Local Critiques of Statebuilding – An Interview with Gëzim Visoka and Vjosa Musliu

Recently, IICRR’s Dr Gëzim Visoka‘s co-edited book with Dr Vjosa Musliu of VUB on local critiques of statebuilding in Kosovo made it to Top 10 Books reviewed in the International Affairs journal. We sat with the editors to discuss the book and its contribution to statebuilding literature.

One of the main premises of your book is that local voices have been absent from major academic discussions on statebuilding in Kosovo. Can you tell us more about the motivation for putting together a volume entirely authored by local scholars?

The absence of local voices in academic debates on statebuilding is influenced by exogenous and endogenous factors. Since the inception of statebuilding studies as a scholarly field, knowledge production for conflict-affected societies has been based predominantly on Western knowledge and written by Western scholars. While for Western scholars to write about their own societies is considered entirely acceptable, when local scholars write about their concerned societies are often considered susceptible to biases. Western scholars tend to dominate not only because they are equipped with the analytical and research tools, but also that their research tend to contribute to the reproduction of Western dominance. On the one hand, the policy-knowledge nexus is crucial in maintaining this primacy. On the other hand, some of the main reasons for the lack of local scholars in statebuilding debates include weak educational and institutional foundations, and the socio-economic and material constraints imposed by the legacy of the conflict and by governmental mismanagement of the knowledge economy. Local scholars are also affected by the high thresholds for language quality set by publishing outlets (in terms of quality of writing and language), driven undoubtedly by fierce competition to publish impactful research by Western scholars. Short of resources and proper guidance, and in some cases even short of academic tradition, local scholars are misled and forced to publish in dubious journals and non-credible commercial publications. Lack of institutional incentives and an inability to travel abroad for research, or to participate in academic conferences and join research networks, have also lessened the capacity of local scholars in post-conflict societies. Aware of these impeding factors, we took the initiative to put together a volume comprising local scholars (mostly based in Kosovo) which would promote local voices and pluralise our knowledge about statebuilding, and move local subjects from being objects of research to proactive subjects in knowledge production. 

One of the main findings of your book is that the local is not the antidote to the liberal, and that local perspectives are not monolithic. Could you tell us more about the role of the Kosovar scholars in shaping both academic discourses and influencing on statebuilding in the country?

While Kosovo has ignited numerous debates in areas such as political science, international relations and international law, local scholars have been largely absent when knowledge on and about where they live has been crafted and articulated. Despite a growing interest in local, bottom-up perspectives on and experiences of statebuilding, local scholars and activists have been insufficiently engaged in speaking about liberal interventionism, while the self-perpetuated superiority of Western perspectives tends to remain detached and disembodied from the peculiarities of conflict-affected societies. In this book we have tried to reverse the order of knowledge production: we have focused solely on exploring how local scholars perceive statebuilding, and what those actually in the field have to say about liberal interventionism. The chapters here explore a wide range of themes, including the politics of local resistance; the uneven relationship between international statebuilders and the local people; the faking of local ownership of security sector reform and the rule of law; heuristic and practical limits of interventionism, as well as subjugated voices in the statebuilding process, such as voices of minorities and women.

To the surprise of many, this book shows that the local is not an antidote to the liberal. Across different chapters, it can be noted the research of local scholars is, rather, founded on Western thinking. The chapters here, examining a wide range of topics, have inevitably engaged with Western and liberal perspectives on statebuilding. In part, this may be attributed to the overwhelming dominance of Western scholarship on post-conflict societies, which is then transmitted to local scholars, who often end up adding empirical nuances without challenging the ontological or epistemological assumptions such knowledge carries. The dominant position of Western epistemologies springs from the pioneering work undertaken by the scholarly community in Europe and North America, enabled by socio-linguistic advantages, institutional support, and advanced print capitalism. In the current ‘epistenomy’ (knowledge management), local scholars are on a constant quest for recognition and legitimacy, which prompts them to abide by Western rules of knowledge production, including those on the usage of specific research theories, methods and approaches. This notwithstanding, the ‘local liberalism’ evident in some of these chapters is also informed by a profound commitment to political and social order, justice, equality and democratic development, which need to be reclaimed as values that are as much local as imported. Accordingly, the ideological orientation and individual consciousness of the authors in this edited volume is a hybrid of local culture and Western liberal values. While many of the critical observations made here debunk the undemocratic and illiberal nature of international interventions, local perspectives reveal both the observable and the imaginary contours of local liberalism as it should have worked in Kosovo, in particular in efforts to build a functioning state after violent conflict and independent statehood. 

Moreover, the scholarly knowledge produced by local contributors to this volume is not monolithic. Each chapter uses a different set of theories, concepts and methods, although there is a general tendency towards postpositivist and critical perspectives. Local critiques of statebuilding tend to have a more pluralistic, non-deterministic conception of disciplinary and paradigmatic positionality, which allows them to adopt more pluralistic and situational modes of critique. Local critiques of statebuilding do not seek to generate replicable knowledge, which is often seen as essential for identifying lessons and best practices. On the contrary, they prefer to generate situational, context-specific knowledge, be that to resolve current problems or to uncover unresolved ones. Local critiques of statebuilding not only promote alternative perspectives on the broad range of themes covered in this volume, they also enrich empirically, and rejuvenate intellectually, the eroded critical concepts and theories which in Western scholarship are often used for epistemic adventurism rather than to change or improve the real world. Yet local critiques of statebuilding in Kosovo are predominantly embedded in Western modes of criticality – partly because most local scholars in Kosovo are educated in Western universities and are thus exposed to particular readings and modes of thinking, and partly because they tend to regard Western scholarship as intellectually more credible and acceptable than locally generated or non-Western knowledge. As a result, local scholars often end up legitimising and reproducing the dominance of Western-centric scholarship in world politics. 

