Category Archives: Rebel, rebel

Finally a full stop to the (in)famous greed vs. grievance debate: Lars-Erik Cederman, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Halvard Buhaug (2013) Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War, New York: Cambridge UP.


This book will hopefully set an end to the deeply fatigued and flawed debate about Paul Collier’s  and Anke Hoeffler’s claim that grievances do not matter for the outbreak of violent conflicts. Its epistemology is the same as Collier and Hoeffler’s, that is the book is situated in the behaviouralist research paradigm. It therefore can hardly be brushed away as ‘non-scientific’ as it uses exactly those scientising tools that are now so popular in the Journal of Peace Research. We have categories, variables (dependent and independent, of course), causal mechanisms and datasets with a lot of numbers, a nicely constructed research design and pretty proofs of hypotheses (including some francy graphs which are most useful for teaching) . And grievances matter. Full stop. Yeah.

Yet… this book also has everything that makes behaviouralist research so boring: a  lack of critical and reflexive discussion of categories, terms and notions; a superficial, opportunistic and partial reading of sociological, historical and anthropological literature; a couple of sweeping claims which would be almost funny if they weren’t so ideologized western-centric — for instance the claim: “In the new era of national self-determination and popular sovereignty that followed after the American and French revolutions in the late eighteenth century, it become increasingly difficult and costly to conquer territory, let alone to control it against the will of the local population” (pos. 986 in my kindle version) – to say the least, this is a very unusual way of describing the century of empire and colonialism….

And of course the study suffers from the greatest weakness of behaviouralist research, namely findings which are absolutely unsurprising for everyone who knows from zillions of case studies and historical literature that ‘civil wars are not a stupid thing’ as Cramer said so nicely in his book.

What do we learn from this study? If there are objective inequalities in a society and if there are ethno-national cleavages along which these inequalities run, if these inequalities are aptly exploited by the state, for instance by consistently maintaining discriminating and excluding policies, and if the groups can be mobilised through discoursive frames that pitch ethnic groups against each other or against the state, we have a situation with salient grievances. In such a situation there is an increased likelihood of armed and violent conflict. Bam!  What a truly revolutionary insight.

Now, to be fair, within the paradigm of behaviouralist research this book reformulats these insights most astutely and takes refreshingly new approaches to number crunching. It is, hence,  able to set an end to the (in)famous debate over greed vs. grievances by showing that economic fortunes of populations are closely interrelated with their political standing and that this in turn shapes their preparedness for violent politics. It allows for a multi-layered and hence somewhat more complex reconstruction of pathways to rebellion than those that this kind of research had produced before where mountains or oil where identified as causing violent politics. It reintroduces politics into the equation and it tries at least to account for processual developments and change. The latter tentative is inherently limited and restricted by the rigidity of quantitative models – there is simply a point where a category has to be fixed and a time span has to be defined consistently across many cases.

The research also has a take on a couple of questions, which this type of research had, up to now, rarely asked. It formulates ideas and hypotheses about the role of emotions, hence departing from the debilitating rigidity of the rational actor model. Indeed, the authors identify emotions as being the essential ‘jigsaw puzzle piece’ that connects objective grievances with the mobilisation of groups through discursive frames.

It also, and this is really something quite unusual for this kind of research, attempts to conceptualize conflicts as relational process. The authors conceptualize conflict process as conditioned by social relations first by taking into account group dynamics. This goes together with their emphasis on emotions and the consecutive departure from methodological individualism. Here, individuals and potential rebels behave in certain ways because they are members of groups, because others are important: their sympathy, their gaze and their feelings, good or bad.

Second, they conceptualize conflict processes as relational as they formulate a ping-pong of action and reaction between the adversary groups, or between the adversary group and the state or what the authors call “the interactive logic of claims and counterclaims issued by challengers and incumbents” (pos. 1352). The study makes extremely good use of social movements literature and this section in particular relies heavily on Jeff Goodwin’s “No other way out”. Yet, their relational thinking also finds its inherent limitation through the behaviouralist research design in which processes have to be linear and progressive to be measurable in order to avoid endogeity problems or reverse causation.

And so in the end, the study’s analysis does not go much beyond the already existing qualitative literature on grievances and violent conflict. Its central piece, the new data set of ‘Ethnic Power Relations’ offers a tool for bringing about the behaviouralist, measured proofs of what much of the qualitative case studies have already argued before (notably those quoted by the authors like Wood’s case study of El Salvador or Jeff Goodwin’s comparative case studies) and it is, surely, an achievement in itself. The dataset is certainly helpful for studies on power-sharing mechanisms and can serve well for practitioners interested in conflict prevention. It is a fine example of applied science in social science and conflict research.

Yet, in terms of understanding the how and why of conflicts the study still leaves many more questions open than it answers. First, the conflicts identified by the authors are only a small section of all armed conflicts the world has witnessed in the past decades. Notably, a large number of those conflicts which have shocked the world public most like the war in Sierra Leone or Liberia, the conflict in Somalia, large parts of the conflicts in the Congo are not considered. They obviously fit the overall framework as the authors’ focus on ethno-national groups is determined by the fact that they only have data for these groups but not by their framework.

Second, the framework is too general and unspecific to provide insights into the concrete why and how. Where do those elites come from who frame inequalities as grievances? How are these frames transmitted? How does the interaction with other groups interfere with these framing processes? Are framers, mobilizers and fighters a homogenous group or do internal divisions exist and what effect does this have, for instance on radicalization or, on the contrary, pacification? What is the role of layered and clustered identities and how do they affect mobilisation processes? These are just a couple of questions that remain unanswered by this book.

Third, the book suffers like most of this literature from its definitory focus on government-rebel group conflicts. In many social conflicts, the target of the rebellious group is not forcibly the state or the government (the RUF being a case in point as their interest in capturing the state seems to have been relatively low, see Peters).  Nation-state borders and official governments might also be simply irrelevant (blatant cases of non-existing governments like in Somalia for instance) or their involvement might be hardly recognisable in conflicts. Indeed, as Duffield pointed out some time ago in his book “Global Governance and New Wars”, many current conflicts might be better understood as conflicts over different forms of political organisation and community than those traditionally understandable with the nation-state goggles on.

