Interview – Astrid Bonfield

Astrid BonfieldThe ground-breaking Oslo Treaty banning cluster munitions was adopted by 107 states in Dublin in May 2008 and signed in Oslo on 3 December. The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund has been supporting the campaign for a global ban on cluster bombs since 2003. Caroline Hartnell talked to Chief Executive Astrid Bonfield about the challenges of supporting campaigning, especially for a foundation committed to spend out by 2013; what it feels like to have funded a successful campaign; and what failing to achieve a ban would have felt like.

When did the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund first become involved in the campaign to ban cluster bombs?

We’ve been involved in the broad area for a long time, since 1998 when we started funding Landmine Action. They produced their first report on cluster bombs as a particular target in 2000, and we started funding the Cluster Munition Coalition in 2003. Although the Oslo Process – the state parties negotiation process that culminated in the Oslo Treaty – took less than two years, the years of preparatory work carried out by the Cluster Munition Coalition were crucial to its success.

It was in 2006 that the real fast-paced action started, when the Norwegian Government first started discussing with other state parties whether they were going to step outside the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) negotiating process. This is where all international conventional weapons bans get discussed, but progress is slow. The 1997 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines was also led by a group of states deciding to negotiate outside the CCW framework.

Was it after that that it became apparent that cluster bombs should have been included in the ban?

It seems to me that tackling one class of weapon at a time is actually good tactics. If you go for a specific class of weapon, it’s doable. Anti-personnel landmines were clearly a good first target because they are specifically designed to maim individuals. They are left there as ‘lethal litter’, that’s what they do.

What cluster bombs do is release up to hundreds of little bomblets. If they worked properly they would all explode on impact; they are not designed to leave lethal litter, but they invariably do. So I think it was a clever move to take the landmine issue first and get those banned – it sets a precedent – then go for cluster bombs as a class of weapon in themselves. There may be other issues that need to be tackled in the future, but I think it makes sense to tackle them one by one.

What happened in 2006 when the action really started on cluster bombs?

A meeting was held here at the Fund’s offices in March 2006. Because of the association of Diana, Princess of Wales with the whole landmine issue – everybody remembers that iconic image of her walking through the minefields in Angola – and the Fund’s long involvement with the issue, this seemed an appropriate place. The meeting involved a core group of state parties plus the Cluster Munition Coalition, and it was at that meeting that those state parties decided to explore stepping outside the CCW negotiating process. The core group of states officially declared the CCW attempts to ban cluster munitions a failure in November 2006. The Oslo Process itself was launched in February 2007, with a Declaration stating the goal to be a comprehensive banning treaty by the end of 2008.

How was the Cluster Munition Coalition involved?

The Cluster Munition Coalition consists of 270 civil society organizations; it came together formally in 2003 to work towards the banning of cluster bombs. The tipping point was the March 2006 meeting because a class of munitions has to be banned by states through an international treaty – the Cluster Munition Coalition had been pressuring them to do this for several years. When the state parties eventually did decide to step outside the CCW, the Cluster Munition Coalition was ready with all the evidence the campaign would need. They had the messages that they needed ready, and they knew what type of treaty they were looking for. They had become experts on the issue and able to support the state parties.

What did the Fund’s support for the Coalition consist of?

We had our ongoing grant to Landmine Action, which is one of the Coalition’s three co-chairs, but we also gave funding for core costs to the Cluster Munition Coalition. So we weren’t funding the core costs of these 270 NGOs but we were funding their joint action, what they do together. And later we had our Local Voices Global Ban grants programme.

At this early stage were there other funders for the Cluster Munition Coalition?

No, not at this point – the Fund was its sole supporter until 2006. Norwegian and other government support came later. The Fund discussed the campaign with other trusts and foundations, and in 2007 the McArthur Foundation also gave the Coalition a grant. However, the whole lethal litter issue had been a focus of our core work from the beginning of the Fund – as reflected in the strategic plan that we published in 2006 – so we were happy to fund it alone at the start.

I assume the next stepping up in your support for the campaign was the Local Voices Global Ban grants programme. How did this programme work?

