recommended reading: autesserre's "Dangerous Narratives"
Severine Autesserre has a must-read article out today in African Affairs (ungated link here). Entitled "Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences," the article unpacks the problems with the oversimplification of the Congo crisis and its solutions into three dominant narratives: conflict minerals, rape, and state-building. In doing so, Autesserre focuses on a wide variety of international efforts to address the Congo crisis, including those undertaken by advocacy organizations, NGO's, the United Nations, the African Union, and foreign diplomats. While acknowledging some successes, she raises the following central question:...we can wonder how the illegal exploitation of resources came to
be seen as the main cause of violence, sexual abuse as the worst consequence,and the extension of state authority as the primary solution to theconflict, to the exclusion of other causes, consequences, and solutions.
In analyzing these questions, Autesserre is careful to note the appeal of simple narratives: they are easy to understand, thus these narratives can mobilize a wide variety of actors who lack detailed expertise. Having a "straightforward solution" is also appealing; if activists and policy makers can identify a clear perpetrator of wrong with a clear way to stop that perpetrator's wrongdoing, it's easy to get attention and action.
For those who closely follow the conflict minerals debate, Autesserre's observations on the awareness of those working in Congo on the causes of conflict will be of particular benefit. She finds widespread misperceptions that natural resource exploitation is the primary cause of violence and the first issue that must be addressed to stop it, despite widespread evidence to the contrary. Likewise, the overwhelming focus on rape as a weapon of war "diverts attention from other forms of violence that are equally horrific, such as non-sexual torture, killings, and recruitment of child soldiers." And the emphasis on state-building as the only possible solution to the region's problems ignores the fact that the state is a predatory disaster.
The misallocation of attention to three oversimplified narratives has real consequences, and, in Autesserre's analysis, those consequences are largely negative. She concludes:
However, by leading interveners to focus overwhelmingly on these issues, and to neglect other causes, consequences, and solutions, these narratives also have a number of perverse consequences. They obscure most interveners’ understanding of the multi-layered problems of the Congo. They orient the intervention toward a series of technical responses and hinder the search for a comprehensive solution. They lead interveners to privilege one category of victims over all the others. Even more disconcertingly, they reinforce the problems that their advocates want to address, notably by legitimizing state-building programmes that reinforce the harassment of the populations by state officials, and by turning sexual violence into an attractive tool for armed groups.
Put more succinctly, as Autesserre notes in the article abstract, "the focus on these narratives and on the solutions they recommended has led to results that clash with their intended purposes, notably an increase in human rights violations."
Autesserre's article is an important contribution to a growing body of peer-reviewed research based on solid fieldwork suggesting that the overwhelming focus on conflict minerals and rape is misguided and actually causing harm to the very people it purports to help. We are long past the point of needing realistic, pragmatic advocacy narratives and solutions that acknowledge and respond to the complexities of the DRC crisis. Congo's people deserve nothing less.