"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


read this: The Trouble with the Congo

"In the Congo, the violent transition to peace caused, directly and indirectly, 2 million deaths in addition to the 3 million victims of the generalized conflicts, and war resumption in 2008 produced tens of thousands more casualties. International interventions can help prevent such disruptions, but they often fail to do so. The dominant international peacebuilding culture often orients intervention strategies away from local conflict resolution and toward popular, but harmful, tactics such as the rapid organization of elections."
That's from Séverine Autesserre's brilliant new book, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding, out now from Cambridge University Press.

I get a lot of emails from blog readers who are looking for suggestions on essential readings on the DRC situation. While I think it's important to read a wide range of sources on the topic, I can't think of another book that better situates the current state of affairs in the eastern Congo than Autesserre's outstanding book. Based on more than 330 interviews with just about everyone involved in the DRC peace process that was supposed to stabilize the country once and for all, Autesserre examines the question as to why violence continues in the region. She argues that violence has continued to proliferate in the east due to the international community's failure to address peace building at the local level in addition to the national and international levels.

That focus will be of most interest to those who want to learn more about the Congo, but Autesserre is also interested in the question of why the international community failed to address local-level conflicts in the Kivus and other areas when negotiating peace. Her conclusion is that the culture of international peace building doesn't allow for consideration of local conflict. In other words, it never even occurred to most of the myriad of diplomats, politicians, and other international actors involved in the process that they needed to worry about it. This was true despite solid evidence that many of the conflicts in the Kivus predated not only the civil and international wars that rocked Congo from 1996-2003, but also the Rwandan genocide, which prompted much of that violence.

In this sense, Autesserre's book is a valuable read for anyone involved or interested in international peace processes. As Autesserre notes in a study of cases from around the world in the book's conclusion, effective peace building in today's conflict situations only works when actors at all levels are involved. She notes that there is a need for both an internationally-driven, top-down effort alongside a grassroots-driven, bottom-up effort if other regions are to be spared the destruction and devastation that the citizens of the eastern Congo have endured for so long. The international community's post-Cold War obsession with writing a constitution, organizing and holding elections, and certifying the country as democratic - despite the fact that violence continued in the east - was incredibly harmful for the people of the DRC in many ways, and it's obvious that the same path didn't work in Iraq, won't work in Afghanistan, and seems highly unlikely to help in Sudan.

Whether you're a humanitarian actor working on community initiatives, a budding scholar of the Great Lakes region, or just interested in effective responses to conflict and violence, Autesserre's book is a must-read. Unlike most academic books, it's also quite accessible to non-scholars and non-specialists, who will appreciate the clear presentation of a well-researched argument in readable language.

I am pleased to be able to pass along a 20% discount code on the book if you buy it through Cambridge University Press (which makes it cost even less than Amazon's 10% discount off the list price). Enter the promo code E10CONGO at checkout.

(Full disclosure: Séverine is a good friend; we were in the field at the same time and often compare notes on the situation in the eastern DRC. That said, I'm not being compensated for this post in any way; I bought my copy just like everyone else. I just really think you should read this book.)



Blogger Monique said...

I loved it. Marked it up, tattered the pages, carried it everywhere for 3 weeks ... it's absolutely refreshing to find an academic who writes in plain English and whose insights have relevance for practitioners.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 7:23:00 AM

Anonymous Ruairi said...

I've just ordered my copy and look forward to reading it. I very much enjoyed Séverine Autesserre's 2008 Foreign Affairs article, on the same topic. In that article, she recommends a greater focus on helping local groups working on conflict resolution, in particular on land issues. This recommendation makes a great deal of sense, and the one question that will hopefully be explored in more detail in the book is how this process will work. In particular - to what degree can and will local organisations lead the processes of conflict resolution? (As opposed to being the people who enact programmes that are devised elsewhere). Is Autesserre recommending a greater understanding of the local conflicts to improve how international actors respond to the conflict in DRC, or a more radical switch to putting local groups in charge of determining what their priorities are (and giving them the resources to act on their beliefs)? The answers promise to be very interesting, and I hope her book helps shift more attention to the local aspects of the conflict in DRC.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 10:12:00 AM

Anonymous Jodi said...

