Review of ‘An Ethnographic Approach to Peacebuilding’

Discussing subjective aspects of peace, violence and power is as fascinating as challenging. I recently finished reading a book from Gearoid Millar, An Ethnographic Approach to Peacebuilding. Understanding Local Experiences in Transitional States, which reminded me of many of the processes that I lived during my own fieldwork in Mozambique back in 2012/2013 and which, eventually, led me to dive into my current research, focusing on subjective aspects of peace.

As I really enjoyed this book – and I definitely recommend it to anyone planning to go on fieldwork in peacebuilding settings (in fact, I wish it came out before I went to fieldwork!), I would like to reflect a little on it and add some of my own impressions.

In a nutshell, Millar is concerned with the huge gap that exists between the overall evaluation of peacebuilding projects (which tend to stress their positive results) and the experiences reported by those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of such interventions (and who often report a much more negative assessment of peacebuilding). What explains this gap, according to him, is the fact that most people engaged in peacebuilding activities (as well as most academics who evaluate peacebuilding) take an institutional instead of an experiential approach to peacebuilding. That is, they do not take into account the huge cultural difference that affects how local actors will perceive the plans of the interveners, as well as how such interpretations will frame the very expectations and responses of those actors towards peaceuilding. Instead, there is an implicit assumption that certain policies and practices (which are standardised and applied as a general ‘tool-kit’) will simply make sense in any context.

Whereas the critical literature on peacebuilding has been discussing the limitations of such approaches for a few years now, especially in terms of discourse and theory, what Millar does is proposing a more concrete plan of action for researchers to follow. He states four pillars of the ethnographic approach. The first pillar is a commitment to see peacebuilding as experiential. As argued, this pillar is fundamental to understand how local people are impacted by international interventions. He notes a “a focus on institutions without attention to experiences in evaluation will fail to provide a true assessment of the on-the-ground impacts of peacebuilding projects”. In simple words, this basically means that answers need to be found among the population that should be the beneficiary of the process.

There are many ways to do this, but quantitative studies, such as surveys, present limitations, not least because the language used is framed by external actors and development agencies. That is, words and variables are predefined, so they cannot capture other elements that, in practice, may be more relevant for local agents but that are not envisioned in the paradigm that frames these interventions in the first place. In order to truly understand how local actors experience such interventions, it is necessary to provide space for alternative concepts and local transcripts to show up, and ethnography seems, so far, the best instrument for this purpose.

Taking the examples of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a big FDI project in Sierra Leone, Millar concludes that one of the problems with existing assessments is the fact that many of the actors directly engaged with peacebuilding projects often project their expectations and views of efficiency upon those actors who are suppose to actually benefit from such projects. Also, he notes that the expectations of the various groups of actors are often very different, which also explains the different assessments.

My experience in the case of Mozambique, assessing different projects, lead me to similar conclusions. The way different groups of actors assess policy implementation differs widely among what is usually labelled a uniform ‘local’. Speaking to those in charge of implementing the policy is far from enough to capture the concrete results of such policy at the level of the everyday. More importantly, as rightly noticed by Millar, there exists a tendency to project one’s assessments onto other groups: so, for instance, if a project manager perceives that a certain program has led to an important redistribution of financial resources in a district, this will be seen as a positive result. However, speaking to the different groups of local actors, one may realise that this distribution of resources may actually have contributed to increase asymmetries at the local level, so it becomes imperative to weight actual pros and cons of such distribution. In my own study, I referred to these different assessments as ‘perceptions’ or ‘views’ according the different groups of actors I interviewed. It became clear to me that such thing as a ‘hard core objective’ assessment was virtually impossible, as the best one could do was to gather the many different narratives and then balance those views with the (often poor and unreliable) ‘objective/hard’ data available about the policy.

The second pillar of ethnographic research, according to Millar, is ethnographic preparation. This is crucial to understand why actors experience peacebuilding processes the way they do (and not necessarily as expected by peacebuilders and development practitioners). In the case of Sierra Leone (and indeed in the case of many Africa states), Millar notes the centrality of the patron-client system and how this shapes behaviours and expectations of actors in general, including their attitudes towards externally-led projects. Regardless of Western views of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the point made is that such system provides the parameter of what is ‘normal’ and ‘accepted’ in that society and, as such, it should inform any policy evaluation (and in fact, any policy planning). In the case of Sierra Leone, for example, clientelism also helps understand the extent to which the gains from peacebuilding are highly asymmetrical within society and how they are not able to change broader social structures (regardless of Western promises of democratization and economic opportunities linked to the liberal peace).

This is a key issue to understand peacebuilding assessment. And I would add that ethnographic preparation is one of the most difficult things to do. First, you may be lucky enough to do research in a country that has been widely researched (and this, of course, would present other cons… related to ‘over researched localities’). But this does not necessarily apply to all contexts. Second, culture is ever changing and in places where systematic violence has been in place for several years it is very difficult to have access to up to date research. In Mozambique, as of today, there is still so much related to the war that needs to be studied, and, as the country is large, this implies important variations across regions. Finally, no matter how many books you read, some dynamics will only be observable once in loco – and many only after a long time. Personally, I was quite sad to leave the district where I was conducting my fieldwork after two months as I realised there were many dynamics I was just starting to understand. These are not clear dynamics, but nearly ‘invisible’ to the eyes of a non-local, so it requires training, reading between the lines, gaining trust to enter those spaces.

