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Prof. Severine Autesserre weighs in on recent developments in Congo

In recent weeks, the Democratic Republic of Congo made international headlines when M23, a local militia, announced a ceasefire. In light of this news, Prof. Severine Autesserre, assistant professor of political science and an expert on African politics and international intervention, has provided commentary to foreign media outlets including Al Jazeera America, France 24, and La Libre Belgique.

Prof. Autesserre is the author of The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding, which received the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order and the 2011 Chadwick Alger prize, presented by the International Studies Association to the best book on international organizations and multilateralism. Recently, she received the African Politics Conference Group Award for Best Article in 2012, for an article titled “Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences,” which appeared in African Affairs in April 2012.

Below, Prof. Autesserre responds to questions about the latest news from Congo and how it relates to her research and teaching at Barnard.

Earlier this month, Congo made international headlines when the M23 militia announced a ceasefire, a move seen as a victory for the Congolese national army. What does this news mean for the country?
The M23 has been one of the most high-profile Congolese rebel groups for many years. The announcement that it is transforming into a political party got people really excited—this is being called a historic moment and evidence of movement toward peace in Congo. However, there are many of us who are still skeptical about what this will mean for the country, particularly since M23 was crushed militarily, rather than deciding to disband after the successful completion of peace negotiations. And, there are still many, many remaining armed groups, so it’s important to keep in mind that we have not resolved any of the root causes of violence and grievances. So the news about M23 is an important step forward, but the Congo remains the theatre of the longest ongoing humanitarian crisis and host to the largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in the world, and there is still a lot of work to be done.

Your book, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding, examined the global efforts to curb widespread violence in the Congo and raised important questions about how international peacebuilders overlooked the importance of local disputes over land, resources, and political power in their work. Since your book was published, what, if anything, has changed in terms of international efforts to restore peace?
The idea of bottom-up conflict resolution was not part of the conversation when I started research for my book—initially, people would laugh when I asked about it, just because it was so removed from what they were doing at that time. But in recent years, the dialogue has been shifting and more scholars and government officials and people around the international peacekeeping community are looking more closely and talking more seriously about Congo’s localized conflicts as a critical part of the problem. Some key influencers—including Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and the UN’s special envoy to the African region that includes Congo—have recently expressed support for this approach. Putting this type of discourse into action remains a challenge, and there is a long road ahead for Congo, but there is definitely increased awareness about the relevance of grassroots, localized problems and solutions.

How does the latest news from Congo influence your approach to teaching these topics in the classroom?
Given the media attention that Congo has received recently, I have been hearing more questions from students about the latest developments—about M23, and about the UN intervention brigade that was made operational a few months ago. These questions enable me to ground my teaching in topics and specific ideas that they’re hearing about from other sources too, which generates more interesting and meaningful conversations in class. I’m able to tell them about meetings I’ve had with various people close to the news, and it brings them closer to what’s happening and gives them a clearer sense of the conflict and its complexities. The mainstream attention also makes it possible for me to share more interesting and current materials that illustrate the theories we’re studying. Next week, we’re going to have a role-playing exercise to resolve the conflicts in Congo—good luck to the student playing M23!

What are you working on now?
My next book, called Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention, will be coming out in April 2014. With examples from conflict zones in various parts of the world, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Burundi, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, the book focuses on everyday dimensions of peace building, not just in capital cities and organization headquarters and high level conferences, but on the ground. I’ve written an ethnography of peacebuilders’ work—who do they interact with every day, how do they get information, how do they ensure their own safety.