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Feb 5, 2016 | SSR Initiative

This article is contribution #15  in our Academic Spotlight blog series that features recent research findings on security sector reform and security governance published in international relations academic journals.

This contribution summarizes research originally published here: Christoph Kohl (2015) “Diverging Expectations and Perceptions of Peacebuilding? Local Owners’ and External Actors’ Interactions in Guinea-Bissau’s Security Sector Reforms”, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9:3, 334-352.

As part of a partnership between the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding and the Centre for Security Governance, this journal article will be available free and open access through this link for a period of 6 months: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17502977.2015.1070023

Following a brief civil war in 1998-99, the international community placed the blame for political instability, lawlessness and lacking social and economic development on the Bissau-Guinean security sector. Since the early 2000s, the country has turned into an international hub for drug trafficking for Latin American cocaine destined for Europe. International donor countries have held the hope that security sector reform would contribute to stabilizing the country nationally and sub-regionally along with fostering the rule of law and peaceful socio-economic development – although the various reform attempts showed mixed results, at best.

Currently, Guinea-Bissau has a UN peacebuilding mission (UNIOGBIS, United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau) and an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peace mission, the so-called ECOWAS Mission in Guinea Bissau (ECOMIB). As in other peacebuilding and peacekeeping interventions in other ‘Global South’ settings, ‘Global North’-borne perceptions, interpretations, images, and normative structures (‘peacebuilding mind-sets’) have dominated the reform of the country’s security sector.

The focal points of the Bissau-Guinean peacebuilding economy are social spaces that not only encompass a certain lifestyle, but also resemble a kind of industry, consisting of a set of buzz-concepts and terms, mobile and often transient experts and consultants; the preferred use of certain statistical, quantitative methods (including manuals, checklists, best practices etc.); and a web of closely linked academics, non-governmental organization officials, and practitioners, all with their own ‘expertise’. It is success and selling success that counts. This makes it necessary to repress notions of self-doubt, criticism, or the ‘on-stage’ confession of failure.

The overall focus of this article, however, is on the everyday, and in particular the fact that international experts and the local population live and work side by side, rather than together. The way that international practitioners live, and how interactions are transacted, are similar in various peacebuilding sites. In these everyday settings, ‘Global North’-borne norms and ideas have been discursively reproduced in Guinea-Bissau’s ‘peacebuilding economy’, encompassing spaces such as specific restaurants, hotels, bars, night-clubs, recreation sites etc. Such ‘neutral’ venues or ‘uncommitted spaces’ have facilitated informal exchanges between discordant international organizations and actors, but contributed to the exclusion of local actors and voices.

Such spaces are ‘neutral’ in the sense that they do not refer to the offices of international organizations involved in peacebuilding, or to local government institutions—even while they can be interpreted as being mostly favoured by, or targeted to, international experts, as these spaces correspond to their ‘Global North’ environment (or ‘lifeworld’) to the detriment of most locals unfamiliar with, or excluded from, the expatriate lifestyle. Consequently, the circle of people that meet in these spaces is limited, while many, especially locals, are underrepresented or even excluded.

By contrast, ‘peacebuilding mind-sets’ relate to a specific, ‘Global North’-borne catalogue of peacebuilding-related perceptions, interpretations, images, and normative structures. This catalogue not only partly contrasts with ‘Global South’—in this case Bissau-Guinean—values and concepts, but also with official, ‘on-stage’ statements, thus reinforcing the exclusivist nature of this kind of peacebuilding operation.

Examining how the perceptions and expectations of international experts and the local population diverge, the article argues that the peacebuilding economy contributes both to the reproduction of ‘Global North’ patterns of perception and interpretation, and to the failure of peacebuilding initiatives. This is unsurprising considering that both locals and internationals engaged in the peacebuilding arena may benefit from job and rent opportunities in supposedly better designed follow-up projects.

Contrary to what has been publicly communicated and normatively demanded, among SSR practitioners, the one-to-one transmission of ‘Global North’ norms and concepts is still paramount, as these are considered superior to ‘African’ norms. Many professionals – often with a police, military, and legal professional background – are convinced that they know best—after all, it is they who are the ‘experts’, in contrast to ‘corrupt’ and ‘incapable’ locals (both security professionals and government officials), and ‘know-all’ academics. Initiating time-consuming and costly participation processes are often perceived as a waste of time. This is perhaps also exacerbated by the fact that discussions about participation are relatively recent to the police and military sectors that are characterized by pronounced top-down procedures.

International experts and the heterogeneous field of local actors do not only have different interests and diverging patterns of perception, but also live in different worlds, side-by-side, and literally speak different languages. ‘Language’ does not only have a figurative sense but also refers to linguistic competence: international experts rarely speak Kriol, and even Portuguese skills do not always exist. By contrast, only some well-educated and trained locals speak French and very few speak English, both languages often used in UN settings. In fact, peacebuilding economies – and notably the uncommitted spaces within them – help mediate and influence who is regarded either as a ‘member’ or an ‘outsider’ to the peacebuilding community; which individuals are integrated into these circles; and what is considered ‘local knowledge’. These processes ultimately and unsurprisingly lead to an affirmation and reinforcement of one’s own, ‘Global North’ worldviews, which are circularly reproduced in peacebuilding mind-sets.

Thus, to conclude, both the described uncommitted spaces and peacebuilding mind-sets profoundly contribute to a reproduction of existing peacebuilding patterns and the limited success of security sector reform in Guinea-Bissau and many other setting, in which reforms are similarly determined to a crucial extent from the outside and outsiders.


Christoph Kohl is a research fellow in the Research Group “The Cultural Dynamics of Political Globalisation” at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Germany. From 2005-2010 he conducted a Ph.D. project at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology and the Graduate School “Society and Culture in Motion” in Halle (Saale), Germany and received his Ph.D. in 2010. His research areas have been processes of nation-building and interethnic relations in Guinea-Bissau, repatriated refugees in Angola, and, most recently, security sector reform from socio-anthropological perspectives in Guinea-Bissau.