Rebecca Tinsley: Development’s renaissance woman

    Rebecca Tinsley, center, dances with women in Rwanda, where the former BBC journalist administers community projects through Network for Africa, an NGO she founded in 2004. Photo: Amanda Smith-Millar

    News of human suffering has caused many a sleepless night for former BBC journalist Rebecca Tinsley. When it came to the onset of a devastating war in Bosnia, in 1992, Tinsley decided to act.

    “Working on BBC Parliament at the time, I felt frustrated that I was not doing anything in Bosnia,” Tinsley remembered. “And I tried my best to put pressure on the British government, but they really didn’t care about Bosnia. And it was just a question of how many sleepless nights do you have feeling frustrated because this terrible genocide is happening, and you’re not doing anything about it.”

    So Tinsley decided to do something, and set up the Bosnian Support Fund in 1992, which ran until 2004. By adopting controversial methods to try and fill in gaps left by established aid agencies, the foundation provided aid to refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo in the form of house reconstruction, provision of trauma therapists and medical help.

    “I know this sounds corny, but since I have been trying to do things, I have been sleeping a lot better and am a lot less eaten up by my frustrations with the world,” said Tinsley. “I have learned to divert my anger at the injustice of the world into action, and that is a lot easier to live with.”

    This frustration has also fueled Tinsley’s drive to set up development projects in Africa.

    Bosnian refugees’ needs

    As a BBC reporter from the late 1980s to 1991, Tinsley became aware of what she saw as deficiencies of established aid agencies. The continuous barrage of blankets and food sent to Bosnian refugees indicated to Tinsley that other vital needs were neglected.

    “We got the idea that Bosnians were just like us, they lived in houses with microwave ovens and video recorders, and within five minutes they had to flee and leave everything they had. These were people who were relatively sophisticated, from a developed country, and were suddenly in refugee camps,” Tinsley recalled. “So we thought: How can we make these people’s lives tolerable - because they’re going to be in these camps for a while now.”

    Convoys of clothes, underpants, fresh fruit, in addition to dentists and opticians, were sent in to provide longer-term aid for Bosnian and Kosovar refugee communities.

    Now on the board of trustees for the Carter Center U.K. as well as Human Rights Watch, Tinsley has taken a similar approach to battling with the crisis in Darfur and rebuilding a post-genocide society in Rwanda.

    Tinsley founded Network for Africa in 2004 to alleviate the effects of genocide in Rwanda by improving education, health care and counseling for widowed and orphaned communities. The charity has since registered in both the United States and United Kingdom, and set up projects in Darfur, Uganda and Chad.

    Involving diaspora

    In a field of competing and constantly evolving methods, Tinsley stressed the importance of providing a bridge between long-term development and short-term emergency aid.

    When planning her projects, Tinsley makes it a point to talk to the communities she wants to help. The Bosnian Support Fund responded to needs identified by Bosnian communities who had taken refuge in London and heard regularly from relatives back home. The same approach was taken with Rwandan communities in the United Kingdom, in setting up Network for Africa.

    Post-trauma counseling is a key aspect of Network for Africa’s work in Rwanda.

    “We found that virtually nobody had any counseling whatsoever,” Tinsley said. “And, frankly, the U.N. estimates 97 percent of people witnessed the genocide. And that’s not a few shots being fired, that’s people getting dismembered in the road.”

    Rather than wait for the Rwandan government to gather resources to train a sufficient number of psychotherapists, Network for Africa took psychotherapists to Rwanda, selected respected community leaders and taught them to be counselors.

    “I know this sounds staggeringly simple and obvious,” said Tinsley, “But it really isn’t being done in very many places. Instead, people do far more complicated stuff like, oh, give them a two-year course to produce a fully qualified psychotherapist, but in the meantime, nobody is getting any help.”

    Network for Africa has trained 200 community members to date through two-week courses on the fundamentals of psychology as well as five to six refresher courses per year.

    Tinsley avoids what she sees as a neocolonialist approach, where outsiders come and impose what they think is right onto a community.

    Trial and error defined the path Tinsley took in setting up her projects and getting advice on where exact locations of need were, from expatriate communities and others.

    “We had to start on a terribly small scale in each case and keep our antennae very sensitive as to whether we thought we were being ripped off,” said Tinsley.

    Publicity is an invaluable tool to attract recruits and funding, and Tinsley has used her experience to generate as much publicity as possible while avoiding advertising costs. She regularly tours universities, colleges and church groups to not only generate “free publicity” but recruit volunteers for her small-scale projects.

    Waging peace

    Waging Peace is another organization set up by Tinsley. An anti-genocide group that conducts research into building democracy in post-conflict societies, Waging Peace, like other human rights activist groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, faces severe funding challenges.

    “It’s virtually impossible to get people to fund human rights, because it’s so politically charged and it’s intangible,” Tinsley said.

    Funding is the age-old challenge for NGO startups. Network for Africa is not immune.

    It is hard to break out of the vicious cycle of failing to secure funding due to the lack of a track record, according to Tinsley, who is now encouraging industry to support her projects. One of the organizations she will be working with is the corporate social responsibility arm Think Money, a Manchester-based financial services company that donated to Network for Africa through a payroll giving scheme.

    But Network for Africa and Waging for Peace remain fish in a big, crowded pond.

    “Its massively competitive,” said Tinsley. “And of course we have to talk about hope rather than guilt, as a lot of these agencies do the guilt thing, and we were really much more talking about hope: ‘Here is someone who survived genocide, but is still here and trying to rebuild their life.’”

    About the author

    • Nabeela Ahmed

      Nabeela Ahmed joined Devex for a summer reporting fellowship. Afterward, began to pursue a master’s degree in international relations and communications at Boston University. Nabeela holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Cambridge University. She has monitored microfinance and education projects for an NGO in India and completed internships at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, BBC Radio and the Independent newspaper. She has also written feature and news stories for two high-profile finance trade magazines based in London, and freelanced for several U.K.-based trade publications.