In sum, the book makes an important contribution to the debate within the behaviouralist paradigm as it uses behaviouralist tools to demonstrate some of the conflict processes that have already been well analysed in the qualitative literature. It does not go beyond this as the behaviouralist paradigm does not allow delving into deep with the messy, contradictory, spiralling and irremediably non-linear social processes of conflict. Yet, as hopefully final word on the question whether the importance of grievances can be measured and therefore ‘count’, it has a brilliant place to take. It also reveals a long row of questions that still seek answers but which are unlikely to find them in this kind of quantitative analysis.

Oh, and it certainly desserves a brownie point for being one of the rare studies of this kind which locates the causes of the Croatian war, among others, in the discriminatory policies of the Tudjman regime and the Kraijna Serbs’ reaction to these, and not firstly in Serbian ‘barbarism’.







Bourdieu’s secret admirer in the Caucasus: a world-system biography, by Georgi M. Derlugian


Chechnya is one of these places that are commonly only known through their TV or internet mediated pictures of destruction and violent emptiness. Personally, the name Grozny makes me think of images in which little elderly women with colourful headscarfs and grey coats hurriedly run inbetween rubble and ruins, with half a loaf dark bread and maybe some tomatoes in a basket under their arm. It is, that is for sure, not a place where I would expect someone even knowing the name of Pierre Bourdieu or having read him. Shame on me for my lack of awareness.

Georgi M. Derlugian’s book is an immensly refreshing reminder of the stifling ignorance we have of exactly those parts of the world that are most often in the news. It is furthermore an excellent exercise in dismantling received ideas, prejudices and stereotypes of civil wars and of uncivilized so-called islamists or warlords. The most exciting aspect of Derlugian’s book is, indeed, that he resists simplifications; on the contrary, he masterly delves into the entire complexity of the end of Soviet socialism, the fates of peripheral developmental states in the great neoliberal age of the 1980s and 1990s and the complexities of shifting elite and popular systems and cultures in these marginalising world regions.

Derlugian centres his intelligent analysis of change and violence in the Northern Caucasus around the figure of Musa Shanib (or Yuri Shanibov in the russianised version). The admirer of Bourdieu, that’s him. Shanib also happened to be a prominent figure in the  independence movement of the region, first assisting Dudayev in his bid for Chechen independence, then leading a volunteer force into Abkhazia in their secessionist struggle against Georgia. Shanib’s personal history comes to stand for the political and social history of the former Soviet Union and its republics, most notably of Chechnya.His trajectory, bizarre as it seems, is representative of the Soviet nomenklature, its tribulations in the post-Stalin era and their disillusionment.

Derlugian draws on a large number of illustruous examples for his analysis: Charles Tilly, Rendall Collins, Immanuel Wallerstein and Pierre Bourdieu, himself, of course have inspired his approach of socio-political archeology. Yet, unfortunately, the theoretically inspired discussion of sociological paradigms is the weakest part of the book. The author frankly admits not being at ease with the often parochial chapel fights of the discipline; nevertheless, a more systematic comparison of these authors and a more thorough exploration of the synergies their work might offer would have been much appreciated, if not already for the fact that there is still very little written on the matter. Apart from some occasional, hardly discussed and even more sparingly referenced uses of the concepts these authors have coined, there is relatively little of Charles Tilly’s thorough historical and archive-based puzzleworking, Wallerstein’s lengthy theoretical comparisons of economic paradigms and national economic histories, Rendall Collins’ experimental sociology, or Pierre Bourdieu’s extensive empirical research in Derlugian’s book. There is also, contrary to what the title makes the reader expect, very little of Shanib’s view and understanding of Bourdieu. From this point of view Derlugian’s book is disappointing.

However, he compensates for this theoretical weakness through his own, original field research. Although not as systematic and detailled as Bourdieu’s work, Derlugian bases his research on Bourdieu’s claim that all politics are, essentially, struggles over social positions and power. Derlugian carves out which social classes contributed in which way to the disasters of the Soviet breakdown. He argues that three classes played a central role throughout the existence of the Soviet Union and that their interactions in each subnational region, most notably in each Republic, predicated whether the disintegration of the Soviet Union would result in collective violence or not.

The nomenklatura was, according to Derlugian, primarily responsible first for fractionalizing the Soviet state and second, for carving it up during privatization and to the benefits of their private bank accounts. This thesis is anything but new and has been discussed in various forms before. What is new, however, is how Derlugian interweaves this narrative with the particular story of the nomenklatura’s fate in those Republics, which were the furthest away from the political centre such as Chechnya.

The two other social classes emerged from the split of the Soviet Union’s principle class, the proletarians. Whereas the job security and boring predictability of a state-guided life led one part of the proletarians, in the 1970s notably, to embrace intellectualism, another larger part sank down to a sub-proletarian status as state-sponsoring ceded in the 1980s before it completely broke down after 1989. Derlugian goes to some lengths to explain why the emergence of a large class of intelligentsia, which in their intellectual expressions reflected a broad range of democratic orientations, did not lead to a broader democracy movement like it did in Poland, Hungary or the Germand Democratic Republic. In his view, a peculiar mixture of proletarianization of the intelligentsia, of state repression and surveillance but also lack of organisational opportunities – for instance the lack of unionization due to state-paternalistic undermining of professional groups – hampered the transformation of the Soviet intellegentsia into a broader social movement. The Soviet state’s reach into all professional categories, whether doctors or drillers, stiffled any autonomous organisational capacity, and it did the more so in the provincial republics of the Caucasus where the state’s grip was doubled by the more traditional social structures of clan and family networks. The intelligentsia resented the Soviet system less for its politically authoritarian character than for its central government tendency to tamper with those networks which commonly provided extra income from gift making (otherwise called corruption), smuggling, insider deals or outer-institutional work (e.g. doctors doing private visits for private money). Derlugian concludes that this class’ democratic orientation would better be called a consumerist orientation: “In sum, the university-educated proletarian specialist did not merely seek an opporutnity to earn extra money and gain access to scarce goods. They sought to translate certain kinds of occupational capital into the consumption and symbolic display associated with the prestigious imagery of the Western middle class.” (p. 146) A Potemkin democracy struggle so to say.

The subproletarian class, finally, is one that official Soviet ideology denied to exist yet whose reality not only preceded the Soviet breakdown but which also has been constantly growing since the economic downturn started in the late 1970s. Derlugian admits that this class is the most difficult to characterize as income opportunities, local hierarchical positions and even education might vary enormously across the category. He offers a phenomenological characterization (you recognize a subproletarian if you see one) and one based on the dialectics of formal and informal income sources. Subproletarians, notably in rural regions, will, according to Derlugian, draw their income from a large variety of sources of which state employment would be one but not the main source; others would be any kind of agricultural production, side businesses like shops or little workshops, migration to construction sites in more labour affluent areas or any kind of illegal income. The inclination to diversify business has made this class a fertile recruiting ground for illict trafficking and violence entrepreneurs.

The latter’s habitus fits particularly well to what Derlugian calls the brutality of the subproletarians’ lives: “A great deal of aggressiveness is displayed in the dress and demeanor of males and in the ‘marketplace scandalousness’ of many women. Domestic violence serves to reaffirm the fledging patriarchy; street gangs become the default mode of socialization among adolescents; violent sports like boxing and wrestling serve to uphold the virtues of masculinity; vandalism against the symbols of the dominant order (be it a defenseless park bench or a toilet seat in a public restroom), seemingly unmotivated hooliganism, and occasional rioting all help to vent social frustrations. Sub-proletarian social beliefs are precariously suspended somewhere between the ritualistic religiosity of peasants and the secular confidence of urbanites. Hence the responsiveness of sub-proletarian masses to secular populist or religious fundamentalist cults” (p. 153).

Such sweeping generalizations are not uncommon in Derlugian’s book and they make the reader feel uncomfortable at times: not a single footnote, not a single systematic comparison of any empirical data upholds this assertation that the certainly more visible violence of sub-proletarians would be, indeed, more brutal than the often better hidden violence of the middle class or of elites (referring to examples of other societies it might even be doubted that hooliganism or boxing are good indicators of sub-proletarian classes). This is one passage where Derlugian dreadfully fails to achieve one of his declared goals of the book, namely to displace prejudice as he reproduces his own appreciations of sub-proletarian culture. It sometimes sounds that Derlugian is rather cladding his own intelligentsia prejudice towards the subproletariat in academic terms.

The empirical weakness is in those parts particularly evident where his theoretical approach is equally weak. From describing the historical emergence of these three main classes of Soviet society, Derlugian is faced with the task of explaining how social class translates into collective politics. He is certainly not the first who has failed to convincingly explain how individual dispositions turn into collective movements. Yet, his slight tendency of stereotyping makes some of these passages sound strikingly superficial given that his field research otherwise is brilliantly detailled, fine grained and differentiated.It is Bourdieu’s “habitus” which he (wrongly but that is not the matter here) likens to Tilly’s routine scripts that receives the honour of becoming the keystone in the bridge that Derlugian builds from his purely social to the political analysis.

The three classes initially shared the same habitus in the streamlined Soviet society, hence, they respectively responded to the same discourses and ideas for change that circulated in the revolutionary moment since Brezhnev. Nationalism notably became the central idea that allowed coalitions of regional nomenklatura and intelligentsia to say good-bye to Moscow all the time populistically mobilising the support of the sub-proletarian classes. So far, he argues, the same happened in all republics. Yet, why some republics tumbled into violence and civil war, and others not, depended not on ancient hatreds or other arguments that have been made about ethnic violence. Rather, the reasons why the transition succeeded without violence in some republics but not in others have to be saught in the “mundane details of administrative relations, social networks, class and group attributes, and various conflicting efforts to reshape the networks and reframe the goals that taken together produced the vector of nationalist mobilizing and violence” (p. 174)

It is with this programme that Derlugian’s departure from conventional wisdom becomes most pleasant to read and think about. Derlugian makes three arguments against the common statement that nationalism brought the Soviet Union down. He first points out that chronologically nationalist discourses appeared only long after perestroika had set off other ideological and social movements. Nationalist mass movements in form of demostrations etc. only appeared at a later moment in Gorbachev’s era; before that social manifestations had been held over environmental issues (Chernobyl), social issues (like youth) or health issues (alcoholism). Nationalist discourses and nationalist events (ralleys) etc. hardly attracted any interest in those early times.

Derlugian further argues that those nationalist movements which then, with a time lag of several years, gained in strength, drew mainly on two of the three dominant social classes: the local and regional nomenklatura that had become extremely disgruntled with Gorbachev’s “de-bureaucratization” policies and the sub-proletarian underclasses which grew in size and which slowly became aware of the end of state-sponsored employment and social welfare. Violence resulted, in his view, if the two established direct relationships, the former addressing directly the latter for support, thereby marginalizing the intellectuals. Had his book ended here he would not have added anything to the well-known argument of ethnic entrepreneurs populistically manipulating the masses. Yet, Derlugian asks further where the intellectuals disappeared to, and it is here where his account originally interweaves the personal story of Musa Shanibov with the history of the Soviet disintegration and Chechnya’s wars. Comparing the Armenian-Aserbedjan conflict, the Georgian conflict and the events in Chechnya, Derlugian describes how the intelligentsia class was crushed by the unhealthy coalition of nomenklatura and sub-proletarian crowds. The nomenklature itself is described as a victim of the contradictory and, in the end, substanceless politics from Moscow that left the bureaucrats rely on their own networks for survival, hence, engaging in a nationalist competition to rally support from the masses. Derlugian singles out the lack of a “bureaucratic” ethos, which preceded Gorbachev’s reforms and had translated into an extensive system of patronage on the central governments costs. Notably in Georgia, the breaking away of Moscow’s suppport accelerated the nomenklatura’s fall and the nationalist turn.

On the other hand, Gorbachev’s increasingly obvious incapacity to manage the breakdowns of regional party structures, and his unwilligness to combat nationalist movements gave the latter even greater momentum. Turning to Shanibov, Derlugian describes in detail how the intellectuals in these republics were confronted with the dilemma of either being ran over by the historical situation or to rally with nationalism. In Derlugian’s account, nationalism became essential for political survival. Independence of the republics, before and in the wake of August 1991, precipated the nationalist movement even further as now popular unrest catalyzed dissatisfaction of the crumbling Soviet system against local and regional elites. The breakdown of the Soviet Union and the unleashing of nationalist and ethnic violence in these republics followed several interlooping spirals of escalation in which each social group aimed at surviving by betting on the nationalist card: “As the Soviet state was breaking apart, the scramble for fragments of its political and economic assets became increasingly turbulent. The course of events could turn on such small contingencies as timing, personal acquaintance, contemporary social ‘mood’, or one lucky move. The broaken and chaotic system of relations nonetheless formed a maze that allowed only certain pathways.” (p. 219) Short-termism was endemic to the system’s breakdown.

Reproducing the structural differentiation of peripheries and semi-peripheries in the world-system, socio-political changse without supporting economic changes escalated into violence. The violence and its causes pushed these regions further into the periphery. If Derlugian’s explanation of the unholy alliance between a nomenklatura that is squeezed by the dilemmas of ungovernability and sub-proletarian masses is correct, the prospect of the region’s further descent into deindustrialization and poverty is anything but cheerful. Middle classes shrink and hardly reproduce themselves, notably with those gaining valuable professional qualifications emigrating; proletarian classes are further pushed into the sub-proletariat due to the increased de-industrialization of these regions; intellectuals like Shabinov emigrate or remain marginalized and forced to subdue to radicalizing ideologies, which confer them a position in the infernal system; bureaucrats and politicians keep their grip to power through authoritarian violence and patron-client networks.

This pattern is not exclusive to the Caucasus and this is why Derlugian’s analysis is highly relevant for the analysis of other conflict cases. Although his analysis could have been in parts formulated in a more straightforward and systematic way, his insights in the mechanisms by which those parts of the population will rebell who have been for a long time excluded from any chances of social mobility and participation through socio-economic status, are highly valuable for further research.

Yet, just as Bourdieu himself and many who used his sociology, Derlugian stops short before answering one crucial question. If classes are constituted by varying configurations of capital (social, economic, cultural etc.) and if politics is nothing else than the struggle of these classes over social positions how can we know at which point such a struggle will be violent? This is less an empirical than a systematic question. Bourdieu observed empirically for the middle classes an almot unsatiable desire to emulate and imitate higher social classes; he also testified empirically that those classes, which traditionally have been seen as potential radical elements in a society, i.e. the working class and other subordinate classes (petty clerks, small shop owners etc.), find a common ground in a cultural, moral, and ethical attitudes which favour authoritarian morality and discipline. In the mid-1990s Bourdieu saw a glimmer of hope that new social movements of the time, i.e. the unemployed movement or the students’ movement of 1995/6, could be this confictual and radical force just to see them vanish quickly and being absorbed in the “pensée unique” of neoliberalism.

Yet, there seems a point when subordinate social classes choose to use armed force against a dominant class. The question is why and when. That the subordinate class wants its share of the cake is not a sufficient answer as exactly Bourdieu’s studies have shown the huge weight of symbolic power that keeps the subordinate classes accept and even justify their subordinate status (see for instance Bourdieu’s work on real estate and home buying in France). That timing and luck contingently play a role is not a helpful answer either. Yet, the procedure of looking at coalitions and alliances between different groups and how their respective positioning forces the various social classes to choose their arms (literally) is a promising approach for the analysis of social conflicts that turn into war.


Sandcastles and dustclouds in Mali in the aftermath of France’s intervention


In his novel “Desert” the noble prize winning French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio describes the two waves of destruction to which nomad cultures in the Sahel have been subjected in the past 100 years: French colonialism on the one hand, and modern labour migration to metropole and the alienation that goes with it, on the other. Whereas French immigration policies since the 1980s have ever more drove the latter to its climax, the arrival of French troops in Timbuktu has signed off another chapter of the first. In fact, French troops had taken Timbuktu already in 1894. In Le Clézio’s novel, the link between the two narratives is the family and love story that connects the main characters. However, from a political history point of view the connection of both is the ways the Western, in this case the French state has appropriated, used, abused and pushed around the political entities in the Sahel and its people, whether by subjugating them to colonial rule or by exploiting them as cheap, immigrant labour. The current intervention of France in Mali has all of perpetuating this pattern. What is at stake in the North of Mali? As before the groups that the French were (supposedly) battling were constituted of people whose primary objective was to extract themselves from the state and its characteristics, whether imposed nationality and “national culture” or taxation and rules. As before their way of living and making a living, does not fit the state’s aims, whether the Malian or the French. Remember that it is the state’s costums booth that transforms long-distance trading into trafficking and smuggling. Yet, contrary to Le Clézio’s novel and the impression one could gain from past events, most often these groups seek to evade the state and its forces rather than to fight them directly. Using their intimate knowledge of the extremely difficult terrain as well as their capacities to survive in this hostile environment, these state-evading groups have commonly retreated into the desert, away from the  grip of the state.

When France started marching on Timbuktu last week much of this hide-and-seek game seem to be repeated. The French met no resistance when they “took” one city after the other…the “terrorists” had evaporated. Finding them is an almost impossible task if the sheer vastness of the territory is considered. However, searching them is a perfect excuse for the US to send in their drones for surveillance of the vast Sahel desert. What exactly they are seeking and who these people are and what kind of threat they represent other than not accepting the state (which is for a state, of course, bad enough)…nobody yet knows.

If the French intervention has confirmed the Malian government in its belief that only force can hold the country together and keep whatever rebellious group out and down, it has not solved any political problem at all. Although Mali has anounced that it would take up negotiations with those groups who have abstained from violence, there is a large array of indicators that such initiatives are bound to fail. In fact, during all this marching and winning battles, no one, neither the Malian government nor the Western decision-makers have proven that they actually knew who these groups are, by what they are motivated and what kind of modus vivendi could be found. France, by the way, happily makes known that they actually never cared, they just intervened to show who the strong man is (by the way confirming Jean-Louis Arcand’s argument that the whole operation is a marketing campaign to rid President Hollande of his marshmellow image) and now that this is done, they’ll go home as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared: “Maintenant, c’est aux pays africains de prendre le relais. Nous avons décidé de mettre les moyens en hommes et en matériel pour réussir cette mission et frapper fort. Mais le dispositif français n’a pas vocation à être maintenu. Nous partirons rapidement”. (Now it’s up to the African countries to take action. We have decided to provide men and equipment to make this operation a success and to show strong muscles. But the French mission is not meant to stay. We will leave quickly.)

Yet, there are quite some things happening which clearly should not be part of any “liberation” or intervention to save civilians and which legitimately raise doubts over the Malian goverment’s willingness and capacity to negotiate successfully a political solution. In Gao and in Timbuktu, Arabs and Touaregs or people who were said to be Arab or Touareg were violently attacked, their shops plundered and cases of lynching were reported. Furthermore, past experiences with African “peacekeeping” troops leave little hope that they can decisively advance a protracted conflict towards resolution. Not only have African troops (albeit others, too) been involved in many cases of abuse, extortion and violence, they also represent a bunch of autocratic governments that barely agree among themselves and who certainly have not shown any particular sensitivity or capacity to deal with non-state and secessionist groups and claims. As Jeffrey Herbst has pointed out long time ago there is nothing more stable and immobile in Africa than the state borders set by the colonial powers, and this is so particularly at the wish and travail of the African, metropolitan and elite governments themselves. The metaphore does not quite fit the climate but sending in African peacekeepers sounds very much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The paroxysm is reached when the Malian’s government sole plan for pacification is to propose elections. Not only do we know from sufficient scholarly research (let’s just mention Snyder/Mansfield’s study) that elections tend to exacerbate tensions and may actually lead to escalation, this proposition comes additionally from a putshist government! It’s now one year that the “interim” President Diokounda Traoré has promised elections, there is little reason to believe that they will live up to this promise now. Last november he showed his discontent with the prime minister by having him simply arrested by the army and, after a short stinch in an army camp outside town, declare his “resignation”.  Clearly a sign that this President is committed to peaceful deliberation and dialogue, and predisposed to give up power when elections or constitution require him to do so…What will happen is that with an extended network of UN agencies, African Union institutions and NGOs the government will be able to stretch its bureaucracy into these regions which are far removed from the political centre, hence, extending a little bit farther its claim to statehood without having actually to provide any state services…

World literature is usually recognized as such because the stories told and the way they are told go beyond the national or cultural particular identity of the story teller. They speak, so to say, to the whole world as they sublimate the specific themes into more general, timeless and ahistorical narratives which can be recognized by many more than the culturally initiated. The great dust cloud stirred up in Mali has only re-ignited a circular movement where colonial power, oops sorry former colonial powers work together with local sedentary chiefs to establish and uphold a mirage of stateness by the way criminalising, marginalising and radicalizing those groups whose mode of life, culture and production evade the categories of the state. Their violent and radical reaction serves as excuses for expanding again statist security and surveillance, hence pushing these groups again further into the desert, hence marginalising them even more, hence….and the wheel keeps on turning….



War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone, by Krijn Peters


With his book “War and the Crisis of Youth in Sierra Leone”, Krijn Peters presents an analysis that is exceptional by the materials it presents, intelligent by the way it uses the material and full of marvelous insights about the motivations and reasons why young people would not only take up arms but also commit horrendous atrocities as RUF fighters and others did in the Sierra Leonean war. For this reason alone, Peters’ book is precious and rare in the literature on civil wars, a diamond one would be tempted to say if this book would not make so brutally clear what a curse diamonds and its economy have been for Sierre Leone.

The book is a major contribution to research on armed conflict and most particularly on child soldiering as Peters manages to carve out the motivations of the combatants for joining and staying with the RUF. He reconstructs the internal organisation of this movement which has remained rather obscure and been subject to quite some phantasms, and he has found sensible explanations for the atrocities committed by RUF rebels, mainly in the second half of the 1990s. With this work that builds on former publications (some with Paul Richards) Peters successfully debunks the myth of a disemparaged youth run wild. He replaces it with a differentiated, fine grained and sensitive portrait of the mainly rural underclass of Sierra Leonean society that was surely out to take its revenge for the injustice and (violent) exploitation it had experienced before but which also pursued a project of a better society as any respectable revolutionary movement. Such a perceptive analysis is rare in war studies and particularly when it comes to organisations like the RUF which have made headlines for their brutal violence. Peters painstakingly pieces together interviews on a large range of topics.

The analysts of wars in Africa who actually go and talk to those who fought the war are few. There are a number of reasons for this: ongoing wars are particularly unpleasant fields of research, not only for the dangers they represent but also for the logistic and communicative difficulties of these environments: people engaged in armed combat are likely to have other things on their mind than talking to academics; the discussions one can have in war will most probably be fully subjected to the emotional and intellectual exceptionality of wars and might therefore not give further insights into the larger picture.

Krijn Peters is well aware of all these difficulties and the materials he collected as well as his presentation reflect the tremendous care he has taken to deal with the fallacies of doing research in these situations. Just like Mats Utas argues in his marvelous “Sweet Battlefields“, he contends that standard interviews or polls will not lead very far with these young people (Mats Utas admits that his method was “deep hanging out” with the ex-fighters and that this was a much better, complete and honest information source than the over 100 hours of formal interviews he did with youngsters in a demobilisation programme). The former combattants are far too experienced in delivering standard narratives to curious folks whether from NGOs, state agencies, media or academia. They also might have personal, psychological and reputational interests in not presenting their own story but what they assume others want to hear; Peters and Utas make this point particularly clear for the question of abduction. Although abducted, many young people might have, or actually, have chosen to stay with the armed groups they fell prey to. Whether this is the effect of brainwashing, of the Stockholm syndrome or the not unlikely discovery that, in the end, the abductees found something genuine positive in their new roles is something only careful interviewing over a long period of time can tell. Representativity of the the interview sample is, in this case, less important than getting into deep with the former combattants and just like Utas, Peters chose to follow “his” informants over a longer period of time in order to peel off the upper superficial layers of standard narratives and discourses. He nevertheless keeps his critical distance, true to his initial statement that “empathy does not mean sympathy”.

The care he has taken to choose his interview partners, to follow them over a longer period and especially to come back in well paced intervalls shows in the wealth of insights he produces from these sources. He is thus able to correct a number of received ideas about rebels and child soldiers in general and the fighters of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in particular. With respect to recruitment, he makes a plausible case that the RUF mainly recruited from rural poor, and here from the lowest social stratum, namely young men (mainly) who lacked patronage networks to protect them from exploitation in villages or mining areas: orphans, “foreigners”, descendants from former house slaves and similar social groups. He explains internal cohesion of the movement partly with this common origin and the replacement of a hierarchical, class-based and gerontocratic social structure of the Sierra Leonean countryside by a meritocratic one in the rebel movement. In the RUF recruits could gain position and respect through their fighting; even if not spellt out in sophisticated and intellectual-theoretical terms such a “base socialism” provided important ideological ferment for the RUF. Ideology also translated into praxis with the creation of communal farms and the communal organisation of mining. Peters thus amasses evidence against a common thesis that movements like the RUF was void of political vision, just as he makes plainly clear that material incentives played overall a minor role in the motivation of the fighters, in the origins of the rebellion and in its internal organisation. For those used to the standard narrative of a “lumpen youth” (as Abdullah calls them) run wild, Peters conclusion will come as a surprise that “the movement had a set of rules and regulations and a guiding ideology which it sought to instil in its fighters during their training period”.

In the fifth chapter Peters actually provides a deep analysis of the causes for the atrocious violence deployed by, and this is an important qualification of his study, some RUF fighters and some points in time during the 12-year war and in some places. In previous chapters, Peters had explained at length the decentralized “cell” character of the movement which made consistent organisational training, monitoring and control extremely difficult, particularly during the “bush” years. This may account for the lack of discipline within the RUF but does not yet explain the actrocities committed (note that any war is brutal, the particularity here being the “specialisation” in certain types of violence like the amputation for which the RUF had gained its image as new barbarians in the onwatching world). Peters advances two sets of reasons and causes for the violence of the RUF: external influences and internal organisational dysfunctions. Among the external influences he notes that many of the atrocities committed in the early stage of war were so by Liberian fighters. This early stage settled the reputation of the RUF and the brutal repression of the rebellion by the army  (although ineffective) seem to have distanced the RUF from its natural constituency, hence, making violent antagonism between the RUF and villages escalate. Peters argues that this led to a strong paranoia among the RUF which was carried on into later phases of war and became particularly virulent in the phase after 1997 when the RUF took the bushes again. Internally, two organisational features supported the development of such paranoia and reinforced the key role particularly violent individuals could play. The RUF was organised in cells with flat hierarchies; in the beginnings, there were ony two military ranks and platoons were small. In this jungle guerilla warfare, paranoic suspicion towards civilians was actually an assett as it contributed to the group’s safety. With the rise and success of self-defense militias which would hunt down the RUF in the jungle, this paranoia became reinforced and was not mediated by a larger command or organisational movement. The second effect of this guerrilla organisation was that particularly “wicked”, i.e. violent individuals were not only difficult to control and punish for their behaviour, their aggressiveness might even be useful for the protection of the individual RUF platoons and therefore go unpunished despite the movement having a set of rules that prohibit unnecessary violence, rape and looting.

It is a pity that Peters does not engage with any of the theories of violence currently en vogue. Weinstein’s binomic and path-dependent distinction between low resource movements, who would engage in ideological training rather than loot and indiscriminate violence, from high resource organisations which will maintain adherence of fighters through lucrative material booty, does not fit at all to Peters’ descriptions. Kalyvas’ argument that indiscriminate violence will increase if territorial control, information and the loyalty of the population are contested fits Peters’ account much better. Yet, just as Elliott’s study of the Vietcong/Vietminh shows neither the material nor strategic or ideological position of these groups can fully explain how and which form of violence they employed. It appears from these two studies rather that the dynamics of violence in civil wars is also strongly determined by inner-organisational developments. For further research this is probably the most important conclusion from Peters book.

With respect to child or young soldiers, Peters book introduces also an important observation that is all too often missing from other accounts on child soldiering, namely that child soldiering is more frequent and more likely to happen if the youth that is recruited into the rebel movement had been already widely marginalised before; and that these young men take mature and responsible decisions despite their age. The latter leads us to having to rethink our understanding of childhood and youth as times of irresponsibility and immaturity. Rather, these young people have to be considered and their actions have to be analyzed within the social tissue of which they are part.



Child soldiering as cheap option? Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman on child soldiering.


Carl von Clausewitz was 13 years old when he served as Lance Corporal in the Prussian Army. Napoleon was 10 years old when he was admitted to the Military Academy at Brienne-le-Chateau.  Childsoldiers, both. But certainly not the kind of child soldiers Bernd Beber and Chris Blattman are thinking of with their model of child soldier recruitment. The data they  use to construct their model is, in fact, derived from a survey of former child soldiers of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and is preoccupied with explaining child soldier recruitment in Africa. As true economists they propose a model to explain child soldiering in which child soldiering is the cheap option…sounds simple but, as so often, it is not really and it is, additionally, not entirely convincing.

Their model is, indeed, a bit slopsided: they assume that child soldiers are not as effective as adult soldiers. For a rational, utility-maximizing leader it is therefore, normally, not sensible to recruit child soldiers. However, if the difficulties of retaining rebels in the group are taken into account it is, in the end, cheaper and easier to forcibly recruit children  because the use of indoctrination as well as the impunity with which they can coerce children to stay with them makes it easier to retain them than adult soldiers. This is the case if children have few or no alternatives, i.e. they cannot run away and there is no prospect of being protected by the state. So far so good. What remains quite murky is their argument that children are less effective soldiers than adults and that therefore their recruitment is puzzling. Hinging upon this argument is their argument about the use of violence and the ensuing policy recommendations…it is therefore worthwhile to discuss this assumption a bit more.

Why should child soldiers be less effective than adults? Beber and Blattman suggest that they are physically not strong enough to make good soldiers  if compared to a 21-year old. But.. it is actually questionable that a 21-old is so much stronger than a 14-year old if we consider the physical lives people have in these countries. Of course, a 21-year old is strong, and probably still stronger than a 14-year old…yet, what is interesting about 14-year old  boys in these countries is that they are strong, too, that they are enduring, used to hard physical labour and certainly in the physical shape to do all what a soldier needs to do, yet, on top of that, they are malleable, easily compliant and, hence, easier to control.  All this together makes them actually a much more attractive recruit than a 21-year old!

Whereas in the US it is certainly true that a wimpy kid cannot outperform a college freshman, this is can be mainly explained by the long lifespan in industrialized countries where physical labour has largely disappeared and physical force is built up mainly during adolescence through leisure sports. But this is not how physical capabilities develop in rural societies in Africa. In Uganda (and other countries with high incidence of child soldiering and child labour like Sierra Leone or Liberia) life expectancy oscillates around 50 years, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two other countries where child soldiering was rampant, life expectancy before the wars was even lower: 43.1 (1980) and  43.8 (1980)  respectively. If we apply a simple development model of let’s say 30% of a life being childhood, 60% being a parent and 10% being old, we can see that childhood is over at the age of 10 in most of these countries. The short life expectancy also shifts the normal curb of peak performance capacities. If these are between the age of 24-28 in olympic sports among sportsmen of industrialized countries with an average life expectancy of 76 years, they are more likely to be around the age of 14-17 with a life expectancy of 50 years.

