Winner of the 2021 ISSS Emerging Scholar Award, International Studies Association


Most of my articles are available for free through Columbia Academic Commons. Please also feel free to email me if you would like an electronic copy of any of the articles listed on this page and can’t access it thanks to the links below.

Policy Article

The Crisis of Peacekeeping: Why the UN Can’t End Wars

Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019

UN peacekeeping missions fail because they rely on top-down solutions rather than bottom-up strategies that draw on local knowledge.

Spanish Translation: La Crisis del Mantenimiento de la Paz

Foreign Affairs LatinoAmérica, 19 (3), July / September 2019

La estrategia de la comunidad internacional para afrontar los conflictos no funciona. Sin embargo, para que haya más posibilidades de lograr una paz duradera, la comunidad internacional debe contar más con las personas a las que se intenta proteger.


Foreign Affairs, April / May 2019

Letter to the editor by Peter Yeo, followed by my reply

Policy Article

Congressional Testimony: Resolving the Political Crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives. U.S. Government Publishing Office, Washington, D.C., USA, November 2017.

This statement presents the longer, written version of the analysis and recommendations I developed during the November 9 hearing “Resolving the Political Crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” It is part of the official transcript of the hearing.

Policy Article

The Right Way to Build Peace in Congo

Foreign Affairs, April 2017

Working with national elites, local leaders, and ordinary citizens to plan international programs is the best way to build peace in Congo. Holding national elections is not the only path forward.

Scholarly Article

International Peacebuilding and Local Success: Assumptions and Effectiveness

International Studies Review 19 (1), pp. 114-132, 2017

Existing research on war and peace lacks analysis of what allows peacebuilding to succeed at the subnational level. Instead, most scholars focus on peacebuilding failure and macro-level dynamics. This is unfortunate because the obstacles to peacebuilding are such that the most puzzling question is why international efforts sometimes succeed, rather than why they fail. The lack of focus on success is also problematic because it results in ambiguous findings. On the one hand, there is an emerging consensus that local conflict resolution is crucial to building peace. There is also an agreement that, all else being equal, international support tends to increase the chances of successful peacebuilding. On the other hand, when international actors have tried to back local initiatives, they have often generated counterproductive consequences and worsened the situation. Should international actors support local peacebuilding processes? If so, how can they actually do this?

Drawing on in-depth interviews, field and participant observations in nine different conflict zones, and document analysis, this article takes the first step in explaining whether, how, why, and under what conditions international interveners (including donors, diplomats, peacekeepers, and the foreign staff of international and non-governmental organizations) can contribute to successful local and bottom-up peace efforts. It makes three central contributions. First, it shows that the policy and scholarly literatures suffer from a dearth of findings on successful international support to local conflict resolution. Second, it emphasizes the critical—and under researched—role of assumptions in shaping peacebuilding initiatives. Third, it develops a theoretical framework to analyze how assumptions influence international peace efforts. By way of illustration, the paper analyzes three widespread assumptions about peacebuilding and the role of peacebuilders. In each case, it challenges assumptions that international interveners take for granted but that are actually unfounded and detrimental, while identifying assumptions that promote peacebuilding effectiveness.

Policy Article

What the Uproar Over Congo’s Elections Misses

Foreign Affairs, March 2017

Bringing peace and prosperity to Congo will require a change in attitude, away from the crisis in Kinshasa and toward the local actors who have the power to address the deeper sources of the country’s troubles.

Book Chapter

Paternalism and Peacebuilding: Capacity, Knowledge, and Resistance in International Intervention

Paternalism Beyond Borders, ed. Michael Barnett, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 161-184, 2016

Based on several years of fieldwork in conflict zones around the world, this chapter analyzes the way paternalism manifests itself in international peacebuilding on the ground. Two main elements are at the root of the paternalistic attitudes that recur in international peacebuilding: first, the idea that local populations need help because they lack capacity and expertise and, second, the belief that international actors possess the capability and knowledge required to provide this help. The politics of knowledge at work in international peacebuilding lies at the source of these two recurrent narratives, and it legitimizes international interference. On the ground, the most important consequences of the resulting paternalistic attitudes are that host populations regularly resist, challenge, or reject the international programs that are meant to help them. Rare exceptions to the dominant paternalistic practices evidence the benefits inherent in alternative approaches. However, three main obstacles – the role of accountability structures, the dilemma that international interveners face in balancing the inclusion of local actors with the hurdles that such inclusion often creates, and the detrimental byproducts of the politics of knowledge at work in the peacebuilding field – make it particularly difficult to change and end these widespread practices.

