Betinho Prize 2000 Finalist

Balkan Sunflowers: Using ICTs to Mobilise Volunteers for Social Reconstruction in the Balkans


Balkan Sunflowers (BSF) is a non-profit, international grassroots organization that was founded in the spring of 1999, originally to aid the Kosovar refugees. It brings together volunteers from all over the world that want to help in ways that monetary donations and emergency humanitarian aid cannot. Person-to-person interaction with voluntary workers, who come to work as partners and neighbours, helps to restore a sense of community life and soothe the experiences of those who have been uprooted.

Using an entirely Internet-based volunteer recruitment system built on simple mailing list and WWW tools, BSF has mobilized thousand of volunteers to participate in rebuilding Balkan communities from the ground up.

Read the full project story here…

The APC Betinho Communications Prize

... to recognise the socially meaningful use of Information & Communications Technologies (ICTs)

Betinho Prize Finalists for 2000


Origins of Balkan Sunflowers

Balkan Sunflowers was founded by Wam Kat, a Dutch peace activist, professor of sociology and father of three children. Wam traveled to Croatia in 1992 to work with the Anti-War Campaign Croatia (ARK). While there, he began a project called ZaMir (“for peace”) to facilitate communication between peace, human rights and relief organizations, as well as between the warring parties. Wam and his co-volunteers organized a working e-mail and BBS system with nodes in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

In his first venture, Wam and another ARK member began recruiting international volunteers to work in refugee settlements. Within a year, the organization had grown to encompass 37 locations in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 4,000 international volunteers and a paid staff of 60. The initiative became known as SunCokret (sunflower in Croatian) and was supported by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees). SunCokret still exists and supports this new initiative Balkan Sunflowers.

Balkan Sunflowers was founded based on the belief that the commitment of an international grassroots community to participating in the local community's reconstruction efforts, fulfils a crucial function in promoting the ideals of a caring and open society in countries recovering from war.

Project Methodology

Balkan Sunflowers is a volunteer organization that is almost completely Internet based. Wam Kat's original appeal for volunteer support went out over the Internet in the Spring of 1999, and it has remained the primary means of communication and information dissemination since then. The network is coordinated through Internet mailing lists and with few exceptions, volunteers make contact with the organization and submit their applications via the BSF website. All volunteers pay their own way and expenses while in the field. However, BSF does hire individuals from the local populations it serves, as facilitators, project coordinators and interpreters.

The Internet has been used as Balkan Sunflowers' communication and information dissemination lifeline since the initiative was founded. The BSF website functions as an accessible database, both for the visitor who is unacquainted with BSF's programs, as well as the experienced volunteer who is returning to the region for a second, or perhaps even third, time. The site has evolved much the same way as the organization itself, namely based on the initiative of BSF volunteers and supporters.

BSF’s first step was to form a core or "pathfinding" group or groups. The pathfinding groups travel to the areas where the organisation is considering becoming active, to research the situation, develop contacts and form the first plans of action. Proposed project descriptions are posted on the organisation's website, where prospective volunteers can inform themselves and download an application form. Local supporters or supporting groups hold information sessions in which prospective volunteers have the opportunity to see slides or video material from the region, ask questions and speak with people familiar with the area.

Volunteers ideally are then chosen after a personal or telephone interview with an applications coordinator. Training is provided for all volunteers, preferably before they leave their home country. An orientation session is also necessary once they have arrived in the country in which they will work. Long-term project coordinators facilitate the cooperation between local and international volunteers.

Project ingredients

The project is made up of a strong mix of technology and volunteers working together in pursuit of goals they believe in.

The key ingredients are mailing list and linked websites.

The website is a good illustration of the network-like character of the Balkan Sunflowers. As several volunteers offered their services the site grew, one offering to write translations, another constructing a guest book. The site acquired counterparts, each with a specific function: the Balkan Sunflowers News Service in Germany, the picture database in the Czech Republic, a specific USA site for the volunteers there, and separately-run Czech- and Japanese-language sites. Clicking from one page to another, you might pass along up to eight different hosts, and, the parts being intricately interlinked, hardly notice that "the site" is in fact an assembly of individual efforts. Consider it a metaphor for the organization as a whole.

