Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo

Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble With Congo

First went to Congo as humanitarian aid worker, Medicos Sin Fronteras.

“It became clear to me that local agendas drove a large part of the continuing violence. Why then did diplomats, United Nations officials, and nongovernmental organization staff members continually fail to consider the local dynamics?” p. xvii.

This is essentially the cri d’coeur of a huge body of scholarly literature, particularly Africanist literature. It’s a complicated bit of self-fulfillment, in a way: it often comes from people who first worked for development agencies or in interstate politics and who then pursued academia looking for other ways to understand what happened and why it happens.

“Two themes [in stories told by ‘perpetrators and victims of violence’] constantly recurred: the primacy of land and other micro-level issues in causing violence and producing anguish, and the unspeakable horrors perpetrated on the Congolese population. The first theme is crucial. It helps to understand why violence started, why it becameso pervasive, why it continued after the Congo embarked on a transition from war to peace and democracy, and why the efforts of international interveners failed to help the Congo build a sustainable peace.” p. 2

“The neglect of local conflicts is even more perplexing in the Congo, because we cannot attribute it to callousness, powerlessness, or inanity on the part of the foreigner interveners…Most foreign interveners genuinely tried to end organized violence in the Congo. Far from being callous, they usually were well-meaning individuals, who had often devoted their lives to combating injustice, violence and poverty…Why did almost all of them ignore the critical micro-level causes of violence?…a dominant international peacebuilding culture shaped the intervention in the Congo in a way that precluded action on local violence…this culture shaped the parameters of acceptable action.” pp. 10-11

Here I think we’re on the terrain Ferguson established in The Anti-Politics Machine, if more sympathetically to these actors: that sovereignty as both interstate and nationalist actors have codified it in Africa prevents thinking of “the local” as a domain of international and non-state actor action, and arguably prevents them even from conceding that they understand what they understand about it. To acknowledge that they understand accurately the importance of something that they also believe themselves unable to intervene within–unable both as a matter of having the right instruments and in having the right to do so–is to understand that the whole enterprise is futile.

Autesserre doesn’t agree quite with my pessimism here, in that she thinks the interveners could understand locality and could choose to conceptualize their intervention as legitimately concerned with it. For all that I don’t think that faith is quite warranted, she pulls a very nice trick off in terms of conceptualizing the problem with intervention as cultural in an almost classic “pathology of poverty” sense–e.g., that the interveners have habitual, institutionalized ways of thinking and acting that keep them stuck repeating the same mistakes. And like anyone with a project of naming culture as the problem, she has faith that there can be an intervention in the interveners–that their habitual, bounded practices and thinking can be changed or remolded. This requires her to not accept that there is any sense in which the failure of intervention reinforces the deeper interests of the interveners (which I take to be Ferguson’s argument in Anti-Politics Machine) or that it is a structural, discursive requirement of the institution itself (which would be more my point).

Clear, incisive rebuttal of any argument for intrinsic or “bottom-up” explanations of postwar conflict in Congo; also a clear history of international intervention and ideas of sovereignty. What’s bottom-up here in her view is not violence but disputes over land, property, and local forms of bureaucratic authority.

Very rich, detailed history of how attempts to craft “local solutions” were frustrated or dispersed within the intervention. This is the most original, startling material in the book, I think. (Chapter Five)

“Throughout the transition, most international actors continued to perceive local tensions as a secondary cause of violence and grassroots conflict resolution as an unfeasible and illegitimate task. This collective understanding shaped not only the overall intervention strategy away from micro-level involvement, but also the international actors’ perception of the obstacles they would have faced had they tried to become involved at the grassroots level. They viewed the institution of sovereignty, as we as mandate, financial, logistical and human limitations as absolute constraints instead of manageable problems. As a result, interveners let local tensions fester to the point where they jeopardized the macro-level settlements many times both during and after the transition.” p. 230

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