Scholarly Article

The Responsibility to Protect in Congo: The Failure of Grassroots Prevention

International Peacekeeping 23 (1), pp. 29-51, 2016

(Reprinted in Brett O’Bannon. Reassessing the Responsibility to Protect: Conceptual and Operational Challenges, New York: Routledge, pp. 93-113, 2016)

Prevention was the most important dimension of the Responsibility to Protect’s foundational documents and subsequent advocacy efforts. However, the actual implementation of protection on the ground has focused on reacting to crises. This article develops a case study of war resumption in Congo in 2008 to understand why and how this happened.

International peacebuilders took preventive action in Congo, but not as part of the protection efforts. Peacebuilders focused on preventing renewed national and regional wars, and they ignored the local conflicts that fueled these broader tensions. The reason for this lies in a dominant culture of international peacebuilding. This culture shaped international efforts in such a way that the three essential conditions for effective prevention – political will, early warning, and the preventive toolbox – were present for the prevention of renewed national and regional fighting but absent for the prevention of local violence. The resulting strategy allowed a crisis localized in the province of North Kivu to escalate into a full-scale war. The same type of effect appears generalizable across several recent interventions.

Policy Article

Trouble in Peaceland

Foreign Policy, October 2015

By operating from a fortified bubble, dismissing local knowledge, and not speaking the language, peace missions are actually hindering the people they’re trying to help.

Policy Article

Local Knowledge and Peacebuilding

What Needs to Change in UN Peace Operations: An Expert Briefing Book Prepared for the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, Center on International Cooperation and International Peace Institute, November 2014

This short article presents a list of suggested reforms to improve inclusivity in peacebuilding.

Scholarly Article

Going Micro: Emerging and Future Peacekeeping Research

International Peacekeeping 21 (4), pp. 492-500, 2014

In the past fifteen years, scholars have started studying the local and micro-level dimensions of peacekeeping. They have investigated the nature and effectiveness of bottom-up peacebuilding, assessed the local versus national impacts of peacekeeping interventions, and studied the decentralized actions of international peacebuilders on the ground. This commentary shows that, despite the approach’s limitations, delving into these three topics opens up fruitful areas for further research, in particular analyzing micro-to-macro linkages, evaluating peacekeeping’s subnational impacts across cases, explaining peacebuilding successes, and understanding the causes of peace itself.

Scholarly Article

Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences

African Affairs, 111 (443), pp. 202-222, 2012

2013 African Politics Conference Group best article award

Explanations for the persistence of violence in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo blame the incendiary actions of domestic and regional leaders, as well as the inefficacy of international peace-building efforts. Based on several years of ethnographic research, this article adds another piece to the puzzle, emphasizing the perverse consequences of well-meaning international efforts. I argue that three narratives dominate the public discourse on Congo and eclipse the numerous alternative framings of the situation. These narratives focus on a primary cause of violence, illegal exploitation of mineral resources; a main consequence, sexual abuse of women and girls; and a central solution, extending state authority. I elucidate why simple narratives are necessary for policy makers, journalists, advocacy groups, and practitioners on the ground, especially those involved in the Congo. I then consider each narrative in turn and explain how they achieved prominence: they provided straightforward explanations for the violence, suggested feasible solutions to it, and resonated with foreign audiences. I demonstrate that the focus on these narratives and on the solutions they recommended has led to results that clash with their intended purposes, notably an increase in human rights violations.

Book Chapter

Les Intervenants Internationaux

Paper in Titouan Lamazou, Ténèbres au Paradis – Africaines des Grands Lacs, Gallimard, 2011

Paper only available as a hard copy.

Scholarly Article

The Trouble with the Congo: A Précis
Seven Commentaries, Three Debates and One Book: the Author’s Response

Symposium on book “The Trouble with the Congo,” African Security Review, 20 (2), pp. 56-65 and 114-124, 2011

Abstract for the book précis: The Trouble with the Congo suggests a new explanation for international peacebuilding failures in civil wars. Drawing from more than 330 interviews and a year and a half of field research, it develops a case study of the international intervention during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s unsuccessful transition from war to peace and democracy (2003–2006). Grassroots rivalries over land, resources, and political power motivated widespread violence. However, a dominant peacebuilding culture shaped the intervention strategy in a way that precluded action on local conflicts, ultimately dooming the international efforts to end the deadliest conflict since World War II. Most international actors interpreted continued fighting as the consequence of national and regional tensions alone, and diplomats and United Nations staff viewed intervention at the macro level as their only legitimate responsibility. The dominant culture constructed local peacebuilding as such an unimportant, unfamiliar, and unmanageable task that neither shocking events nor resistance from certain individuals could convince international actors to reevaluate their understanding of violence and intervention. Through this in-depth analysis, The Trouble with the Congo proposes innovative ways to address civil wars in Africa and beyond.

