Program Officer, Balkans and Caucasus Programs, International Rescue Committee
Topics: joint projects, extremists and spoilers, social structure change
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
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Q: Greg Brown, who do you work for and what do you do?
A: I work for International Rescue Committee and basically I cover the Balkans and the caucuses from headquarters, although I have worked extensively in both regions.
Q: Tell me about the project that we were talking about earlier with the women's ??? cooperative was it or what is it?
A: Yeah, it is called the Kosovo's Women's Initiative, which is actually still ongoing. It grew out of what was a Bosnian Women's Initiative before the U.S. ??? to be. And not only is it a funding mechanism, but it is also a way to build capacity of local women's NGOs.
Q: So what does it look like?
A: This is sort of where I get into the peace building part at least in the Kosovo context, where you basically have a society that was split up. There are ethnic enclaves and lots of tension still. Actually the Kosovo Women's Initiative has a long history and not a long history but it originally had a money to be pursued all at once and it was through international, sort of umbrella grant, but it was all through international partners.
Q: What did you call it?
A: Kosovo Women's Initiative, KWI and the Bosnia Women's Initiative (BWI). And basically after one year partly because the funding got dropped off and partly because they didn't see the results that they wanted to see, I mean different reasons. They brought it under one umbrella which was awarded to one agency, IRC, but then how we developed a mechanism was through forming regional women's councils , and there were five different ones broken up geographically but within those geographic areas obviously the types of women's groups that were there. There was a majority ethnic Albanian population, there was also Serb populations, Roma populations, Ashkilia ???, different groups. It is all about the women identifying their priorities: what resources they already have that they can bring to bear on, what they identify as their priorities, and also this funding mechanism being able to provide assistance that way. One of the requirements was setting up the guidelines and the guidelines were that you had to have these multi-ethnic women's councils, which were elected amongst the women's groups.
Q: So if you wanted money you had to work with other ethnicities?
A: Exactly. Both within council itself which is women leaders and then also even with implementation, trying to always find where there are overlap and where assistance can be provided. For example, in the types of projects that could be funded it really was a range. There was one women's NGO that was basically looking at just legal rights and another one was looking at property, another was looking at law issues and looking at citizenship. A range of issues which through that group and through the network that was created through the Kosovo Women's Initiative they were able to start helping and working with populations that they normally wouldn't work with. You know, cross ethnic. There are a lot of different aspects to it. We brought them together for training. They came together in terms of all the proposals that came in which were ??? Standardized; were openly debated and discussed and it was looking at what was best for the community with the knowledge that you do have to have a certain percentage that focus on minority or mixed or populations.
The interesting part about that was that was it was a way to fund these types of programs, which they didn't find as their own priorities until obviously they had ownership of it. And they had a greater chance of it being sustainable. It was getting all these women together talking, which they did grudgingly at first but once you got them together it was like 'You know, maybe there is not so many differences,' or 'We see so many opportunities.' Even if it was only because they had a shared interest in funding or whatever, they would find more beyond that once you brought them to the table for a specific reason. And one of the, I always talk to people about it in confidence; I work with the women first because they are just far more practical. I mean some of these women they weren't necessarily stay-at-home types before. Some of these women were KLA fighters up in mountains and then they are down at the table with some Serb women who might have been doing raids at night not long ago. There are issues around that but at the same time there is something about working with women that I think it is a very good entry point into that. Because we were dealing with the women in that way long before any similar meetings occurred amongst other segments of society except at a very, very official level which was more for show and not really so substantive.
Q: Was the project designed with that element of reconciliation in mind to have that multi-ethnic cooperation somehow lead to a humanization or reconciliation of some sort?
A: Definitely. I mean it wasn't. I don't think we would have ever used the term peace building or reconciliation, but I mean obviously that was one of the ultimate goals.
Q: Why wouldn't you use those words?
A: I think when you have different types of organizations that do different things and enter at different points in the continuum this was definitely when you are out of the conflict so you are kind of in emergency phase even though it wasn't so much of an emergency. I think it is a different way of accessing the population because women are more likely in general to say 'Okay, this is a funding mechanism available to me. This is an opportunity for my organizational development, my professional development, or whatever, and that is sort of something that I find attractive." If we talked about it as being a peace building thing which maybe for us internally for us to talk about it that it fine but if we put it out there to them they would be like I am not coming to this group because I want to talk to Serbs, I am coming to this group because I am doing my women's cooperative in agriculture and we need funds and this is the way to access it. So that is why it wasn't very overt and it probably wasn't even the primary reason why were doing it but we have definitely recognized that as being one of the benefits coming out of it. If you talked to the women I don't know if they would get that but the women after doing it were probably talking and working with these other women that they never would have thought of that being the result they were looking for.
