Guest Post: So how do we help the Congo? (Part III)

This is a response by Séverine Autesserre to my previous reaction to her Op-Ed in The New York Times.

 Jason, thanks for offering me a right of response. You and I have already had this debate at least a dozen times, in public and in private. But, as you have told me, it might be informative for the broader public to hear about it. So here is a brief answer.

The way you present my analysis in your post ‘So How Do we Help the Eastern Congo’ is oversimplified. My arguments are distorted, and your presentation misleads the readers. Since you respond to an argument that I did not make, your post is flawed.

For the sake of time, I will refer you and the readers to the intro to my 2010 book The Trouble with the Congo – on which, as you rightly state, the Op-Ed is based:

“The book does not argue that international interveners should have adopted a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding instead of their top-down strategy. Rather, it demonstrates that international actors should have used a bottom-up approach in addition to their top-down strategy. Just as a purely top-down intervention leads to unsustainable peace, […] an exclusively bottom-up strategy would only produce a very fragile and temporary settlement. […] My emphasis on micro-level tensions, and on the absolute need for bottom-up peacebuilding, should not be misunderstood as a dismissal of top-down causes of peace and violence. “ (p. 14)

So yes, explanations for the ongoing violence focused on the role of Rwanda and of elite leaders (such as in your analysis) are valid and they are well supported by events on the ground. I agree that top-down interventions can help assuage some of the ongoing sources of violence. However, the reverse is also true. You cannot sustainably resolve the national and international conflicts unless you resolve the underlying disputes at the local level. Just as top-down manipulation can jeopardize peace achieved at the local level, bottom-up conflicts, if left unresolved, will annihilate successes achieved at the macro level, as has happened multiple times in the past ten years.

Contrary to what you imply when you state that “hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into precisely the kinds of programs [I am] pushing for,” local conflict resolution is hardly a priority for international actors involved in Congo today. The international NGOs that used to support local conflict resolution in the past continue to do so, but in the Kivus they still number no more than a handful. The peacekeeping operation continues to focus on top-down causes of violence, and so do the diplomatic missions and most of the donors. Virtually all of these interveners still consider local violence, including land issues, only when it is related to top-down causes, notably the return of refugees from Rwanda – and, in my opinion, this is one of the central flaws of the STAREC program. In the past few years, there have been a few new bottom-up peacebuilding efforts, such as those of UN Habitat, but the scopes of these are so limited that they could hardly be said to represent a shift in the overall strategy.

All in all, your position and mine are not as opposed as you picture it in your post, and my arguments are crucial if we want to go beyond the surface in our analyses. While you focus on macro-level events – and, again, I have always emphasized that they too matter – I focus on the importance of grassroots causes of violence because policy and scholarly writings have so far largely ignored them. Thus, your criticism of my work seems to be quite off-target. I can think of many interesting debates related to my work, but your objections are not relevant.

Posted by Jason Stearns at 12:51 PM