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…
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.
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.
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 (http://www.ddh.nl/org/balkansunflower/lists.html). 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 Activities in Albania:
"Football pitch community centre":
Activities in Bathore:
NGO Working Group:
Mine and Weapon Awareness Campaign:
Through the website (www.balkansunflowers.org) 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
D-14806 Belzig, Germany
Tel: +49.33841.306 70