Toward Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding Through Local Perspectives

From Anthropology News

My career has been spent with one foot in policy and activism, and the other in research and teaching. I have worked for human rights organizations, the African Union and the United Nations, and academic institutions—focusing on the problems of peace, human rights and humanitarian action, particularly in northeast Africa.

I first went to Sudan in 1984 because the University of Khartoum was then the world’s intellectual center for refugee studies, the immediate precursor of humanitarian studies. The flow of intellectual capital was from Sudan to Europe and America.

The particular contribution of Sudanese scholars and policymakers was to take intellectual ownership of the problems they faced. They defined their crises in their own terms, and fought to change the academic, policy and legal categories to fit the reality. An example occurred in 1984, when the Sudanese government’s Commissioner of Refugees, Abdel Rahman al Bashir (DPhil, Oxford in anthropology) struggled to overcome a problem originating with the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. The Convention placed arbitrary restrictions on how the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) could support Sudan in providing assistance and protection to people streaming across its eastern border, fleeing war, oppression and famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Abdel Rahman al Bashir and his staff established a new category: “persons of concern to UNHCR” and pushed it through a reluctant UN system. Ten years later this became the instrument for UNHCR’s operations in the former Yugoslavia.

I obtained my DPhil from Oxford in 1988 in social anthropology because this discipline, alone among the social sciences, extended a basic right to people, namely the right to define the problems afflicting them. In my early work on famine in Darfur, I placed the Darfurian understandings of famine on an equal footing with the definitions provided by “expert” economists, nutritionists and specialists in food security. Needless to say, my research soon found that Darfurians possessed greater expertise on famine than well-qualified outsiders.

The narratives, belief systems and rituals of those gatekeepers of the citadels of expertise, in turn, became as much a subject of my ethnographic inquiry as the villagers and nomads of rural Sudan. The anthropological method, of observing while participating, served as a means of retaining sanity and obtaining some modest enjoyment from being involved in the earnest, arcane, convoluted and otherwise tedious tasks of managing or monitoring humanitarian aid.

These twin sensibilities—privileging the perspective of ordinary people, and on that basis critiquing that of the experts—have lain at the heart of my career as a professional and advocate on humanitarian issues, human rights and peacemaking.

It was these perspectives that led me to join Human Rights Watch in 1989, to try to refashion the human rights report to reflect the broader concerns of people in the countries I worked on (by including, for example, famine and corruption as topics for human rights investigation). These same perspectives later led me to resign from the organization in opposition to its support for President George HW Bush’s “Operation Restore Hope” in Somalia. Having left HRW, I focused on African NGOs and the priorities they were articulating—including their half-concealed concerns that their values and perspectives would be subsumed by better-capitalized international partners.

For 25 years, the main focus of my work—professional and academic—has been on violence and peace. I worked to bring views from the grassroots into the Sudanese peace processes of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I joined the African Union mediation team for Darfur in 2005-06, and subsequently worked for the AU High-Level Panel for the negotiations between north and south that led to independence for South Sudan in 2011.

It was an unusual privilege to work so closely with African mediators such as the former Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity, Salim Ahmed Salim, and the former South African President, Thabo Mbeki. What these African leaders initially were looking for was local knowledge—who’s who among the contending factions—but what they found more valuable was the respect for local understandings and the sensibility that privileged those views—not just recounting opinions, but systematizing and backing them up with evidence. I have found, for example, that quantitative methods, such as data for violent incidents, can usefully be combined with more classic ethnographic approaches.

I joined the World Peace Foundation in 2011, as the foundation—which had just celebrated its centenary—began a new association with the Fletcher School at Tufts University. This was an opportunity to reflect further and more deeply on my experience over the last few decades.

One of my research projects is on rethinking the core concepts that inform policy in Africa and the greater Middle East—notions such as “fragile state” and simple dichotomies between “war” and “peace.” The ethnography of policy and practice suggests that these categories are tangential to the reality of political business management. Terms drawn from African vernacular such as “political budget” (the funds used to rent clients’ loyalties) and tajility (the art of prevarication) lie at the heart of this analysis.

Another deals with documenting peace processes, which means placing the actual bargaining among the belligerents at the center of the story. Peace talks cry out for ethnographic study and I plan to provide the raw material.

A third project, run by my colleague Bridget Conley-Zilkic, focuses on how mass atrocities actually end, thereby providing evidence-based counter-narratives to the normative assumptions that dominate the field of genocide prevention and intervention. In all of these, anthropological sensibility, local knowledge, and disciplinary heterodoxy are taken for granted.

The World Peace Foundation program at the Fletcher School is also a chance to develop and teach a course (“Conflict in Africa”) that brings together diverse disciplines and perspectives. Students in my class range from military fellows to humanitarian workers, with a handful of PhD students devoted to research. It’s a challenge to get them to understand Africa’s conflicts and peacemaking processes from each others’ perspectives—and for all of them to step outside the citadel.

Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tuft University’s Fletcher School. Considered one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, HIV/AIDS and governance in Africa, and conflict and peacebuilding.  

Barbara Rylko-Bauer is contributing editor of Anthropology Works, the column of the AAA Committee on Practicing, Applied, and Public Interest Anthropology.

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