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At TFF's 15th Anniversary - the past,
the present and the future



By Jan Oberg
TFF director and co-founder


Originally published in
AFB-Info 2/2000 - Newsletter of the Peace Research Information Unit Bonn
AFB, Beethovenalle 4, D - 53173 Bonn, Germany


1. Origins

From 1983 to 1989, I served as director of the Lund University Peace Research Institute (LUPRI), the origins of which went back to 1963. At that time, Håkan Wiberg and his colleagues had begun to develop the very first seminars and projects on peace research. Circumstances beyond our control led to the closure of the institute in 1989. 'The Cold War is over. What use is peace research now?' mused certain academics and bureaucrats of prophetic inclination.

To justify their position, they cited 'budgets', 'rationalization', and the 'necessity' of preserving the university as a 'discipline-based' institution. And yet LUPRI's activities, much appreciated by the university's chancellor, had extended far beyond what might have been expected of this, the smallest of the university's institutes: LUPRI had produced a steady stream of dissertations, books, reports, and courses, and had organized public debates with American, European, and Soviet academics. Young and full of energy, my colleagues and I firmly believed that our ability to deliver satisfied students, our publishing activities, and our productivity would be encouraged and rewarded. I thought, for example, that we could achieve more within the constraints of our tiny budget if we simplified administrative procedures. (One of those who occupied the post was Ann-Sofi Jakobsson-Hatay, now a member of the TFF executive and a leading expert on Northern Ireland.) The money thus saved could then be used to finance guest lecturers, publications, and other productive activities.

Although I saw joining the ranks ofthe unemployed academics as something of a catastrophe at the time, I have come to view it as having given me one of the most wonderful opportunities of my life. I was now free to take up visiting professorships and to benefit from the inspiration of students without having to shoulder any of the usual administrative burdens.


2. Creation and Guiding Principles of the TFF

In 1985, after a period spent travelling and researching (including a spell in Somalia from 1977 to 1981), my wife and I set up the TFF as a non-endowed private non-profit-making research association, and we began operating from our two-family house, half of which is now taken up by foundation facilities. The latter include our combined private and TFF library (containing 6,000 volumes), a seminar room, archives, and a kitchen. The TFF executive consists of a number of academics, one NGO representative, a lawyer, and various colleague friends. Håkan Wiberg has been a member since the foundation's inception.

To begin with, the foundation was maintained by a combination of grants, individual contributions (equivalent to $US25 per year) from the 'Friends of the TFF', and our own voluntary work and funds. Neighbours and friends helped us print and send out newsletters. During the first five years, we designed research projects and, working through academic publishers, we produced books on issues relating to security and development, world order, and alternative defence.

Gandhi has been, and remains, a major source of inspiration for us at the TFF. During my stay at the International Christian University (ICU) near Tokyo, I had the wonderful opportunity of sitting in calm, meditative Japanese gardens&emdash;particularly the Taizanso Garden at the ICU&emdash;and immersing myself in the writings of Gandhi. I also gave a seminar on Gandhi, which was attended by a small but extremely devoted group of students. It slowly dawned on me that TFF's mission could not come to fruition without more solid links to the 'real' world outside academia. Researching conflict ought to entail going out to the people concerned, listening to them, and empathizing with them.

The concept of 'conflict mitigation' gradually took shape&emdash;a much more modest, 'Gandhian' approach than that of 'conflict resolution', or of the now-fashionable, misleadingly termed 'conflict prevention'. The TFF executive endorsed this idea as soon as we returned. In September 1991, with a team of TFF associates, we went on our first mission to former Yugoslavia (this was to be followed by 40 more). Two months later we published a report entitled After Yugoslavia&emdash;What? We know that this influenced a number of people, including the chief UN envoy, Cyrus Vance, not least because it was the first written document proposing the deployment of blue helmets in Croatia&emdash;a measure that was decided on just a few weeks later.


3. Conflict Mitigation in Ex-Yugoslavia

It was also during this period that we began our work in Kosovo, and in 1992 we published Preventing War in Kosovo. This was followed up, in 1996, by UNTANS&emdash;Conflict-Mitigation for Kosovo&emdash;the result of four years of shuttle diplomacy facilitating the only written dialogue between the Yugoslav/Serb leadership in Belgrade and the Rugova leadership in Kosovo. The text is a memorandum of understanding between the UN and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia concerning a United Nations Temporary Authority for a Negotiated Settlement in Kosovo (UNTANS). Since then, the foundation has produced some twenty books and reports on the region.

Why Yugoslavia? It so happened that some members of our executive&emdash;including our first chairman, Ulf Svensson, assistant under-secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs&emdash;and a number of TFF associates such as Johan Galtung had many years' experience of Yugoslavia. In 1974, I myself had started attending courses at the Inter-University Centre (IUC) in Dubrovnik, when Galtung was director there; and during the 1980s I had gone back there many times as a 'resource person'. Håkan Wiberg had been there many times, and other TFF members had networks of friends and colleagues in all the Yugoslavian republics.

