Why are “international” actors so bad at listening to “local” peacebuilding partners? That internationals should listen to locals is a widely accepted norm in peacebuilding, yet, research consistently documents that local actors do not feel heard. To understand this puzzle, scholars have increasingly focused on ordinary peacebuilding practices, finding that these practices keep internationals separate from local actors and make it harder for them to listen. However, despite the focus on practices as embodied habits and understandings, emotions are usually considered irrelevant. My dissertation challenges this conventional wisdom, arguing that we should pay attention to emotions that international peacebuilding practitioners experience as a key to understanding possibilities of change. Building on research in cognitive science, organizational learning, and political theory, which finds emotions to be a crucial component of listening, I examine over sixty in-depth interviews with INGOs, donors, and researchers in peacebuilding. Based on these interviews, my dissertation makes three main arguments regarding how internationals’ emotions matter to listening in peacebuilding partnerships.
First, internationals’ emotions impact internationals’ ability to listen receptively, that is, in a way that is open to new understandings and ways of doing things. Second, analyzing emotions reveals that many peacebuilding practices are still “sticky” with a colonial hierarchy where all the focus is on improving the local actor. Internationals thus keep the privilege of “invisibility” as political actors, leaving their own practices outside explicit contestation. I liken this privilege to an “invisibility cloak” which keeps internationals comfortable and able to carry on as usual without reason to change. And third, the analysis alerts us to emotional consequences for internationals who do attempt change, that is, to break the colonial hierarchy and listen receptively. The accompanying loss of privilege involved in shedding the invisibility cloak and “appearing” as political actors (with stakes in the partnership) involves vulnerability, discomfort, and uncertainty; the emotional is political.
To make these arguments, I integrate feminist, decolonial, and queer scholarship into practice-based approaches. In addition to practical recommendations for how to develop embodied (personal, organizational, and geopolitical) change strategies, the dissertation provides empirical, methodological, and theoretical contributions to several scholarly fields.