Abstract for the response: This symposium has been tremendously rewarding. Not only do the commentators generally agree with the central claims of the book, but my argument has also generated a great deal of debate. The reactions focus on three main questions. First, do top-down or bottom-up causes drive the violence in the Congo? Second, should the international response to continuing violence be top down or bottom up? Finally, do constraints, vested interests, or cultural frames best explain why international interveners have thus far neglected to support local peacebuilding? My response addresses each of these questions in turn. First, I use the data presented in the commentaries to buttress the central claim of the book: that local conflicts were significant causes of violence during the transition to peace. Second, I elaborate on my policy recommendations. I demonstrate that a bottom-up approach would have been an essential complement to the top-down strategy, and I clarify the role that international interveners could have played in the bottom-up process. Third, I explain how the dominant international peacebuilding culture constituted the constraints and interests that prevented international action on local conflict. I conclude by briefly discussing the suggestions for further research present in the commentaries.

Scholarly Article

Constructing Peace: Collective Understandings of Peace, Peacemaking, Peacekeeping, and Peacebuilding

(Construire la Paix : Conceptions Collectives de son Etablissement, de son Maintien et de sa Consolidation)
Critique Internationale
, 51 (2)pp. 153-167, 2011

This review examines the anthropological and international relations literature on collective understandings and peace interventions to identify their contributions, elucidate the current debates, emphasize the literatures’ complementary and conflicting aspects, and shed light on their respective shortcomings. I first look at the top-down research, which focuses on two main topics: national negotiation styles and diplomatic culture, and the liberal peace paradigm. After highlighting the deficiencies of this top-down approach, I move to two central debates in the bottom-up research on peace interventions: the divergence between cultures of interveners and those of local populations, and the significance of the interveners’ organizational and professional frames. To conclude, I emphasize areas that remain under-researched.

French version in the hard copy of the journal

English version online on Critique Internationale’s website

Policy Article

Peacetime Violence – Post-Conflict Violence and Peacebuilding Strategies

Program on States and Security, Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, 2010

This synthesis provides an overview of the academic findings on the sources of violence in post-war environments and on the strategies to address them. It distinguishes between unaddressed pre-war tensions, war-induced cleavages, and peace-generated conflict. It argues that current peace-building strategies have two major weaknesses, which explain their frequent failures. First, they neglect the micro-level causes of violence. Second, they do not devote enough attention and resources to state reconstruction (which is distinct from merely holding elections).

Scholarly Article

Hobbes and the Congo: Frames, Local Violence, and International Intervention

International Organization, Vol. 63, pp. 249-280, 2009

Why do international peacebuilders fail to address the local causes of peace process failures? The existing explanations of peacebuilding failures, which focus on constraints and vested interests, do not explain the international neglect of local conflict. In this article, I show how discursive frames shape international intervention and preclude international action on local violence. Drawing on more than 330 interviews, multi-sited ethnography, and document analysis, I develop a case study of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s transition from war to peace and democracy (2003–2006). I demonstrate that local agendas played a decisive role in sustaining local, national, and regional violence. However, a postconflict peacebuilding frame shaped the international understanding of violence and intervention in such a way that local conflict resolution appeared irrelevant and illegitimate. This frame included four key elements: international actors labeled the Congo a “postconflict” situation; they believed that violence there was innate and therefore acceptable even in peacetime; they conceptualized international intervention as exclusively concerned with the national and international realms; and they saw holding elections, as opposed to local conflict resolution, as a workable, appropriate, and effective tool for state- and peacebuilding. This frame authorized and justified specific practices and policies while precluding others, notably local conflict resolution, ultimately dooming the peacebuilding efforts. In conclusion, I contend that analyzing discursive frames is a fruitful approach to the puzzle of international peacebuilding failures beyond the Congo.

Spanish translation: Hobbes y el Congo: Marcos, Violencia Local e Intervención Internacional

Revista de Relaciones Internationales, No. 16, pp. 97-134 , 2011

¿Por qué los constructores internacionales de la paz no toman en consideración las causas locales de los procesos de paz que fallan? A través del presente artículo demuestro cómo las agendas locales jugaron entonces un rol decisivo en fomentar la violencia a nivel local, regional y nacional. Sin embargo, la existencia de un marco de construcción de la paz posbélica configuraba la visión internacional de la violencia y de la intervención de tal manera que la resolución del conflicto local era considerada como irrelevante e ilegitima. Este marco incluyó enseguida cuatro elementos fundamentales: los actores internacionales etiquetaron la situación en Congo de “postconflicto”; estos mismos actores creyeron que la violencia constituía un componente innato en la sociedad congolesa y, por lo tanto, aceptable incluso en tiempos de paz; conceptualizaron la intervención internacional como un asunto exclusivo de la esferas nacional e internacional; y consideraron la celebración de elecciones, en lugar de la resolución del conflicto local, como una herramienta viable, apropiada y efectiva para la construcción del estado y de la paz. Este marco, al autorizar y justificar prácticas y políticas específicas mientras impedía otras, en particular la resolución de conflictos locales, acabó condenando en última instancia los esfuerzos para la construcción de la paz. Para concluir, sostengo que el análisis de los marcos discursivos es un enfoque fructífero para intentar resolver los puzles de los fracasos internacionales en la construcción de la paz que se dan, también, más allá de las fronteras del Congo.


