The Yemen Unit at Berlin’s Berghof Foundation

By Vasilis Petropoulos, MALD 2023

Thanks to the Fares Center Summer Fellowship, I had the immense pleasure to work as a graduate assistant at the Berghof Foundation in Berlin, a non-governmental organization that operates in conflict-ridden parts of the world with an aim to assist in peace-making and peace-building. Current projects are underway in Somalia, Ethiopia, Abkhazia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Nicaragua, among other countries. A basic theme of Berghof’s mediation efforts is “conflict transformation,” which is a long-term strategy of changing underlying structures, cultures, and institutions that encourage and condition violent socio-political conflict.

As a part of the Yemen Unit team in Berghof’s MENA Department, I was involved in one of the two current projects in Yemen called “Strengthening Community Safety in Yemen.” This project began in 2018 and its pilot phase ended in August 2022 while I was at Berghof. The goal of the project is to support institutions and authorities to meet the security needs of the citizens at the local level, while enhancing the relationship between civil society and security providers.

Forging mutual trust between citizens and security authorities is key to increasing the former’s (perceived) sense of safety. For the initial phase, five pilot cities were selected: Dhamar, Taiz, Al-Mukalla, Sanaa, and Aden. The activities of the project in each city were executed by the respective project Committees established by Berghof in conjunction with its local partner in Yemen, the Political Development Forum. Activities varied, including from equipping cities with firefighting kits to brokering agreements to control food prices. Gender is also at the epicenter of the project; special places where women can testify have already been constructed in cities’ police stations.

My role in the project was to read all of the four annual reports and devise a first draft of the final report that will be sent to the project’s donors (Dutch Foreign Ministry and EU). I produced a 20-page draft summarizing the work that has been done since the initiation of the project and highlighting the positive impact that the project had on the people’s lives on the ground. This is essential in order for the project to secure funding for the resumption of its activities. Finally, I also wrote a short article on Berghof’s official website showcasing some of the most important successes of the project in the pilot cities.

My other main task was to conduct a multi-faceted and comprehensive research on Algeria. While Berghof is currently operating in the Middle East, they aspire to begin projects in North Africa since the MENA Department includes both regions. My supervisor and director of the MENA Department, Dr. Oliver Wils, shared that Algeria finds itself at a critical state in the post-Bouteflika era and Berghof can harness its expertise in peace-building to assist in a national dialogue between the old establishment (le pouvoir) and the youth that wants a radical change. At the end of my internship I submitted an extensive 30-page research project that covered three segments: foreign policy, stakeholder mapping, and economic data (e.g. oil production, defense budget, population growth, GDP, etc.). Then I had the opportunity to deliver a 1-hour presentation to the team, followed by Q&A.

Additionally, I drafted a policy memo on Russia’s stance in the Yemen conflict and the potential of Moscow assuming a mediating role in it. I presented the key takeaways during a Department meeting, followed by Q&A. During his participation in a discussion panel on Russia’s aspirations and concerns in the Middle East hosted by a Moscow-based think tank, my supervisor used this memo to support his arguments.

Other minor tasks involved logistical support of meetings held at the headquarters in Berlin, participation in meetings with international diplomats from France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, EU, the United States and others, and active engagement in inter-team meetings.

I also participated in a meeting between the MENA Department and Berghof’s Executive Director, Mr. Andrew Gilmour, in which I analyzed for him the US’ interests in the Middle East and the recent efforts for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. I referred to the rising energy prices and the food crisis, concluding that the US interests are not directly tied to the Yemen conflict but are linked to Saudi Arabia. As a founding OPEC member and the most influential among the Arab states, Saudi Arabia is closely watched by Washington, leading to the increased attention on developments in Yemen.

I had many amazing opportunities this summer, including access to confidential papers and notes from meetings between Yemen’s warring parties and Berghof. I was able to see how negotiations happen in the real world and what issues are raised. My access to the Berghof Foundation’s rich library specializing in Conflict Resolution was also invaluable.

Vasilis Petropoulos, MALD 2023