Can you tell us more how did you choose the authors and subjects for the book?

Putting together an edited volume that explores local perspectives on statebuilding in Kosovo wasn’t an easy task. The overarching challenge was the selection of authors. Our original intention was to include local scholars who are based in Kosovo, ensuring equal gender and ethnic representation. While this book has experienced severe difficulty in bringing together scholarly voices from all ethnic groups in Kosovo, it has managed to strike a fine gender balance. A whole generation of female academics is now making their careers in related disciplines. This is indeed an important emancipation of Western academia, which has recently tackled many topics previously suppressed in male-dominated scholarly disciplines. Often, however, we have seen a tendency by Western women academics to write in the name of women in conflict. Gender aspects and local women have been co-opted, represented and portrayed through theoretical lenses developed and perpetrated by Western scholars (both male and female). Despite claims of its emancipatory and inclusive peace, we see that (the best practices of) Western liberal peacebuilding and statebuilding are primarily masculine and patriarchal – even when advocating gender-equality practices; exclusionary – even when advocating inclusion and representation for all ethnic minorities; and partisan and undemocratic – even when advocating democracy as the higher law. Consequently, women in post-conflict societies have been objectified twice by academics: once by male Western scholars, and again, now, by female Western scholars. A true feminist emancipation would be creating space for local women to speak for themselves. In this book, six chapters written by local female scholars engage with matters pertaining to gender, inter-ethnic relations, the politics of hospitality, and local stories of intervention. This notwithstanding, our edited book does not claim to represent the only local narrative, or the only critique of statebuilding in Kosovo, but it does represent a small leap forward on the daunting journey facing locals as they strive to make their voices heard and to penetrate the predominantly Western and Eurocentric knowledge on statebuilding. 

Recently, the democratic backlash in Europe and the US has triggered references to Balkanization discourse. How do you feel about the portrayal of Kosovo and the region in the academic world more generally?

In and of itself, Kosovo in academic discourses is mostly associated with ethnic conflict and international intervention. More broadly, Kosovo is largely portrayed through the lenses of Orientalism and Balkanism both of which have constructed the Balkans and the Middle East as inherently backward, stuck in time and unable to reach the progress of the West. This has resulted in labelling Kosovo in negative terms. Twenty-two years since the end of the violent conflict, the country continues to be still portrayed somehow as a fragile state. In addition, the anomalies of international statebuilding and peacebuilding which have structurally contributed to the emergence of state capture practices, public office misuse, and corruption, tend to be widely attributed to local elites and wider Kosovar society. The struggle for international recognition has also positioned Kosovo in a difficult discursive trajectory, being affiliated with de facto and isolated states. Moreover, emerging transnational threats, such as religious extremism, haven’t spared Kosovo as well from being affiliated with such practices. Overall, as most of the knowledge on Kosovo is generated from external scholars with superficial knowledge of the country, they tend to misrecognise Kosovo’s cultural and social identity. This has direct ramification for Kosovo’s international standing and image both a young state and society. Importantly, Balkanization discourse – as understood by Todorova – says more about those who use it (so-called Balkan experts) and their outdated frames of analysis rather than it says something diagnostic or analytical about Kosovo. 

Finally, what impact can excluding local voices from knowledge production have on understanding the dynamics and politics of statebuilding, and how to overcome it?

Excluding local voices from knowledge production on Kosovo, and other conflict-affected societies, certainly increases the likelihood for misrecognition of local culture and societal identity. It can contribute to the production of knowledge which is attuned to serve the interests of foreign governments and foreign policy agendas. It turns a vibrant society into an object of search and research, thus subject to exploitation, misrepresentation, and domination. Moreover, the exclusion of ‘local knowledge’ (Kosovar in this case) further reinforces the narrative of Balkanization: a Western gaze on the Balkans in which the region exists primarily as a mirror to Western self-perpetuated superiority. 

In our book, we offer five practical steps that could contribute to localising and decolonising knowledge about and for conflict-affected societies, including Kosovo here:

  1. When undertaking field research on a conflict-affected society, choose a local scholar to work with, not as a translator or logistical assistant but as co-researcher, co-writer, and co-author of your research outputs. It is essential for research institutions funding research on and about conflict-affected societies to issue explicit guidelines for the empowerment of local scholars. Research training and coaching are pivotal for empowering local scholars to undertake original research and promote it internationally. 
  2. As with the present movement among international studies journals to encourage the citation of female scholars, it is crucial to encourage authors and editors to cite local scholars, either from the country taken as a case study or who work in a similar research area. In particular, it is essential to empower local female scholars, who are subjugated by both the local and the international academic communities.
  3. Partly responsible for the insufficient exposure of local scholars in international epistemic debates is the lack of institutional and financial support from national higher education authorities. It is vital for universities and higher education authorities in conflict-affected societies to put in place merit-based research funding schemes.
  4. A major barrier to reaching out to local scholarship or internationalising their work is language. The international epistemic community should encourage the translation of important local scholarly works into English and other major international languages. Similarly, international scholars should try to make their research available in the languages of being studied.
  5. Finally, the proportion of local scholars participating in major international conferences and events is very low, owing to financial and travel constraints. It is crucial for major international scholarly associations to commit resources to support local scholars and to use conflict-affected places as venues for international conferences. In the age of digital conferences, some of these constraints can be overcome, but there is a need for a wider reach out and inclusion of local scholars to major academic events.  

‘Unravelling Liberal Interventionism: Local Critiques of Statebuilding in Kosovo’ was originally published as a hardback by Routledge in 2019 and now is available as a paperback too. The eBook version of the book is available in DCU Library

Dr Gëzim Visoka is Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland.
Dr Vjosa Musliu is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Free University of Brussels (VUB), Belgium.

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