Stories from PSJP: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT)

Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), York, UK
Written by Andrew Milner

At a recent meeting of the Board of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), the Trustees wrestled with the wording of a mission statement: how to capture the essence of the organisation in a few words; how to include a sense of the ambition of the Trust, whilst recognizing the limitations of its knowledge and resources; how to acknowledge the willingness of the Trust to fund unpopular, even controversial, projects and organizations, whilst recognizing that the real risks are taken by the grantees on the front line of social change? After deep reflection, some humour and a timely coffee break, an interim statement was agreed: We are a Quaker trust which seeks to transform the world by supporting people who address the root causes of conflict and injustice.

Given the centrality of peace and non-violence to Quaker beliefs, it is not surprising that conflict, and particularly violent conflict, are a key concern of JRCT. Like the Quaker church, the Trust puts a broad construction on its notion of peace. Its peace programme funds people who promote non-violent means of achieving common security, whether by means of disarmament and arms control or strengthening peacebuilding approaches. It also supports initiatives focused on the traditional Quaker concerns of pacifism and the right to conscientious objection.

The ‘terrorist whisperer’
The Trust’s commitment to addressing the root causes of conflict is well illustrated by its backing for the work of Brian Currin.

A South African human rights lawyer, Brian Currin is a veteran of peace processes in South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Basque country. Dubbed the ‘terrorist whisperer’ by a Swiss newspaper (on the analogy of the ‘horse whisperer’ – that is, someone who has a special gift for dealing with particular difficulties), he deals with the most inflammatory of materials – entrenched hatreds have been aggravated by acts of violence and retaliation and the patient work of inducing adversaries to renounce violence involves walking on eggshells of the most brittle kind. The difficulty of bringing together people who have fought against each other and have had colleagues and comrades killed by the other side is not hard to imagine.

Currin was appointed by Nelson Mandela to chair a Prison Audit Committee in 1994 in South Africa and was subsequently involved in the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission where he represented victims of gross human rights violations. JRCT first came across him in 2000 when he was involved in mediating an incident which threatened to overturn the peace process in Northern Ireland. The British government, aware of Currin’s work in South Africa, asked him if he would mediate a particularly contentious parading dispute in Northern Ireland. He agreed, but stipulated that, since the British government was a party to the dispute, he could not accept funding from them. The government then approached JRCT and, with Atlantic Philanthropies, they supported a two-year mediation process. While it didn’t ultimately resolve the dispute, it succeeded in taking the heat out of the situation, and the peace process moved on.

In November 2004, Brian again approached the Trust to ask if it would help cover the costs of a visit to South Africa by a delegation of the pro-Independence Left from the Basque country. ETA and the pro-Independence party, Batasuna, had decided that they wanted to explore the possibility of launching a peace process in the Basque country. They had made contact with Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland who had suggested that Brian might be able to help them with a pre-negotiation workshop. The Trust offered a small grant for this initiative.

Thus began Brian’s involvement in the Basque peace process. What followed was a long and difficult process in which success often seemed unlikely. Brian was often vilified by the right-wing media in Spain and received hate mail from people who objected to his working with ‘terrorists’. However, his tenacity eventually paid off. Following a public decision by the pro-Independence Left to commit to exclusively peaceful means of struggle, ETA declared a general, permanent and internationally verifiable ceasefire in January 2011. In October of the same year, the organization announced a definitive cessation of all armed action.

Strengthening hands
Those who have run most of the risk in the Basque peace process are those who, like Brian, are directly involved in it. However, in supporting the work, the JRCT Trustees had their own difficulties to confront. They had long since determined that, with the exception of the ongoing programme in Northern Ireland, they would not support work to address specific conflicts. This was a largely practical decision: JRCT has very modest resources and staff capacity, and Trustees did not feel confident of making responsible grants in circumstances which they did not know and which are highly contested. In the case of the Basque conflict, they were sensitive to the fact that outside involvement was not welcomed by the Spanish government and that Batasuna had been designated a proscribed terrorist organisation by a number of governments and international organisations. As progress faltered at various points, and in the face of criticism from other foundations and from the Spanish press, uncertainties were expressed among the Trustees as to whether JRCT had been right to get involved.

So why did it? Because the Trustees had grown to trust Brian Currin, and to have a high regard for him. Because he set clear objectives for his work, and almost always met them, despite the odds. And perhaps because the original approach by the British government and Currin’s own steadfast insistence on independence crystallized something for JRCT; financing this work is difficult for a number of reasons, but that is precisely why foundations should support it. If they don’t, who will?

When Joseph Rowntree established the Trusts that bear his name in 1904, he wrote a Memorandum that clearly set out how he wished his money to be used. He stressed that it should support work that would not receive funding from elsewhere. He was interested in initiatives that addressed the underlying causes of problems, rather than their symptoms. And he encouraged the Trustees to ‘strengthen the hands of those who are effectively doing the work that needs to be done’. Though many years separate them, JRCT’s support for Brian Currin’s work draws directly on Rowntree’s original vision.

This account is drawn from a number of sources: a conversation with Stephen Pittam, former Trust Secretary of JRCT, and two articles in Alliance magazine, June 2012, one by Stephen Pittam, the other an interview with Brian Currin. I am also very much indebted to Nick Perks, current JRCT Trust Secretary, and Celia McKeon of JRCT for their amendments and clarifications.

A case study on JRCT’s work was originally compiled for Cairo Meeting of Social Justice Funders, 2009 by Max Niedzwiecki