Location: Washington, DC
Iain Guest, who has lived and worked all over the world, describes the 1990s as a fascinating decade. “Communism fell, the United Nations opened up,” he says. “It was the highwater mark for peacekeeping.” Iain should know. He has been engaged in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions as well as documenting and reporting on them for decades. But it wasn’t until 1998, when he formed a nonprofit to address some of the global challenges he saw firsthand in his work around the world, that he truly understood the complexity of the issues and the best approach to addressing them. “When I was a journalist. I was a professional reporter observing all of these problems,” Iain says. “When I joined the United Nations, I became part of a system that was trying to solve these enormous problems.” But it wasn’t until much later, when he formed The Advocacy Project (AP), that he was able to synthesize all that he had done and seen into an impactful way of taking action. “I realized that it is the people themselves who are the answer,” Iain says. “The more pressure people are put under, the more innovative they become in finding solutions.”
Born and educated in England, Iain started his professional career as a journalist. He used Geneva, Switzerland as his base for fifteen years while working for The Guardianand The International Herald Tribunereporting on human rights and the United Nations. He traveled to Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia and Vietnam to do war and conflict reporting, followed by a stint working for BBC television where he presented a show on the environment and several documentaries on human rights related issues. Iain also wrote a book on Argentina, About the Disappearances, focusing on the 30,000 people who disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
Iain spent the 1990s continuing his peacekeeping and human rights work with the United Nations. In 1991, he moved to Cambodia to serve as the spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. Iain also served as the spokesperson for the UN humanitarian mission in Haiti, worked for the UN Rapporteur on human rights in Rwanda, investigated the refugee crisis in Zaire (now the Congo) for the UN and worked for NGOs (non governmental organizations) in Bosnia.
In 1997, after seven years of roaming around the globe, Iain got a fellowship at the US institute of Peace focusing on Rwanda and Bosnia, during which he conducted a mapping of civil society for USAID in Bosnia after the war. “It was fascinating,” Iain says, describing the way the war had given birth to hundreds of initiatives and associations within communities. “It was like picking up a stone and being amazed at the life that was underneath.” Iain concluded that it is these communities of people who have been directly impacted by a problem, such as exile or human trafficking, who are the “survivors” and offer the best shot at solving problems and creating peace. “This is where peace begins,” Ian remembers thinking. “It is in these communities. These survivors are directly impacted and that gives them huge motivation and credibility.”
That realization has been a point of departure for Iain since then. In 1998, he launched The Advocacy Project, a nonprofit that works with marginalized communities around the globe that are seeking to act on pressing humanitarian issues and change societies. As stated on their website, the Advocacy Project is focused on “strengthening community advocacy and supporting startups for social change.” It does so by “helping marginalized communities to tell their stories, strengthen their organizations, take action, and mobilize new support.”
Since its inception, AP has worked with over 119 community-based organizations and raised over four million dollars for AP partners. AP offers its global partners “a basket of services” to help them in the work they have already undertaken, all of which is drivenby a personal connection to the underlying issue.
The eleven initiatives supported by AP this year are a good reflection of the depth and breadth of its work. In Northern Kenya, AP is working with Children Peace Initiative Kenya, a local partner that mediates peace between tribes and herders who are fighting over migrating cows. In Uganda, Advocacy Project has supported several projects and initiatives to install toilets that are accessible to students with disabilities, with over 3,000 students benefiting thus far. In Zimbabwe, the local partner is training girls to become ambassadors against arranged marriage. In Nepal, AP is helping widows of those who disappeared during conflict to remember their loved ones through embroidery and quilting as well as making bags for sale. Also in Nepal, AP is working with women and girls who are forced into banishment and must leave their homes and live in cowsheds while they menstruate. AP’s third Nepali partner is trying to address the issue of impoverished parents who sell their children to work as domestic slaves (“kamaris”).
In addition to providing monetary support, AP recruits graduate students (over 300 thus far) to serve as Peace Fellows and work with partnering organizations during their summer breaks. Fellows provide three months of intense technical support and help their hosts raise money, launch startups, and strengthen their organizations. The focus wherever possible is on supporting survivors like the kamiaris in Nepal, who have establsied their own effective organization. In Uganda, the toilet project is entirely managed by persons with a disability, who were once students themselves and know what it’s like to attend school without the essential facility. And in western Nepal, it is the women who lost relatives in the war who are driving the push to find a solution. “They will not forgive or forget,” Iain says. “They are still on it. They will not give up.”
Iain emphasizes the common factor in all of these initiatives. “They are led by survivors,” he says. He has concluded that this is “a fundamental aspect of social change that is not given enough attention,” and is “the gap we are trying to fill with our work.”
For more information about the Advocacy Project and to see a short documentary film about the quilting project in Nepal, go to www.advocacynet.org.