Such estimates are rather plausible if we consider additionally that rural children start working in household and farming at a very early age. If a Liberian, Sierra Leonean or Ugandan man of rural origin reaches the age of 21, he is likely to have physically worked for 15 years, hence, rather have the physcial strength and healthiness of a 35-year old in an industrialized country, or even older given the hardship of the labour he did (and malnutrition and diseases). All this considered, a 21-year old might still be stronger than a 14-year old, yet, the 14-year old is of such physical strength and endurance that it makes perfect sense to “engage” child soldiers, particularly adolescent boys  — as the authors’ own survey confirms, stating that 14-year olds were three times as likely to be abducted by the LRA than 9-year olds!

This holds particularly true if we consider that adolescents in most rural areas are already holding crucial roles in pastoring or farming, hence, that they constitute already an important part of the workforce. If we assume that children are exactly attractive because they are strong enough to be enduring  soldiers then they cannot be cheap…everyone, the farmer and the rebel leader, are in fact competing over the resource of strong and healthy boys. As a central pillar of rural labour, boys and young men would not be released into the army or a rebel group unless the family or patron would be appropriately compensated. For rebel groups it makes therefore perfect sense to abduct these children rather than having to pay for them. Abduction happens because strong and healthy children are a valuable resource in rural areas of these countries.

But what about the retainment argument of Beber and Blattman? Even abducted, or especially when abducted, the retainment of child soldiers remains problematic. In Beber’s and Blattman’s model, violence mainly serves the purpose of penalizing “bad” behaviour of the recruits and it is cheaper to use violence than to propose positive incentives… as long as the children have no or very few outside options (like running away or alternatives outside the rebel group). This argument fits well also if we assume that child soldiers have been abducted because they are better fighters than adults. Actually, it fits even better as it can explain also very specific types of violence which are characteristic for situations in which child soldiers are involved,  like attacks against the village and family of the child soldier, forcing them to kill their kin or committing taboo violations like “desecrat(ing) bodies” as described by Beber and Blattman. This violence barrs the children’s return to their village and family, hence, increases the retainment with the rebel group.

But if the family or village  is not killed, why don’t they always and by all means try to get their children back? Here, again, Beber’s and Blattman’s assumption about the outside options appear not to be thought through thoroughly and considering what we know from ethnographic research about rural African societies. Beber and Blattman argue that outside options would be the possibility that the rebel leader will be penalized by an external actor for abducting and violating the children and that, given the absence of the state or international powerful actors in these wars, this outside option is more or less nil. What Beber and Blattman do not consider is the outside option of society: the extremely strong stigma on the children (especially girls) and the fact that most of these children have been already on the lowest scale of the village’s social hierarchy — despite (or because) their value in rural work.

The low social status of children in African rural society can, indeed, be functionally explained by their crucial role as work force. As the strongest elements of the rural society their potential power has to be in check. Elder-based social hierarchies with clearly defined strata and positions (usually sanctioned by corresponding communitarian rituals, ceremonies, initiation rites etc.)  and refined patron-client structures within families (mind that most of the child soldiers were actually foster children) are excellent social means to keep the young, strong and potentially rebellious in their place. Physical punishment, and rather brutal physical punishment, of children has therefore often been explained by the disciplinary necessity to keep children and particularly young men in exactly their social position.  It might therefore very well be that for these children it does not matter whether they are being physically punished and having to work heavy duties for some family member or some rebel leader — at least this is what studies like Norma Kriger’s study on Zimbabwe, Mats Utas’s study on Liberia and Paul Richards’ study on Sierra Leone have found. And it explains why families, from their side, are not always keen getting those children back. Outside options are not (only) reduced by the absence of the state but by the particular social hierarchies of rural African societies and the stigma of childsoldiering in these societies.

What does that change in Beber’s and Blattman’s model? Well, it does not change much in the explanation of violence for retainment purposes but it changes a lot when it comes to policy recommendations…

Beber and Blattman argue that “raising the cost of child recruitment is crucial”, whereby they are thinking of penalizing child recruitment more effectively and severely through state or international institutions of justice. However, if the violence of abduction is the result of the already high costs of child soldier recruitment and if the violence internal to a rebel group serves the purpose of destroying social links then this policy could have exactly the reverse effect. The incentive to rapt children and to “turn them over” becomes higher as does the necessity to “wean” them from their home through violent acts becomes even more urgent.Violence might be increase even if the risks for the rebel group which are associated with the child’s escape or persecution require absolutising the soldiers’ loyalties.

The second recommendation is to raise “real opportunities”, i.e. educational and income, for adolescents to increase the outside options…yet, this makes only sense if these children and youngsters are not seen as being bound into social hierarchies and family networks but as the liberal, atomized, rational decision-making actor whose only impediment to chose freely between fighting, farming, schooling and becoming an accountant, are the rebel leader’s violence…this might work if demobilized former child soldiers find themselves atomized in cities and refugee centres and to avoid that they return into rebel groups or criminal gangs…but it is less likely to work as preventive measure where these kind of decisions are not those of the children in the first place. At least not if children remain in the double position of being essential for the rural economy and being on the lowest level of social hierarchies.


Syria and the politics of naming


Violence has erupted again in Syria, indicating the failure of the UN special envoye Kofi Annan to find a peaceful solution to the conflict between the Syrian government and … yes, well, how would you call them? The government calls them “terrorists”, the international press calls them mostly “rebels”, some say “resistance fighters” and they call themselves mostly “revolutionaries” and refute the label of “civil war“. Of course, it is a common place that one’s terrorists or another’s freedom fighters. But the politics of naming are not simply an ideological word game but they conceal more important debates about the epistemology of conflict analysis and about the ontology of conflicts. As Jacob Mundy and Yves Winter point out, these name tags say a lot about the legitimacy that is conferred to the armed action and to the response. The question is not only whether the terms “terrorism”, “rebellion”, “revolution” capture accurately the violence displayed by a violently protesting group; the question is also which means of response and repression become legitimate for the government and international actors who might be involved. The legitimate means with which to respond to violence are certainly different whether we treat violent actors as criminals, rebels, terrorists or revolutionaries.