This grants scheme was set up in 2007 to support campaigners in countries affected by cluster munitions, or where the country’s participation in the Oslo Process was strategically important to achieving a ban. Small grants up to $5,000 were offered and three application rounds were held in 2007 and 2008. Landmine Action administered the grant scheme for us. The Cluster Munition Coalition, which coordinates the network of 270 NGOs spread out across the world, is based at Landmine Action, so they were well placed to assess applications and monitor proposals. The Coalition knew exactly who was doing what and where. If one of these campaigners, for example, heard of a critical advocacy opportunity, they would go to Landmine Action and a proposal would be submitted.

We benefited from a web of knowledge. It’s not like working with a lot of isolated, unconnected people that you don’t know. There’s a whole web of connections, everyone knows everyone in this group, and they networked closely at each of the Oslo Process international negotiating conferences as well.

What sorts of organizations did you fund?

In fact, we funded both civil society organizations and individuals. We were looking at the critical tipping points globally and asking where money needed to go right now because, say, a parliament was going to debate the issue in the next few weeks and really needed to feel pressure from campaigners. This included the Ban Advocates, a group of people who have been personally affected by cluster bombs, for example through injuries to themselves or family members.

These grants were very strategically driven. It wasn’t about spending money to do good, or to support capacity-building, although this was an outcome of the grants. It was about achieving an international ban on cluster bombs – and there’s a difference.

Was making grants to individuals something the Fund was already able to do? There was nothing to prevent you doing it?

No, there was nothing to prevent us doing it. I suppose one of the comforts comes from working with a strong network like the Cluster Munition Coalition and our very good relationship with Landmine Action. I do think the trust we’ve developed with Landmine Action as an institution over ten years is important. I think that relationship of trust is critical if you want to do something like this.

The other crucial thing I think was fast turnaround – some of these grants were awarded in 24 hours time frames.

Did you develop this ultra-fast grantmaking process specifically for this campaign?

We have within the structure of the Fund a delegated grant approval authority. Major initiatives and strategic budgets are approved by the board, but the implementation and operationalizing happens within the staff group. So it’s possible to be fast and opportunistic – in I hope the best sense of the word.

So what was needed was a Cluster Munition Coalition that had a global perspective, which was strategic about where and when pressure needed to be applied; and a funder that could be flexible and act fast, because there’s no point in giving a grant if the parliamentary debate has already happened. The purpose of the grants scheme was to encourage governments to sign up to the ban, and I think it was extraordinarily successful.

So what role would these people and organizations be playing in the three weeks leading up to a parliamentary decision?

A broad advocacy role, lobbying and in some instances protesting, depending on the country and the context and the campaign. This campaign has mainly been about sitting at the negotiating table rather than waving protest banners outside.

I think what made the campaign so successful was the fact that the Cluster Munition Coalition, as well as having a fantastic evidence base, was coherent in its messaging. There was no visible infighting – and it’s very rare for a coalition of that size to speak with one voice. This group has been brilliant at holding it together, so there is one coordinated message, supported by facts.

If you’ve got an advocate within government who wants to move towards a ban, that person has got to have good, reliable evidence, and they must be able to trust that an advocacy campaign is actually going to give them what they need.

Have you experienced any difficulty in relation to the laws on charity and political campaigning?

No, the reverse. The Charity Commission has been very supportive.

I think there’s been some false panic about what the Charity Commission’s new regulations mean. They actually encourage you to have campaigning as one of the mechanisms for delivering your charitable goals, as long as you’re not supporting a political party or only doing single issue campaigning. With us this campaign is part of a broad portfolio, and the Charity Commission has been totally supportive.

Many funders would see supporting campaigning as difficult territory to get into, although the potential dividends are extremely high. Are there any other risks or issues you’ve had to deal with?

When we wrote the strategic plan, which included working towards banning cluster bombs, I thought history would judge us as being one of the pioneers that put money into the campaign at an early stage. The fact that a ban has happened is an extraordinary thing because this doesn’t usually happen in development: you’re always on the path towards your goal, not actually achieving it. Not that we achieved it as such: it is great that the Fund has been able to be a part of it, but this is absolutely about state parties, and about the Cluster Munition Coalition, not about us as a funder.

So I suppose the first risk relates to the outcome you want to achieve. We went into this with a realistic view on how long it can take to make change happen. As a spend-out organization that’s not going to be here post 2013, this is a real and live issue for us. There was clearly a risk that we might have spent years, and a lot of money, working on a campaign that led to nothing, that didn’t ban cluster bombs.

