TEDGlobal 2014

Severine Autesserre: To solve mass violence, look to locals

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Severine Autesserre studies the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the middle of the deadliest conflict since World War II; it's been called "the largest ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world.” The conflict seems hopelessly, unsolvably large. But her insight from decades of listening and engaging: The conflicts are often locally based. And instead of focusing on solutions that scale to a national level, leaders and aid groups might be better served solving local crises before they ignite.

- Peace and conflict researcher
Severine Autesserre traces civil war and endemic violence to its roots, and its resolution, in local and interpersonal conflicts. Full bio

I want to speak about
a forgotten conflict.
00:12
It's a conflict that rarely
hits the headlines.
00:15
It happens right here,
in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
00:19
Now, most people outside of Africa
don't know much about the war in Congo,
00:24
so let me give you a couple of key facts.
00:28
The Congolese conflict is the deadliest
conflict since World War II.
00:31
It has caused almost four million deaths.
00:37
It has destabilized most of Central Africa
for the past 18 years.
00:40
It is the largest ongoing
humanitarian crisis in the world.
00:45
That's why I first went to Congo in 2001.
00:50
I was a young humanitarian aid worker,
and I met this woman who was my age.
00:53
She was called Isabelle.
00:59
Local militias
had attacked Isabelle's village.
01:02
They had killed many men,
raped many women.
01:05
They had looted everything.
01:09
And then they wanted to take Isabelle,
01:11
but her husband stepped in,
01:13
and he said, "No,
please don't take Isabelle.
01:15
Take me instead."
01:18
So he had gone to the forest
with the militias,
01:21
and Isabelle had never seen him again.
01:24
Well, it's because of people
like Isabelle and her husband
01:28
that I have devoted my career
to studying this war
01:32
that we know so little about.
01:35
Although there is one story
about Congo that you may have heard.
01:38
It's a story about minerals and rape.
01:43
Policy statements and media reports
01:47
both usually focus on a primary cause
of violence in Congo --
01:49
the illegal exploitation and trafficking
of natural resources --
01:54
and on a main consequence --
01:59
sexual abuse of women and girls
as a weapon of war.
02:01
So, not that these two issues
aren't important and tragic. They are.
02:07
But today I want to tell you
a different story.
02:13
I want to tell you a story
that emphasizes a core cause
02:17
of the ongoing conflict.
02:21
Violence in Congo is in large part driven
by local bottom-up conflicts
02:24
that international peace efforts
have failed to help address.
02:31
The story starts from the fact
that not only is Congo notable
02:37
for being the world's worst
ongoing humanitarian crisis,
02:42
but it is also home to some of the largest
02:46
international peacebuilding
efforts in the world.
02:50
Congo hosts the largest
02:54
and most expensive United Nations
peacekeeping mission in the world.
02:56
It was also the site of the first
European-led peacekeeping mission,
03:01
and for its first cases ever,
03:06
the International Criminal Court
chose to prosecute Congolese warlords.
03:08
In 2006, when Congo held the first
free national elections in its history,
03:15
many observers thought that an end to
violence in the region had finally come.
03:21
The international community lauded the
successful organization of these elections
03:27
as finally an example
of successful international intervention
03:34
in a failed state.
03:38
But the eastern provinces
03:40
have continued to face
massive population displacements
03:42
and horrific human rights violations.
03:46
Shortly before I went
back there last summer,
03:49
there was a horrible massacre
in the province of South Kivu.
03:52
Thirty-three people were killed.
03:57
They were mostly women and children,
03:59
and many of them were hacked to death.
04:01
During the past eight years,
04:05
fighting in the eastern provinces
has regularly reignited
04:07
full-scale civil and international war.
04:11
So basically, every time we feel
that we are on the brink of peace,
04:14
the conflict explodes again.
04:19
Why?
04:22
Why have the massive international efforts
04:24
failed to help Congo
achieve lasting peace and security?
04:27
Well, my answer to this question
revolves around two central observations.
04:33
First, one of the main reasons
for the continuation of violence in Congo
04:40
is fundamentally local --
04:46
and when I say local,
04:49
I really mean at the level
of the individual, the family,
04:51
the clan, the municipality,
the community, the district,
04:54
sometimes the ethnic group.
04:58
For instance, you remember the story
of Isabelle that I told you.
05:01
Well, the reason why militias
had attacked Isabelle's village
