Are we still chasing the flame? A few reflections after reading Sergio Vieira de Mello’s biography

My last post for this year will be in line with the reflective end-of-the-year mood rather than engaging with an ongoing debate. I enjoyed reading Samantha Power’s biography of Vieira de Mello and it made me think about two bigger issues that have been part of my research work and that also interest me beyond academic endeavours: First, the book is a vivid example of how the UN transformed from a small, political and 'neutral' organisation into a participant of the global aid industry and became part of the transnational work- and lifestyle – and how little the UN seem to have engaged in these transformations. The other issue is that Vieira de Mello’s career and his duty stations are good/sad examples of how difficult, slow and interlocked peacebuilding challenges are. Practically all of the countries he has worked in throughout his career are still struggling with (the aftermath of) violent conflict and civil war – which often happened years or even decades ago – and that many of the places may only be ‘peaceful’ at the surface level.
I am not going to review the book in a conventional way or comment on individual events in Vieira de Mello’s life or career. The book is well written and Samantha Power manages quite well in telling Vieira de Mello’s story in a way that it often becomes the UN’s story with its achievements and shortcomings, with all the individual heroism within organisational bureaucracy.
So let’s focus on my two themes, UN lifestyles and the complexity of peacebuilding.

It’s not just about the quality of your work, but also about the day-to-day conduct ‘on the ground’, after work and during parties 

Cambodia seemed to be the first UN mission where the post-Cold War peacekeeping and –building lifestyle became visible. I do not think it is a surprise that Power spoke to Andrew Thomson one of the authors of the (in)famous ‘Emergency Sex’ book who worked with Vieira de Mello. Whereas Vieira de Mello and other senior UN staff (still) seemed to think ‘if we do good work, the people will like us’ a ‘parallel universe’ or even parallel economy emerged around parties in Phnom Pen, white Land Cruisers, prostitution etc. I am not at all suggesting that the UN did not do some good work or that aidworkers should not relax with a beer after long working days, but these things go hand in hand and often the semi-private parts of international aid workers’ lives are more in the public domain than, say, the reintegration policy of UNDP. There is no perfect way to facilitate cultural clashes, but whether it was Cambodia or later on Bosnia/Kosovo or East Timor the UN system never really seemed to reflect on issues beyond the ‘doing a good job’ discourse. Nowadays the aid industry has become such a prominent feature of city life in places as diverse as Khartoum, Kabul and Kathmandu and very few organisations seem to address issues around the ‘lifestyle’ of aidworkers. I guess this is why many issues featured on ‘stuff expat aid workers like’ sound so/too familiar for many who work in or write about development even in more reflective and reflexive ways. 

Sudan, Kosovo or Cambodia: Peacebuilding does not often build ‘peace’ – or ‘peace’ of a narrower definition only

This could easily be the topic of a thesis (and by some strange coincidence it is partly the topic of mine...) or of more books like Roland Paris’ ‘At war’s end’ or Oliver Richmond’s more recently edited ‘Palgrave advances in peacebuilding’ volume. Despite Vieira de Mello’s individual efforts, successes or shortcomings or that of UN peace missions or the ‘international community’ more in general, many of the places he worked in are still far from being ‘peaceful’ (e.g. Lebanon and the Middle East, Sudan or Iraq) and others are still struggling with issues around peace and development. Cambodia’s civil society is caught in a consumerist mentality of participation as a colleague's doctoral thesis has found out; Kosovo’s most senior government officials are allegedly involved in numerous criminal activities as the GUARDIAN reported a few days ago and a recent blog post about ‘Dirty Dili’ wondered about the international aspirations that UNTAET had for East Timor. In short, news bigger and smaller is pouring in day by day that suggest that rebuilding societies is a long and difficult task and that international peacebuilding has limitations – and I have not even mentioned Iraq where Vieira de Mello was killed in 2003. In more general terms, Zoe Marriage insights into international donor’s involvement in health service and governance programmes in Congo
(Congo Co.: Aid and security) sum up some of the core challenges that peacebuilding faces today and that has been written about ever since the term gained prominence in Boutros Ghali’s ‘Agenda for Peace’:

In concrete terms, the provision of health services and the governance programmes provide few jobs and do not forge any of the processes by which the population would become politically significant to their government. While for Northern donors, meanings and experiences of security continue to reinforce each other, for people in Congo, the pursuit of the form of global security that involves the containment of diseases alongside ill-conceived and poorly implemented governance programmes does not contribute to a positive experience of security.

But as this year is coming to an end, my (academic) answer is not to stop researching, inquiring and being critical about the shortcomings of liberal peacebuilding, but to employ ‘better’/different research - especially qualitative ethnographic research – to engage with the people and institutions that lead the discourse and practice of ‘building peace’. David Mosse in his 'Notes on the ethnography of expertise and professionals in international development' puts this in more appropriate words than I could ever find:

Between global expert consensus, on the one hand, and local ownership, on the other, much disappears from view: the institutional settings of global policy thinking at the point of origin; the enclave agencies and expert communities involved in the unseen processes of international transmission and imposition; the political processes, institutional interests and social relations which interpret and transform global policy locally; and the social construction of expert knowledge and professional identities themselves. Ethnographic research has a capacity to reveal and explain such hidden realms.

Enjoy the holidays and see you in the real and virtual worlds in 2011!


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