E-mail and mailing lists are indispensable tools for the working groups within BSF ( These lists range from the international steering and coordination groups to lists for general information, training, fundraising and "brainstorming". A number of national and geographic area lists have also been added, reflecting the international makeup of the BSF community. Anyone who is interested in becoming active in the BSF network or even simply gaining first insights into the situation in the region, can find a wealth of information on the BSF website. It is a prime source of information, one that also provides a necessary forum where past, present and future volunteers and supporters can exchange ideas and experiences, voice criticisms and make suggestions.

Impact of Balkan Sunflowers

Balkan Sunflowers have managed to have great impact in the communities in which they work, inspiring members of the local population to become active in community based projects that range from social and cultural activities to education, reconstruction and environmental awareness. Some examples:

Balkan Sunflowers originally went to Albania to work with ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosov@. When most of the refugees left, so did most of the NGOs, publicity and funding. BSF decided to stay on in Albania, shifting the focus of their work from psychosocial activities in refugee camps to working with residents in long-term, community-building projects.

Balkan Sunflowers Activities in Albania:
Street children's centre/Orphanage: 35 children and youngsters (aged 4-16) are cared for in the orphanage. At age 16, the youngsters have to leave the centre. Balkan Sunflowers does capacity-building work with the staff of the centre and organises activities for the children. BSF is looking for funding to improve and reconstruct the playground and provide first-aid kits. Over the winter, BSF expects to work with over 150 kids.

"Football pitch community centre":
This started out as an agreement between Wam Kat and one of the local street children to clean up a football pitch in Tirana. Now a community centre has been established and a program of activities instigated such as children's English classes (with about 35 children participating) and computer courses for young people. BSF volunteers also assist three paid social workers in the day-care of some 65 children aged 3-6. Funding is still being sought so that the management and financial responsibility for the centre is handed over to members of the local community. Balkan Sunflowers will then provide an assisting rather than a leading role. At present the landlady is receiving no rent.

Bathore is a community built on a bankrupt communist-run state farm. 25,000 people live there. The poorest area is sector 6, where 1200 people reside in old cattle sheds, which were made to house 800 cows. These residents have no fresh water or electricity, and practically no medical care. BSF is working in conjunction with other NGOs to improve conditions in the community as a whole. One of the concentrations is on children's activities and keeping the children occupied so that necessary repairs and improvements can be made.

Activities in Bathore:
Playgroup: Sunflower volunteers travel to sector six in Bathore every weekday afternoon and Saturday mornings where they play with the children in two groups for 1-2 hours. The first group consists of about 60 younger children (4-8 years old) and here the concentration is on games that emphasize group participation. The second group of about 20 children tends to be slightly older. BSF recently acquired new football equipment and a large tent from UNICEF so that the project can continue throughout the winter months.

NGO Working Group:
Balkan Sunflowers are heavily involved with other NGOs in improving the infrastructure in sector six of Bathore. BSF serves as the co-ordination centre for these developments and there are several initiatives currently being planned in relation to community health, education, and small-scale income generation. Because of limited resources and funding, BSF act as a catalyst for the implementation of sustainable solutions by matching needs to resources.

Mine and Weapon Awareness Campaign:
This 6 month pilot project, involves touring schools all over the country with a mobile activity team, targeting "hot spots" where children have easy access to weapons. The volunteer team which consists of Albanian and international volunteers, visit one school per week and organize "project weeks" which take place both in and outside of school hours. The project targets the highest classes of primary school (11-14 years) and the first classes of secondary schools (14-18 years). The "project week" will include topics such as non-violent conflict resolution training, mine and weapon awareness building, and making the children aware of how government and democracy works. These topics will involve the children in activities such as video making, theatre and drama, creative writing, painting and sculpture making. At the end of the week there will be a public presentation of the week's work.

Through the website ( and the awareness raising activities of its former volunteers and other supporters, BSF have provided a constant flow of information from the area. The website is a useful tool not only for people contemplating work as a BSF volunteer, but also for anyone interested in learning more about the Balkans.

For more information

Balkan Sunflowers international coordination office
Contact person: Ramona Stucki
Balkan Sunflowers
Postfach 1219
D-14806 Belzig, Germany
Tel: +49.33841.306 70
Fax:+49.33841.306 71



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