Q: So if you said come one, come all to a reconciliation workshop between Serbs, Kosovars, Alabanians, and Croats?
A: It just wouldn't have happened. Even when we were doing it you know and it was the first time this had happened because we had brought everyone into Pristinia which at that time there weren't any Serbs living there anymore and if they were they were in guarded buildings and people thought it was really dangerous so you almost had to do it on the sly. But even then the reason the women were coming was because they knew there was this pot of money that was out there and they were going to be able to tap into it and they wanted a part of it. Of course then at the same time that you are introducing the guidelines and the structure for this project, you are also doing different activities and there are discussions happening that are really furthering other things at the same time.
Q: Do you encourage those discussions, is there any facilitation of it, is there any sort of conscious action to bring those discussions about maybe not reconciliation but about the war past, storytelling things like that to bring that to bear or is it all just incidental and coincidence?
A: There is a little bit of that. Obviously we try to indigeionize it whatever however ??? as quickly as we can and we did and part of that is there is just natural leaders who luckily at once were aware of whether because they were just more politically savvy in terms of inclusion and that is one of the reasons. But ultimately I don't think we did as much. Or maybe the depth of that aspect of the program wasn't what it could be because of the fact that really this was more a way of funding projects. That is why I think a conference like this is interesting because it is bringing in the people who do have a specialization and a knowledge about an opportunity that you could really exploit further or you could really manage better or whatever, which is not what we do.
Q: Do you think that is realistic, do you think if you brought up those conversations you would alienate what little trust has been built up by that or do you think that is a reasonable venue or way to go?
A: I don't think I ever would have seen it as an opportunity to have this big discussion about anything relating to the war but I do think if anything you can do training with your own staff that are there so that they can be aware of the risks that or, better, where the risks are that are there, you know how to deal with some sort of conflict arise with the group. I think it is more about sort of sensitizing the environment and when opportunities appear you can pursue them further. Obviously each council was different, too. You had one council in the south in Pristina ???, which was known as a more tolerant area, more multi-ethnic, where in fact in the town of Prisna ???, the lengua franca is still Turkish or it was. You have other areas where the hardest ??? KLA, the rebel group resistance was, and you really had more atrocities committed.
Obviously there is a certain sensitivity to that, like to what was possible in one place was not possible in another. Also just the types of groups that were funded and the type of work they were doing maybe with one group it is pretty much clear what they are doing; they are going to get some new tractors, and they are going to be better able to bring their goods to market and market them where a lot of them were killed. Okay maybe the opportunity isn't there but there might be another group. There is an elderly group in urban Pristinia, and it really was more. There were older Serbs that hadn't left or whatever, so then maybe amongst those women as they are sitting around knitting there is an opportunity to engage in discussion or shape that discussion in a way that stuff could come up. So I think it is very subjective which I think is the difficult part about entering into a project in partnership with another NGO because who knows what the real opportunity really is there. It is hard to discern but I think having the connection with them is important because then at the point at which that would be useful and that could be really productive then you have that resource available and I don't think people think that way. I mean it was like the comment made earlier, you have all these people going out, UNDP's doing one thing, this conflict group is doing another thing, this humanitarian assistance group is doing another thing, you know OSCE or whoever is doing another thing and there's lots of missed opportunities there.
Q: Any surprises in that project?
A: It's interesting and it is disappointing too because I think at the beginning we were very under the radar because people we weren't trying ??? because we didn't want to because at that point ???
A: We weren't making a big deal about what we were doing and as people became aware of what we were doing it became more, not necessarily dangerous, although it was initially because we were bringing people together. Serbs weren't coming into Pristina at that point so when you have two carloads full of minority women who are coming in and are freaked out to be in their enclave for the first time since the war and also people seeing them you still had people throwing rocks at them and nasty stuff happening. One bus that used to go back and forth was bombed and all these people were ???. I think that minimized over time then as people became more aware of what was going on people at a higher level that didn't really represent what people wanted, became aware of that and tried to politicize it. So you had in this one area called ??? which is where the divide lies along the river where the north is Serb and the south is prominently Albanian we were like that is going to be one women's ??? it is one region but that was the most divided region, ??? the women separately and they were like oh yeah we can see getting together, came back with women two days later as it turns out that some woman from one of the parties had been whispering in their ears we can't meet with them anymore. We were like "Why not? You were totally with it before." They were like "No we can't," and that was the end of the discussions.
