One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Burundi was the vast array of NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs to those in the know!) generally, and I have to admit that I was initially sceptical, fearing the ‘NGO circus’ with all the problems that brings – duplication and omission, failing to consider the real needs of the populations, internal brain drain, and so on. However, having spent longer in the country – albeit still only a fairly short time – my perspective is changing quickly. Meeting some of the dynamic Burundians I work with, and talking about the projects they work on, has brought me to the conclusion that much of Burundian civil society may be that elusive thing – a genuinely grass-roots structure that is doing hugely valuable work in promoting peace and reconciliation at a community level.
I have blogged before about the three organisations with which Survivor Corps works (AFJB, CEDAC, and THARS), their history, and the important work they do. However, as I have learnt more about the development of the conflict and the peace process in Burundi, I have become aware of the truly vital role that these and other organisations played in bringing the country to peace and ensuring that is (cross fingers) sticking (H/T Nigel Watt’s excellent book, about which I have already waxed lyrical). He describes in some detail the many organisations that have grown up at a community level to promote peace, healing, and integration.
The nature of the organisations that have done this work has varied, but perhaps the largest contingent has been religious, with religious groups forming to promote contact between ethnic groups, peer support, microfinance, mutual saving, and so on. Particularly active has been the Society of Friends (Quakers), of which David Niyonzima, the founder of THARS, is a prominent member. Many of these organisations have now broken off from their original founding church, a requirement to be registered as an NGO in Burundi, and allowing them to reach a greater constituency.
The work done by this ‘alphabet soup’ of organisations has included both ‘practical’ action such as building youth centres, providing for orphans, and organising inter-ethnic activities, as well as work also carried out by Survivor Corps’ partners such as providing vocational training, and promoting inter-ethnic income generating activities. However, perhaps even more important is the ‘mental’ aspect; promoting alternatives to violence, promoting reconciliation between ethnic groups, and helping people to discuss a shared future. CSOs, particularly religious organisations, have provided a vital service in this regard, in some cases simply by providing a space for interaction, in others by actively recruiting. Some of the most important have been the independent radio programmes, set up following recognition of the role played by Radio Mille Collines in promoting genocide in Rwanda, which aim to do the opposite, using talk shows, news, and soap operas to help people relate to their fellow Burundians and reject violence, also aiming to report accurate news and counter rumours – which, in the war years, often sparked massacres. In the course of these efforts to promote integration and equal opportunities for all, a number of organisations have also formed to try and promote the position of the Twa, and provide them with access to education and a decent footing in Burundian society for the first time.
All in all it has become clear that civil society in Burundi played an enormous part in bringing peace and is likely to be vital in promoting continuation of that peace and ethnic reconciliation in Burundi – as well as ‘traditional’ NGO motives such as promoting education, public health, and growth.
Posted By Laura Gordon
Posted Jun 24th, 2009