Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.

This week, we want to make sure Laura Seay is on your radar. 

Seay is an assistant professor of Government at Colby College in Maine and a newly-minted Washington Post Monkey Cage contributor.

Her research is centered around the study of community responses to conflict and state weakness in Africa’s Great Lakes region. She’s currently finishing a book, Substituting for the State, about the role non-state actors play in governing the eastern DRC in response to the Congolese state’s weakness.  

Also, fun-fact: Among her other adventures in the DR Congo, Laura once got altitude sickness while climbing a low-altitude volcano and had to be taken back down the mountain by an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire. Her favorite thing about Congo, though, is how creative the Congolese people are in finding solutions to the very significant challenges they face.

And her favorite TV show is Scandal.

Our brain-picking session begins:

FPI: How would you explain your job and expertise to a third-grader?

I try to learn a lot about what goes on in Central Africa. And I’m specifically interested in how people in the Democratic Republic of Congo deal with the problems they have, those caused by the fact their government doesn’t always work very well.

I want to learn how people create systems and structures and institutions to do the things we normally expect governments to do, like paving the roads, providing healthcare, maintaining schools. What does that mean when you don’t have any one group or person who’s in charge in a functional manner? How do you get back to something that looks more like a “normal” state, or is that even a desirable goal?  

I’ve researched this in DRC and Uganda, and one of my next projects is the Central African Republic.  There’s always a lot to learn.

FPI: Where’s the international community getting it wrong when it comes to Central Africa? Where is it getting it right?

Central Africa is low on the agenda. Over the last few years, we’ve seen more attention paid to the region and its crises. But Congo will never be more important to any White House official than Syria or Afghanistan. It’s never going to be a top priority, but the international community has been putting a lot of money there – to the tune of 4 billion dollars a year – in efforts to try to stabilize and stop conflicts, and to bring some semblance of a political order.

On the one hand, it’s not bad that the international support is there, especially for humanitarian issues like displaced people or communities that don’t have health care facilities. If the international community didn’t fund humanitarian support, the Congolese would suffer even more than they do. 

With that caveat, the peacemakers have gotten a bad rap over the years as being ineffective.  Those critiques are fair, but we need to take into account that the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, isn’t adequately funded or staffed to do the tasks. Congo is the size of Western Europe, and the number of peacekeeping forces there are just a little bigger than the same number it took to stabilize Kosovo – a tiny area. Even though peacekeepers are only needed in parts of the country, the area they cover is still much larger than the number of troops who are deployed can reasonably cover. When you think about spreading forces that thin, there’s no way they can do the job with which they’re tasked well.

On the other hand, the international community has made a lot of mistakes in Congo. There is sometimes an assumption that there’s a “natural” level of violence that is almost inevitable. This isn’t true, but as Severine Autesserree showed convincingly in her book,The Trouble with the Congo,” those assumptions have driven a lot of willingness to tolerate the violence. Another problem Autesserre found is that international peacebuilders tend to focus on national and international-level conflicts, giving less attention to local disputes over land rights and identity politics.

This is starting to change, in part because many powerful people in the international community read Autesserre’s book and realized that dealing with the local issues is one of the keys to sustainable peace in DRC.

Also, it’s important to note: when Goma fell to the M23 rebels in late 2012, there was a great deal of international attention – more than the DRC had been able to attract for quite some time. The Security Council tried something that has never been tried before: giving peacekeepers the authority to go on the offensive against rebel movements in order to protect civilians. They work alongside the Congolese army in these operations, and it has been very successful so far. For one thing, the new peacekeepers act as a deterrent to other groups; some rebels have quit fighting because they’re scared of these peacekeepers and know they can’t beat them in battle. Of course, this won’t magically lead to peace over night, but I think the international community realized that every other solution failed and that we needed a higher level of commitment. 

FPI: How does neighboring Rwanda – which is a bit more well known, unfortunately, because of the genocide – fit into the DRC’s ongoing tensions?

You cannot separate the crisis in Congo from the genocide in Rwanda. Many analysts will tell you tensions in Congo are a continuation of the Rwandan civil war, which began before the genocide.

The Hutu extremists who committed the Rwandan genocide fled into DRC (then Zaire) in 1994 and then reorganized and began launching attacks back into Rwanda. Rwanda responded to this threat, and eventually, in 1996, crossed the border in part to address the threat and in part to support a rebel movement that took control of the country in 1997. In that process – and this is controversial and Rwanda officials will deny it, but the evidence is very solid – they slaughtered a large number of Hutus, some who had committed genocide, but many more who were innocent civilians, including women and children. This was tangled up with existing tensions with communities of Congolese people of Rwandan origin – the Rwandaphones, and then there was another war in which Rwanda and Uganda invaded in 1998. Ever since that time, the level of mistrust of Rwandans by many eastern Congolese is very high.

Also, Rwanda’s ongoing support of armed groups in Congo contributes to the conflict. But there are other kinds of militant groups in Congo who are engaged in all sorts of bad behavior and have nothing to do with Rwanda. It’s a very messy conflict that is rooted in the fact that the government in Kinshasa does not have full control over the territory.

What’s been interesting, the international community – largely the US and UK – had until recently turned an intentional blind eye to Rwanda’s activities in Congo. Rwanda is seen as an island of stability in a rough neighborhood. So, the reasoning goes: “We won’t pay attention to what’s happened in Congo…or we will, but we won’t put pressure, because we want a stable Rwanda; we don’t want a repeat of the genocide – we need a Rwanda as a Western ally.”