Policy Article

The Trouble with Congo – How Local Disputes Fuel Regional Conflict

Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008

Although the war in Congo officially ended in 2003, two million people have died since. One of the reasons is that the international community’s peacekeeping efforts there have not focused on the local grievances in eastern Congo, especially those over land, that are fueling much of the broader tensions. Until they do, the nation’s security and that of the wider Great Lakes region will remain uncertain.

Book Chapter

Penser les Conflits Locaux: L’Echec de l’Intervention Internationale au Congo

L’Afrique des Grands Lacs : Annuaire 2007-2008, Paris: L’Harmattan, pp. 179 – 196, 2008

This chapter takes stock of the international intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to explain why it failed to end violence in the eastern provinces. Based on field observations in the Congo, document analysis, and over 330 interviews, it demonstrates that massive violence continued between 2003 and 2008 in part because of the presence of local conflict. The international actors left these local tensions to fester because they perceived them as a consequence of broader problems and as a humanitarian issue. International actors thus focused on national and regional reconciliation, especially through the organization of “free and fair elections,” and they passed onto each other the responsibility of working on violence at the local level. They paid attention to local issues only in cases of shocking events or when they realized that micro and macro tensions were linked. As a result, they neglected many critical local conflicts, which regularly erupted into major crises.

Scholarly Article

D.R. Congo: Explaining Peace Building Failures, 2003 – 2006

Review of African Political Economy, 113 (34), pp. 423-442, 2007

As a corrective to the emphasis on national and international reconciliation during peacebuilding processes, I develop here a conceptual analysis of the dynamics of violence during the transition from war to peace and democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2003 and 2006. I locate the sources, at the local, national, and regional levels, of continued local violence during this transition. Through an analysis of the situation in the provinces of North Kivu and North Katanga, I illustrate how local dynamics interacted with the national and regional dimensions of the conflict. I demonstrate that, after a national and regional settlement was reached, some local conflicts over land and political power increasingly became self-sustaining, autonomous, and disconnected from the national and regional tracks. Thus, peace building action was required not only at the national and regional levels but also locally.

Scholarly Article

Local Violence, National Peace? Postwar “Settlement” in the Eastern D.R. Congo (2003 – 2006)

Africa Studies Review, 49 (3), pp. 1-29, 2006

2006 African Studies Association Best Graduate Student Paper Prize Award

This article develops a conceptual analysis of the dynamics of violence during the transition from war to peace and democracy in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2003 and 2006. I locate the sources, at the local, national, and regional levels, of continued local violence during this transition. Through an analysis of the situation in the Kivus, I illustrate how local dynamics interacted with the national and regional dimensions of the conflict. I demonstrate that, after a national and regional settlement was reached, some local conflicts over land and political power increasingly became self-sustaining and autonomous from the national and regional tracks.

Policy Article

Kongo’da siddet ve ölüm kültürü (Violence and the Culture of Death in the Congo)

Birikim, Volume 174, October 2003, pp. 88 – 96, translated by Koray Caliskan

In Turkish. For those who would like to order the paper copy, here is the link to Birikim.

Scholarly Article

The United States’ ‘Humanitarian Diplomacy’ in South Sudan

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, January 2002

This essay studies the manipulation of food aid to South Sudan and its interplay with US politics: The US is the major donor of relief aid to Sudan, and at the same time it appears as one of Khartoum’s major opponents on the international scene. This essay argues that humanitarian aid, and especially food aid, is not a substitute for political action but that it has become the main channel of the US’ Sudan policy for the past ten years.

Torn between its conflicting economic, political, geo-strategic, and moral imperatives, the US has had to adopt a difficult strategy: supporting the rebels, but not openly and not enough to enable them to win the war. In this situation, humanitarian aid, with its reputation of neutrality and its moral appeal concealing a fundamental vulnerability to all sorts of manipulation, is a very efficient tool. Food aid is especially useful: It directly counteracts Khartoum’s strategy (starving the South into submission) and directly helps the rebel movement and army in a number of ways (bringing them resources as well as domestic and international legitimacy). Food aid also has the crucial advantage of fitting perfectly into Western prejudices about Africa — a starving continent dependent on the West — so that no one thinks about questioning the underlying motives of US relief aid to Sudan.