In addition, engaging in conflict-diagnosis on the ground, and extending therapeutic help through practical multi-party, multi-level conflict-mitigation (a method we had developed), was a valuable experiment in the methodology of peace research. If these activities were to be justified morally against the background of the sufferings going on in the region, the minimum condition was that we should have adequate prior knowledge of the area in which we had chosen to operate&emdash;if only to reduce the risk of doing more harm than good.


(a) Mode of Operation

How did we tackle the task? In the 1992&endash;3 period, for example, the team travelled to Italy or Slovenia, rented a car there, and drove into Croatia, to Zagreb. We then met up with intellectuals&emdash;Croats and Serbs&emdash;whom we had contacted previously and took their advice as to whom we should speak to next. We drove on to Knin, in the Krajina war-zone, removing our number-plates (we used white cars similar to UN vehicles!), and negotiated our way through checkpoints, into UN Protected Areas and Serb-held territory. There, UN staff helped us contact leading figures. At the time, the only other foreigners who had been to Knin and talked with the Serbs were Cyrus Vance and David Owen.

We then went to eastern Slavonia, when Osijek and Vukovar were being bombed. Later we also travelled to western Slavonia. Unlike international mission staff and journalists, we had no accreditation and we never worked with interpreters assigned to us by a ministry or other authority.

WAS IT DANGEROUS, MANY ASK US? ooHowever, it was less risky for us than for permanently deployed UN civilians and military, and much less risky than for the local citizens, who were the targets of mutual violence, ethnic cleansing, or worse.


(b) Seeking Support for Action Research

Did what we do constitute research? I remember, in 1992, sitting in the elegant MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, with its marble-clad walls and thick carpets. Another world entirely. I was trying to find out whether we would have any chance of success if we applied for a grant to boost our work on Yugoslavia. After some 40 minutes during which I was interviewed about our work, the programme director interrupted me and asked: 'But Dr Oberg, are you saying you work in Yugoslavia, not with Yugoslavia?' 'Yes, our team often goes there, touring the war zones to learn from ordinary citizens&emdash;and also from politicians and presidential advisers&emdash;how they themselves see the conflict, to listen to their stories, and…' Before I could finish, I was asked 'And how do you do your sampling?' I tried to explain that this was no easy matter when every house in a village had been damaged or destroyed and many people had died. To get a scientifically clean and clear-cut sample was, I said, practically impossible in a country where hundreds of thousands were criss-crossing borders and exchanging houses in the process. We submitted a funding proposal but were not surprised that the MacArthur was 'unfortunately' unable to sponsor our work.

In all fairness, it is difficult to say exactly what it is that the TFF does. It certainly isn't pure research, of a kind that has to meet the rigorous criteria of hypothesis-formation, that tests, revises, and builds theory and uses the methods of scientific experimentation. Nor do we take statistically valid samples.

This part of TFF's work is empirical; it takes place on the ground, and is much closer to reality than any academic exposition - - however solid its credentials - - that is based on other academic works.


4. Stimulating Research and Raising Public Awareness

The 3,000 and more interviews and talks we conducted with all parties and at all levels of society were a form of empirical action-research. They constitute a sustained research-effort (they cover some 40 missions), investigating a hugely complex conflict in an attempt to arrive at some kind of understanding of it. We had developed the idea of conflict mitigation; we had considerable personal experience of the region, gathered over several decades; we had multi-disciplinary teams; our analysis of the factswas based on study across a number of academic fields and on extensive reading. It was time to find out how far our theories and concepts could be put to use in the real world. The answer turned out to be that some could, and some, quite definitely, could not.

TFF teams also intervene (one hardly dares use this word anymore) in the political domain; they do advocacy-work; they get involved with the media. They are ready to champion conflict-management schemes and peace proposals that run counter to those proposed by governments in the international 'community'. Our work is therefore research and something over and above this that can never qualify as pure research. In contrast to most NGOs who are operating in ex-Yugoslavia today but were not there in the early 1990s, the TFF has remained non-governmental and has not become either quasi-governmental or politically correct.


5. Value-Oriented Action-Research

My vision is that there will continue to be a basic peace-research sector, consisting of university studies, individual courses, library work, historical study, bibliographical research, etc. There will still be trips to conferences; inordinate amounts of time will still be spent honing ideas and arguments, producing solid findings, publishing weighty tomes.

But alongside this there will be another&emdash;hopefully growing&emdash;sector committed to an action-research style of working. Its protagonists will be peace researchers, and researchers from a host of other domains, who will travel frequently to conflict regions and war zones, who will interact with numerous diverse communities, who will apply a consistent methodology and code of conduct but will not act as if they have allthe time in the world. (There have been situations in which TFF teams have operated more like humanitarian agencies than members of a research institution.)

If ever I thought there could be research and insight without empathy, ten years of conflict-analysis and peace work in ex-Yugoslavia, Georgia, and, more recently, Burundi, and my advocacy work in various Western countries, have taught me otherwise.

