Softly, softly – helping the Kosovans to help themselves

Caroline Hartnell

‘What should we be doing about Kosovo?’ is a question being asked in many funding organizations. One message seem to come over loud and clear: the Kosovans have a vast capacity for organizing their own lives. Outside support is desperately needed, but it must build on that existing capacity, and on the knowledge and experience of local NGOs.

Unhappiness and unease were evident at a special meeting called at the recent Council on Foundations conference in New Orleans. ‘How can we respond to this agonizing situation?’ asked Barry Gaberman of the Ford Foundation. ‘We don’t do international relief work – except when we do’ was the ‘position’ of one US community foundation. On the same day, 21 April, Hillary Clinton summoned representatives of corporations, foundations and NGOs to a meeting at the White House to discuss emergency aid for the refugees. In Europe the debate was opened by the Brussels King Baudouin Foundation, which called a special Donors’ Forum meeting on 29 April where donors could share information about their plans and discuss the possibilities for cooperation and partnership.

Kosovo Discussion Group
An electronic discussion group ( has now been set up to help funders discuss and coordinate their plans. It is hosted by the European Foundation Centre and moderated by Maureen McCafferty Stanton of the Council on Foundations. 

Who should pay for humanitarian aid?

‘It’s Nato’s problem and Nato must sort it out.’ This view, offered by a staff member of one major US private foundation, represents the extreme position here. But most people would see humanitarian aid as something that is delivered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and big international NGOs such as Oxfam and the Red Cross and funded by governments and multilateral funders (World Bank, EU) – and of course individual donations.

Some foundations and companies have nevertheless made emergency grants. The largest foundation donation so far is a grant of $2.5 million from the William H Gates Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, divided between the American Red Cross, CARE and the International Rescue Committee. Ted Turner’s UN Foundation has given $1 million. The King Baudouin Foundation has taken 1 million euros from its capital. Many others have made smaller donations.

Jamie McCaul of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (a consortium of the biggest UK relief agencies) says UK foundations and financial institutions are giving more to this appeal than they usually do – though the bulk of the money is still coming from individuals (the largest individual contribution so far is £500,000).

McCaul’s perception is that foundations run by family trustees are more likely to make grants for disaster relief than others: because they are often not governed by such tight criteria, they may be more able to be flexible and influenced by the trustees’ personal feelings.

Companies are coming forward too, often contributing gifts in kind, such as SmithKline Beecham’s $550,000 worth of antibiotics and analgesics and UK-based Carphone Warehouse’s donation of mobile phones to Save the Children to enable them to set up a communications centre for their family-tracing work. The Coca Cola Foundation’s regular contribution in emergency situations is clean water supplies – and Coca Cola.

Where is the impetus coming from?

Although most foundations don’t see funding emergency aid as their job, often the pressure to provide it comes from local offices.

The Ford Foundation definitely doesn’t see itself as a relief agency. But it has 15 regional offices, and if a disaster occurs in their area field officers often feel under great pressure to provide emergency aid. If none is given, they find it difficult to explain why and feel their credibility as an organization is affected.

The result is a recently reached understanding within Ford that emergency grants can be made in some circumstances. The Nairobi office made a $100,000 grant to secure safe blood supplies 48 hours after the embassy bombing in 1998. Last year the Foundation also gave $500,000 to the Puerto Rico Community Foundation following Hurricane Georges and $1 million to Ford grantees in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch laid waste to 70 per cent of the country.

These last two grants were given principally to support civil society development, to enable NGOs to play a full part in reconstruction. Civil society often develops very rapidly after a disaster – the best known case is Japan after the Kobe earthquake, but it was also true of Bangladesh after devastating cyclones in the 1970s and in Mexico after the 1985 earthquake. In countries where civil society is relatively undeveloped, this sort of support can combine emergency relief with long-term civil society development – which foundations traditionally regard as their role. But this does not apply to the same extent to Kosovo, which had a highly developed civil society – and which even now possesses great organizational capacity.

For companies with business interests in the area affected by a disaster, it is clearly necessary for their reputation that they should be seen to be doing their bit. But the American Express Foundation has made a grant of $100,000 to the American Red Cross, despite having no business interests in the area. According to Vice President Connie Higginson, this is partly a result of strong pressure from management and employees. In fact American Express places $400,000 a year with the American Red Cross from which it draws down grants for disaster relief,  thus enabling money to be disbursed quickly. Contributions from some companies take the form of employee matching grants.

Foundations and companies should at least consider whether failing to make emergency grants will undermine their overall credibility as caring, socially responsible organizations. Setting aside a sum each year for disaster relief would enable them to do this when the need arises without detracting from their long-term programmes.

A question of scale

The grants being made involve piddling sums, however, compared to the amounts required for humanitarian aid, and the amounts being mobilized by bilateral and multilateral funders. The European Commission said on 11 May that it was planning to line up an extra 196 million euros worth of humanitarian aid for the Balkan region in case the Kosovo crisis drags on beyond September. This is in addition to the 150 million euros unblocked in April. The World Bank/IMF’s first estimate of the sums needed for reconstruction of the Balkan economies, made five weeks after the bombing started, is $1.9 billion for what are termed immediate needs (excluding assistance to refugees) and between $10 and $30 billion in the longer term.

Should foundations be buying tents?

US foundations could in theory foot the whole bill alone if they devoted all their resources to it – the US Foundation Center estimates 1998 giving by all US foundations (including company foundations) at $19.46 billion. The estimate for UK foundation giving for 1997 is £1.9 billion.

Leaving aside the question of what would happen to their other programmes and the many people who benefit from them, the question foundations are asking is whether paying for tents, and later for houses, is the best way of using their money. They have a wealth of accumulated expertise in particular fields of work – building civil society, working with traumatized children, women’s reproductive health programmes, etc — and it is here, they feel, that their so-called ‘comparative advantage’ lies.

Do the Kosovans need expertise?

But this may be just where the Kosovans’ own comparative advantage lies too. Having run their own ‘parallel’ education and healthcare systems for ten years, often teaching in mosques and running surgeries from home, the Kosovans clearly have a huge capacity for organizing themselves. Those working in the refugee camps say this is already clearly in evidence – despite the traumas the refugees have faced and the tragic loss of so many men. One camp has already organized its children into school on a three-shift basis – albeit with no teaching materials. This organizational capacity will be of even more crucial importance when – and if – the Kosovans return to their homes and start rebuilding their lives.

Financial and other support for the region is urgently needed now, and will be for many years to come, but it needs to be sensitively delivered. Terrice Bassler of the Open Society Institute sees a real danger that Western input could stifle rather than encourage the Kosovans’ own energy and capacity. She describes how much easier it is for foreign professionals to get access to the refugee camps than for Kosovar refugee professionals staying with host families. As a result they are often idle and frustrated while foreign doctors and teachers work in the camps. Some relief organizations may be more used to working in situations where the population has too few professionals in any case.

What funders offering grants to NGOs to start working with the refugees and host communities must realize is that at present the Kosovans lack the material means even to apply for a grant – for example a computer. Supplying essentials such as computers and mobile phones would begin to enable them to organize themselves. While teaching skills are there in abundance, Albanian language texts and stationery supplies such as pencils and paper are lacking.

The media coverage can only fuel the picture of hopelessness and helplessness, with its exclusive focus on images of suffering and accounts of atrocities. ‘It would be so good sometimes to have pictures showing what the Kosovans are already doing to help themselves – and the unsung generosity of the host families,’ says Bassler.

Working with agencies already on the ground

In addition to the local NGOs and self-help organizations, there is a wealth of experience within the Western organizations already working in the Balkans. A Catholic Relief Services (CRS) spokesperson estimated that there were over 50 Western agencies working in Kosovo before the conflict, employing mainly local staff.

These agencies have now transplanted themselves to Macedonia and Albania, bringing with them a mass of knowledge and understanding of the Kosovans and their former lives. The Open Society Institute, for example, sees a very clear role for itself as a resource for organizations lacking ‘on-the-ground experience’ in the region. It is currently working with other organizations – donor agencies, international NGOs – and refugees on drafting a Code of Conduct for anyone seeking to intervene in the emergency.

Working in the region as a whole

The whole region has been shattered by the present conflict, both economically and socially, and must be included in the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. In Serbia itself, there are estimated to be at least 500,000 displaced people fleeing from Nato bombing and thousands of children literally mute with fear, bedwetting, spending 12 hours a day in bomb shelters. ‘How will these traumatized children become the active citizens of the future?’ is a question raised by one Serbian NGO representative (who asked not to be named). Work with these children and the building of civil society must go hand in hand.

The very existence of the Macedonian state is under threat as it attempts to cope with an influx of refugees totalling over one-tenth of the population of 2 million – while European governments count their refugee intakes in thousands. Overstretched host families in Macedonia and Albania urgently need support. In Macedonia 13,000 children staying with host families are now enrolled in local schools, with teachers teaching double shifts and extending the school year.

It is therefore crucial that funders should work with local NGOs from the wider area, not just from Kosovo itself.

Conflict resolution

Whether the Kosovan refugees return to their homes in Kosovo, stay in the neighbouring Balkan countries or move to other countries in Europe or North America, something that will surely be greatly needed is conflict resolution and work to help different ethnic and religious groups live together.

Certainly some of the foundations involved in Yugoslavia before the conflict were engaged in bridge-building work. The King Baudouin Foundation/Soros Inter Ethnic Relations and Minority Rights Programme (see p23) is one example, but the scale is very small. In future there will be a huge need for work in this area. One approach that could prove fruitful is that being developed by the Belfast-based Moldovan Committee of Management (MICOM), based on the conflict resolution work it has been doing in Moldova and its breakaway province Transdniestra since 1992 (see p26).


