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Issue No. 92 (July 1, 2006) -- Mark Satin, Editor

International Crisis Group:
Get your solutions here!

The most memorable organizations from two generations ago were protest-oriented -- SNCC (founded in 1960), SDS (1960), NOW (1966), Black Panther Party (1966).

The most memorable organizations from one generation ago were positional, ideological -- Moral Majority (founded 1979), People for the American Way (1981), U.S. Green Party (1984), Christian Coalition (1989).

I suspect that, when historians look back at our own time, they’ll conclude that our most memorable organizations were SOLUTIONS-ORIENTED (with both pragmatism and vision at their core) -- and that the granddaddy of them all was Crisis Group, nee International Crisis Group.

Although Crisis Group recently celebrated its 10th birthday, chances are good you haven’t heard of it. It doesn’t march in demonstrations or indulge in self-aggrandizing rhetoric. It doesn’t even have “membership” lists painstakingly built up by professional direct-mail houses.

All it does is send bright young people into hotspots around the world -- have them interact with EVERYONE, then have them produce brilliant hands-on background documents with “practical [and] imaginative policy prescriptions” tacked on -- then get those documents into the hands of policymakers and those who can influence policymakers: media, business leaders, NGOs.

No one had ever put an organization like Crisis Group together before.

And its approach is working. Kofi Annan sings its praises (“You have made the ICG a global voice of conscience and a genuine force for peace”). So does hard-headed former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke (“Nothing I saw in government was as good as [your CrisisWatch monthly bulletin]”).

I recently spoke with two delightful Crisis Group interns, one in the Washington Office, one in the New York Office, and I defy you to spend any time with Crisis Group people or literature without getting a sense of the specialness of the group. It is an exemplary group for our solutions-starved time, just as SNCC was an exemplary group for a very different time.

Four-step approach

Over the years, Crisis Group has developed a four-step approach to its work:

1. Engage in courageous field research and holistic analysis. Teams of Crisis Group analysts are based in or near 70 of the world’s worst trouble spots. Their major task: Figure out what’s happening and why. They are encouraged to meet with everyone, high and low, establishment and oppositional, and to identify all the factors (economic, political, social, psychological) contributing to the crisis.

2. Develop practical and imaginative policy prescriptions. The analysts come up with policy prescriptions too -- and those prescriptions are refined and expanded upon by everyone at Crisis Group, senior staff, program directors, Board members, etc., and any number of outside actors, from government officials to academics to activists. Ultimately prescriptions are produced that are -- as Crisis Group deftly puts it -- “capable of practical implementation, even if beyond current limits of political acceptability.” Pragmatism is important, but vision is equally important. It’s the radical middle way.

3. Write stimulating documents. The field analysts’ analyses -- always along with the final policy recommendations -- are then finalized as 8-16 page “briefing papers” or 16-32 page “reports.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen work product from government departments or think tanks, but take it from me, Crisis Group’s documents shine by comparison. They are models of clear thinking, unpretentious language, and courageous (i.e., caring but non-ideological) analyses and policy prescriptions. And since multi-page documents are off-putting for some, each is preceded by a summary that reads like a brilliant op-ed piece (see, e.g., last week’s briefing on Zimbabwe HERE, and this week’s report on Palestine / Israel HERE).

There is also an extraordinary monthly bulletin, CrisisWatch, that summarizes the thinking of all Crisis Group researchers all across the globe, and is freely available HERE. I prefer the bulletin to the annual reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, partly because it looks at lot more than just human rights issues, and partly because its underlying tone is less what I call “leftist-with-a-conscience” and more purely what I call “global humanist.”

4. Get the work into the hands of those who can use it. Here’s where having an organization made up of well-known and highly respected officers, Board members, and “senior advisers” makes all the difference in the world.

All Crisis Group briefings, reports, and bulletins are sent by mail to 4,200 senior policymakers “and those who influence them” (journalists, foundation heads, business executives, NGO leaders, etc.) around the world. If the quality of the documents doesn’t immediately catapult them onto their recipients’ radar screens, the big names associated with Crisis Group can usually be counted on to do the trick.

Each document is announced by email to another 17,000 targeted “influentials,” not to mention 43,000 good folks who’ve signed up through the Crisis Group website. And, this being 2006, all documents are freely available on and downloadable from the Crisis Group site. Last year that site received 3.4 million visitors, and 2.3 million documents were downloaded.

On top of all that, Crisis Group’s most prominent staffers, Board members, and advisers managed to get 128 Crisis-group-tag-lined op-eds into major U.S. and international newspapers in 2005 (recent example HERE). There were over 10,000 media mentions.

That’s influence, folks.

Behind the tidy documents -- complex and depthful people

Crisis Group is a remarkable hybrid -- part cutting-edge activist operation (with scholars and researchers as the activists!), part traditional think-tank, and part silky-smooth communications-and-media-affairs conglomerate.

So you might expect there’d be a remarkable variety of human types involved. And you’d be right.

Many Crisis Group Board members are well known. But like the well known people on the Unity08 Founders Council, which we recently looked at HERE, it would be a mistake to draw hasty conclusions about them from their job titles.

Yes, Gareth Evans -- CEO and President of Crisis Group -- is a former Australian M.P. and Foreign Minister. But that doesn’t begin to suggest the range or depth of his interests. He played a major role in helping to develop the U.N. peace plan for Cambodia, and his books include Cooperating for Peace: The Global Agenda (1993).

True, Morton Abramowitz -- Crisis Group co-founder and Executive Committee member -- is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. But since leaving State he’s been president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, two of Washington’s four or five genuinely forward-seeing think tanks.

