Rethinking international intervention through coeval engagement: Non-formal youth education and the politics of improvement

This article was written by Katarina Kušić
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Bosniak youth

Katarina Kušić discusses the key arguments from her new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. If you'd like to know more you can read the full article here - Rethinking international intervention through coeval engagement: Non-formal youth education and the politics of improvement


The article starts from an awkward observation: while critical scholarship (in IR generally and in peacebuilding and statebuilding specifically) argues for a knowledge production that starts from and centres the experiences of people thus far absent from it, there is little discussion about how this orientation might clash with the organising concepts of our research practice. This was the case with my own research in non-formal youth education (NFE) in Serbia: while I was there to investigate statebuilding and peacebuilding interventions, the commitment to centring the experiences of my interlocutors led my research practice beyond and besides intervention.

NFE refers to education that happens outside of formal education, but through structured programmes (unlike informal education). Political NFE, that focuses on issues of democratic participation and peaceful coexistence, became an orthodox tool of statebuilding and peacebuilding with the recognition of social capital and participation as key for democratic transition. In Serbia, young people and NFE were key both in bringing down Slobodan Milošević in 2000, and the multipronged intervention to build peace, a democratic state, and a market economy that followed.

My aim in Serbia was to study ‘soft’ statebuilding from the perspectives of its targets. This orientation developed in response to critiques of the bypassing of non-Western subjects in intervention scholarship and IR more broadly, and it speaks to more recent discussions of similar erasures of East and South East Europe. I call this orientation coeval engagement—encountering interlocutors as contemporaneous subjects of international politics and centring their experiences as a base for knowledge production. Coeval engagement, however, took my research practice in an unexpected direction: away from intervention and beyond its conceptual parameters. Even though I attended activities dealing explicitly with political education to investigate the changing forms of political action, (un)employability seemed more important for seminar participants. Moreover, while I was sensitive to the local-international binary so widely discussed in studies of intervention, this was often not the most important hierarchy for the people I spoke to. Instead, it was translated in vertical and horizontal civilisational axes to make sense of old and new inequalities. In short, there was a tension between the analytical underpinnings of my research practice, and its unfolding among the experiences of my interlocutors. This raises a question thus far unaddressed in scholarship that highlights the importance of people living in spaces of intervention: how are we to centre experiences of our interlocutors, when those experiences challenge our own analytical focus on intervention?

Coeval engagement

I use the term ‘coeval engagement’ to refer to a mode of encountering research interlocutors as contemporaneous subjects of international politics. Understood in this way, coeval engagement is a meta-methodological orientation deriving from Johannes Fabian’s critique of the construction of the anthropological subject. Fabian’s critique focused on a contradiction within anthropology: ethnographic encounters rely on contemporaneity of the researcher and its subjects, while the anthropological discourse relies on a negation of that contemporaneity. Even though the researcher encounters their interlocutors in the present of fieldwork, they are there to explore a civilisational past and find laws that govern its evolution. Anthropological knowledge production then depends on a denial of coevalness or allochronism: ‘a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse.’

Allochronism is a crucial dimension of a developmentalism that pretends the existence of a known destination of political and economic development. And this developmentalism shapes both governmental power and efforts to study it. In the post-Yugoslav space, this allochronism is embodied in the narrative of transition. Allochronism shapes knowledge production by assuming an endpoint and assigning greater relevance to those seen as living in the present. While most scholars of intervention would instinctively reject overt notions of linearity and argue instead for hybridised and contingent outcomes, a deeper-seated allochronism survives in the continued centring of various ‘failures’ of intervention: the failure to listen to local people, implement local ownership, or evaluate interventions correctly. In doing so, even critical scholarship remains wedded to an (admittedly more emancipatory) endpoint.

Different strands of critical literature have worked towards this common goal of coeval engagement with slightly different aims and tools. While developing important conceptual arguments and methodological and analytical tools, they also still push against the two definitional parameters of intervention. The article thus proceeds through a generative critique of three literatures that pursue coeval engagement differently: postcolonial and decolonial takes on intervention; local and ethnographic turns; and the emerging sub-field of political economy of the everyday. By highlighting their important contributions and enduring limitations, I argue for moving beyond intervention into researching politics of improvement.

Politics of improvement

Much of the discussion in the article comes from the unexpected material I gathered in ethnographic fieldwork: ways in which the lives of my interlocutors pushed against the definitional parameters of intervention. But despite my focus on the unexpected dimensions of fieldwork, rethinking intervention is not (only) a question of mismatch between ‘fieldwork data’ and ‘theory’ (a theme common to interpretivist and fieldwork-based research). It does not require only suspending specific understandings of the phenomenon under investigation—intervention understood as a project of governmentality, imperialism, or liberal progress, but demands a rethinking of the phenomenon itself. These processes, I argue, would be better understood as only one part of a wider politics of improvement.