But, as Mundy argues, getting the name right also means getting the cause analysis right. In this perspective the naming is part of the conflict itself. Rebellions are much more short-sighted and are closer to riots than to the to the ideas of changing entire socities which are expressed in the notion of revoutions. Revolutions seek fundamental change in politics, society and economy, and are more profound and usually ideologically framed. The belittlening of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere as “Arab Spring” has concealed much of the revolutionary, and ideological impetus. Consequently, although the violence in Syria is often described as resulting from the movements of last year, the political and causal relationship becomes murky once the Syrian revolutionaries are called rebells or violent protesters. Rebels and protesters are a conjectural, punctual phenomenon; they can be — maybe — “sold off” through two, three policy measures and the regime could live on. Revolutionaries  want President Bashar Al-Assad’s head and those of his regime; they want another economy and they are trying to imagine another society.

Revolutionary situations are not merely situations in which human rights are violated — This is how the UN are presenting the story in Syria. Reducing such a situation to human rights violations wrongly infers that human rights would be, in principle, respected in this country but that they are not now, at this moment and more or less accidentally by this government. The fundamental legitimacy of the state’s goverment to act and to represent a, however configured, state of law is not disputed when such situations of collective violence are barely presented as human rights violations. However, in a revolution arbitrary violence by the government is neither accidental nor can it be dissociated from the already vanished legitimacy of this government. The human rights violations are secondary to the alltogether disputed legitimacy of the government itself. And this also means that ending arbitrary bombings, arrests, torture etc. will not restore Assad’s legitimacy…as the recent bombings in Damascus have shown. Naming wrongly means understanding wrongly means not being able to solve the conflict.

Revolutions are not civil wars, however, they can easily develop into such. But again, the name tag “civil war” implies yet new meanings which may or may not capture the causes and dynamics of the ongoing violence. In contrast to revolutions, which mark the overthrow of an existing order, civil wars are rather associated with long lasting violence, attrition, and the idea of homogenous groups confronting each other (e.g. confederates vs. yankees; Reds vs. Whites). They imply militarization (as contrary to armed violence), strategy, planning and long-term organisational formations. This may include ideological training and development that would not be observable in simple uprisings.

Yet, the reality on the ground of civil wars is also much more messy with pouches of protest and resilience within the government, splinterings of groups, a large variety of in-group fighting, diverse actors with different goals, ideological and political changes etc. Not all who are fighting in a civil war are revolutionaries or they actually might be but not forcibly the same…What they are cannot be decided a priori and from the outside but only after a careful analysis of the motives and causes of the violent actors. Whoever wants to understand the complexities of revolutionary wars might want to read through David W.P. Elliott’s “The Vietnamese War“.

Whereas media might be excused needing a handy and quick category for violent situations like in Syria, academia and policy circles at least should show more awareness that naming implies knowing and understanding the motives and causes of the violence. For Syria, this is seemingly not what is happening though.



The way to Timbuktu, oops, to hell is paved with good intentions…Humanitarian Interventions, fumbling around in Africa and the lack of inside-outside analysis in conflict research


If ever someone wanted to study how so-called humanitarian interventions can mess up entire regions, they should start with the unilateral declaration of independence of Azawad and the so-called Touareg Rebellion in Mali.

Of all the things that can be said about this armed conflict opposing touareg groups, radical islamic groups and the Malian armed forces, the most striking is the recurrent fumbling around of external powers in the region (a very nice discussion can be found here and some keys for understanding what is going on here). Interference is certainly the politically more appropriate word, however, interference suggest a strategic and persistent approach to influencing another state’s politics and society. And this is exactly not the case in this African region. The United States, the UK, France and others, notably the African neighbours like Niger and Algeria in this case, do a little here and there, financing this group, arming another, giving this advise to a government and training that military, all in a pretty incoherent way and with rather parochial and short-sighted interests in mind, and then, when all blows up, they throw their hands up in the air and cry out “It was not me!”.

The “not-me” is nicely supported by most of academic conflict analysis, which endogenizes conflict causes and dynamics. Whether conflicts are fought for material resources or ethnic identity or because of seemingly failing states, typically the Colliers, Bates, Humphreys and Fearons of the academic world identify the causes of those conflicts arising from greed, incompetence, corruption, lack of public goods and all other kinds of nasty things inside the states concerned.

Colonial legacies, trade and development aid, globalisation and international organisations, and most particularly all this “fumbling around” simply do not appear at all or very selectively. The UCDP conflict encyclopedia (already discussed in a former post) for instance mentions only Libya – our consenusal baddy – as outsider in the Azawi conflict and no one else.

Yet, if there is one thing observers on the ground and journalists of the region seem to be agreeing upon in the troubles that Northern Mali are going through it is the major role played by the intervention in Libya, the proliferation of small arms, the various interests and inminglings of Algerian, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Western powers, and the US-led, Algerian supported “war on terror” in its various forms in the region. Smuggling and trafficking certainly do play a big role in the livelihoods of the people in these regions as well as kidnappings are important for the finances of armed groups.

Just who exactly has contributed, instigated, and benefitted from these activities and what alternatives have been destroyed and discarded, remains entirely unclear. As Jeremy Keenan points out it seems unlikely that the Touareg would destroy their own economic base, tourism, through kidnappings – unlikely, of course, if one does not assume that Africans in general and Touareg in particular are manipulated by short-term interested, greedy warlords.

However, as Patricia Allemonière points out this money has also allowed financing public services, health care and schooling in a region that has been entirely abandoned by the Malian state due to its fiscal incapacity to provide public services across a difficult territory. The reasons why the Malian state has abandoned this region are manifold and deeply linked to global policies whether constraints of various aid policies, including the incredible efficiency of NGOs to substitute the state, geostrategic pushing and hoving in the region (as Jeremy Keenan contends), the regional embroglio or the continued paternalism of the former colonial power, France.

Obviously, the question is not whether external forces or internal dynamics are more responsible for creating conflict situation as in Norther Mali as if such a tradoff would indeed make sense….rather the two troublings questions are, as far as the politics of academia are concerned, why so many Western scholars obstitinately ignore external influences (and vicious thoughts could be formulated that this is not unrelated to the denial of colonial wrongdoings) , and how the interaction of such a large array of factors over different times spanes can be sensibly analysed. Both actually bump into the same major problem, namely that social science research is not value-free as so passionately claimed, but runs up against a wall of normative ideas. The very cherished idea that humanitarian interventions are, in principle and really, good, that they stop the killing and that they “free” populations is one of them and yet, looking at the Malian case it is evident that they are just one more episode of a long history of fumbling around…