Other Board members include George Soros (billionaire investor and founder of the Open Society Institute), William Shawcross (author of the international bestseller Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, rev. 2002), and many people of comparable depth and renown.

“Our people”

Once you get away from the big names, though, and focus on the nearly 120 full-time staff people spread out all over the world, the essence of Crisis Group is even better revealed.

These are folks, often quite young (and always exceedingly bright), who have the guts to spend years in the world’s least secure locations, and the willingness to learn from every political faction and cultural tendency they’re able to penetrate.

I like think of them as “Our People,” exemplary radical middle thinkers and activists. Some quick examples:

-- Nathalie De Broyer is now securely ensconced as publications manager at Crisis Group’s headquarters in Brussels. But before earning an M.A. in Applied Communications in Belgium -- then working on various publications for the European Commission -- she was employed by two Brazilian NGOs in Recife, one working with street children, the other for human rights.

-- Nicolas Pelham is a senior analyst with Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program based in Amman. He was an Arabic translator at London’s Islamic Law Chambers in the early 1990s, then a reporter in the Middle East for the BBC and The Economist (talk about being an ideological bridge-builder!). His first book will be coming out this year.

-- Francesca Lawe-Davies is an analyst covering southern Thailand and Papua for Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project based in Jakarta. She has an honors degree in Government and International Relations from the University of Sydney, speaks Indonesian and French, and previously worked for a ridiculously admirable entity, SOS Doctors.

-- Markus Schultze-Kraft heads Crisis Group’s Colombia / Andean Region Project based in Bogota. With the help of one analyst and one research assistant he reports on developments in four Latin American countries. He earned a Ph.D. in Politics at Oxford in 2001 and has devoted himself to Crisis Group work ever since.

-- Chi Mgbako is a junior researcher with Crisis Group’s West Africa Project based in Dakar. She recently earned a law degree from Harvard. While in law school she represented African refugees in U.S. political asylum proceedings, and prior to that she taught African women’s history in Ghana and interned with three different NGOs.

As you might surmise from those brief bios, the majority of Crisis Group’s staff people are not U.S. citizens. The Washington Office intern told me that statistics don't exist on that subject, but agreed that my guesstimate of “under 20%” was probably accurate. Crisis Group does boast that its staff represents over 40 nationalities and speaks over 50 languages -- not bad for 120 people.

He who pays the piper . . . ?

Crisis Group’s budget was nearly $12 million last year. According to its 2006 Annual Report, 41% of that came from governments, 39% from foundations, and the rest from wealthy individuals and a few corporations.

In his widely circulated paper “The International Crisis Group: Who Pays the Piper?,” left-wing analyst Jan Oberg argues that having such supporters means that Crisis Group must and does trim its sails when analyzing situations or recommending public policies.

Anyone who reads Crisis Group’s documents, though, may beg to differ. The analyses and recommendations are as admirably pragmatic-and-visionary as can be, given the world we're living in.

Oberg’s underlying assumption seems to be that financially successful individuals, governments, foundations, and corporations couldn’t possibly want to know the unvarnished truth or take effective steps to make the world work better in the long-term. I would argue that that is an outmoded assumption. Any successful entity in the 21st century needs to know its real situation and its viable, long-term alternatives.

And Oberg’s assumption plainly doesn’t apply to the actually-existing entities that are funding Crisis Group. Most of the 22 government entities are foreign affairs ministries, which could and reportedly do use Crisis Group’s brilliant reporting and policy recommendations in their own planning processes. And politically, the foundations are all over the map, as are the individual donors. For every Korea Foundation there’s a Ploughshares Fund, for every Chevron Corp. there’s a Stanley Weiss.

The ultimate agenda

There is, however, something truly stealth about Crisis Group.

If you read its briefings, reports, and bulletins long enough, then you’ll realize that two new obligations are implicit in its analyses and recommendations. In a series of speeches this spring, Crisis Group CEO Gareth Evans laid them out explicitly.

At the University of Wisconsin last March, Evans argued that the world has got to accept a new legal norm, a “responsibility to protect people at grave risk -- with the relevant perspective being not that of the prospective interveners but, more appropriately, those needing support.”

And at a seminar in Finland last month, Evans argued that we need to use development assistance to play a long-term conflict prevention role. That may mean giving priority not to imitating Mother Teresa in the developing world but to, e.g., building civil society institutions there, making sure soldiers get paid (so they’re not tempted to rob people), and in general being a lot more smartly judgmental about how developing countries use development aid.

At root, Crisis Group is calling on policymakers to craft international laws and development assistance approaches that can turn us into a genuine global community.

21st century SNCC?

In 1964, at the age of 18, I dropped out of college to become a civil rights worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi. The social change movement needed bodies then, and I had one to contribute.

If I were 18 years old today, I’d stay in school, earn a degree in international affairs, and try as hard as I could to get in on the ground floor of Crisis Group. The social change movement doesn’t need bodies anymore: it needs savvy young people who can do trustworthy research, craft practical and imaginative policy proposals, and get them into the hands of the world’s decision-makers and opinion leaders.

More than any group I know, Crisis Group is facilitating every aspect of that. That’s why it is an exemplary organization for our time.



Crisis Group Headquarters: 149 Avenue Louise, Level 24, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium, telephone 32-2-502 90 38. Washington Office: 1629 K Street NW, Suite 450, Washington DC 20006, USA, telephone 202-785-1601. New York Office: 420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2640, New York, NY 10170, USA, telephone 212-813-0820.

For links to the Crisis Group’s most recent reports, briefings, op-eds, and speeches, click HERE; for the 2006 Annual Report, HERE; for currently available jobs and internships, HERE.


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