The third pillar is local engagement. Millar rightly observes that far too often the evaluation of peacebuilding interventions are conducted among the urban elite, who speak the language of the evaluator, or even among those who helped implement the project itself, such as program officers from NGOs and international organisations. In practice, understanding the many nuances of peacebuilding requires engaging with a plurality of actors, something that does not happen as often as it should. As Millar notes, and as anyone reading peacebuilding evaluation reports may notice, most data collected reflect the views of a minority of people who are directly engaged with peacebuilders or rely on surveys that mostly do not reach distant places (i.e., those at the margins of power who, in turn, should be the beneficiaries of peace). The results is that those views are very biased and reflect what a small elite thinks of the projects they are engaged with.

A central issue here is that this elite is familiar with the language, theory and expectations of the instruments that make up the ‘liberal peacebuilding’. Conversely, this does not necessarily apply in the case of those who are at the bottom-end of the peacebuilding chain, the expected beneficiaries, so communication is hampered by the assumption that some concepts very used in the ‘West’ make sense or have the same connotation in a completely different social cultural setting. Millar gives several examples from Sierra Leone and I believe anyone who has done fieldwork in a peacebuilding context would agree with him. In my own experience, a key element to fully understand social change and the specific effects of peacebuilding is to acknowledge that the ‘local’ is extremely diverse and that the organised ‘civil society’ has often very different views and expectations from ordinary rural populations, for instance (see a brief discussion of this in the case of Mozambique here and a more detailed one in my book). In this regard, seeing peacebuilding as experiential entails grasping the different narratives and assessing them by considering how representative they are of the full spectrum of the population. Moreover, it entails giving voice to those who are usually silenced, either because they do not speak the dominant language or because they are hard to reach (due to road conditions, distance, etc.).

Finally, the fourth pillar of ethnographic research, according to Millar, is the appraisal of one’s implicit assumptions. The point highlighted is that many of the ideas that form the basis of our theoretical knowledge (including concepts such as justice, empowerment and reconciliation) are “built on foundations of more fundamental schemas or ‘mental maps’ of the world in which we live in” (p. 101). As such, not only has the researcher to question the very concepts and ideas used in research, but also question what is behind them, their own foundations. This implies, among other things, to explore conceptions of the ‘self’ that are at the base of Western and non-Western thought.

This a crucial issue that has been discussed for long in social sciences (see, for instance, Bourdieu and his call for constant reflexivity in Sociology), and increasingly more in Peace and Conflict Studies (see article of Meera Sabaratnam about the ‘avatars of Eurocentrism’ that still hunt peacebuilding research). To a great extent, the local (or cultural) turn in peacebuilding has been driven by this purpose: to criticise precisely the foundations of the liberal peacebuilding. At the same time, moving away from the very concept of liberal peace and dichotomies such as liberal/non-liberal and North/South has been quite a challenge, not least because it requires not only questioning our own values and frames of reference, but also diving deep into the multitude of cultural systems that exist out there so we may be able to see and grasp alternative models of thinking.

Personally, I feel that only recently I started to deeply question some of my own foundations. Where this process started inevitably during my first fieldwork (when I realised that some of concepts I had chosen to study simply didn’t seem to make sense at the local level), deconstructing assumptions of peace and violence requires a huge effort. One of the key aspects in this regard, in my view, is to explore different disciplines. Undoubtly the local turn in peacebuilding, as much as Millar’s book, have helped researchers in peacebuilding to get closer to Anthropology, which is a major gain to peacebuilding studies. But I think we could definitely gain from exploring even other fields of study, such as psychology, and linguistics, for example, pushing the disciplinary boundaries even further.

Millar concludes his book diving into the practical challenges of conducting ethnographic research. I believe this is such an important part that I rather discuss it in a future post. The everyday of the fieldwork is a crucial element of research, and is as experiential as peacebuilding itself, ultimately informing how the researcher will absorb and process all the information gathered. Millar further stresses the case for using an ethnographic approach in the study of peacebuilding while also combining this with quantitative methods, something convincingly argued all through the book.

One issue that appears in Millar work but less systematically and which I believe should be paid more attention to in the context of ethnographic peacebuilding research is the issue of power (and, linked to that, the will to change things). In his examples on Sierra Leone, he noticed how in many instances the local elite was willingly manipulated the ‘non-elite’ so they could accept, for instance, the directives of the FDI project. They did so by making promises to the population that would never be kept, as well by manipulating translations during encounters between members of the company and the community (and so avoiding any reactions that could obstruct the concretisation of the FDI project).

I believe that understanding how power dynamics work in peacebuilding settings is key to fully appreciate how and why different actors experiment peacebuilding as they do. Moreover, understanding power dynamics is key to identify which actors actually desire change (and what kind of change) and which don’t. As much as it may be disheartening and frustrating for the researcher to find that the results of policy implementation in the context of peacebuilding are far behind the promises of the liberal peace rhetoric, I would say it is even more frustrating to realise that there often is an active and strong force (in the shape of political actors, elites, etc.) that manipulates the spaces for change so that change is only partial and never big enough to affect structural issues. Even people in the elite who genuinely desire change are bound by these forces and have little space of manoeuvre. Assessing power dynamics in such contexts requires, therefore, identifying systematically the different assets of power available and how they are used by the various groups of actors. This is what would enhance the critical component of peacebuilding ethnography.

In, sum, if you are new to ethnographic research in peacebuilding contexts, or even if you have some experience, I vividly recommend An Ethnographic Approach to Peacebuilding. Millar has done a great job in connecting the dots, giving real life examples and systematising key aspects of ethnographic research in peacebuilding.

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