Posted by: Academy of Achievement | 01/17/2012

Séverine Autesserre, Class of 2000
Assistant Professor, Barnard College, Columbia University

It has now been almost 12 years since I attended the International Achievement Summit in London. At that time, I was working for a humanitarian organization in Kosovo. I vividly remember being asked unexpectedly at breakfast to participate in a panel on Kosovo that would take place a few hours later, with General Wesley Clark, the President of Latvia, and a few other dignitaries. I still can’t understand how, as a shy 20-something-year-old speaking in public for one of the first times in my life, I found the nerve to actually say a few things during this panel — and disagree with all the impressive people lined up on the stage. Little did I know that this pattern would characterize the next 12 years of my life. Since the day of this panel, I have had the chance to meet with a number of people I profoundly respect  — although few were as high-profile as those on the panel  — and have regularly ended up challenging their analyses.

I remained involved with aid organizations throughout my doctoral studies, traveling to Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo for Doctors Without Borders. I only left the humanitarian world for good a few years ago, when I started my post-doctoral studies at Yale University. I am now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. I specialize in international relations and African studies, and conduct research on civil wars, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and African politics.

I recently finished a long research project focused on local violence and international intervention in the eastern Congo, where I have traveled regularly in the past ten years. This project resulted in a series of articles and culminated in a book, entitled The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding. Academics and policy makers usually explain the conflict in Congo as the result of national and international tensions, and they attribute the failure of the international peacebuilding efforts to material constraints and vested interests. In my book, I suggest an alternate analysis of violence in Congo — one focused on grassroots rivalries over land, resources, and political power. I also develop a different analysis of the reasons behind the international failure to help Congo build peace and democracy: I argue that a dominant peacebuilding culture shaped the intervention strategy in a way that precluded action on local conflicts, ultimately dooming the international efforts. This argument won the 2012 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order and the 2011 Chadwick Alger Prize, presented by the International Studies Association to the best book on international organizations and multilateralism.

My current research project examines how various shared cultures and practices influence peacebuilding interventions on the ground. I have conducted extensive fieldwork for this project in 2010-2011, with a primary case study on eastern Congo and comparative research on South Sudan, Burundi, and Cyprus; I am planning to carry out research in Timor-Leste and in Israel/Palestine in 2012. Findings from this project have appeared in Critique Internationale and African Affair. I am now at work on a book manuscript tentatively titled Peaceland: An Ethnography of International Intervention. I am still analyzing my data, but my hope is that the book will offer a new way to think about international peace interventions, and suggest more effective ways to build peace in conflict and post-conflict environments.

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