Book reviews - Role of Non-Governemental-Organisations.

From the inside out : Quaker work at the UN. (A review)
Rene Wadlow

David Atwood, former General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation for nearly seven years reflects on the challenges and opportunities of Quaker efforts at the United Nations in Geneva where he was responsible for disarmament and peace efforts from 1995 until 2011. (1). The questions he asks in this lecture to the Australia Yearly Meeting can also be asked of IFOR and FOR and are related to comments I made earlier on UN-based efforts to which John Kim, the IFOR representative to the UN in New York added.

David asks four questions. I will describe the main thrust of his answers and add a few comments of my own. While I was never a staff member of the Quaker UN Office, I worked closely with its activities between 1964 when I came to Geneva from working in Africa until the early 1980s when I started to concentrate my efforts on editing a journal on world politics Transnational Perspectives. Thus I learned a great deal of the techniques of UN-NGO work from Duncan Wood who had been the Quaker representative in Geneva from 1952 to 1977. Duncan was born the same year as my father so our relations were more father-son than co-worker, but Duncan was Chairman of the NGO Disarmament Committee, and I was an officer, and the two of us were seen as the "Disarmament Twins" of the 1970s (or perhaps Batman and Robin).

David raises four areas of concern:

1) How to explain the spiritual basis of the work to diplomats who are only mildly interested in theology and usually not well informed about the history of the Reformation beyond the large statue of Jean Calvin in the middle of Geneva.

2) How to choose issues on which to focus among a multitude of legitimate concerns with a staff of only 3 or 4 people when long-time concentration on an issue is necessary but when there are also crisis situations with some opportunities for action because Geneva has always been a center for negotiations, private meetings among opponents and a place of political exile for people who still have roles in national politics.

3) How to explain and relate UN work to people living elsewhere who are often only dimly aware of what is discussed at the UN and who are often fully engaged in their local issues.

4) How to raise funds for work in an expensive city when Quaker organizations and individuals receive many requests for funds, some on urgent matters such as refugees. Moreover, one can rarely request funds built on "success stories" since all advances are the result of numerous people and organizations, both governmental and non-governmental.


"Quakers recognise the creative power of God in every human being and in the world around us. We feel moved to serve great human need wherever it arises, and to strive for greater justice and peace in all our world" is the one ideological statement in a brochure published by the London Friends concerning "Quaker work at the UN in Geneva". I recall during a break in a session of the 1985 NPT Review Conference, the Yugoslav Ambassador who knew me from lunch meetings at Quaker House came over to chat and asked "if the Friends and the Friends of the Earth were the same thing". I replied that while most Friends considered themselves as Friends of the Earth, Friends of the Earth and the Religious Society of Friends were two separate organizations. The Friends were roughly what one could call "a Protestant church" but some of the best known Quaker groups in England and the USA did not have clergy in the usual sense. I did not burden him with the fact that the largest groups of Quakers are in East Africa and do have clergy that could be mistaken for Methodists or Baptists.

In explaining the UN efforts to the Australia Quakers who know the terminology, David writes "It is work based fundamentally on the belief that there is that of God in all; that we must value each individual and to reach that spark of good, vision, or willingness to risk that resides in each person; that there is much that can be done to reduce conflict and advance the reconciling of differences by providing safe space; and that our daily work needs to be transparently based in our larger visions."

The first Quaker efforts to influence European peace-making was by the most theological of the early Friends, Robert Barclay, who sent to the 1678 Peace Conference at Nijmengen (in what is now the Netherlands) an "Epistle of Love and Friendly Advice" along with his 400 page Apology on Quaker principles. Today, one page is enough and exactly how one explains what "that" of God in all is (much less what 'God' may be) is not an easy task. The 'transparency' between daily work and larger vision is also difficult to explain.

This 'transparent' link between daily work and larger vision leads to the second question: How does one choose issues on which to work out of a large number of possible issues - all of which have merit. Part of the answer lies in the broad structure of UN work in Geneva.

Geneva is home to whatever disarmament/arms control discussions are going on, both at the UN and during the Cold War years, among the Soviets and the USA. Thus there has always been a strong focus on arms control issues: nuclear around the NPT, chemical during the 10 years of negotiation on a chemical weapon ban, and the possibilities of development through the "Convention on Prohibition or Restriction on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effect" - the inhumane weapons Convention to its friends. Duncan Wood and I had raised the cluster weapons issue at the first meetings to negotiate the Convention in 1979. The Cluster Weapon Ban came in 2010, so patience is a prime need. Since the end of the chemical weapons negotiations, there have been no serious arms control discussions. Therefore David focused his energies on the issue of "small arms" - those that are killing people in local conflicts. Since arms sales are of importance to certain 'Great Powers' - the USA in the lead - progress on small arms limitations have been slow and difficult. The real progress has come only on what is called "the illicit trade" in small arms and light weapons - that is those weapons that escape the control of governments and end up in the hands of opposition movements. David writes on how the focus on small arms led to cooperation with the UN and academic research institutes. He writes "The Quaker UN Office's (QUNO) small arms experience demonstrates the potential for Quaker engagement at all stages of the policy cycle, from issue identification and awareness-raising to agenda development, to multilateral negotiating processes, to implementation dynamics. Although QUNO is not principally a research organization, Quaker investigation into a problem area can be important in deepening understanding and engagement by stakeholders. Building alliances with others is a key element in leveraging the particular contribution that Quakers can bring to a global policy issue."

