Ben Hoffman on Guinea-Bissau

The International Peace and Prosperity Project (IPPP) was born out of the perceived failure of the international community to respond early or effectively enough to events that trigger violence in poor and politically unstable countries.

In 2002, retired American business executive Milt Lauenstein invited a small, multinational group of specialists to help him design a small project to counter that and find a different approach. The team included political scientists, a logistics expert, an anthropologist and was led by Ben Hoffman, then Director of the Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center. After careful consideration, consultation and a process of elimination they identified Guinea Bissau as the country they’d go to for what Hoffman calls “a scouting mission.”

“We wanted a country where government wouldn’t object to us operating there, where there was nascent civil society and where no regional superpower had too heavy a footprint.”

Guinea-Bissau was highly vulnerable to recurrent social and political tensions that could spark destructive ethnic violence and damage its fragile post-1999 recovery even further. Foreign aid donors had left the country and indeed, even the US & Canadian embassy staff had retreated to Senegal, but Hoffman’s team gleaned enough information from them to have a starting point for contacts in Guinea Bissau – the first round of “must see” people.

Looking for a dance partner – establishing who was operating there

To find out if there really was an effective civil society, Hoffman knew they needed what he calls “a dance partner”. By hapchance he found not one but two. Gigi Goodhart was running the US economic development NGO, Enterprise Works, in Guinea Bissau, was married to a local man and knew whom to contact and whom to avoid. Hoffman takes up the story:

“Gigi was very quickly able to identify people in civil society who weren’t connected to government. She was aware of indigenous groups, key contacts at the remaining consulates and other people involved in economic development and she put us in touch with “The Queen Bee” - Macaria Barai - a pre-eminent local player in civil society, the Chair of one of two local Chambers of Commerce, a businesswoman and a peace activist... She’d founded Soldiers for Peace - a thousand strong women’s group which included the wives of military personnel which was the reason I later got to see the General. She is a remarkable human being.”

“Queen Bee” – who’s since been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is widely recognised for her contribution to peace and stability in Guinea Bissau and now works as the IPPP’s liaison officer in that country.

Behind the curtain – making judgments.

Ten days before the team was due to fly out, the Head of the Armed Forces in Guinea Bissau was assassinated. Hoffman’s team was cautioned against going at all but they did and found a country in confusion but superficially calm.

“It was a very raw moment for Guinea Bissau. We weren’t even an NGO and people must have thought who are these people, what are they doing here, funded by a rich American? But people sought us out, one being an informant from the army in civilian clothes who set up a clandestine meeting in which he said, “you’ve got to blow a whistle, this assassination is act 1 in a 2 act play and the 2nd act is a full coup d’état. Let the international community know there’s more to this.”

Hoffman, a veteran of peace talks, diplomatic missions and international crises says,

“I felt I was back in a Latin American country, watching a Shakespeare play. Caesar had been stabbed, the curtain had come down and we had no idea of what was going on behind the curtain. So, my assessment was that we were dealing with a group of elite actors who were prepared to engage the military to do violence and unless and until we could get behind the curtain and deal with these elite actors we could achieve nothing.”

Change partners – adapting the way IPPP operated

Hoffman’s team pulled out after three days and waited in Dakar before returning to the US where they “sounded the alert”, shared their initial report with others and prepared to return to Guinea Bissau two months later.

“We were committed to the country and there were so few who were working with a handful of key players, so we showed commitment by being vocal, by our advocacy on their behalf which gave us credibility when we went back.”

On their return the new Head of Armed Forces was making statements in the media saying that he believed reconciliation was essential.

“I found it remarkable that a former rebel freedom fighter, an illiterate man installed as head of the Armed Forces was using the word reconciliation – I seized on it, but our lack of resources and clout was bad. We had a handpicked team with lots of experience, including a former Zimbabwean freedom fighter - a really good team but we had no real clout and no carrots and sticks to deliver.”

Sunny Streets – what went well?

Hoffman knew from his experience with the Carter Center which did have clout and access but no money that it was essential to gain credibility if they were to engage meaningfully in Guinea Bissau.

“At the Carter Center, we lost credibility because we couldn’t even give five cents to a project. We had to simply abandon classical conflict analysis. I knew that having some discretionary capital can do things so we targeted our limited resources very strategically.”

Hoffman asked their funder, Milt Lauenstein for $80,000 small grants fund which could be used to help small, local NGO’s which would otherwise wither on the vine or be overtaken by events. Funds could be made available quickly to help nip conflict in the bud, for example, by making a small grant available to the army for quick repairs to their dilapidated barracks which showed support for the General and helped him foster professionalism and neutrality among his troops. As a key member of the team said, it was remarkable that IPPP meant “jam today” instead of the “jam tomorrow” of bureaucracy heavy organisations, aid agencies and NGOs.

Rocky roads – not so good

IPPP prides itself on its flexible, agile and collaborative approach to conflict resolution and the very fragility of Guinea Bissau meant they found themselves engaged with a different set of people and organisations than they’d perhaps envisaged.

“We didn’t screen anyone out in the first stages of engagement but we found we had less to do with certain groups simply because Guinea Bissau was so unstable so we were working more with UN forces, government officials and the military. To start with, we were more concerned with peace than prosperity.”

That change of emphasis and a difficult local relationship proved challenging. IPPP had engaged a local NGO to provide evaluation of their project but discovered that the NGO was way out of its depth and the relationship had to be ended.

“At a technical level we disengaged with one of our civil society actors. I tried to do it frankly, in an open way, but it hurt the NGO - they needed the work, they were new in town so there were reputational issues and of course the sense that local people suffered by our distancing from them. As it turned out we were shifting gears in terms of our focus. I went to some NGOs and said if you find us less visible, don’t take it as an insult… we have to work with the political elite to get stabilisation.”