(From Barnard Magazine, Fall 2014)

Early in her career, Séverine Autesserre traveled the globe as a member of international intervention organizations, mostly helping with humanitarian aid. She also helped with peace-building efforts, assisting with post-conflict rebuilding work in such places as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, and Timor-Leste, among others.

Each region had its unique challenges, conflicts, and needs. But Autesserre says that wherever she went, she noticed that too often peace builders would follow similar approaches: instead of creating responses tailored to a country’s cultural and economic issues, most would use similar strategies and methods.

There are not countries where every peace-building group is getting it right, she notes.There are organizations or even individuals who get it right, and can be models to follow. These are the exceptions, however, and it’s important to examine how they are more effective, since even minor missteps may have major consequences, says Autesserre, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard since 2007. In some cases, instead of being encouraged to engage with communities, understand customs and culture and develop local connections and contacts, peace builders are discouraged from getting too close to the local population. They tend to live in a sort of bubble, working and socializing primarily with one another. Inefficient practices might be carried out without question, because deviating from an official policy can jeopardize a career. This creates distrust among wary locals—the very individuals with the most at stake in the projects, and who rarely get ownership of initiatives.

Autesserre calls this bubble “peaceland.” In her engaging new book, Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention (Cambridge University Press, 2014), she highlights efforts that can be used as models.The book brainstorms ways to improve the international peace- building process while outlining the problems that exist under the current model, as well as ideas for how to solve them. Peaceland is not a spot on the map but an international political machine—one that Autesserre calls mostly ineffective. She writes in her book that there is no consensus on the success of peace-building efforts—research numbers vary by source from 31 to 85 percent— and there’s enormous disagreement about which are the actual cases of success. Timor-Leste is often heralded as a successful example of international peace building, but it is not fully peaceful, and what success there is comes mostly from local peoples’ efforts.

But while officials typically cite such reasons for failure as lack of funds, or political or cultural clashes on the ground, Autesserre says that violations of social practice and information gathering may cause the most damage. For example, she and a group of fellow expatriates would attend parties in Afghanistan that involved alcohol and where women dressed as they would for parties in the U.S. “I never felt comfortable,” she says. “Then I would see Afghans looking at us in the street.”

Incidents like this can undermine an entire project. “We value thematic knowledge more than local expertise, and that leads to a lot of problems,” Autesserre says. “Some organizations have managed to rely and build on local knowledge. But no one is doing everything right.”

It’s not necessarily the fault of individuals working in these regions, says Autesserre. Most are well meaning and relatively competent.Yet they are also caught in a system that makes it extremely difficult to do a good job. If the professor is any indication, these workers also have impressive credentials. A native of France who completed undergraduate studies in political science at the Sorbonne (and was valedictorian of her class), Autesserre received a master’s in political science from the Paris Institute of Political Studies, known as Sciences Po, before earning another MA in international affairs at NYU and a PhD in political science at Columbia. Fueled by prestigious awards and grants, (Fulbright Scholar, MacCracken Fellow, U. S. Institute of Peace Fellow, Presidential Research Award at Barnard, among many distinctions), Autesserre has been able to travel extensively, view the peace-building process firsthand, and interview workers.

The complaints were extensive and familiar. “Many [expatriate peace builders] are frustrated but they can’t voice their frustrations publicly, because if they did so they would jeopardize their positions,” Autesserre says. “As part of that world, you only talk about it in the evening relaxing, venting with a drink with friends. But it’s so important. It should be on the agenda at the headquarters of everyone who cares about international peace building. I see my book as amplifying the voice of these people,” she says.

The research that she does also helps inform her teaching at Barnard. This year, Autesserre is teaching the colloquium, Aid, Violence, and Politics in Africa, as well as a graduate-level seminar, Debates on International Peace Interventions. The colloquium focuses on humanitarian aid, and the graduate seminar highlights the question of peace and how to analyze the effectiveness of international interventions.

Autesserre tells her students that to be good peace builders, they must specialize in a specific area of the world—learn the language, read as much as possible about the region, travel to it, and see if they can handle the pressure of working in this type of environment. Undergraduate foreign-language study is essential. She notes that students can study Swahili or Wolof (a language of Senegal, the Gambia, and Mauritania in western Africa); Arabic, French, and Spanish are also very useful. Barnard students can also take Autesserre’s classes on peace building and civil wars to gain background in understanding and analyzing conflicts. She also points out that the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia also offers many classes on peacekeeping, mediation, and more.

Barnard does a wonderful job of encouraging study-abroad opportunities, adds Autesserre. Her students have participated in programs in Rwanda, South Africa, and Uganda, learning about places that have been through conflict. There are also great internship opportunities here in New York, with the United Nations and NGOs, and in Washington, D.C. However, the professor reminds students that these experiences should never be at the expense of academics, because getting into graduate school is essential for this type of work.

Autesserre credits Barnard students and colleagues for much of the intellectual support throughout the writing of Peaceland. Her lectures with students helped her flesh out ideas, and colleagues read her manuscript and offered useful advice. (Just as important was the NewYork City couch on which fellow political science assistant professor Ayten Gündogdu allowed her to crash between research trips.)

Peaceland was released last spring, so Autesserre is still gauging its full impact. She believes that change will not just come from the top down; everyone can make
a difference. “I get e-mails from former Barnard students now in interventionist work in Botswana, in Thailand, other places like that. They tell me ‘Something happened last week and I kept in mind the discussions we had in class about the importance of local knowledge, and the importance of not following templates.’

“I was hoping that I was doing something,” says Autesserre. “That through my teaching I was also helping change the system.”

—By Melissa Phipps
—Illustration by Sarah Jacoby