The Frontlines of Peace by Severine Autesserre: Book review.

Written by Shadi Rouhshahbaz

“It’s one or two individuals within a program, a project, an organization, who have a bit of a different vision [for their respective agencies], and who push things in that direction. Someone who has an iron will, who does not give up, because there is a lot of bureaucratic resistance . . . These kinds of individuals really make a difference— and they are rare.” Eirini Diamantopoulou from the The Frontlines of Peace by Severine Autesserre

As an international development practitioner with expertise in peace and security, I often find it difficult to recommend books to friends and acquaintances who do not come from this background – people who don’t have a clear understanding of the role of the United Nations or those who ask me which organization to donate to. Having conversations about my frustrations or my delight about things that have happened to me in my professional life has always been difficult for these people due to the lack of context or resources and information that would be able to provide this context in a simple but intriguing manner. For this first time in years, I found a book that is simple enough for everyone to read – provided that you can read in English – and yet technical enough to make international interveners and peacebuilding experts nod or shake their head as they embark on this page-turning journey. 

Severine Autesserre’s The Frontlines of Peace is a story above anything else. It is a story that encompasses other mini-stories from different areas in the world that have suffered different kinds of conflict and violence. These mini-stories are very diverse in many ways, yet they all have one thing in common: showing the reader the realities of different kinds of international interventions and their consequences and impact. Above all, she humanizes the work that international interveners are tasked with doing: “making sure that we prevent death and suffering wherever and whenever we can.”

In her book, the work of local and international interveners has been both praised and criticized at different moments and in different contexts. What makes it a great and transformative read for an intervener is her examples of Model Interveners that she calls “the real heroes of stories” who “stand on the frontlines of peace” and people who are “changing the world, one day at a time and get it right”. Her book provides stories of these interveners and how their background, their skills and experiences as well as their openness, humility, patience, trust and relationships with locals, strength and risk-taking abilities, knowledge of local context and local languages and their flexibility become their winning cards.  While her description of the model intervener might be quite familiar for certain practitioners, it could come across as surprising to others – depending on their background and experiences. 

To help contextualize and capitalize on which models of intervention work best, Autesserre tells the story of Life and Peace Institute in the Democratic Republic of Congo and how their Participatory Action Research programs managed to successfully control and resolve conflict for years until certain factors such as “throwing money at the problem” caused their demise. She explains how the island of Idjwi remains in a stable state despite its violent neighboring regions in the Congo and its diverse group of residents with different power dynamics. She takes the reader to a mini-adventure in Colombia to the San José de Apartadó’s peace zone where the residents do not recognize the legitimacy of the state and follow community rules written on a billboard in the village through which they keep the zone incredibly safe compared to its surroundings. With her, the reader travels to Wahat al- Salam – Neve Shalom, where children learn Arabic and Hebrew without feeling the discomfort of being misplaced and displaced in Israel and Palestine. Her access to Somaliland and its stark difference in many ways with Somalia brings the reader to think about the thousands and millions of dollars and euros in aid money that is being sent from donors to bring about peace and stability. She takes a surprise turn and displays the efforts of Cure Violence and Resolve in the United States by giving examples of how they mitigate risks and manage to control gun and gang violence. Her breathtaking narrative answers fundamental questions such as whether to choose between Peace or Democracy? Justice or Women’s Rights? Which works better: bottom-up approaches or top-down interventions? Neither? Both?  

While providing well-thought but yet simply structured answers to the questions above, Autesserre’s book also contains her witty and sharp sense of humor, drawing upon experiences that spark a sort of comic relief in the tragic background she draws; She sprinkles some of this tragicomedy in instances such as the General Commander of Timor Leste writing a memo to his staff to ignore the standard operating procedures that the United Nations had written for the Timorese police, and that he, himself, had signed and approved earlier, or another instance of a gut-wrenching interaction between a young local boy and a peacekeeper in Bukavu who did not speak Swahili nor French, as the former was trying to inform the latter of a rebel-led attack on his house through shouts and screams when the soldier gave him cookies in response.

What makes this page-turner even more worth reading is the fact that Severine Autesserre not only criticizes what doesn’t work, but she also gives readers and practitioners great examples of what works. Moreover, she connects her observations and practice in conflict zones and war-torn countries to the United States of America and countries of the European Union, where beyond the peaceful façade, violence manifests itself in various forms, ranging from mass shootings to gang violence and abuse.

Unlike many social and political scientists, Autesserre has the audacity of bringing her own story to the book– her family, her hopes and her fears, her privileges and her envies as well as both her success and her failures. In a sector where remaining silent and reserved is considered to be a key successful behavior, Autesserre demonstrates that she has indeed taken her own steps towards becoming the model intervener. 

Who should read this book?

  • Leaders, staff, consultants, interns and volunteers of International Organizations, UN Agencies, NGOs and INGOs and local organizations across the Humanitarian Sector (local and international interveners). 
  • Academics, researchers, professors, and students in Faculties of Social Sciences and Humanities (Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, Peace and Conflict Studies, Psychology, Law, Postcolonial Studies, Human Resources, Management, International Development, History, Social Work, etc.) and other faculties 
  • Activists, community builders, Human Rights Defenders, journalists, peacebuilders and communication experts – regardless of age, gender and background
  •  Readers who enjoy the discovery of unique and interesting stories from around the world
  • Any individual who feels moral and civil responsibility towards creating positive change and justice in their community and the world

Lastly, if you are interested in learning more about the book, join us in an exclusive conversation with Severine Autesserre on June 11th between 11 am- 12 pm EDT ( New York time). You can register here for this event. See you soon!

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