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BOOK REVIEW-The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World

- Book written by Séverine Autesserre and published by Oxford University Press, 2021.

- Print ISBN-13: 978019753035 DOI:10.1093/oso/9780197530351.001.0001


‘Peace Inc.’: it is thus that the billion-dollar traditional approaches to building peace promoted not least by organizations such as the United Nations can be described, according to Séverine Autesserre. An award-winning author as well as a Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, Autesserre also has a background as a humanitarian aid worker in conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Kosovo. In her newest book, The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World, based on her own extensive fieldwork and research in 12 conflict zones worldwide, she offers a crucial contribution to the growing body of literature which seeks to challenge the common assumptions, narratives, methodologies and strategies that have dominated the aid and peacemaking industry thus far.

Focusing on stories and lessons from lesser-known peacebuilding organizations, locally driven initiatives as well as ordinary civilians, Autesserre explores and advocates ‘alternative’, often marginalized bottom-up strategies that have effectively empowered locals and have successfully promoted peace in conflict settings in Latin America, Africa, North America, Europe and beyond. Such models, based on local knowledge and experiences, are better equipped and more likely to target the root causes of violence and build durable peace. Autesserre ultimately argues that mainstream, top-down models are insufficient and ineffective: they must be radically reformed and must be complemented by grassroots projects that crucially put locals in the driver’s seat. As such, top-down and bottom-up efforts can dampen and mitigate each other’s limitations in order to make a lasting difference.

The book is sectioned into seven chapters, each encapsulating theoretical and practical explorations of peacebuilding and peacekeeping models around the world. Chapter 1 presents the case of Idjwi, an “island of peace” (23) in the midst of conflict-ridden Congo. Idjwi remains peaceful, despite sharing the same “ingredients” or “preconditions” for conflict as other war zones (23-28), due to the active involvement of and input from all residents towards the development and preservation of peace. Chapter 2 surveys the work of the ‘Life and Peace Institute,’ a Swedish participatory agency that seeks to empower locals in conflict-torn regions to analyze the surrounding violence, devise solutions and implement negotiated agreements. Chapters 3 and 4 forefront the flaws inherent to ‘Peace Inc.’, which include the aid industry’s pervasive yet problematic assumptions and stereotypes about non-Westerners, the cemented “hierarchy of knowledge” (that is, the belief that non-Western residents of conflict lack the expertise needed to solve the violence) (73), the lack of local input into conflict analysis and policy implementation, the focus on quantity over quality and the over-reliance on standardized templates for peace that, for example, fruitlessly prioritize elections and democratization. Chapter 5 presents the successes of bottom-up, grassroots peacebuilding projects in Somaliland, Colombia and Israel/Palestine, which have each repeatedly proven that “locally-designed, locally-managed, locally-paid, and locally-owned” (133) approaches are necessary and often best performing. Despite their evident drawbacks, Chapter 6 nevertheless proposes various benefits of top-down, foreign-imposed approaches, which include financial support and the creation of safe spaces for both micro- and macro-level negotiations. Simultaneously, it notes that locally-driven, bottom-up programmes can at times become fronts for political or military groups, and may be susceptible to corruption. Here, Autesserre effectively argues that peacekeeping, irrespective of its origin and setting, ultimately requires humility, flexibility, ‘insider-outsider’ integration and long-term commitment. Finally, Chapter 7 concludes that bottom-up peacemaking has been and can be equally productive in non-Western and Western settings. In the United States and Germany, for example, organizations like ‘Cure Violence’ and ‘Exit Germany’, respectively, have worked directly with those involved in disputes and have focused on strengthening local initiatives, rather than imposing generic, pre-conceived blueprints. It invites the reader to question the stereotypes, assumptions and narratives that pervade the aid industry in order to incite radical change to the outdated Peace Inc. approach.

Autesserre’s criticism, rooted in valuable extensive fieldwork, provides a great introductory insight into the world of peacebuilding, both theoretically, in terms of both mainstream and critical strategies and discourses, and practically, in terms of working with (or rather to ameliorate) international peacebuilding organizations. She sheds light on and challenges problematic, elitist, universalized approaches to peacemaking, and, on account of numerous case studies, champions programmes that give agency and power not to outsiders, but rather to the intended beneficiaries of peacekeeping initiatives themselves. However, although Autesserre provides a useful and unconventional framework for peacebuilding and peacekeeping, she falls short of offering concrete steps for her reader to become practically involved in supporting localized, grassroots models. Nevertheless, The Frontlines of Peace remains an easy read for a wide audience, and a particularly unique and integral text for those interested in International Relations, international conflict and security and peacebuilding. Autesserre’s book calls for critical reflection on the moral and practical questions regarding Western, top-down interventionism in conflict-ridden settings, highlighting the need for comprehensive reform of the current aid industry. Peace must be built and nurtured from the local or micro-level, and must involve ordinary native people who truly know, understand and experience the conflict that is ultimately to be resolved.

Jasmine Wu is an intern at the Istituto Affari Internationali and studies International Relations at the London School of Economics.


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