Christine Bichsel’s book provides the first systematic analysis of peace-building in Central Asia for inter-ethnic conflicts over water and land in the Fergana Valley, based on very concrete, deep and excellent investigation. The core analysis focuses on peace-building projects in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan by three international aid agencies. First, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation is a governmental donor organisation which coordinates the international development activities of Switzerland. Second, the Mercy Corps International is an international NGO which acts in this case as an implementing agency for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Third, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is a multilateral aid agency and represents the UN’s global development network in Central Asia. While these three agencies have implemented a multitude of projects in Central Asia, C. Bichsel has based her insights on three only. With regard to SADC, it is the ‘Regional Dialogue and Development’ (RDD) project active over the period 2002-2005 in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In the case of the Mercy Corps, she analyses the ‘Peaceful Communities Initiative’ (PCI) implemented in Kyrgyzstan, in Uzbekistan, and later also in Tajikistan. For the UNDP, she focuses on the ‘Preventive Development Component’ (PDC), later ‘Preventive Development Programme’ (PDP) conducted over the period 2000-2005 mainly in southern Kyrgyzstan, but at a later stage also in northern Tajikistan. In her final conclusion, the author suggests that the Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency, the Mercy Corps, and the UNDP have failed to provide a solution to the conflicts at stake in the Fergana Valley. In her view, this is a consequence of the three aid agencies’ conceptualisation of these conflicts as emerging from adversarial relationships over scarce resources between ethnic communities, and thus resolvable in the very same context. She suggests four major points of critique to such an approach.
The first concerns the perspective that the sources of addressed conflicts are lodged in the relationship between communities differing in ethnic affiliation. C. Bichsel endeavours to demonstrate that such conflicts are not ‘local’ but embedded in wider political interests and power constellations. Issues at stake are thus often impervious to a ‘local’ solution. The second point of her critique addresses the functional understanding of conflict sources and parties that the approach exposes. Conflict is seen to emerge from ‘grievances’ over scarce resources. Such ‘grievances’ are expected to lead to violent conflict. Moreover, conflict parties are conceptualised as homogenous and uniform, shaped by essentialist solidarity that accounts for collective goals in a conflict. Her research points out the relativity of scarcity. It questions the assertion according to which it is primarily the dissatisfaction of elementary needs that leads to violence. Finally, it also contributes to a deconstruction of the still prevailing monolithic, often essentialist representation of ethnic groups. Her third point concerns the assumption of homology between conflict parties. Donors presume such a homology not only between conflict parties, but also between the CBOs and, more abstractly, for the enabling and constraining conditions which conflict mitigation meets in the respective countries. Her work points out that upstream-downstream configurations in irrigation systems are power relations. Furthermore, it shows that conflict and its mitigation do not take place outside power constellations. The fourth and last point addresses the normative nature of the social change brought forward by donors. It maintains that both by portraying irrigation conflicts and by proposing their ‘transformation’, the studied approach exposes normative accounts of evolution and moral progress.
The study highlights some of these assumptions and suggests that apart from their ethnocentric tendency, such prescriptions also lead to forms of de-politicisation and disempowerment. In simpler terms: More water does not equal ‘better’ people, as presumed. The promotion of the aid agencies’ approach is based on the assumption that conditions of equal power exist between the two parties. It further assumes that negotiation and mediation take place in a vacuum, thus isolated from the local political and economic context, let alone the wider political contingencies, power constellations, and élite interests. This may be a consequence of underlying assumptions that causes of conflict are to be found in the relationship between communities, and that negotiation and mediation take place between equal partners and outside power relations. The idea that, in a conciliatory model, people do not fight but rather harmoniously agree about a common solution is fiction.