It was in 1994 during the Bosnian War that SPARK found its roots. As part of a student movement from the University of Amsterdam, we began sending food aid to the city of Tuzla in North East Bosnia in response to the armed conflict that began in 1992. One insight that we gained early on is that people wanted more sustainable forms of assistance, thus we adjusted our programme to meet their requests and developed an academic support programme. We switched from food aid to education support assistance on local request.
One of the first SPARK programmes, a summer school in Tuzla, supported around 300 students with a one-month summer school program that covered subjects such as county development and health. Not without obstacles, the summer school had security issues, language barriers and logistical difficulties due to the conflict. A large problem was due to a break down of the local systems, and pressure from certain politicians to help certain ethnic group members.
Over the 19 years that followed, SPARK has changed substantially and has remained a dynamic organisation that adjusts to local requests we received. Our defining moment as an organisation was when we were requested by communities in Kosovo, who are still in a complex relationship towards each other to exchange university documentation between them. As a result of the university documentation exchange, SPARK was approached by several parties to advise on the design of a peace agreement on the acceptance of university diplomas between Kosovo and Serbia. Using our technical insights and understanding of the local political context and sensitivities, we were able to contribute to that process in a constructive way. At the moment we are an implementing partner in the application of this peace agreement, together with the European University Association.
This mutual acceptance of university qualifications enables members of the different communities to study and work in each other’s locations. It thereby promotes mobility and interaction between members of divided communities and creates economic opportunities for them. Most importantly perhaps, the agreement and smooth implementation builds trust and confidence of the communities involved and is a solid base for future similar agreements to be reached between Kosovo and Serbia and can serve as a model elsewhere.
Now with programmes in 10 different regions, SPARK is looking at how to really calculate our impact. We have published all our financial information online, and are increasingly measuring the impact of our work. Soon this will lead us to be able to calculate our Value for money. For example how much it costs SPARK to create a sustainable job in a certain country.
Our main challenges for 2013 are to complete our value for money calculations and further standardise our main entrepreneurship activities and implement quality improvement cycles for each. We will likely also engage in some new regions such as Myanmar, Afghanistan and Syria, each of which will offer challenges and opportunities alike.