But recently, US officials have been making stronger statements, condemning opposition killings in Rwanda. The US suspended a symbolic amount of military aid to Rwanda last year. That seems to have worked in the limited sense in that it got Rwanda to scale back support for the M23, leading to its defeat in 2013. It’s not clear how that will play out in the long term, though.

FPI: There’s not a lot of reporting from Central Africa. What are some issues and trends that the press and international community are missing?

The story on Congo is always about rape, violence, and minerals. Those are the narratives that get put forth.

It’s not those narratives aren’t important – they are. The horror and violence against civilians and women is so astonishing and so horrific that you’d have to not be human to not react, want to tell that story, and get your audience to care. People in some of Congo’s artisanal mines work under slave-like conditions, and many women and girls are forced into prostitution or child marriage by the soldiers or local godfathers who control those mines.

But the danger of presenting these narratives over and over again is that we can get the impression that most Congolese people are passive victims. It also perpetuates the notion that they’re sitting around waiting for outsiders to help and save them. [Read Laura’sHow Not to Write About Africain Foreign Policy]

As a Congolese friend once told me, if you know about DRC only through the media, you’d think every Congolese woman is a rape victim and every Congolese man is a rapist  – that’s it’s a land of smoking ruins and no moral compass.

The story that doesn’t get out is that this is simply not the case. There are tens of thousands of Congolese women doing incredible work – providing education and healthcare, doing grassroots peacebuilding, and trying to find ways to provide services and help their neighbors in places without functioning governments. These stories don’t get attention because they aren’t shocking. But these are the heroes  who are making a long-term difference.

Congolese people are very devout – almost everyone has a strong religious affiliation. The churches and mosques are in many ways the only social institutions that have survived all the turmoil of the last three decades. They enjoy a lot of social trust, and they’re looked at by citizens as leaders who can be counted upon.  There are religious institutions that are trying to stop sexual violence. The rape crisis now has a lot more to do with a breakdown in social order than military and combatants: civilians commit a large percentage of reported rapes. So churches are now building men’s groups to address the issue and training leaders to stop sexual violence before it starts, support survivors, and build communities in which rape is neither normal nor tolerated. That’s the kind of localized, low-level, slow social change that permanently alters a society.

Also with women’s issues – there’s a gap between international and local priorities. For instance, there’s an association of women’s lawyers in Goma who do great work supporting sexual violence survivors. If you talk to them about their top priority they’ll tell you domestic violence is a bigger problem for more women than rape. But the story of domestic violence against Congolese women is never featured by Oprah or in the New York Times, so people don’t give money to help them help victims of domestic violence.

FPI: So why should we care about Central Africa? Why does it matter?

That question is partially why the rape narrative took off – it presents moral argument for engagement in a place in which the West doesn’t have a traditional geostrategic interest. I can’t make a case that the Congo should be a top foreign-policy priority, because it shouldn’t be. It’s just not the place we have the kind of interests that have historically governed our engagements. There’s no use pretending it is.

But I think for a lot of people, there’s a moral imperative to engage, especially after the failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. It’s an international norm now that it’s simply not acceptable for these abuses to happen to human beings. While our norms clearly haven’t evolved to encompass intervening everywhere to stop violence against civilians, our definition of what constitutes national interest has broadened considerably since the end of the Cold War. That’s a good thing.

FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interrupters?

The first thing to remember: Know your stuff.

You’re often going to be discounted because you are female, especially when you are young. People will assume that you’re not as tough or experienced as a man who is your same age and has the same level of experience. So you better know exactly what you are talking about. Learn the facts, learn the theories, focus on evidence, become someone who must be listened to because her knowledge and analysis skills stand above those of others. The more you get it right, the less you will be ignored or underestimated.

Also: Don’t take criticism personally. You have to have thick skin in this field. People will say nasty things about you – they’ll criticize your hair, your outfit, your weight, or other aspects of your appearance, and it can be really hurtful. You have to let it roll off. If you’re getting it right, that’s all that matters. Especially when “they” are getting it wrong.

Women in this field need to take care of one another, open doors for those who come behind them, and smash through glass ceilings together. Think in terms of partnerships and collaboration rather than zero-sum games or winning debates.

In academia, specifically, I’m fortunate that the cohort of junior scholars studying central Africa is female-dominated. That group includes Kim Yi Dionne at Smith [Also a new Monkey Cage contributor. Check out her “Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About African African Politics”], who is pushing other scholars in our field in a concerted effort to cite each other, to include more women on our syllabi. There’s been a systematic exclusion of women, including African women, from the discourse.

We’re trying to fix this, and women in every field can do the same.

Go out of your way to stand up for other women – cite one another, provide reporters who ask for sources with names of smart, capable women to be interviewed, create gender-balanced panels at conferences and in the think tanks. Give attention to outlets that get it right and name those that don’t in public fora.  If a magazine interviews 10 people and nine of them are men, call them out for it on Twitter. Better yet, do your own interviews with women who were excluded from the conversation, and write a better story that includes a wide variety of perspectives. Ask men who comment on your appearance why they’re wearing that tie or whether their views on fashion are relevant to quality of their analysis.

Start a new media empire that is committed to hiring people of color and equal numbers of men and women. All it takes is a conscious effort. And it has to be done.

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