Monthly Archives: April 2012

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…



Patchworks are not always pretty: the problems of mix-and-match approaches in conflict analysis.


Mixed-method approaches are the order of the day in conflict analysis and given the insufficiency of the early large-N studies this should be greeted as a sign of progress. The Journal of Peace Research recently published a special issue on conflict and climate change that displays some of those mixed-method studies and which, at the same, epitomizes the major problems of epistemology of patchworking different methodologies together. Some of the papers claim using ethnographic case studies in order to delve deeper into the causal mechanisms that reign the competition over scarce resources like pasture land in times of drought. These case studies are clearly instrumentalised and function as data provider for the otherwise behaviouralist research designs. The major epistemological differences between ethnography and political science are thus silenced rather than solved in an innovative way.

Obviously, several traditions exist within ethnography, yet, it is safe to say that the latest with Geertz’ hermeneutical approach, ethnography has become much more reflective on its naming and analysing practices than most of political science is. Notably in its behaviouralist strand – to which most of the conflict analysis of the researchers in this special issue belong –, political science has shown little reflexivity and only minor sensitivity towards questions of hermeneutics, of understanding of the “other” and of the distortive effects politics of naming have not only on the object studied but also on the subject studying (a debate about the naming of civil wars has just recently appeared in Security Dialogue).

In order to apprehend the gap between ethnography and political science in analysing collective violence, one should read Ted Gurr’s “Why men rebel” in parallel with Carolyn Nordstrom’s “Shadows of War”. Where the former flows over with generalisations, sweeping claims about human nature and ontological simplifications, the latter is an accumulation of encounters with violence and their narratives, with the author clearly rejecting to draw any general conclusion from her observations. In ethnographic hermeneutics the aim is to render voice and to withdraw the observer, yet not by silencing the tension between observer and observed, but by problematizing and discussing it reflexively (what Nordstrom does in her introduction and in interstices of her book). Contrary to the deductive rationalisations of political science, hermeneutic ethnography does not take any a priori decision on content or form of the stories that people will tell. Actually, being able to become aware of such, often even unconscious, a prioris and reflecting on the way they impact on the relationship between observer and observed is the major challenge of ethnographic hermeneutics. Although Nordstrom’s approach of accumulating observations without conclusion is not fully helpful either, the behaviouralist subsumption is even less so.

Just to take the article by Adano, Dietz, Witsenburg and Zaal, it becomes clear that this epistemological position is fundamentally violated in behaviouralist research . In their article, Adano, Dietz, Witsenburg and Zaal focus on “scarce resources” and draw heavily on former behaviouralist research on resources, competition and conflict in order to formulate hypotheses to which the “ethnographic” case studies provide supportive evidence (or not). The field research they report becomes data material that feeds into their behaviouralist study, which basically means that they are reifying their object of analysis. Instead of having the observed speak for themselves and having them deliver themselves  their understanding and interpretation of events, the outside observer ascribes the “relevant” or “right” interpretation. By doing so, the observers are also classifying and judging, for instance with their ethnic or “tribal” taxinomies or when they explain the conflict issues on the basis of prior behaviouralist research which postulates general “laws” for which the case study is just another “prove”. In such cases, there is no learning from the cases and from the field; the subjects and agents of politics and violence disappear and become simple datapoints. Such an approach (re)produces orientalisms and is incapable of deeply reflecting on conflict and politics as it does not allow “other” knowledge and interpretations than those already formulated by prior behaviouralist theories. Obviously, it produces insights that can be called new given that it adds certain knowledge. However, the assertion of certainty that emanates from such research is illusionary as its constructed and interpreted nature remains unreflected.