05:06
was because they wanted to take the land
05:10
that the villagers needed
to cultivate food and to survive.
05:13
The second central observation
is that international peace efforts
05:18
have failed to help
address local conflicts
05:23
because of the presence
of a dominant peacebuilding culture.
05:27
So what I mean is that
05:31
Western and African diplomats,
05:35
United Nations peacekeepers, donors,
05:37
the staff of most
nongovernmental organizations
05:40
that work with the resolution of conflict,
05:43
they all share a specific way
of seeing the world.
05:46
And I was one of these people,
and I shared this culture,
05:51
so I know all too well how powerful it is.
05:55
Throughout the world,
and throughout conflict zones,
05:59
this common culture shapes
the intervener's understanding
06:03
of the causes of violence
06:07
as something that is primarily located
in the national and international spheres.
06:09
It shapes our understanding
of the path toward peace
06:16
as something again that requires
top-down intervention
06:19
to address national
and international tensions.
06:23
And it shapes our understanding
of the roles of foreign actors
06:27
as engaging in national
and international peace processes.
06:31
Even more importantly,
this common culture
06:36
enables international peacebuilders
to ignore the micro-level tensions
06:40
that often jeopardize
the macro-level settlements.
06:47
So for instance, in Congo,
06:52
because of how they are
socialized and trained,
06:54
United Nations officials,
donors, diplomats,
06:58
the staff of most
nongovernmental organizations,
07:01
they interpret continued fighting
and massacres as a top-down problem.
07:04
To them, the violence they see
07:11
is the consequence of tensions
between President Kabila
07:13
and various national opponents,
07:18
and tensions between Congo,
Rwanda and Uganda.
07:21
In addition, these international
peacebuilders view local conflicts
07:26
as simply the result
of national and international tensions,
07:32
insufficient state authority,
07:37
and what they call the Congolese people's
so-called inherent penchant for violence.
07:40
The dominant culture
also constructs intervention
07:47
at the national and international levels
07:51
as the only natural and legitimate task
for United Nations staffers and diplomats.
07:53
And it elevates the organization
of general elections,
08:01
which is now a sort of cure-all,
08:05
as the most crucial state
reconstruction mechanism
08:07
over more effective
state-building approaches.
08:11
And that happens not only in Congo
but also in many other conflict zones.
08:14
But let's dig deeper,
08:21
into the other main sources of violence.
08:23
In Congo, continuing violence
08:27
is motivated not only by the national
and international causes
08:29
but also by longstanding
bottom-up agendas
08:34
whose main instigators
are villagers, traditional chiefs,
08:39
community chiefs or ethnic leaders.
08:42
Many conflicts revolve around political,
social and economic stakes
08:45
that are distinctively local.
08:51
For instance, there is
a lot of competition
08:54
at the village or district level
08:57
over who can be chief of village
or chief of territory
09:00
according to traditional law,
09:03
and who can control
the distribution of land
09:06
and the exploitation
of local mining sites.
09:09
This competition often results
in localized fighting,
09:13
for instance in one village or territory,
09:17
and quite frequently,
it escalates into generalized fighting,
09:21
so across a whole province,
09:24
and even at times
into neighboring countries.
09:27
Take the conflict between Congolese
of Rwandan descent
09:30
and the so-called indigenous
communities of the Kivus.
09:35
This conflict started in the 1930s
during Belgian colonization,
09:40
when both communities competed
over access to land and to local power.
09:45
Then, in 1960,
after Congolese independence,
09:51
it escalated because each camp
tried to align with national politicians,
09:54
but still to advance their local agendas.
10:00
And then, at the time
of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda,
10:04
these local actors allied
with Congolese and Rwandan armed groups,
10:08
but still to advance their local agendas
in the provinces of the Kivus.
10:14
And since then, these local disputes
over land and local power
10:20
have fueled violence,
10:25
and they have regularly jeopardized
10:27
the national and
international settlements.
10:29
So we can wonder why
in these circumstances
10:35
the international peacebuilders
have failed to help implement
10:39
local peacebuilding programs.
10:43
And the answer is that
international interveners
10:47
deem the resolution of grassroots conflict
10:52
an unimportant, unfamiliar,
and illegitimate task.
10:55
The very idea of becoming involved
at the local level clashes fundamentally
11:02
with existing cultural norms,
11:08
and it threatens
key organizational interests.
11:10
For instance, the very identity
