Peacebuilding in Bosnia

By Gary Shapiro | 1999-05-01 12:00:00

Although the war in Bosnia was over in late 1995, the task of building a sustainable peace in Bosnia is still in its infancy. It includes reconstructing the physical infrastructure, restructuring the parliament, and reviving the economy. All these efforts include a social component. Fear, anger, dehumanizing of the enemy, trauma, grief, mistrust, and hopelessness must be overcome through reconciliation. Of the authoritarian former Yugoslavia, the ordinary citizens say, “No one asked us what we think or what we want.” In post-war Bosnia feelings of helplessness remain. The “social component” involves creating democracy, civil society. One example of grassroots citizen empowerment is the Neighborhood Facilitators Project (NFP), which was developed by Conflict Resolution Catalysts (CRC), a Vermont-based non-profit organization, with the support of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre.

CRC was founded in 1987 to promote non-violent conflict resolution by citizens in countries emerging from authoritarian political systems. It began working in Bosnia in 1993 at the height of the war, launching community peace centers in the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. These provided spaces for community-enhancing activities for all nationalities — young and old, resident and refugee. The centres laid the groundwork for NFP, which trained local Bosnian facilitators from October 1997 until July 1998, when it was suspended (temporarily, we hope) due to lack of funding. NFP was based in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska, and also worked nearby in the Federation.

NFP involves teams of “neighborhood facilitators” primarily guided by local people offering such activities as:

We aim to empower people to resolve their own problems rather than doing it for them. The main setting in Banja Luka was the Neighborhood Facilitation Public Drop-in Center (or NF Center) in a large house on a residential street.The atmosphere was friendly, yet professional. Anyone could come; initial visits did not require an appointment. It received nearly 200 cases in its first month – half with economic needs and half refugees or displaced persons trying to return to their houses, from which they had been expelled during the war. NFP worked with a support center for people who had been expelled from their houses but who had not left Banja Luka. Mobile teams visited refugee return-sensitive sites two days per week, working with recent Serb returnees and leaders in 10 nearby villages, helping people to organize for their needs. NFP’s main democratization and citizen empowerment efforts were weekly discussion groups of citizens.

NFP starts from the interests of the local people themselves. Each three-person team consists of two locals and one international person functioning as equals. The goal is to empower local people to help each other, particularly in a capacity-building way, and to link up the holder of the problem with the holder of the solution. Cooperation between the facilitators and local institutionalized power forces creates coalitions and more equitable power sharing between local people and authorities.

NFP Problems

NFP originated from the vision of the project director. However, while everyone agreed with the goals, it was unclear exactly how they could be carried out. Was the mandate too broad? A more precise operational blueprint was needed before NFP began, but this was not possible because of financial constraints. Instead, NFP development focused on fundraising in North America, to the detriment of other tasks, such as:

NFP sought to help people identify their responsibility in a conflict, rather than seeing themselves as helpless. Conflict resolution is more about self-perception and relationship building than about resolution through technical fixes. This posed a basic question: Was NFP there to solve people’s practical problems or to “facilitate” their solving of their own joint problems? The facilitation model was hard to grasp. A social agency was a more common model – providing services to individuals. As for the longer-term democracy-building objectives, many Bosnians cared nothing at all. They were not trying to change the society, though many agreed it was needed. Ordinary Bosnians are reluctant to be involved in groups, in part because of forced fraternalization under communism, in part because of group polarization during the recent war. War trauma has made Bosnians wary of others. People feel isolated and in competition for scarce resources.

But if we did not think about the longer-term objectives, were we not just applying band-aids? Even two months after the project had begun, we saw that there was far more servicing of individual clients’ needs than capacity-building group work, such as the discussion and action groups. We were turning us away from NFP’s unique approach. To show results would take too long to justify continuing the support for the project. The international coordinator eloquently argued that NFP had to start with what was there: individual cases. He said that only through empowering individuals would we be able to engage them in group work.

Economic needs were divisive. While we explained that we didn’t provide jobs, but assisted people to find jobs elsewhere, they still hoped we were offering jobs. After so much deprivation, plus an unrealistic view of our resources, locals often demand to be given something.

We hoped to provide a degree of protection, for the presence of international citizens could be seen as discouraging any mistreatment of locals. Some people, however, regarded it as risky for NFP to make such claims. While we proceeded cautiously in this area, part of our credibility with local people rested on an implicit assumption that our presence helped locals feel safer, whether or not they actually were safer.

Likewise, we proceeded cautiously in providing mediation in the sensitive area of housing disputes. There are often hidden aspects in the parties’ relationship and a high potential for violence. Our work was to get to know the parties, reduce tensions, and provide links to appropriate agencies.

When NFP was first conceived in late 1995, people said: “Good idea, but too soon.” Refugee return had not yet begun and NATO was preoccupied with enforcing the military aspects of the Dayton Agreement. Many locals felt NFP was too political and too risky. Eventually political conditions improved and fear decreased amongst the population. It may be selling NFP short to say that we depend on favorable external conditions; possibly NFP could help create those conditions through citizen organizing that is as nonpolitical as possible. In looking at future “sons of NFP,” more attention should be paid making NFP a proactive catalyst for change, even in an unfavorable political environment. We, however, played it safe, lacking any experience to go by.

Lessons Learned

The internal support and management of NFP took almost as much time as implementing the project. Tensions increased between the project director and the NFP field staff because of financial problems. Some important lessons learned were:

We tried to find a right balance between the usual setup where international projects were primarily controlled by internationals, and the ideal of total local ownership. The former was not appropriate and the latter was not realistic, so we tried to create something in the middle, but leaning more toward local control. This was tricky.

The top issue was funding. NFP was plagued by lack of money, partly because of the dominant funding paradigm in post-war development. Grassroots peacebuilding activities have lower priority than macro political, economic, and social development programs and tend to be chronically under-funded. Nevertheless, NFP’s financial troubles also relate to internal weaknesses, including the inadequacy of donor research, proposal writing, and public outreach. Governmental sources may insist on cheap, quick projects, but no project like NFP can fit within such limitations. One is tempted to accept the money anyway and try to start the project. That is a mistake. The experience of starting, then having to stop, shatters the hopes of local people. It’s better to wait until there is committed funding for at least six to 12 months. Accurate budgeting was difficult for NFP to do, given the fluctuating prices in Bosnia and the changing project plan. CRC underestimated NFP’s budgetary needs. When planning budgets one should assume the highest possible costs and add a little more. Securing adequate funding for NFP-type projects requires building a strong case for grassroots peacebuilding amongst international funders. We must learn the language of the dominant players, even as we maintain our distinct language and culture. NFP cannot exist in isolation.

Gary Shapiro was NFP project director. An archived version of the project report can be found at

Peace Magazine May-June 1999

Peace Magazine May-June 1999, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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