I made a number of faux pas during my first day as an international intervener in a conflict zone. In July 2000, I arrived in Kosovo for a six-month mission and was preparing to attend my first coordination meeting with representatives of the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, donors, and military contingents of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. My colleagues had told me that these meetings always began with some significant delay, so I decided to postpone my departure and finish some office work in the meantime. When I finally got there, however, I discovered that this particular gathering was under the supervision of a few military actors who, as it turned out, were invariably punctual. To make matters worse, the room’s creaking door and regrettable arrangement eliminated any chance for stragglers to enter discretely. Not that I would have been inconspicuous anyway: I was visibly out of place from the moment I stepped inside. In the hopes of being easily recognizable to my new colleagues, I had proudly put on a vest emblazoned with my employer’s logo, but, to my dismay, the peacekeeping soldiers were the only people displaying their organizational affiliation. Eyes turned from the speaker to me and, for a few interminable moments, I became the center of attention. Mortified, I scurried to the back of the room to find a seat (and hide).
By industry standards, I was perfectly qualified for my entry-level role in Kosovo, yet I felt utterly lost.
As my first month progressed, I made fewer missteps. Still, I was puzzled. I had two graduate degrees in international affairs and a year of experience as an intern with various humanitarian and peacebuilding agencies in New York. I had even worked as a volunteer for grassroots organizations in India, Nicaragua, and South Africa. By industry standards, I was perfectly qualified for my entry-level role in Kosovo, yet I felt utterly lost.
I ultimately realized that all of this theoretical knowledge and technical experience was not enough to ensure my success. The community of international interveners that I had joined in Kosovo had a culture of their own. I had naively expected my colleagues’ attitudes and behaviors to be as varied as the countries they came from and the organizations they represented. In fact they shared a common collection of practices, habits, and narratives that shaped their every attitude and action. If I wanted to fit in, I had to learn the quotidian elements that veteran interveners saw as obvious, or even took for granted.
During my time in Kosovo, I did my best to assimilate into my new community and adapt to the international interveners’ way of life. I followed my colleagues’ standard practices, like attending coordination meetings, throwing going-away parties, and documenting every professional action in an endless stream of reports. I acquired their shared habits, such as following standard security procedures and socializing primarily with other expatriates. I became fluent in their language, with its technical vocabulary and alphabet soup of acronyms. I also learned their dominant narratives, notably those on our roles as foreign actors, our views of local counterparts, and our reasons for acting as we did. All in all, over the course of six months, I familiarized myself with the subtle hierarchy and the ritualized patterns of interaction that exist not only among interveners themselves but also between them and local populations. Plus, I figured out which meetings started on time and what I was supposed to wear to them.
These newly acquired competencies helped me successfully approach my later missions in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite the staggering differences between each of these countries – in terms of geographies, cultures, people, languages, dynamics of violence, and conflict histories – the interveners who worked in them shared the same daily modes of operation. After learning the ropes in Kosovo, I never again felt out of place when I arrived to work in a new conflict zone, because the characteristics of the international approach – the identities of the participants, the relationships among them and with local populations, and the other everyday elements – were all familiar to me. As I moved from one place to another and found the same kind of environments, the same types of actors, and sometimes even the same individuals, I started to feel part of a transnational community, a community of expatriates who devote their lives to working in conflict zones. I felt that I had become part of a new world: Peaceland.
For close to fifteen years, I have been attached to this world. My husband and most of our friends inhabit Peaceland, and I return to it frequently. As I traveled from one conflict zone to another, I became increasingly obsessed with the issue of efficacy. When in the field, during formal meetings or around drinks in the evening, my fellow Peacelanders and I regularly deliberated the same questions: Why do peace interventions regularly fail to reach their full potential? What can account for the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of international peacebuilding efforts? How can interveners be more successful when they are already effective and avoid failure otherwise? These subjects were and still are at the center of policy and scholarly debates on intervention efforts. They are also the concerns that lie at the heart of this book.
For years, my friends and I returned to the same answers. To be more effective, we required more financial, logistical, and human resources. We also needed powerful states and organizations to stop ignoring or encouraging violence and, instead, start actively supporting peace. As I continued to live and work in intervention areas, I began to consider another explanation for ineffective peacebuilding: Many of the practices, habits, and narratives that shape international efforts on the ground – everyday elements that I had come to take for granted as an intervener – are, in fact, counterproductive.
This realization hit me ten years after my embarrassing first day in Kosovo, during one of my many sojourns in the Democratic Republic of Congo (henceforth, Congo), home to a conflict that ranks among the deadliest since World War II. In an attempt to reconstruct state authority in the eastern part of the country, various international peacebuilding agencies had decided to assist the Congolese police in deploying officers to some of the most unstable areas. The implementation of the project began in May 2010, when the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) constructed police stations and helped transport Congolese police units to selected volatile villages. Upon completing this initiative, officials at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York claimed that they had successfully accomplished an essential step in their mandate to stabilize Congo. In theory, mobilizing a greater law enforcement presence in an unstable area would secure it, allowing for the deployment of other state representatives and eventually contributing to the reestablishment of state authority and the return to peace.
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