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Relevant reading

Crucial knowledge

by Karoline Caesar

In depth

International aid workers – as pictured here in Rwanda – should have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the country and its people.

International aid workers – as pictured here in Rwanda – should have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the country and its people.

In most cases, why conflicts erupt and how they develop are very complex matters. The issues are emotionally charged and clouded in divergent narratives. If third parties want to contribute to a peace process they need to interpret those narratives prudently.

The year 2015 produced an unprecedented number of violent conflicts, as is evident in the international conflict databases that publish annual statistics on armed conflicts. The data is compiled in indices that give insights into the duration of conflicts, underlying issues, fatalities, military spending and diseases. Because of the methods used, the indices enjoy high credibility.

One of the oldest databases belongs to the Swedish Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). The UCDP attributes the increased number of conflicts, in part, to the involvement of non-state actors. It registered more internal conflicts than in the past. The yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) publishes UCDP findings and other data. According to SIPRI, some variable compound problems. One is external interference in internal conflicts through military or logistical involvement. 

The Global Peace Index emphasises the high costs of war. It is published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, which is based in Australia and the USA. The index shows that violence cost $14.6 trillion worldwide in 2015. That was eleven times more than the total amount of global direct foreign investments. Only two percent of conflict-related spending served peacebuilding and peacekeeping missions in 2015.

Understanding the people

Qualitative data is key to interpreting and classifying quantitative data in sensitive and complex conflicts. Far many reasons, purely statistical estimates – of the number of victims of sexualised violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example – can be very hard to establish. One reason is that interviewing victims of violence is difficult, not least because of the risk of retraumatising them.

Qualitative studies, moreover, can help to explain issues and help to assess what impact proposed solutions will have. The interesting question is how civilian peacebuilding personnel staff use such data.

It matters what kind of knowledge they bring along on missions in crisis countries. In an ethnographic study, Sévérine Autesserre of Columbia University has advanced the theory that, in conflict countries all over the world, a war is being waged between locals and foreigners over knowledge “jurisdiction”. Her book is based on five different databases plus more than 600 interviews. According to Autesserre, the disparity of how reality is read in conflict countries results from the members of international missions relying on distorted information and misconceptions. She doubts that western peacebuilding projects are effective and does not believe that the local community regards them as relevant and credible.

The author describes an imaginary place called “Peaceland” and the daily life of peacebuilders there. Peaceland could be the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Bosnia or Burundi – anywhere where civilian and military personnel’s task is to contribute to a peace process. Autesserre considers daily rituals, standards, norms and behaviour, noting how staff create a bubble of self-referential knowledge, thus engendering resistance within the local community. She reports how local experts with “local knowledge” compete with international experts who have “technical knowledge”. The local experts know places and people and have a deep understanding of history as well as political, social and cultural dynamics. The external peace workers, on the other hand, have a detailed professional knowledge of things like conflict management, humanitarian aid or project management.

According to Autesserre, local communities are prone to rejecting international interventions if foreign experts outrank local experts and are better paid. Foreign organisations are accountable to donors, but do not report sufficiently to local communities. In many crisis regions, foreigners are perceived as arrogant outsiders trying to impose their ideas on locals. These perceptions are not so much shaped by what is communicated, however, but by the way it is communicated.

Autesserre, moreover, claims that many foreign peace workers are unaware of their actions’ symbolic significance. In places haunted by violence, such lack of awareness causes deep frustration. Rotating foreign experts from country to country compounds problems because the experts concerned become even more alienated from the target groups.

Autesserre points out that it is hard for experts to get a clear picture of the overall situation. Different cultural backgrounds and ideologies may result in totally contradictory reports. Because international experts rarely leave the capital of a crisis country, they have little understanding of how data is and should be collected in the field. They are mostly unaware of the likeliness that their own assessments may be based on flawed information.

Mistrusted outsiders

Autesserre writes that local grass-roots activists told her about changing their stories, supplying false information or concealing critical data because they mistrusted outsiders or wanted to protect themselves or their family. This is particularly common in conflict countries, where intimidation and use of force are among the “problem-solving strategies” in widespread use (also note “Take agencies by their word” in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2016/12). Autesserre came across numerous reports stating that data were modified to keep foreign supervisors happy moreover.

International workers are often ignorant of cultural codes because they lack local expertise. Rwandans, for instance, distinguish public from private. Burundians consider it impolite to contradict someone, whereas Europeans and North Americans assume they will be told if they make a wrong assumption.

Many international workers live apart from the target communities and thus have little or no personal experience of life on the ground. Peacebuilding organisations, moreover, tend to underestimate the complexity of conflicts because they all consult the same people for advice. Foreign aid workers are generally unaware of making mistakes because they all use the same data sources and references. The author claims that the international intervention network in crisis areas thus creates self-referencing bubbles. Narratives are subconsciously selected on the basis of personal affinities and sympathies.

Autesserre argues that the small minority of international aid workers who maintained close and productive relations with local people worked more effectively in intervention areas. Relationship building, communication, friendship, mutual learning and trust facilitate the success of international interventions. People from conflict countries all over the world regularly reported that they were able to build real relationships with those foreigners who spent time in the field and made an effort to get acquainted. The important thing was credible, intrinsical motivation.

Autesserre advises foreign aid workers to spend years in one and the same country, learn the local language, become familiar with the customs and make friends with people in different social groups. Peacebuilding organisations should review their policies accordingly and revise recruitment procedures, project design and training programmes. Doing so would serve to leverage staff’s thematic competence. Prudent assessment of qualitative information would enhance the efficacy of peacebuilding.

Karoline Caesar acted as a consultant on a Civil Peace Service (CPS) mediation project in Burundi from 2011 to 2015.
[email protected]


Institute for Economics and Peace (2016): The Global Peace Index 2016.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: SIPRI Yearbook 2016.

Uppsala Conflict Data Program (2016):


Autesserre, S., 2014: Peaceland. Conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention. Cambridge University Press NY.


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