This is exactly the question I’m interested in. The campaign has been hugely successful so the question of measuring the impact of your funding doesn’t even arise. But how would you have thought about it if it hadn’t worked?

I think you have to take a long-term view of how you understand change to happen. Yes, we’ve supported the successful banning of cluster bombs, but this isn’t the case in other areas we work in. We are all 20 years down the line with HIV/AIDS and we haven’t won our battle against the pandemic, although some statistics are encouraging. In Africa, for example, infection rates are still going up, and we still don’t have universal anti-retroviral roll-out. But campaigners have succeeded in reducing the costs of anti-retroviral treatment and in winning international support for a vision of everyone being able to access treatment who needs it.

I think you’ve got to have a clear vision about what it is you’re trying to achieve, and realistic strategies for achieving it, and then leave it to history to judge whether you made a good contribution.

I wasn’t at the Fund in 2003 when we started funding the Cluster Munition Coalition, but I think the brilliance of Andrew Purkis, my predecessor, was in persuading the board that this was an issue that the Fund should get involved in, a visionary step at the time.

And high risk, given that the outcome was so uncertain?

Exactly. Though you could always argue that supporting the Cluster Munition Coalition, and helping to create a network that was going to be able to move so quickly when that opportunity arose, was the best bet you could have made if you wanted to achieve a ban on cluster bombs.

The evaluation of the Local Voices Global Ban grants scheme, published in November 2008, shows that having an understanding within the Fund of the policies and politics involved helped us to manage the risk successfully.

So really this sort of funding can be seen to be about nurturing the seeds of organizations and coalitions and structures that could, given the right circumstances, achieve the change you seek?

If we’re serious about social change, funders who have the freedom to take the risk, who aren’t actually going to go to the wall as an organization if they fail, will need to be willing to do this sort of thing, to nurture seeds for an unknown eventuality and a future that you can’t map out completely. Who knew that Norway was going to lead this state process, and that so many other countries would join them?

You’ve mentioned the freedom to take risks. Do private foundations have any other particular advantages in supporting campaigning?

One thing we can do is be a neutral voice and space. Landmine Action can talk about the importance of banning cluster bombs and people will say, ‘They would say that, wouldn’t they?’ But the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund is different.

You can also convene, you can bring people together. Sometimes we were able to bring campaigners and state party delegates together at social occasions like receptions – opportunities which the campaigners used effectively for lobbying.

We also had the great advantage of the Princess’s association with the whole issue of landmines.  We have also funded some work that’s less sustainable but that has actually benefited the communities that have been affected – things like clearing minefields and working with children with disabilities caused by anti-personnel landmines. That’s given us respect within the broader sector: people feel we know what we’re talking about, and that’s important for legitimacy.

Does the fact that you’re spending out make any difference to what you can and can’t do?

You have to be very, very clear about the outcome you want to achieve and the strategies that you’re employing to try and achieve it. The other thing you need is a board of directors behind you that has signed up to this. There has to be institutional support to working in this kind of way, top to bottom.

Spend-out, I think, gives you focus and makes you brave because you’ve got one shot. A board can’t say they will take another step in the next strategic plan. You’re either going to do it right now or you’re not because you won’t be here.

But isn’t the other way of looking at it that you’ve got this limited amount of time and you’re going to spend a lot of money and you want to make sure you’ve got something to show for it at the end? And with a campaign like this, this is precisely what you can’t do.

I think if you’re clear about how you’re going to measure outcomes, that helps. If we hadn’t got a ban during the lifetime of the Fund, we could still say we’ve left behind a strong network that’s become expert in this field, the Cluster Munition Coalition. We could say we’ve helped a group of international campaigners become ready for action when the time is ripe. So I think you can chop it up into milestones where you can actually say we have achieved something concrete. There are points on the way to legislation that you can still measure.

I do encourage funders to do this sort of thing because when it works, the pay-off is extraordinary. I don’t think I’m going to be involved in anything else like this in my career, when you’ve got a strategic plan that says you want to ban cluster bombs and you can tick it off. It doesn’t happen, does it?

For more information
Contact Effie Blythe at or visit

A further interview with Astrid Bonfield has been published in October 2012. Read the more recent interview now to discover more about the process of spending out the Fund.

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