Clearly funding support is urgently needed in the Balkans, immediately and in the long term. But it would seem that the key task for Western funders will be to find the right people and organizations to support. In the long term the outside funders will come and go, and the Balkans will be left to fend for itself again. If that outside support does anything that undermines the Kosovans’ ability to rebuild their own lives, it will have done more harm than good. 

‘The Balkans must be seen as already sacrificed, an example of what should have been done, a lesson for other conflict areas.’ This view, expressed by a Serbian NGO worker, may fall short of the truth by failing to make clear that there are still more things to get wrong.


The Soros national foundations working in the Balkans
Soros national foundations have been working throughout the Balkans for many years, supporting a very wide variety of activities including education, community development, human rights, democratic participation and independent media. Until the outbreak of war there was an Open Society Institute office in Pristina, but this has now moved to Macedonia and is working alongside its sister office in Skopje. The Fund for an Open Society is the only foundation in Yugoslavia; the office in Belgrade is still open, but it is very isolated and vulnerable. It was closed down by the regime in 1996 as a way of cutting resources to NGOs that supported the crucial ‘other Serbia’, ie opposition, democratic forces, but it managed to re-open.

Before the war …
A good example of community development work comes from Albania, where the Albania Education Development Project (AEDP) has been working with the Ministry of Education on reform of the educational curriculum and refurbishing of schools. Alongside this, AEDP and Catholic Relief Services have been working with parents and teachers to start to build an understanding that schools belong to the community not to the state. Previously, anti-government feeling in Albania was vented on all public buildings, including schools. A vivid measure of the success of this work is the fact that in 1997, amidst widespread anarchy and looting, parents protected the refurbished schools and not one was damaged.  

… and now
In Macedonia and Albania the foundations are mobilizing existing resources and discretionary funds to try to address the problems. In addition to working directly with refugees and host communities, they provide a valuable information resource for organizations that lack on-the-ground experience of the region. The Open Society Foundation for Albania sees collecting, processing and distributing data on refugee needs as a central task. This project will be implemented through the establishment of a computer network connecting Tirana and the 12 districts that are hosting most refugees. The OSFA is also designing a model for the management of a small camp (800 people) for implementation in four larger camps (15,000–20,000 each).


Inter Ethnic Relations and Minority Rights Programme
This bridge-building programme offers small grants (maximum $8,500) to support initiatives bringing together different groups at community level. All initiatives must come from the local group. One project supported was in Pristina, where the Albanian Women’s Association and Serb Women’s Association came together to talk about common issues for women: education, religion, even sexual issues. A grant of $3,000 was used for rent of a meeting room, coffee, etc.

Launched by the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) in 1996 in six countries, and extended to 15 in 1998, the programme is 50 per cent funded by KBF and 50 per cent by the Soros foundations in each country, with the Mott Foundation providing additional funding to develop regional networking and some funding from the European Cultural Foundation.

From 1999 the programme will be changing:

  • It will be more concentrated, focusing on seven Balkans countries plus Slovakia.
  • It will work at three levels – locally (making small grants), nationally (networking and training, advocacy with local and central governments) and regionally (networking and training). The aim here is to make connections between the different activities and so take them further.
  • So far the programme has been administered through the Soros foundations, but the aim now will be gradually to move in-country management from the Soros offices to national NGOs with capacity to run a small grants programme, where these exist. 

The 1 million euros taken from KBF capital for ’emergency funding for civil society’ will be used initially to support KBF’s existing programmes in Macedonia and Albania – both the Inter Ethnic Relations Programme and their Street Children Programme in Macedonia. Part of it will be set aside for use in Serbia and Kosovo when it becomes possible to move money into Yugoslavia again, and some will be used for work on regional issues.

For further information contact Jan Balliu at KBF on +32 2 511 1840 or at

The Mott Foundation in the Balkans
Based in the United States, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation made its first grants in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia in 1989 and established a regional office in Prague in 1994. Their programme goal is to promote a healthy civil society through:

  • strengthening the non-profit sector;
  • promoting citizens’ rights and responsibilities;
  • improving race and ethnic relations.

The Foundation has been working in Bosnia since the end of the war there, helping rebuild civil society in a multi-ethnic context, with the emphasis on working in specific communities to bring people together. One grant has been given to encourage religious leaders to work together. The Foundation had made two grants in Serbia before the war – one to support the B92 radio station, now operating outside the country, and one to the European Movement of Serbia for democracy training. Mott has also made grants to strengthen NGOs in Macedonia and Albania and supported a number of regional programmes, including Aspen Institute Berlin’s peace-building work, International Crisis Group’s investigative reporting, and the Inter-Ethnic
Relations Programme described on p23. It is planning an increase in Balkan funding for rebuilding civil society in response to the Kosovo crisis.   

For further information contact Jon Blyth at the Foundation’s Prague office on +810 238 5651 or at

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Special feature to read

The emerging sector – a flawed landmark

Michael Edwards