Women in Leadership Series Recap: Yolande Bouka

Yolande Bouke speaking at the Women in Leadership Series. (SPPGA)

Yolande Bouke speaking at the Women in Leadership Series. (SPPGA)

On March 1st, 2019, Dr. Yolande Bouka gave an insightful and engaging talk on an intersectional approach to global affairs and other related issues as part of the Women in Leadership speaker series hosted by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. Her remarks shared how she conceptualizes policy work through an intersectional lens, and drew from her experiences in academia, development, and working with security research agencies in Africa.

Yolande Bouka is a scholar-practitioner of peace and conflict whose research and teaching bridge International Relations and Comparative Politics with specific interests in contentious politics, dynamics of war, gender and security, and field research ethics in Sub-Saharan Africa. She holds a PhD in International Relations from American University and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Affairs and African Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Her work has received support from the Fulbright Scholar Program and the American Association of University Women. In addition to her academic work, she has extensive experience with development and peace and security research agencies.

An Overview of the Event

Bouka began with a vignette of her journey through academia and policy practice. She hinted at the importance of both while also examining their drawbacks. One difference she highlighted is that the policy world focuses solely on issues that are current and topical, while academia allows for more long-term examination and focus on issues that might not be current but are nonetheless influential.

Following this, she discussed the peculiarities of her work on peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Rwanda and Burundi, touching on the issues of intersectionality that her experiences highlighted.

In the final segment of the event, she engaged the audience in a question and answer session that touched on topics like migration, China’s involvement in Africa, African feminism, and International Relations theory and application.

An Intersectional Approach to Global Affairs

Intersectionality is a concept, or analytical framework, that addresses how power structures and systems impact the marginalized sections of society. Through this lens, Bouka discussed class, race, gender, feminism, xenophobia, and other social structures and categorization to illuminate the role these forces play in international relations. The talk focused on possibilities  for new and varying ways of thinking about global affairs dynamics, seeking to provide alternatives that decentre masculine European foundations of international relations.

Bouka stressed the importance of agency and sovereignty of African leaders and countries, highlighting the crucial role this plays in global affairs. She noted that as actors in the Global South increasingly realize and utilize their agency and sovereignty in a world that is unprepared and unaccustomed to this trend, there is bound to be a change in power dynamics and understanding of national interests (versus the international).

She highlighted the crucial role that the African Union, African leaders, and African countries play in peacekeeping missions on the continent. She particularly made note of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which is an active, regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

One critical point made by Bouka on this topic was the effect of sanctions. Withdrawing financial assistance and foreign aid is often used as a means of negotiating, bargaining for, and encouraging “good governance”. Women, children and other marginalized groups are the victims who feel the impact of these sanctions. The alternative option of military assistance, which would have greater effects on the conflict at hand, is not as frequently considered or utilized in such negotiations.  

This event cast a new light on understanding international relations which is too often anchored in a narrow conceptualization of the world and the norms that should govern the interactions between actors. Bouka challenged the normative frameworks that emerged out of observing how Christian, European men engaged in politics and encouraged a new lens in analyzing global affairs. She explained how the lack of contextual knowledge and differences in the dynamics of the Global South often lead to analytical tools and efforts failing to yield adequate insights or results to some of the world's more pressing challenges.

While highlighting the importance of context and notable differences between the different parts of the world, she also talked about their similarities. She encouraged participants not to see these conflicts and similar occurrences as something happening elsewhere, away from the narrow conceptualization of what “our world” is, but as a natural phenomenon that has also occurred in the transitions of different societies. She likened the journey of these states to being similar to other countries in Europe, North America and the Global North which also had to go through these harrowing journeys of civil wars and revolutions to achieve their current stability.

Speaking on colonialism and its effects on the African continent, she noted that African countries are perceived as now being in a post-colonialist phase and as such expected to “get their act together” or else be categorized as failed states. There is a failure to recognize that, much like victims of violence cannot erase its effects on them, the effects of colonialism on a state are marked, influential, and not easily ‘erased’.

Responses to Audience Questions

Bouka graciously left time in her presentation for several questions from the audience, and offered detailed and thoughtful answers. Here is a selection of her responses.

On migration: In addressing questions from participants, Bouka pointed out that the vast majority of migration happens within Africa than across the Mediterranean contrary to popular belief. She acknowledged factors such as unemployment and poverty motivate much of these movements.

On African feminism: Bouka pointed out that African feminism and Western feminism clearly differ in their objectives and goals. Even more insightful and nuanced was her discussion of the differences in feminism in the different African regions. In East African countries, women hold more leadership and positions of power but economic empowerment does not trickle down to cultural equality. In West African  countries, women are more economically empowered but do not hold positions of power. While this speaks to the cultural differences amongst the different regions, it challenges the idea that having more women in leadership automatically makes things better for other women. It is necessary to think about other factors that could be at play such as cultural dynamics, differences between male and female leadership styles, and their effects and impact on others.

On China’s presence in Africa: Bouka noted that anthropological evidence suggests that China has always had a presence in Africa (via trade routes). She drew parallels between the Chinese presence in Africa and the Western presence in Africa, explaining that the major difference between them lies in the “how”. She noted that while the Chinese provide infrastructural projects and support, their response does not support local empowerment and growth as they bring their own labour, equipment, and technological know-how. Western engagements likewise have been similar in ensuring that investments are also routed back to their countries. She also noted similarities such as living in silos, as expatriates, separate in their host countries while Africans in these countries are perceived as immigrants. She closed noting that she did not believe that China’s presence in Africa has worse human rights implications than the longstanding Western presence on the continent.