peace-builders who spend their lives hopping from conflict zone to conflict zone — just basically what I did at the beginning of my career. Peace Inc. are the conventional and problematic ways to end war: the formalized, top down, outsider-led approach.
How would you describe an intervention led by “Peace Inc.” in “Peaceland”? Who are the key players and how do humanitarian and peace-building actions typically unfold?
Autessere: What I show in my whole body of work is that the way Peace Inc. approaches peace in war zones is wrong. There are huge problems, and that’s why it fails regularly, and that’s why violence continues in conflict zones. The way that it usually works is that governments, diplomats and peacekeepers rely on misleading and detrimental assumptions about peace-building and that leads to counterproductive consequences on the ground.
For instance, a central idea in the standard approach to peace is that only top-down interventions can end violence. So most international peace-builders will focus on working with presidents, with governments, with rebel leaders, with other foreign peace-builders based in capital cities and headquarters, and they tend to ignore the grass-roots, bottom-up efforts by ordinary people and local activists because they think these efforts are mundane, they are trivial, they don’t matter.
Another key assumption of Peace Inc. is that all good things come together; so for instance, that elections will naturally lead to peace, while we know that elections organized shortly after a war often fuel violence rather than end it, and we’ve seen that all over the world from Afghanistan, Colombia to Congo, Iraq and many other places. Another central misleading assumption is the belief that only outsiders, foreigners or elites in capital cities have the required skills and expertise to build peace, that people who live in conflict zones are ordinary people, they are incompetent and often there are many other pejorative ideas about their skills to build peace. Again, this ignores the fact that ordinary people and local activists have a lot of relevant skills, networks and expertise.
Let’s turn to the UN, obviously a big player in international peace-building. What could its various agencies, bodies and the Security Council be doing differently? Is the UN the biggest player in Peace Inc.?
Autesserre: A lot of the people who work for the United Nations are followers of Peace Inc. and many of their strategies are based on these misleading assumptions. What is important is that there is a minority of people who currently work within the United Nations who follow the alternative approach, who do things differently, and to me it’s important that we talk about these people because they give me hope. I have found them within every unit, every department, every peacekeeping mission, every UN agency I’ve looked at.
Your work has been around for at least a decade, so what changes have you seen in the UN system since this more critical discourse has emerged around peace-building?
Autesserre: What I have seen is a change in discourse rather than a change in practice.
What was it like presenting a book about grass-roots peace activism to one of the most powerful international bodies, the UN Security Council?
Autesserre: It was Chatham House rules, and it was superconfidential, and they repeated to me that the only thing I could say was that I was invited, and the topic of discussion was “The Frontlines of Peace.”
You can imagine, it’s the Security Council, the 15 most powerful people in the field of peace-building, so that was superintimidating. I have done a lot of briefings to the United Nations departments, agencies and officials and members of peacekeeping missions, and very often people tell me they agree with what I say and basically blame their hierarchy for the fact that Peace Inc. continues to run the show. I said to myself: I am talking to the UNSC, and they won’t be able to blame their hierarchy because there is nobody above them. It felt like a huge opportunity to have an impact, but at the same time it felt a bit surreal. I was joking to my husband afterwards that I was probably the only person to brief the SC from her kitchen wearing her running pants.
What is your next project after your book on changing the world?
Autesserre: I have a lot of ideas and have already started working on some — one of them is an ethnography on war reporters, basically like my “Peaceland” book but looking at war reporters, I think that might be fun.
This interview introduces our Women as Changemakers column, appearing regularly in PassBlue and focusing on women who are influencing global matters in profound ways.
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.