Best book I’ve read in a while: “The Trouble with the Congo” (Autesserre)

"The Trouble with the Congo" coverI just finished Séverine Autesserre’s excellent book, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding. If you have any interest in peacebuilding, conflict, the DRC, or the UN, then I highly recommend you read this.

Autesserre’s main argument is roughly as follows: Over the past decade, a dominant peacebuilding culture has shaped how international organizations approached the DRC. These organizations (including Western and African diplomats, UN peacekeepers, and NGOs) have focused on national/international-level conflicts and top-down peacebuilding activities, including massive state-building efforts at the national level. In contrast, local/provincial-level conflicts and bottom-up peacebuilding have been largely ignored. As a result, the eastern DRC still faces local-level violence and widespread human rights violations. Autesserre provides a set of recommendations for how the international community can address issues of organizational culture and staffing in order to better support grassroots peacebuilding in the future.

Of course, the book is much more complicated than that. Autesserre conducted over 330 interviews and her bibliography is 20+ pages. Beyond the sheer volume of information, she carefully constructs her analytical frameworks and arguments. Honestly, I would recommend this book just as an example of how to guide readers through incredibly complex issues. For one example, near the beginning of chapter 3 (“A Top-Down Solution”) she writes:

In this chapter… I identify four central elements of the dominant peacebuilding culture: the conception of the UN and diplomatic staff’s role as “naturally” focused on the regional and national realms, the belief that specific strategies are appropriate for “postconflict” environments, the veneration of elections, and the view of humanitarian and development aid as an ideal solution to local conflict. (85)

The interviews gave her an incredible wealth of stories about the people and organizations involved in eastern DRC. One of my favorites was an anecdote about a Congolese citizen challenging William Swing, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, on the question of whether free and fair elections could be organized during the short transition period. The Congolese citizen didn’t think this was possible. Autesserre writes:

Swing answered that the UN had been able to organize a vaccination campaign over the whole territory, so there was no reason why it could not organize elections for the entire country. (109)

File that under “sentences to ponder”. The book repeatedly contrasts election administration, support for grassroots peacebuilding, and other interventions (like vaccination campaigns) in teasing out the technocratic mindset that international organizations use for incredibly political issues.

In sum: read the book. For other perspectives, check out the following: