Given the experience of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War just 20 years ago, and the looming crisis in Ukraine, it was fitting that the 25th EFC Conference, held in Sarajevo on 15-17 May, should have a strong focus on the role of foundations in peace processes.
Women’s role in peace processes
I attended three sessions on this topic. The first was called ‘Paving the way for more effective peace processes: sharing the post-conflict experience of Bosnian women activists with women in Syria’. The session title was a mouthful but the message was clear: women are excluded when it comes to peace processes, and as a result marginalized in the society that emerges beyond the conflict, to the detriment of women and wider society.
‘Do we have to get guns in order to be taken seriously?’ This question came from a woman in Libya, said Madeleine Rees of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Women play an active part in wars, holding their communities together, often reaching out to women on the opposite side, but when it comes to the peace process, negotiations are solely among those who are armed.
This is what happened in Bosnia, said Nela Porobi Isakovi, also of WILPF. Women were not included in negotiations nor in the emerging vision of society. The emphasis has been on Bosnian women as victims of gender-based violence, while the role of women as agents of peace was neglected. While the international community has supported NGOs working on domestic violence and anti-trafficking, few donors will support the role of women in constitutional change. Typically, after a conflict women are pushed back into the kitchen – and this is already happening in Ukraine.
‘The experience in Bosnia was so bad,’ said Rees, ‘it must never happen again.’ Yet it has, she says, in Libya for example. This is why WILPF is building bridges between women in Bosnia and in Syria. Women in Syria have freedom to move around where men can’t; they can negotiate local peace agreements to allow humanitarian aid to come in. We saw a moving film of 20 Syrian women meeting with 40 Bosnians. As always, exchanges are two-way things: one aim was to reignite in Bosnians the spirit they had 20 years ago before disillusion set in. Mapping of CSOs in Syria is now taking place.
WILPF is also in touch with Ukrainian women’s organizations, encouraging women not just to demand participation but to put forward solutions.
What about the role of foundations? Foundations can act more quickly and flexibly than other donors. They can provide the money needed to do a mapping, start an exchange process or whatever. Avila Kilmurray told how women’s groups in Northern Ireland were weakened when the violence stopped and support for them was removed in favour of ‘big’ issues like decommissioning. A £15,000 grant from the non-charitable Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to a women’s coalition enabled them to win an election. She also mentioned how much they had learned from South Africa.
Funders came into Bosnia with their own agendas, said Nela Porobi, and didn’t ask Bosnian women what they wanted/needed. Project-driven donations to Bosnia destroyed the NGO sector, she said. But foundations have the flexibility to come in without their own agendas.
The good, the bad and the ugly – of funders’ involvement in conflict
This was the focus of another session. An example of the bad or the ugly came from Uzbekistan: an informal civil society existed but funders needed real NGOs. Ten years later the funders left and the country was left without civil society or NGOs. How can we establish accountability mechanism for using our small but flexible resources? asked Haki Abazi of Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Speaking via Skype, Sarah Holewinsky of the Center for Civilians in Conflict agreed that funders need to be more flexible, suggesting a rapid response fund that organizations like hers could draw on as and when needed, an idea supported by Abazi.
Stephen Pittam, former secretary of Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, stressed the importance of ‘staying with the conflict’. JRCT had been 50 years in South Africa and over 40 in Northern Ireland. If you stay over time and ‘know your conflict’, you will recognize when opportunities present themselves, like working with armed groups, or facilitating police and ex-paramilitaries to work together – things that governments can’t support. He quoted Avila Kilmurray: it’s easy for foundations to take part in the political settlement but not be prepared to undertake the long-term work of peace-building. Another key thing, he said, is to support local indigenous efforts.
Abazi agreed that ‘we should start local’ and stressed that staying the course doesn’t guarantee success if you’re not driven by the local agenda.
We have experience in Europe of dealing with conflict, said Pittam, but we don’t have mechanisms for sharing that experience. Perhaps we need a Peace and Security Funders Group in Europe?
What about Ukraine?
How can we influence something better there? Inna Pidluska of the International Renaissance Foundation and Orysia Lutseyvich of Chatham House in the UK both talked about the extraordinarily high levels of solidarity and self-reliance in Ukraine. Pidluska told the story of a group of researchers gathering to talk about human rights; then police cracked down on students and instead they formed EuroMaidan SOS. How can we preserve the ‘spirit of Maidan’? What can foundations do?
Among other things, atrocities and human rights violation need to be documented and a platform created for airing grievances other than through violence. If devolution happens in Ukraine, platforms will be needed for influencing local policies, community philanthropy, enabling voices to be heard. You need to build bridges between people seeking change and formal institutions. Mention was made of the recently formed Reanimation Reforms Package, a civil initiative comprising 150 organizations. Their demands for reform give people something to rally round. ERSTE Stiftung has provided space for Maidan activists to carry on holding meetings.
Among all the possibilities, Lutseyvich emphasized the role of foundations in educating people in their own countries about what is happening in Ukraine, and advocated the launch of a new fund for social enterprise, while Pidluska stressed the role of civic education – strongly supported by Mall Hellam of Open Estonia Foundation, ‘to get away from the idea that someone else is governing, it’s not my business’.
Tomorrow we will publish an interview with Madeleine Rees, who talks about what IWLPF would do in Ukraine now if they had the money.
Caroline Hartnell, is editor of Alliance magazine.