On the basis of my 25 years in the 'trade', I firmly believe that peace and non-violent conflict-resolution is as strongly value-oriented as is health. I can see no reason for doing medical research other than to reduce pain and disease and improve human health worldwide. Likewise, I see no reason to do peace research unless it is with the intention of reducing all types of violence and promoting peace worldwide. With this in mind, I think it is time for more peace researchers to go out into the 'killing fields'. It is time to foster a kind of peace-research that extends beyond the confines of state and university. In short: it is not a case of 'either…or', but of 'both…and'.


6. Current Status and Future Prospects of the Transnational Foundation

(a) General

'The TFF's mission is peace&emdash;learning to handle conflict with less and less violence. Our tools are: new ideas, listening, research, mitigation, education, and advocacy.' This is our mission statement. It is an ambitious one for a small institution like the TFF; but it is a signpost,not a goal. We want to help move people, organizations, and structures in the direction of less violence. We do more than research: we work with and for 'patients' and we train others to become 'conflict doctors'.

The TFF is a hybrid: it is an academically oriented organization with about 60 advisers in the Nordic countries and around the world, some of them academics and some not, from a variety of backgrounds. Resources permitting, it engages in field-based conflict-diagnosis and mitigation, sometimes involving peacemaking. It organizes lectures, seminars, and training-sessions.


(b) Technological Facilities

We have a comprehensive, dynamic, easy-to-navigate website (currently visited by 200&endash;400 people each day). It offers a wealth of analyses, articles, appeals, peace proposals, criticisms of mainstream conflict-(mis)management, and press information with succinct analyses designed for a wider audience (approaching 10,000 e-mail recipients around the world). We offer 'TFF Wire', a selection of news and views from the Internet&emdash;a kind of Utne Reader of world affairs. Our latest addition, 'TNN'&emdash;the 'TFF News Navigator'&emdash;is a guide to world media, both mainstream and alternative. It aims to help those who want to find things out for themselves rather than just depending on what is put out by the Western news agencies (all of whom are biased to a greater or lesser degree). The Internet represents a revolution at our fingertips&emdash;enabling us to gather knowledge from primary sources and come to our own views. The TFF has been developing its presence on the web since it launched its site on International Women's Day in 1997.


(c) Key Areas of Interest and Methods of Funding

Over the years, the TFF has produced about 65 'hard-copy' publications and has built up a website containing thousands of documents, many of them produced by TFF associates.

For the first five years, we focused on alternative security, and during the next ten on field-based conflict-mitigation, policy-oriented work, and advocacy. What areas we shall concentrate on after the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Burundi depends on how the following situation develops.

Since 1991, the foundation has, like some fifteen other NGOs, received a grant from the ministry of foreign affairs in Stockholm. This was originally for 400,000 Swedish kroners (equivalent to $US55,000 at the rates of the time) and was subsequently reduced to 300,000 kroners (currently equivalent to $US35,000&emdash;which means the grant had lost 45 per cent of its purchasing power). This grant was meant to cover rent, photocopying, machinery, communications, and salaries, but not projects. In January 2000 we were informed that the TFF would not be given a grant in 2000. The cut took immediate effect: there was no advance notice, no consultation, and no explanation. The only other NGO to have its grant reduced to zero was the group 'Women for Peace'.

In terms of Swedish bureaucratic procedures, this is a highly unusual occurrence. The normal approach after nine years would have been to give us proper warning so that we could make alternative arrangements for funding. When we requested a written explanation, we were told that the necessary funds were 'unfortunately' lacking and that special criteria had therefore been applied. These stipulated that recipient organizations should benefit young people in particular, that they should be using modern technology so that they could get their message across to the widest possible public, and that they should have the character of genuine social movements.

The TFF has fulfilled all these criteria, at least partially, since its inception.



7. Summary

The TFF is the only non-state, non-university peace-research body in the Nordic countries. It is regarded by many as outspoken but genuinely independent. It responded promptly to one of the most fundamental conflicts that has occurred since 1945&emdash;and it did so with more than just armchair analyses. It went out into the field, and into the place where the 'other war' is fought&emdash;namely, the media. I leave it to the reader to work out why the Swedish government should have chosen 1999 of all years to withdraw its financial support.

We shall again be applying for a government grant for the year 2001, and we are collecting signatures on our website in support of the restoration of our grant. TFF associates have also designed a three-year project on reconciliation and forgiveness, one element of which is a survey of ten conflict-regions. The foundation intends, in addition, to operate more commercially, doing more lecturing and training, thus enhancing its own income and, we hope, increasing the extent of self-financing. We shall also be instituting online payment for publications and donations.

Something good always comes out of a crisis, and the TFF will survive. We are on the way to becoming a 'people-supported' institute. Perhaps this is still a far-off dream, but, thanks to global awareness, to the growing realization that violence must be tempered, to people's sense of urgency, and to the good offices of the Internet, it is a more realistic one than when we first set up the TFF.


Jan Øberg, Director of the TFF, Lund (Sweden)


© TFF 2001  


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