Our support for Quaker charities during 2016

Sally writes: I have recently paid donations from Bath Meeting to the Quaker charities which we chose to support this year and have received some enthusiastic thank-yous along with their receipts.

Oxford Research Group works on conflict resolution, conflict analysis, non-military alternatives, and sustainable security and wrote to “express our profound thanks to Bath Quaker Meeting for its generosity in support of our work”. The letter went on to say that “support from small trusts, Quaker Meetings and individual supporters is crucial to our ability to sustain our existing work and respond to opportunities to develop new projects at a time when need has never been greater. I am touched that your members have again found our work so worthy of their interest and support.”

And Friends House Moscow said “Please can you convey our grateful thanks to Bath Quakers for the donation – your support is really valuable to us.”

I renewed the Meeting’s subscription to Quaker Council for European Affairs and had an email back thanking us for supporting them. They sent me an interesting article by Oliver Robertson, their Clerk, to bring us up-to-date with how they are coping with the post-Brexit question (reproduced below).

So, now we’re out of Europe there’s no point to QCEA any more, is there?

by Oliver Robertson, Clerk, QCEA

It might seem a fair question. The Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) was set up in 1979 following UK (and Irish and Danish) entry to what was then the European Economic Community and the arrival of Quakers to work at the European institutions in Brussels. Brexit means that about 90% of Europe’s Quakers will no longer be EU citizens, many connections and opportunities to influence the EU will be lost (British MEPs are already being lobbied less because of their reduced influence), and would British-based funders of QCEA still want to support it? Maybe QCEA should just shut up shop.

Or maybe not. QCEA represents Quakers across Europe, not just in the UK, and Yearly Meetings covering at least nine other countries are still in the EU. Moreover, QCEA doesn’t just work with the EU, it also engages other European institutions like the Council of Europe (the body that oversees the European Convention of Human Rights), which the UK is still part of. And in or out, the EU is likely to remain an important body for Quakers to influence to help achieve a better world.

A vision of a better world and better Europe is sorely needed right now. An advantage of QCEA’s Europe-wide focus is that it has a broader perspective than you get from a single country. So while Brexit has caused a massive upheaval in the UK, it has also profoundly affected the rest of Europe, magnifying and exacerbating existing tensions. The rise of nationalism and militarism can be seen in many European countries, either on the fringes or in government (such as in Poland and Hungary). Attacks on universal values like human rights can be seen not just in the UK (where ‘brave soldiers’ are depicted as being harassed by ‘activist, left-wing human rights lawyers’) but also in Russia (which has said that its own laws trump human rights), Norway (where the government called for reform of refugee conventions) and Switzerland (proposals to withdraw from European human rights standards). Walls and border patrols are being built to keep out migrants and refugees, even as legitimate routes for people to reach Europe have been further and further tightened in recent years. In all of this can be seen fear, defensiveness and a desire to protect what ‘we’ currently have, even in the face of those who have nothing. This does not feel like the time to quieten the Quaker voice in Europe.

Happily, QCEA is in a good place to speak out truthfully and confidently. Over the last two years, it has gone through a major process of reviewing what it does, how it does it, and why it does it. The previous setup, where QCEA had two staff leading on eight separate projects under five programme areas, was barely manageable and wasn’t effective. So the staff and the governing committee (General Assembly) considered how to best bring a Quaker vision of just relationships to European institutions.

The first thing is a change in the type of work QCEA does. The focus is now on direct advocacy and ‘quiet diplomacy’ to European institutions, seeking to change the hearts and minds of decision makers. (The alternative, of getting Europe’s 25,000-odd Quakers to lobby en masse, seemed unviable when other organisations can petition in the millions, and Brexit will shrink the available base to around 3,000.)

The second change is to work on fewer issues but over a longer period. When trying to influence large, complicated institutions change comes over years or decades, so we need to be committed for the long term. This feels like a more Quakerly approach in any case: if we feel called to work on an issue, then surely we should continue working on that until it is done?

Such an approach means that you need to discern carefully and correctly what issues to take up, and QCEA’s General Assembly has prioritised just two programmes: peace and human rights. Staff are working on these, in the first instance to identify the niche within these admittedly broad topics where we can be of most use, and then to undertake advocacy on behalf of Friends across Europe.

These days, QCEA feels abuzz with energy. Staff and trustees are united about what they are called to do, Yearly Meetings and partners are enthusiastic about the new direction and purpose, and there is a desire to get to work. Coming from the UK, where it can feel like Brexit hangs over everything, threatening a tolerant society and making all uncertain, engaging with QCEA is enlivening. Here is an organisation for which Brexit is one of many issues, to be factored into work but not overwhelming it. Here, moreover, is an organisation that provides a way for British Quakers to still have some connection with the EU.

At its most recent Meeting, the QCEA General Assembly minuted:

Quakers are good at pushing beyond comfort zones. In an environment that wants to deny the rights and humanity of some, we will need to be irritating and persistent. We have seen from other issues that continued, dedicated action can change thinking and activity. There is now a vacuum in our societal framework. The old ways of running society are being rejected, but it is unclear what the new ways will be. There needs to be a shift in how we think that will transform our societies. As Quakers we can work on multiple levels – one is transformational and the other is a “patching up” on one particular issue. We are good at doing both and both will need to happen if we are to significantly progress towards a world that works for all.

If Friends are entrusting QCEA to speak in their name and providing it with the money to do it, it has a duty to be as effective as possible. It may not be easy, it may not be quick, it may take us to uncomfortable places that go against the grain of public opinion, but it is necessary, and it is something that QCEA is now equipped to do well.

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