NGOs and Ethnic Conflict: Lessons from the Work of the Project on Ethnic Relations in the Balkans

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Abstract:

This article examines the impact of nongovernmental organization-sponsored contact and communication on fostering peaceful solutions to ethnic conflict via case studies of the activities of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) in Romania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia. It explores five operational principles that guide PER activity: creating credible, neutral forums for dialogue; maintaining momentum; working within political realities; encouraging indigenous solutions from within existing processes; and acting with the backing of powerful states. These principles explain PER's success as a “weak mediator” of ethnic conflicts. According to this analysis, PER also exhibits organizational characteristics that contribute to success, including nonpartisanship, area expertise and extensive networks of local contacts, and an ability to secure the trust of local actors.

A significant indicator of the success of PER activities is the establishment by conflicting parties of institutionalized mechanisms for addressing their differences. Contrary to the view that electoral competition contributes to conflict, this study finds that the possibility of achieving an electoral advantage by participating cooperatively in conflict resolution activities creates incentives for local actors to recognize opportunities offered by PER activities and leads local actors to heed PER's advice. Finally, the article offers a cautionary observation. While PER's perceived influence with major international actors may contribute to its local successes, once a state actor with the power to impose a solution has committed itself to ending a conflict, its preferences outweigh any local interests in determining the outcome and renders the efforts of a “weak mediator” such as PER irrelevant.

Keywords: Balkans; conflict resolution; ethnic conflict; mediation; nongovernmental organizations

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1571-9979.2007.00125.x

Publication date: January 1, 2007

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