The international community must understand the limits of its role as midwife to a national birthing process.[1]

In the preceding excerpt, taken from the 2010 review of the United Nations peacebuilding architecture, the international community—the collective term for the member states and all the other “relevant actors” cited in the foundational resolution and discussed earlier—serves as a midwife, while the nation effectively gives birth to itself. There are multiple oppositions at work in this metaphor: the international versus the national; the midwife versus the laboring woman; and the detached versus the involved. All of these oppositions are gendered and, as such, hierarchical. Derrida reminds us that there are few (if any) neutral dichotomies, or sets of binary opposites: “we are not dealing with . . . peaceful coexistence . . . but rather, a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs.”[2] Dichotomies represent and perpetuate relations of power; one half of the binary is always privileged within any particular culture.

Polarities (right versus wrong, rational versus emotional, strong versus weak) forestall our consideration of nonoppositional constructs (right in relation to plausible, persuasive, possible, coherent; rational in relation to consistent, instrumental, logical; strong in relation to effective, principled, respected).[3]

Further, the use of such a metaphor is not a mere “figure of speech”: “synonymy, metonymy, metaphor are not forms of thought that add a second sense to primary, constitutive literality of social relations; instead they are the primary terrain itself in which the social is constituted.”[4]

UN peacebuilding discourse constructs “the international community” as “the repository of knowledge concerning the procedures and practices necessary to achieve and consolidate . . . authority.”[5] The “role” of the international community, in this metaphor, is to support, nurture, and generally make possible (read: act like a midwife) the “national birthing process,” which it can only do if it has the relevant knowledge and expertise. Just as conventional medical discourse strips pregnant women of their agency in the birthing process, in representing the international community as midwife and the national community as a laboring woman, the review document depicts the national community as lacking this knowledge and expertise. Further, while midwives are traditionally female, which resists the easy interpretation of a masculine knowing subject (the international community) versus a feminized known subject (the national community), hierarchies of knowledge still exist in this imagery through the suggestion that a midwife is necessary to allow a trouble-free birth: this is a depiction of hegemonic and subordinate femininities rather than masculinities, as per R. W. Connell’s influential formulation.[6] The national community is hailed into the subject-position of Mohanty’s “average third- world woman”[7] in this excerpt from the review, intimately involved in the messy, bloody, labor of peacebuilding to bring into being a new political life. The international community, while acting as the authority, is facilitator rather than participant.

That said, throughout the discourse, the “international” as both subject and space is consistently positioned in opposition to “civil society,” which in turn is associated with both “the local” (as in, community, government, or initiative) and women: “UN entities and UN missions in the UN always have a very active dialogue with civil society and local com- munities.”[8] Articulating “civil society and local communities” in this way creates an equivalence between civil society and local communities such that they become the same kind of actor (an entity functioning at the “local” [read: subnational] level). “Local” knowledge is constructed as both essential to the success of peacebuilding activity and marginal to the governance of that activity. These constructions reinforce a peacebuilding discourse that (re)produces the UN—as representative of “the international community”—as the architect/legitimate knower of peacebuilding practice, and the communities working on building peace as the laborers/ known objects.

The emphasis on “national ownership,” discussed in Chapter 2, and the construction of the national community as agent of its own rebirth is in keeping with the construction of civil society actors as agents of change. Civil society resides within the national community, at least in “the field.” The stated desire to see “greater civil society involvement”[9] in the processes and practices of the Peacebuilding Commission is in keeping with Chandler’s analysis of “external intervention as an act of empowerment or capacity-building, consciously disavowing colonial discourses of fixed distinctions of superiority.”[10] It is external intervention, but of a different sort: it is intervention to which the national community must consent and from which (sectors of) the national community will benefit. It is external intervention that does not lend itself easily to the types of critique normally leveled at intervention.

  • [1] United Nations, “Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture,”para. 18.
  • [2] Jacques Derrida, Positions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, 41.
  • [3] V. Spike Peterson and Anne Sisson Runyan, Global Gender Issues, Oxford andBoulder, CO: Westview, 1999, 38.
  • [4] Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 30.
  • [5] Shepherd, Gender, Violence and Security, 166-167.
  • [6] R. W. Connell, Masculinities, London: SAGE, 1987.
  • [7] Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes,” 337.
  • [8] Interview data, LJSNY20131.
  • [9] United Nations, “Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture,”para. 172.
  • [10] Chandler, “Race, Culture and Civil Society,” 371.
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