of the United Nations
11:14
as this macro-level
diplomatic organization
11:18
would be upended
if it were to refocus on local conflicts.
11:22
And the result is that
neither the internal resistance
11:28
to the dominant ways of working
11:33
nor the external shocks
11:35
have managed to convince international
actors that they should reevaluate
11:38
their understanding
of violence and intervention.
11:42
And so far, there have been
only very few exceptions.
11:47
There have been exceptions,
but only very few exceptions,
11:51
to this broad pattern.
11:54
So to wrap up,
the story I just told you
11:58
is a story about how
a dominant peacebuilding culture
12:01
shapes the intervener's understanding
of what the causes of violence are,
12:06
how peace is made,
12:11
and what interventions should accomplish.
12:12
These understandings enable
international peacebuilders
12:16
to ignore the micro-level foundations
12:20
that are so necessary
for sustainable peace.
12:23
The resulting inattention
to local conflicts
12:27
leads to inadequate peacebuilding
in the short term
12:30
and potential war resumption
in the long term.
12:34
And what's fascinating
is that this analysis
12:38
helps us to better understand
many cases of lasting conflict
12:42
and international intervention failures,
in Africa and elsewhere.
12:46
Local conflicts fuel violence
in most war and post-war environments,
12:51
from Afghanistan to Sudan
to Timor-Leste,
12:56
and in the rare cases
where there have been comprehensive,
13:00
bottom-up peacebuilding initiatives,
13:04
these attempts have been successful
at making peace sustainable.
13:07
One of the best examples is the contrast
13:12
between the relatively peaceful
situation in Somaliland,
13:15
which benefited from sustained
grassroots peacebuilding initiatives,
13:19
and the violence prevalent
in the rest of Somalia,
13:25
where peacebuilding
has been mostly top-down.
13:29
And there are several other cases
13:32
in which local, grassroots
conflict resolution
13:35
has made a crucial difference.
13:38
So if we want international
peacebuilding to work,
13:41
in addition to any top-down intervention,
13:45
conflicts must be resolved
from the bottom up.
13:49
And again, it's not that national
and international tensions don't matter.
13:53
They do.
13:58
And it's not that national
and international peacebuilding
13:59
isn't necessary.
14:02
It is.
14:04
Instead, it is that both macro-level
and micro-level peacebuilding are needed
14:05
to make peace sustainable,
14:13
and local nongovernmental organizations,
14:15
local authorities and
civil society representatives
14:17
should be the main actors
in the bottom-up process.
14:20
So of course, there are obstacles.
14:25
Local actors often lack the funding
14:27
and sometimes the logistical means
and the technical capacity
14:30
to implement effective,
local peacebuilding programs.
14:34
So international actors
should expand their funding and support
14:38
for local conflict resolution.
14:43
As for Congo, what can be done?
14:47
After two decades of conflict
and the deaths of millions,
14:50
it's clear that we need
to change our approach.
14:54
Based on my field research,
14:58
I believe that international
and Congolese actors
15:00
should pay more attention
to the resolution of land conflict
15:03
and the promotion
of inter-community reconciliation.
15:06
So for instance,
in the province of the Kivus,
15:11
the Life and Peace Institute
and its Congolese partners
15:14
have set up inter-community forums
15:17
to discuss the specifics
of local conflicts over land,
15:20
and these forums have found solutions
to help manage the violence.
15:24
That's the kind of program
that is sorely needed
15:30
throughout eastern Congo.
15:34
It's with programs like this
15:36
that we can help people
like Isabelle and her husband.
15:38
So these will not be magic wands,
15:43
but because they take into account
deeply rooted causes of the violence,
15:46
they could definitely be game-changers.
15:51
Thank you.
15:54
(Applause)
15:57

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About the Speaker:

Severine Autesserre - Peace and conflict researcher
Severine Autesserre traces civil war and endemic violence to its roots, and its resolution, in local and interpersonal conflicts.

Why you should listen
For Barnard College, Columbia University political science professor Severine Autesserre, solutions to large-scale instability and widespread violence aren’t devised in the academy or mapped out internationally. They’re negotiated, village by village, with the people affected.
 
Calling for a far greater attention to a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding, along with more top-down ways, the author of The Trouble with Congo (and the recent Peaceland) shows that resolving local disputes over land, resources and political power is key to securing the long-term stability of countries.
More profile about the speaker
Severine Autesserre | Speaker | TED.com