31 July 2020

Supporting communities on the frontlines of conflict

“The official advice is that it is too dangerous,”  Marina says.  She hands me the phone, and I say, “But I have promised to go.”

We haggle and eventually reach a compromise.  I can go, but mustn’t talk to anyone on the way. I must meet my contact in the car park in Osijek  at 11.00. She will be wearing a red top and a black skirt and will be driving a VW Golf with German plates.

I am on my way to Vukovar in Eastern Slavonia – the cauldron of the Yugoslavian war – with its siege, battles, massacres and ethnic cleansing.

It is 1 November 1997 – All Souls Day.  The war has officially ended, yet tensions are high.  The Serbs have been denied access to the cemeteries on this day when people traditionally pay their respects.  As I look out of the train window during the train journey from Zagreb, there seem to be cemeteries everywhere, with people dressed in their Sunday best laying  flowers on the graves of their loved-ones.

It seems that fate has conspired against me as the train from Zagreb edges along at a snail’s pace. I arrive at my destination two hours late. I go into the car park more in hope than expectation to find that my contact just arriving. She has been delayed in getting through the peace lines and is also two hours late. We are both so happy and relieved that our delays have not sabotaged the trip.

As we drive the 25 miles to Vukovar, the landscape changes and the buildings deteriorate.  First, there are bullet holes, then there are shell craters and then there are houses with no roofs on.  I am nonplussed to see washing lines hanging between what were once apartment blocks.  I realise that people are living in these ruins.  How can they?  There is nothing but desolation, yet I can see that this was once a beautiful place.

We turn into what was once the city square, park the car and go into the only building that is still standing.  It is the bakery and as we go in, I see them.  The community activists. They get up to greet me and we shake hands and smile.   They have prepared coffee, water and peanuts.  We sit.  We talk.  I am amazed by their resilience, their desire for reconciliation,  and their desire to rebuild this place where one-million incendiaries have landed during the war.

We leave the bakery and walk into the city.  In a children’s playground, there are pictures of butterflies on the ground. Drawn by the children between the craters, I remark on the paradox of this beauty among the destruction. But I am chastened to learn that children in concentration camps produced similar drawings – believing if they could only turn into butterflies they could fly away from the horror.

We return to the bakery for more coffee and a more focussed discussion about what to do next.  They bring out their plan.  It is on a single sheet of flip-chart paper, and clearly the result of an intense group discussion.

I feel pride as I realise that the template they are using for the plan is one that my colleagues and I used in a training course in Zagreb the previous week.  Yet, at the very moment I have this thought, I bite on a peanut and my tooth breaks.  This is clear retribution for my moment of hubris. I have no right to have any pride here.  It is these people who are the heroes. My role is to be a messenger to the authorities that power and responsibility need to be given to people on the frontlines of the recovery.

More than two decades later, Vukovar is still in recovery. But at least there is understanding in Croatia that resources cannot be controlled centrally.  The National Foundation for Civil Society Development, which I subsequently helped to set up with Cvjetna Plavša-Matić and her colleagues, has a decentralised programme and actively supports a programme of “changemakers” to build healthy relationships in civil society just like the inspirational people I met in Vukovar that day.

Changemakers on the frontline are present in all conflict zones. I have met them in many places, for example in Serbia while working with Anti War Action, in Northern Ireland while working with the Community Foundation, in Sri Lanka while working with the

Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, and in India while working with the Dalit Foundation

A remarkable feature of changemakers working in divided communities is that they are often invisible to the outside world and so receive little external support.  There are two dimensions to this. The first is that very little money from funders reaches the grassroots.  Jessica Neuwirth of Donor Direct Action has recently noted:

“When governments in the global north provide aid to the global south, they rarely invest directly in the organizations that are already making a difference on the ground.”

The second is that efforts to build peace have a low priority.  A recently published Candid study called Philanthropy for a Safe, Healthy and Just World found that funders rank peacebuilding at the bottom of their priorities.

Discussions of the results of this study suggest that reform of how funders work is long overdue.  In the context of issues raised by Black Lives Matter, Degan Ali and Marie Rose Romaine Murphy have recently written:

“The ultimate barriers to moving our communities from passive ‘recipients’ of aid to equal partners are rooted in failed systems that we need to break down and reconstruct.”

Amidst all the anger in the world, we badly need atonement and healing.  This means a thorough-going effort to #ShftThePower.  Stephen Pittam, Trustee of the Polden Puckham Foundation, and one of the few private philanthropies to support peacebuilding noted at a meeting discussing the Alliance special feature on peacebuilding and philanthropy in June 2019 that:

“The role of philanthropy should be to strengthen civil society in an adventurous way, particularly at community level and to support community institutions within the Foundations for Peace Network.”

Successful development depends on efforts both from the top-down and the bottom-up.  As Celia McKeon, Executive Director of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, noted at the same meeting:

“Peace-building can never only be about elite negotiations or even cross-community dialogue. It needs to be rooted in the needs of communities and in understanding the drivers of conflict.”

As we sink into a new dystopia, it is vital to see that the toxic swamp of racism, climate change, inequality, and poverty are drivers of hate and will therefore drive violent conflict.

Addressing these drivers and ensuring that solutions are rooted in the needs of communities, involves giving more power to the kind of  people I met in Vukovar all those years ago. It is local people who best understand the needs of communities and are willing to put in the long-term efforts to #BuildBackBetter. As philanthropy rethinks its role as a result of the pandemic, supporting them should be its first priority.

Barry Knight is co-author of Philanthropy for a Safe, Healthy and Just World

Photo by Shawn Kenessey on Unsplash


Barry Knight

Director, Webb Memorial Trust