Life After Violence: Burundi

What happens after conflict ends? How are lives changed, perceptions altered and the future envisioned? Peter Uvin held hundreds of interviews in Burundi to find out in his book "Life After Violence: A People's Story of Burundi" (2009). The author presents "a snapshot of life as lived and analyzed by ordinary Burundians" being "based on the voices of the people – primarily young people – throughout Burundi: people who have been refugees, internally displaced, dispersed, ex-combatants; in the city and the collines, Hutu and Tutsi" (p. 1). He starts with the context:

  • "Institutional transformation had to be achieved against a backdrop of unimaginable poverty and the social exclusion of most Burundians. The rural and urban poor, whether Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa, were the ones being killed and abused by all sides. They were the ones whose land was stolen, whose food, credit, and aid were being skimmed off, whose children were dying from preventable diseases at a rate that is one of the world's three highest. Few of those in power or vying for it, regardless of their party affiliation, were deeply connected to the poor or seemed to have their interests at heart." (p. 18).

Some parts of this book read like a report (which may have been its original intention as a World Bank supported project), and neglects to include some important contextual and methodological information. The greatest weakness appears to be that while almost four hundred interviews were conducted, we do not know how the volumes and volumes of content were analyzed and how the few selected quotes were chosen. Unless the result of systematic analysis (e.g. coding in NVivo or another software), one wonders if the quotes reflect those that seemed most interesting to the author, or are representative of the norm. Uvin offers some statistical breakdowns of how many interviewees answered in which ways, but these too leave the reader wondering how categorizations were done, as certainly there are instances wherein multiple experiences and positions are expressed about an issue. Quotes and analyses inform narrative and it is therefore important for authors writing narrative as authority on behalf of others to offer details and be reflexive about the processes involved.

Uvin offers some interesting criticisms of societal discourse, such as the following on perceptions of corruption: "Corruption has become a short-cut accusation, a term used by those who are angry at the system to express dissatisfaction and cast aspersions. It is a (rhetorical) weapon of the weak – all the more credible as there indeed is a lot of corruption in Burundi" (p. 68). And Uvin provides examples of how these claims are not always actual cases of corruption, such as a the relatively wealthy complaining about lack of support by emergency aid (excluded due to targeting) or the demobilized soldier refused aid (due to a policy). In another instance he criticizes the international discourse: "even in countries at war, there is more going on than war. War may capture the attention, dominate the political discourse, and its resolution may be a sine quo non for meaningful change, but it is not the full story of life, and people know it." (p. 82-84). In yet another part he takes aim at academics: "It seems to me that the way Burundian society defines peace is well represented in the post-conflict agenda – thus contradicting the academically popular but simplistic notion that this is all a mere neocolonial agenda. The first three categories – accounting for 80 percent of all answers – are the exact categories that the international community privileges: security, development, and the restoration of social relations. This is good news: even though peace-building experts and ordinary Burundians use different terms, they seem to talk about the same things." (p. 51) As Robert Chambers wrote in 1983 (in Rural Development: Putting the Last First, p. 30), "Academics are trained to criticize and are rewarded for it. Social scientists in particular are taught to argue and to find fault." At least in this book, it appears that Uvin has worn his critical fault-finding social scientist hat.

In reflecting on recent economic development, Uvin offers two, somewhat contradictory opinions. First, a strong promotion of job creation by any means: "job creation is the only key to development. Nothing else matters. Any way to promote job creation must be pursued" (p. 119). But, then, in reflecting upon the impact of capitalism, writes: "By calling it a capitalist ethos, I make it sound wholly positive and desirable, especially to Americans, who have been told that there is no more beautiful way of organizing life than unbridled capitalism and individual competition. But the spread of this cutthroat capitalism constitutes a profound loss for Burundi as well. Burundi's capitalist ethos feeds on fear and desperation – the knowledge that destitution and death lurk around every corner, that nobody is there to help you, and that you can only count on your own actions to survive, day by day, month by month." (p. 120). Putting these comments together, one could reasonably assume that the recommendation for job creation is not actually by any means, but directed and regulated so as to ensure the jobs do not increase vulnerability and inequality, and that they do not displace the poor and marginalized further by the relatively wealthy and investors (as the large-scale land grabs have shown can be the outcome) of job creation and economic transformation schemes.

The author also wrote a highly recommended book about international aid and violence. And, those familiar with this earlier work, will anticipate that Uvin is not pleased with the international community nor the system of international aid. His passion for justice comes out less forcefully in this book, but he offers clear reminders of his position: "the lives of most of the people we interviewed lead are an affront to human dignity and totally deny any notion that there is an international community that stands for any values of equity or justice… They die from easily preventable or curable diseases – tetanus, malaria – at scandalous rates… The poverty of Burundi, and the stinginess of the international community when dealing with it, is revolting in our world of over-consumption." (p. 2). Later in the work Uvin continues, "donors, in Burundi and elsewhere, seem incapable of understanding politics or acting politically. There are important processes that can lead to peace, the expression of citizenship, and the learning of democracy in Burundian society. But donors fail to understand them or to act on them. They simply copy products, but do not support processes. This worked reasonably well when it came to the transition, which consisted of a set of clearly defined products: demobilization of soldiers, creation of a transitional government – any government – for a number of months, organization of elections by a specific deadline, etc. But it works less well once this easy phase is out of the way, and sustainable, locally owned institutions need to take root" (p. 79-80). The passion is also found in works by Paul Farmer, wherein academic interests and practical experience are infused with deep rooted desire to advocate for justice. 

Funded PhD: Human Rights
Post-doc Fellowship: Literature, Science and the A...

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