Thanks for the discount! I've just ordered it and look forward to reading it. I'm writing a novel set in the DRC and need all the research I can get.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 11:38:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


I really enjoy it when you review books, and as always thanks for this one. I hope to read it soon.

Since the topic is books today, I wonder if any of readers of this blog have read either of these books regarding the DRC(albeit on a different topic than the subject of the book above), Wayne Madsen's Genocide and Covert Operations in Africa 1993-1999 or Rigobert Butandu's Forgotten War: The Criminal Invasion Of The D.R.Congo: The International Conspiracy Unveiled. Are these grounded in solid evidence or mostly written based on speculation?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 12:52:00 PM

Blogger ewaffle said...

I couldn't agree more. I am reading Séverine Autesserre's book now--it is slow going due to all my marginal notes and re-reading. Her insights are amazing, particularly (too me) her discussion of how the peacebuilding community almost universally considered people in the Eastern DRC to be savages who are inherently murderous. Another is how UN representatives convinced themselves that pitched battles between large groups of armed men in an area covered by a truce was still part of a post-conflict world and not even a violation of the truce.

The most striking aspect of the book is her low key scholarly approach--although I realize that is both necessary and appropriate in academic work, I keep expecting to get to the section where she starts ripping into those people who were so responsible for "The Trouble with the Congo".

Autesserre's very temperate perhaps even restrained presentation makes her conclusions all the more powerful. And her immersion in and mastery of the sources--it seems she has read everything and interviewed everyone--means her method is rock solid. Or so it seems to this non-academic.

I am going to be recommending this book on book review/discussion web sites as well as on social media.

Laura, one million thanks for continuing the discussion of the Congo on such a high but accessible level.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 2:26:00 PM

Anonymous Rebecca said...

Can't wait to read it!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 6:14:00 PM

Anonymous Brendan said...

Thanks-just ordered my copy!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010 3:37:00 PM

Blogger Les éditeurs said...


Very interesting thoughts and I am looking forward to read this book. I have some comments on the review.

I think it is worthy noting the difference between peacebuilding initiatives and international initiatives to broke a deal between armed groups and stop conflicts. Those are more peace making negotiations than peace building.

It is true that grass roots peacebuilding projects must be undertaken and donors do not invest sufficiently in peacebuilding. However, we should not forget the role of governmental bodies, the rule of law and Gouvernance in general to understand better the fact that in Congo, the bottom up approach is challenging in absence of a political culture and real decentralisation (decision power at the base). This is the real challenge faced by local organisations involved in peacebuilding today.

I am not sure I totally agree with the fact that violence persists because of international community failure to consider roots of conflict and do peacebuilding. International intervention and negotiations are an outcome of the conflict, despite a tendency to create new dynamics. As “practicians”, we need to understand the social transformation of Congo society following colonial time and Mobutism; political heritage of these systems in term of local gouvernance in order to understand why local initiatives are challenging and international initiatives are not bearing fruits.

My personnal belief is also that the congolese gouvernement is not naive and back international community's initiatives when it is in its interest (i.a. broke a deal with armed group in a divide and rule strategy - mobutu, kabila pere and son did that). Which can also be illustrated by the fact Kabila did not need international community to be reconciled with Kagame in 2009, it happened out of the blue.

Thanks for bringing up some interesting discussions. Sorry for commenting on a book reviews while I have not read the book but gives me the desire to do so….


Thursday, September 09, 2010 7:27:00 AM

Anonymous Katie said...

I'm excited to read the book. Thanks for posting the discount!

Sunday, September 19, 2010 3:49:00 PM


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