Bridging the Information Gap

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Political Tours’ Director, Nicholas Wood, looks back at an incident in Kosovo and how it ultimately inspired a new kind of travel.

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A political rally in Pristina, Kosovo. Copyright Andrew Testa. By 2004 ethnic Albanian frustrations over the international community’s failure to resolve Kosovo’s final status reached boiling point.

In March 2004, amid the worst violence in Kosovo since the end of the war I remember a conversation with a senior spokesperson in the UN mission here. The mission, she explained, was taken completely by surprise as thousands of youths roamed the streets burning UN cars and besieging Serbs in their homes.

The extent of the violence was shocking, but the failure of the UN or NATO forces to foresee this kind of confrontation was baffling, and even more so in the case of someone who apparently lived side by side with the local population.

The growing frustration of the ethnic Albanian population over status seemed obvious to me and had the potential to severely impact the Serbian community.

Kosovo Inspiration

At the time I had just moved from Kosovo to Slovenia, and the drowning of the Albanian boys in the River Ibar and the announcement of demonstrations the following day in Mitrovica was cause enough to book a plane ticket back to Pristina. By the time I landed the riots were taking place across the province.

The UN’s spokeswoman’s surprise seemed symptomatic of the gap between policy makers, international bureaucrats, and a region they wielded enormous power over, and it planted the seeds of an idea. How, I wondered, perhaps idealistically, could you give her and others like her a glimpse of reality?

Political Tours Launches

This is now a full time occupation. Since 2009 I have been bringing groups to Kosovo on study tours. They have included politicians, journalists, and a group of international civil servants studying peacekeeping. In 2011 we have tours to Bosnia, Turkey, Northern Ireland, Ethiopia and Georgia. There are also plans for visits to Egypt. The objective in all these trips is to give the participants a first-hand political insight into a region, and challenge their preconceptions.

In an age where foreign correspondents are being replaced by user-generated content and blogs, first-hand experience of foreign policy issues is at a premium. Our groups have access to policy makers and international officials, and perhaps more importantly spend a lot of time getting their boots dirty and looking at people’s everyday problems.

Tour of Kosovo

In Kosovo we start in a village on the border with Macedonia, looking at where people get their income from. We ask how many have left Kosovo and are living abroad, what are the state of local services, and what are their hopes for the future? Visitors have been struck by how these issues dominate – employment, heath, education, and complaints about corruption. Kosovo’s disputed status, while newsworthy, is a secondary concern for most ordinary people.

Bosnia

In Bosnia the gaps between perception and reality are perhaps even starker. “New Fears of Ethnic Conflict” was the headline above one of my New York Times colleague’s articles. There have been similar warnings of conflict in Foreign Policy. But is Bosnia really on the verge of another war?

Milorad Dodik’s threats of secession are menacing, and there’s no doubt Bosnia needs constitutional reforms.

Travel to Bosnia and you will find that most are more worried about the economy and an ongoing budgetary crisis. And while the government is widely viewed as dysfunctional it nevertheless completed the technical hurdles necessary to gain access to visa-free travel within the EU in 2010. The picture in Bosnia is more complex than headlines suggest.

A New Kind of Travel

I understand how news editors (and some academics too) like to revive old cliches about conflict in this region – but it is misleading and sometimes dangerous.

There are dangers of a different kind with this concept. As in journalism, there is a risk of voyeurism or “news porn” if you like. (Take for example the photojournalism workshop held in Haiti shortly after the earthquake). Study visits should not be a vehicle for modern battlefield tours or disaster tourism. Japan is definitely off limits for us for some time to come. And trips through refugee camps and poverty stricken slums are also a no-go unless there is a direct benefit for the people affected.

Ultimately I know Political Tours cannot shake up foreign policy in the Balkans or anywhere else. In fact it is not our job to advocate one particular policy or another, but I hope we can bridge some gaps between some politicians’ understanding of the region and reality. More generally we should contribute to a more informed and nuanced view of foreign affairs.

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