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The Frontlines of Peace, by Séverine Autessere. A practical, incremental vision for peacebuilding.

May 16, 2021

Book review. The Frontlines of Peace, by Séverine Autessere

Two years ago I helped Peace Direct write a report designed to explore and showcase the impacts of local peacebuilding initiatives: actions intended to reduce or prevent violence, initiated by the people who were themselves affected or under threat. With limited time and resources, we produced a report that collected examples from many different countries, making the case that such initiatives deserve more space and support. Unfortunately, too many international organisations still find it difficult to acknowledge, much less actively support and complement such local efforts. The case still needs to be made.

It was with great pleasure therefore, that I sat down to read Séverine Autessere’s new book, The Frontlines of Peace. Autessere is a Barnard College anthropologist well known for her research on international peace efforts. Her book is based on many years’ research on local peacebuilding, and as a result I think I was probably expecting an inventory of hundreds of successful outcomes from all over the world, and a nicely wrought framework for conceptualising and considering local peace initiatives: a more thoroughly researched example of the report we had put together in 2019. Fortunately, I was disappointed.

Instead, her book takes a discursive, deeper approach. Rather than bombarding the reader with a thousand examples drawn from documents and research, she confidently and quietly builds her case using just a few examples, taken from places she knows first-hand. Rather than creating some new academic framework or concept of peace, she trusts that the reader will infer what she is talking about from the way she deploys her examples. And she does this effectively.

As she reminds us, international peacebuilding remains overly focused on national or elite level initiatives. Many of these are devised and driven by outsiders, and thus frequently destined to fail. By contrast, she shows that the core competencies and capacities for peace largely exist within communities, and can be leveraged and strengthened by local organisations and individuals, to reduce the risk and levels of violence affecting those communities. Using examples from places as diverse as East and Central Africa, Central and South America, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and East Timor, she shows how, with limited external support, local peacebuilders have succeeded in resolving tensions and differences without resort to violence, for example negotiating safe passage with local armed militias, and strengthening young people’s ability to resist the lure of recruitment by armed groups.

A practical vision of peace

She doesn’t devote long chapters to setting out an academic definition of peace: her version of peace is an eminently practical idea. If conflict emerges when disputes over resources remain unmanaged or unresolved, then peace means anticipating or resolving these disputes before they get out of hand. It means making sure all perspectives are listened to and taken into account in whatever solutions are proposed. It means retaining this problem-solving focus over the long term, adapting the solutions as new information becomes available, or the situation changes. Ideally, these solutions build on local institutions: the local ‘rules of the game’. Ultimately, they may join up to create a consistently peaceful environment across the whole of society – but in the meantime, it’s important to do what we can.

One example she gives is of farming and herding communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo taking the time to work out how to resolve the tensions between them, and establishing mutually agreed rules so that herds could have space to graze, without damaging farmers’ crops. A very practical solution to an essentially economic conflict that had otherwise been seen by many external observers as primarily ‘tribal’ in nature.

Complementary approaches

Autesserre’s previous book Peaceland contained a strong critique of many external peacebuilding approaches, and she revisits this in Frontlines for Peace. Too many external organisations attempt top-down initiatives, devised and implemented by out-of-touch outsiders with limited local understanding, and they are overwhelmingly focused on national and/or elite level outcomes, paying insufficient attention to the local. And yet, no society can be peaceful nationally for long, while local peace is absent. Local fractures not only undermine societal peace, they are open to exploitation by ‘spoilers’ – political entrepreneurs seeing economic and political power, and all too willing to take advantage of local grievances to achieve their own ambitions, and thus undermine any national peace that may seem to have been achieved.

Therefore, as Autesserre shows, it is not a case of choosing top-down or bottom-up peacebuilding: both are important. Nor are all international attempts to partner with and support local efforts necessarily to be rejected. Provided the internationals take a long-term, listening, humble, supportive and adaptive approach, their financial and technical support and solidarity can enhance local outcomes and help link them up with the more top-down initiatives. Outsiders can also bring useful ideas from other environments, to complement and enrich local knowledge.

Recommended reading for NGOs, and for donor and UN staff

As a peacebuilding practitioner myself, it was enormously reassuring to read an academic work that reinforces many of my own prejudices about the importance of bottom-up peacebuilding. But that’s not to say that I didn’t learn new ideas myself from the book, and I’m sure that would be true for others in the field. So I recommend the book to colleagues in peacebuilding NGOs.

More importantly, I recommend this book to the leaders and staff of donor and UN agencies involved in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Frontlines for Peace is not a manual – far from it – but it quietly and gently sets out a way of thinking about how to work in such places. Too often, people see peace in binary terms: you either have it or you don’t. But, as Autesserre shows, we can think about peace rather as we think about ‘development’ – essentially a work in progress that’s never fully ‘achieved’. We don’t focus development efforts only at a national level, and on the elite: instead we recognise the relevance of local, as well as national development initiatives. We don’t avoid supporting local community schools until the national education policy has reached a level of perfection. Both can be done at once. Similarly with peacebuilding: we don’t need to wait until the nation has achieved ‘peace’ at a national level, before focusing on more local initiatives. Both should be done at once.

Nor, as Autesserre points out, do ‘all good things come together’ – indeed, some of the ‘good things’ like elections can cause as many problems as they are intended to resolve, exacerbating and even creating new conflicts, especially at first. What’s needed is an incremental approach to peacebuilding, and one that builds from the bottom up, even while attempting to create frameworks and policies from the top-down. And uses a long-term approach that listens, is continuously adaptable, and in which local voices and actors take the lead wherever possible.

Some ‘academic’ books are long, hard to penetrate. They can even be arrogant at times – presumably because attack is (sadly) the best form of defence in academia. Frontlines for Peace is not like that. It is written humbly and is highly accessible to a non-academic reader. Perhaps even better, at less than 200 pages it is blessedly short. A Sunday afternoon spent reading this is a Sunday afternoon well-spent.

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