It was very interesting because as much as people wanted to tout the successes of it, the only way we are going to continue to make progress is if we don't make a big deal out of it because these are people who are not empowered within their society. If somebody comes up with a gun and says, "Look you can't be meeting with Albanians anymore," this isn't good for us because we are trying to create a separate state here. They are going to listen to that. I think it is why you can view it as a way of funding women's NGOs, it was much safer then to talk about it as a conflict project because then automatically they are going to say, "Wait, what are they doing here?" Whereas when you are saying we are funding women's groups they are going to say, "Oh, women, whatever."
Q: It is not so threatening.
Q: Can you account for those spoilers? Can you anticipate that and if you can how do you deal with it?
A: It is difficult because for example in ??? it was the most politicized area. To go from one side to the other on the bridges they had what they called the bridge watchers which basically would be like "We'll beat the crap out of anyone we see going across that," you know, that type of thing. It really depends on the place but like I said I think a lot of it was just being really low key about it. Once it happens obviously we tried to intervene and that is where the partnerships we had with the U.N. and the other actors in these times we could call in and be like, "OK, can you mediate some kind of discussion where maybe we can allow for this to go forward?" But it was really on an ad hoc basis and it was difficult to because I think sometimes you can set a precedent of how you are going to deal with it if you don't anticipate it ahead of time and it is like suddenly you have empowered them to actually have a say in this when they shouldn't have any say. And sometimes you can allow for too much like we are so focused on getting funding to these groups that we are willing to ignore the fact, to forgive them of having to follow these guidelines. Which basically means that you are suddenly legitimating their desire to be separate or their desire not to acknowledge the fact that they have to look out for everyone in their community and opps there is a little part of their community that is not of their ethnic group which I think conceptually unfortunately that probably should happen more beforehand but it kind of worked itself out in a more ad hoc manner. Sometimes it worked out well and sometime it didn't.
Q: Complex system?
Q: Tell me again whom do you work for and what do you do?
A: International Rescue Committee, Humanitarian Assistance Organizations and I work in the Balkans and caucuses.
Q: That line, that balance between publicity and not publicity makes it hard to have any large-scale structural change or social structural change so how do you know where the line is and how do you push it and how do you choose not to?
A: I think some of it too I mean especially when you are doing it right at that the very early stage. Like I said this was the first time a lot of these groups were coming together, a year after the war or whatever. At a certain point, you could come back to these women's groups a year or two down the road and they were definitely more in power and they were much more knowledgeable about what was in it for them in terms of collaborating with these other women. So I think their strength and resolve was increased so I think their ability to kind of do their own thing. So I guess I do think that the effects of bringing them together in general especially they raise their kids and the impact is there. I think it is also that maybe at the beginning they would not have stood up to those spoilers who wanted to say, "Don't do it,' but two years down the road they are able to say, "Forget you, this has been a benefit to me, I can see the continued benefit to me and I am going to do it anyway," which is empowerment and there is a better chance that it will get bigger. At one point two years later we took them to Bosnia to go see how they had been doing the same thing there and you know you come back the same person. There was so much more confidence, so much more aware, "This is my future that I am building and I see it as being an important part of it and maybe it is not what I want but I know this is the way to go forward and so I am going to do it." If you would have brought that in early on that never would have happened.
Q: But that cross knowledge component is pretty important you think?
A: I think so depending on the group you are talking about, but especially with women in a society where traditionally they don't have a voice. You see it is like okay it is not just us they are dealing with, it is these guys they are dealing with and they have been dealing with them longer because what happened in Bosnia happened years before and these are some of the hiccups they had a long the way. And yeah, I think it really builds up and it doesn't always have to be totally culturally relevant but obviously they all used to be a part of one country so I mean they are speaking one language or they can speak the same language so I think it is even more powerful in that way. But I think you can do that from one continent to another depending on the groups, but I think it helps them to take it out of their own context and see it on a bigger scale, which I think is definitely more powerful for them. So they don't feel like they are alone in what they are doing and the issues that they are facing so they can be like, "OK, somebody else has been through this screwed up thing and maybe they have made it or they have made it further then we have." So I think it is good.
Q: Thanks, Greg.
A: Sure, no problem.