In the mid 1970s, the UN Secretariat on human rights was moved from New York to Geneva (why is another story). Since then, Geneva has been the home of all UN human rights work - a broad field and thus again a natural focus for QUNO efforts. In my comments to the blog on the Kony 2012 presentation, I outlined the key role that the QUNO human rights representative, Rachel Brett, played in highlighting international concern with child soldiers. However, here I will only indicate how the concern and dedication of an individual translates into a QUNO focus. David did not have time to stress in the lecture the role that the small Geneva Quaker Meeting plays as an aid to QUNO efforts. The Meeting is made up largely of intellectuals who work in the UN system, NGO headquarters, or Geneva academic institutions. All are ready to give information, pass on contacts or highlight issues. Dorothea Woods (no relation to Duncan Wood) was a specialist on youth in developing countries who had worked for UNESCO and the YMCA. A highly self-motivated person, she started collecting material on child soldiers and sharing the information in a photocopied newsletter. Her individual concern became 'institutionalized', and Rachel Brett built on Dorothea's work, child soldiers becoming a key QUNO focus. The same pattern of an individual concern being then "blessed" by official Quaker bodies and then becoming a QUNO priority is true of the important QUNO role during the 1970s-1980s Law of the Sea negotiations (the longest running show on Broadway as one of my friends called it). What had started as an individual concern of Sam Levering and his wife Mariam in the USA received an official Quaker "blessing" (Sam and his brother were on the boards of AFSC and FCNL so a blessing was not too difficult to get) and became "The Neptune Group" after the name of the NGO newspaper that was edited from my office and became an important instrument of ideas for the negotiations. During the sessions in Geneva, a weekly discussion meeting for diplomats and the Neptune Group was held at Quaker House. The QUNO office was used for endless strategy sessions. Much in the Society of Friends comes from highly self-motivated individuals rather than from organizational planning. This was also true of Adam Curle who had much experience with mediation and who in the last years of his life came to focus on the conflict in Sri Lanka and involved QUNO in his efforts as there was an obvious human rights aspect.

The third activity of the UN in Geneva is the broad area of development - trade, labor, refugees, health, intellectual property and the interaction among all these efforts. It is not always easy to find the specific focus for a QUNO input into this broad field. For some years, it was the negotiations of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) - again, in part through the efforts of a member of the local Friends Meeting who was an important official of UNCTAD and also the interest of the then UNCTAD Secretary-General who was a Sri Lankan who believed strongly that informal, "off-the-record" talks such as those at Quaker House were useful. He was by temperament a person who disliked confrontation and thought that talks in small groups was the way to get things done.

David Atwood stressed the possibilities of the new UN Peacebuilding Commission - peacebuilding in UNese means post-conflict reconstruction, disarmament of militias, employment of former fighters, and some sort of reconciliation (or at least a certain willingness to live together). The peacebuilding approach can bring UN agencies, national aid agencies and NGOs to work together. QUNO has become active in this approach which builds on a long tradition of Quaker relief efforts. As David writes "While there are today hundreds of organizations working on peacemaking and peacebuilding at different levels, Friends continue to have important contributions to make. In my view, there are two areas where we have not really brought our fundamental belief system and long history of peace processes to bear successfully at the international level. These are our deep understanding of the critical ethical and practical nature of active non-violence, and the understanding of the requirements of reconciliation if strong foundations for sustainable peace are to be built."

Keeping people living far away and concerned with local issues and fund-raising are related issues, even if it is important to keep as many people as possible interested even if they do not contribute money.

The twin QUNO program in New York depends on the American Friends Service Committee which is the chief US Quaker peace and service organization. AFSC has wide but also shifting priorities, and UN-related work needs to be balanced with a large number of other projects and responses to crisis situations.

As David writes "While Britain Yearly Meeting continues generously to cover 70 per cent of the running costs of QUNO-Geneva, staff in Geneva must now raise the other 30 per cent plus all the costs of the activities of the office. Increasingly, QUNO-Geneva is becoming like other non-governmental organizations in having to raise its own funds. While great care is taken to avoid having the work of QUNO be funder-led, inevitably the dependency on outside funds limits flexibility in programming. Project funding can lock QUNO into a particular direction of work for years. Any decision to shift priorities, to build a new emphasis in the QUNO work, must come with the harsh economic realities of whether or not the funds can be raised". David ends with advice which is of value to other organizations as well: "Despite our understanding of peace as a foundation for all Quaker work at the UN, defining specific priorities that make the peace component visible requires reflection, prayer and openness to change"

1) From the inside out: Observations on Quaker Work at the United Nations.
The 2012 James Backhouse Lecture of the Australia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Available from Friends Book Sales, PO Box 181, Glen Osmond SA,
5064 Australia