On Thursday and Friday (14-15 June) our Peace Lab group visited Mitrovica, a lush, mountainous city about an hour and a half north of Pristina. The Ibar River draws a sharp divide between its Serbian population in the North, and Albanian population in the South. On Friday, we visited two locations in the Northern, Serbian side of town: the University of Pristina in Mitrovica and a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the “New Social Initiative.” Interestingly enough, the presenters at each location voiced similar thoughts on foreign involvement in Kosovo. I will reflect on these perspectives in my blogpost because I have come to recognize that I am overly biased when I think about international organization (IO) and NGO peacekeeping in post-conflict zones.
I often find myself assuming that these organizations are the “good guys” whose genuine, selfless intentions dismiss them from harsher criticism. After all, their members dedicate themselves to supporting and rebuilding broken societies for little financial gain (mainly in the case of NGO workers). I thought foreign involvement in Kosovo could be called a success because peace has been successfully maintained for the past ten years. This belief has been challenged now that I have heard that both Albanian and Serbian locals are dissatisfied with the current state of foreign involvement in Kosovo.
At the University of Pristina in Mitrovica, the head of international relations spoke about his frustrations with NGOs’ and IOs’ recent peacekeeping missions in Kosovo. He said they have spent money irresponsibly, investing in unproductive reconciliation projects like a 10 day multi-ethnic (Albanian and Serb) trip to a sea resort. Instead, he wishes they would focus on improving the Kosovar economy, which has extremely high unemployment rates and infrastructural problems. At one point, he even implied that he would support more political and administrative integration between Northern and Southern Mitrovica if the quality of life was higher in the South. One thing I have heard over and over again, and that he mentioned as well, is that ethnic reconciliation would be facilitated by economic interdependence - a somewhat comical example of this is how well the Albanian and Serbian mafias cooperate.
Unfortunately, what I have heard from locals about the country’s high unemployment and widespread corruption has made me realize that the UN’s efforts were not nearly as successful as I had thought. This realization was supported by the presentation from the director of the New Social Initiative, who said that, above all, she just wishes all Kosovars and Serbs could live in prosperous societies. In order to support this dream, her NGO works to help political leaders understand their communities’ practical needs through their research. I left the office thinking about how IOs and other NGOs ought to reflect the New Social Initiatives’ practice of asking and listening to locals as much as possible about their wishes. With so much dissatisfaction from Serbs and Albanians alike, it seems that this is not being done enough.
Ultimately, I realized that my view of IOs and NGOs as the “good guys” in Kosovar peacekeeping was misleading because the real picture is much more complicated and, frankly, disappointing. I realize that my bias partly originates from my own desire to work for such organizations. Additionally, I have been influenced by the generally positive light in which NGOs and IOs have been presented during my International Relations courses at AUC. Namely, my teachers often frame them as the actors who can challenge the flaws of our sovereignty-based and state-centric international system. Naturally, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that good intentions do not always bring good results, but I think that this is a crucial realization for anyone studying peacekeeping. I have learned that major peacekeeping and infrastructure-building progress is still not sufficient in Kosovo, a realization that is sad to come to terms with during the first few days of this trip.