hobbes in the congo
Here's one of the great mysteries of our age: why, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on peacekeeping, peace deal negotiations, democracy promotion, humanitarian aid, development assistance, and celebrity awareness-raising, is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo still an anarchic war zone? Why don't any of these efforts result in the creation of a peaceful, stable Kivu region?
My friend Severine Autesserre has a fantastic article in the new issue of International Organization that tackles part of this question. The piece, entitled, "Hobbes and the Congo: Frames, Local Violence, and International Intervention," is well worth your time. (You'll need access to Cambridge Journals to read it in full.) In it, Autesserre attempts to explain why diplomats and others engaged in peacebuilding processes "neglect to address the local causes of peace process failures, particularly when they threaten the macro-level settlements."
It's a question well worth answering, and the article beautifully summarizes the main arguments in Autesserre's forthcoming book. Using a constructivist approach that focuses on how international actors framed events and norms, she identifies four key reasons that international actors failed (and continue to fail) to focus on the local-level conflicts that are at the root of the DRC's troubles:
- The situation was labelled as a "post-conflict" despite the reality of continuing warfare on the ground.
- International actors believe that a certain minimal level of violence is "normal" and therefore acceptable for the eastern Congo.
- International actors believed that international action was not appropriate at the subnational level.
- International norms prioritize the holding of democratic elections over local conflict resolution as the best way to build the state and to create peace.
The diplomatic world of the Congo - especially in the east - is an echo chamber. World Bank experts or Kinshasa-based diplomats fly in for a few days (on a MONUC plane), check into the Hotel Ihusi, and talk to the same limited number of Francophone Congolese sources that their MONUC escorts always cite in their reports. One narrative tends to dominate their accounts. It's repeated by almost every white person in the region until it becomes gospel truth. The problem is, this narrative is usually wrong. As Autesserre notes, short-term visits tend to "provide participants with only basic snapshots of the local situations," further narrowing their focus away from the region's most serious problems.
Finally, Autesserre discusses the ridiculous overemphasis on holding elections that permeated the international community's response to the conflict. This, she argues, resulted from post-Cold War norms. Elections were the "obvious" or "natural" choice for statebuilding and the way to guarantee international peace. While the elections went mostly smoothly (except, you know, for the battle between Bemba's private army and Kabila's government forces in the streets of Kinshasa six months later), the advent of so-called democracy has done little to improve the lives of anyone in the east. In fact, the situation has gotten worse since 2006, leading to much disillusionment with the idea of democracy.
Autesserre makes a convincing argument that "a transition process carefully planned over ten years to build a lasting peace at all levels, reconstruct the administrative and economic capacity of the country, minimize visible international interference, develop the preconditions for free and fair elections, and explain the advantages of this strategy to the population would probably have been received well" by the Congolese.
It also might have worked.