John McDonald

Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Let me talk briefly about a wonderful project in Bosnia. We were invited into Bosnia, interestingly enough by the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, just two months after the Dayton Accords were signed. They contacted me in December 1995 and asked me to train some of their staff in conflict resolution skills. The way the OSCE is set up is they have 54 member states, but they are not an official international organization, they have no treaty, they have no central budget power, they have difficulty raising money, they detail or seckon staff for six months for foreign ministries that are member states. That is a rather ramshackle way to do business as far as I am concerned, but that is the way they are set up. They asked us for help, and so we put in a little project proposal for $25,000, and they couldn't raise that money after they had asked us to come in.

We delayed the thing to June 1996 and we were trying to figure out what was happening there, because that was a paltry sum of money. There was an ambassador on the committee in Vienna who controls how the OSCE operates, when they got this request in from Sarajevo to train their staff, they said these are all diplomats they don't need any training in conflict resolution and Track II diplomacy. We both know that is a lot of bologna. They didn't have a clue.

When we finally did start our training there, every time we went somewhere their staff all ways came and took the training, because the staff knew the didn't know what was going on. That in the early days is the only way you could do anything in Bosnia was through the OSCE, because they control all the transport, all the housing, and you could only convene people under their auspices; it was very tense at that particular time so they were essential for our process. I was very pleased to be invited. We worked a lot with helping develop local NGOs, and helping to train leaders in these skills that ran the country.

In 1999 we had a real break through, we met a rich American business man and took him to Bosnia, and got hooked on Bosnia and decided that he wanted to make a major contribution, and that he wanted to be personally involved in this process, which was fine with us. We jointly developed the best technical assistance economic development program that I have seen in my whole career, after decades in this field. He was originally from Minnesota and as a kid he used to go up to a canoe camp on the Minnesota-Canadian border in the lake and the woods area which is all islands, water, rocks and brush, total wilderness. He was there as a kid learning about canoeing and then also as a counselor. He said lets take 35 young Bosnians from all different ethnic groups and religions, from around the country to have this experience. We hired local staff that we had worked with before and they were young men and young women, they were between 19-25 years of age and from all different ethnic groups from around the country.

The first week we spent on conflict resolution skills and the second week they went out on a wilderness experience, carrying their canoes, their food, their bed rolls, their tents, everything. There were five separate groups ethnically mixed for five days, the most powerful experience that you could have happened. You learn if you wanted to survive you had to work together. It was very basic. It doesn't matter where you come from, what your religious beliefs are, what your ethnicity is; you work together. That was a fabulous experience and each one of those five separate groups they bonded for life, I guarantee that. That experience bound them together.

The second phase of the project was to go back to Bosnia, with help from three trainers that we had, to think up their own small-scale technical assistance project in their own village, hopefully multi-ethnically. They would have to design a project, write it up as a project proposal, put in a time line, then put in a budget, and then carry it out them selves, and we would pay for it. That was a remarkable series of learning experiences--how to handle money, how to organize your thoughts, how to get permission from the mayor, the city council, the community, to do what you wanted to do and then do it for the rest of the year. It was a year-long program and then we have a graduation ceremony at the end.

We are now at the fourth cycle of this program. It probably costs half a million dollars a year, this is big money. I have been involved in all four cycles. Two weeks ago I visited Bosnia, and visited 17 of the projects in this fourth cycle. I am going back next Friday to visit another 20 or so projects, and the graduation ceremony will be held in the international theater at the end of June. This is pretty exciting stuff. I have convinced a funder that we should write a book about this because it is such a remarkable project. At the end of the fourth cycle we would have changed the life of 160 Bosnian young people and 65 towns and villages across the country. These are the future leaders of Bosnia, the skills that they have learned, and the dedication that they have for building peace. That's a remarkable thing to be able to say, and I said why don't we write a book about it.

On this last visit I interviewed 25 of the participants and I will do more in the next several visits, and eventually get them typed up and edited. It will be in two languages. I have a local counterpoint that was in the first cycle and has been in all four cycles, so he knows the ropes. We are going to put it together, talking about the impact on young people, and interviewing the trainers and the people at the camp and so forth, and then explain how the process worked. I am trying to do that as well. This is an unusual project. I have never seen anything like it, because no body puts up that kind of money. He is also now into education, starting last year he selected five people to go a University in the United States to go to the University that he graduated from in Minnesota and he is paying the bills for all four years. We have a local project for some people who would like to take a training in Bosnia, and the stipend is renewable each year, for them to finish up a local degree or whatever, it focuses on education.