Instead of conceptualising experiences (only) through dynamics of intervention, this means approaching them without knowing how exactly they are embedded in international political life. In this reconceptualization, I turn to improvement because its origins and dynamics are entwined with contradictions in liberalism and allochronism itself. Initially inspired by the work of Tania Murray Li, I turn to improvement as central to the emergence of liberalism—from its inception in colonial expansion, to its 20thcentury role as an organising principle of political, economic, and social life. Its reach is global, yet unequal and always heterogenous. This turn challenges the two foundational parameters of intervention: it moves research practice outside of pre-defined fields of visibility and the local-international binary.

Moving beyond pre-defined fields of visibility in NFE required two steps: recognising (un)employability as an expanded field in which politics of improvement unfold, and then inquiring into its logics. The importance of unemployment is part of a larger reorientation of donors (and local actors that follow them) towards ‘employability’ as a policy field. As a young man working in a youth NGO lamented: everyone was “into employment” these days, “even organisations that did sexual education are now employment experts!” While this reorientation itself points to new ways in which subjects are incorporated into global flows of labour, my encounter with (un)employment happened not in the context of projects overtly dedicated to employability as a policy field, but in political education and capacity building. Making sense of it thus requires transgressing pre-defined fields of visibility.

Once the field expands to consider experiences of (un)employment, different logics of improving employability of young people come into view. And it is within these different logics that politics of improvement lie. The young people I spoke prepared for entrepreneurship and civil society, with politics increasingly unavailable to anyone not following the ruling party line. But there are also other, substantially different, projects targeting different groups. In the article, I briefly mention two: migration and vocational or ‘dual’ education. Even though the young people attending NFE activities were not directly involved in these programmes, and I therefore did not observe them first-hand, inquiring into the wider politics of improving youth (un)employment brought to fore these experiences that otherwise remain obscured. This expanded field of visibility points to the movement of labour, capital, and ideas of human value that shape the youth labour market and the experiences of my interlocutors.

In these expanded fields of visibility, civilisations hierarchies also work beyond and besides the local-international binary. Agents of intervention are usually understood to be donors and organisations that directly and indirectly promote ‘international’ ideas supposed to shape local populations and politics. In NFE, these are governmental and non-governmental organisations supporting democracy and development through building capacities and civil societies. In this process, local actors and circumstances are often pathologized through Balkanist discourses. Politics of improvement, however, do not only recognise the labour of representation that goes into forming ‘the local’ as the target and tool of improvement—as much of the critiques of the local turn have pointed out, but also bring to fore other hierarchies.

First, horizontal civilisational hierarchies are used to position Serbia as simultaneously inferior to Europe and superior to countries positioned geographically further East/South. Explanations of problems, offered by both trainers and participants, often fixated on local pathologies: failed state policies that produced failing citizens. At the same time as denigrating the country and the people in it, the same horizontal axis was used to differentiate Serbia from those more backward. Finally, the same civilisational hierarchies were used to explain inequalities within Serbia. In the words of anthropologist Orlanda Obad, who has investigated these hierarchies in the process of European integration in Croatia, this vertical axis ‘uses notions related to Europeanness to (re)produce hierarchies and exercise exclusions/expulsions of various segments of the [same] population.’ It operates within countries and uses individualistic ideas about hard work and entrepreneurship—inspired by global images of backwardness and productivity—to justify why some people are targeted by governmental power to become more competitive and more ambitious, while others are conspicuously silenced

Beyond the local/international binary, seeing NFE within a wider politics of improvement brings to the fore the varied life that hierarchies of local/international, Western/non-Western, and modern/backward have beyond the discourses of interveners. This reconceptualization helps empirically and theoretically link global and local hierarchies, showing their co-constitution and ways in which global politics connect with everyday experience. This does not mean ignoring the very real power imbalances that structure intervention encounters but aims at understanding them better.

Conclusion: a conceptual retreat from intervention

In the conclusion, my contribution argues for a conceptual retreat from intervention. Olivia Rutazibwa’s work on retreat as an ethical alternative to intervention challenges the fact of internationals ‘being there’ in the first place. My argument is perhaps less radical. It is difficult to imagine Serbia, or the post-Yugoslav space, outside of the power of Europe as an organising force of political and social life, despite recognising the corrosive nature of its over-bearing presence. Additionally, the planetary challenges that await us in coming decades will surely require transnational action, albeit hopefully underwritten by logics of solidarity rather than paternalism. I thus do not argue for a practical retreat, nor can I offer advice on ‘doing’ intervention better. Instead, the article intervenes in knowledge production as an important part of liberal interventionism and calls for a conceptual retreat that would decentre intervention to explore other ways in which its targets participate in international political life.

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