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Organisations outside of Belgrade receding

For years, there has been a clear trend of international donors leaving Serbia. In addition, the demands of those who are still active in Serbia are getting more complex and extensive, and the scope for financing of small and medium-sized non-governmental organisations narrows significantly. However, only a glance at the results of the competition for funding of NGO projects gives a clear picture of the disparity in the number of projects approved to organisations based in Belgrade and others. Even though only around a quarter of the total population of Serbia lives in Belgrade, at calls for proposals it often happens that funding is approved to only one or two non-Belgrade organisations (out of twenty organisations that sign a contract).

First, organisations from Belgrade have a better starting position. The capital city offers most opportunities and thus attracts many ambitious (young) people. The University of Belgrade is by far the largest in Serbia, and most of its students decide to continue their life in Belgrade even after graduation. Due to the proximity of their offices, which is often measured in hundreds of meters, and a simpler arrival at conferences and other meetings, regular contacts with the leaders of the central government are noticeably easier. No less important, the same is true for contacts with international and bilateral donors. This does not close the list of benefits.

However, organisations from the “rest” of Serbia do not deserve to be neglected. Quite the contrary. They have close contacts with groups they represent and citizens in general. Good organisations in smaller places, in direct contact with citizens clearly see the problems that do not allow the progress of the society and try to solve them. Grassroots initiatives generally start in smaller towns and they are launched thanks to a close contact and a higher degree of mutual trust between citizens and non-governmental organizations from their communities. Although Belgrade is a city full of contrasts and it is often forgotten that a large number of people live below the poverty line there, it is easier from a non-Belgrade perspective to recognise the many challenges of a society that is so deeply sunk (not only) financially and has lost faith in a better future.

It should be noted that local media have better ratings outside of Belgrade, and that citizens’ associations relatively easily ensure their attention. Finally, Serbia is big enough to have many local peculiarities and typical problems, and organizations from those communities are the only ones that can try to overcome them with quality.

Organisations from small communities are also struggling with special problems. Young people from most cities in Serbia go to larger communities in search of education and jobs. It is very difficult for organisations to retain employees, given that they are not able to offer them a salary and other work conditions as they can get in Belgrade or abroad. In addition, citizens’ associations are under bigger pressure from local authorities. On the one hand, there are a small number of citizens’ associations in these communities, and organisations that criticize poor performance of local authorities are easily noticeable. The current degree of democratic development in Serbia is not the one where the government sees the criticism of civil society as constructive, but most often reacts as they are offended and refusing further cooperation.

On the other hand, a difficult access to foreign funds and those at the central level “pushes” local NGOs towards the sources of financing from their cities and municipalities. And such a situation is an ideal way for local authorities to make those whose criticism is hard to bear, no matter how constructive, more passive. International Centre ”Olof Palme” is an organisation that has been present in Serbia for twenty years and all that time it has worked actively on providing support to local initiatives and ”smaller” citizens’ associations. The best illustration for this might be the fact that in 2015, fourteen organisations will be supported, of which four located in Belgrade.

Associations from Belgrade will also be active either throughout Serbia or exclusively outside of the capital. The relation between the Palme Centre and citizens’ associations is based on the partnership principle between the two equal sides, and the relation does not end with the approval of project proposals and sent reports. Besides, a part of this cooperation includes regular meetings and coordination, joint implementation of activities, as well as mutual support regardless of specific projects where cooperation is formalised.

In order to illustrate the theses from this article, a few good practice examples from the network of Palme Centre’s partners should be mentioned. Citizens’ Association Sretenje from Požega has only one full time employee and rarely more than two projects implemented at the same time. However, good planning, quality ideas, as well as a broad network of associates make it possible for them to ensure tangible changes and be recognised in this part of Serbia. One of their latest successes is the fact that, on their initiative and the documents they proposed, the Municipality of Požega, as the first municipality in the country, introduced a programming scheme for financing of local communities. This caught the attention of other communities, and this year, Sretenje will disseminate that model to the Novi Sad neighbouring municipalities.

Narodni parlament (People’s Parliament) from Leskovac is an organisation with more than fifteen years of experience and a large number of quality projects. However, the attention drawn by one of their recent projects can only be measured through the results of that project. Legal assistance they offer to citizens in their struggles with administrative problems and illogical issues has quickly overgrown the local level and become available to all the people in Serbia.

More than 1600 cases have been processed in only two years of the project duration so far, and the number of followers on Facebook and Twitter has exceeded 30,000. More information can be found on http://www.netrpimnepravdu.rs/

Another example of an organisation from the “small” community that presents the potentials outside of Belgrade is also Toplički centar za demokratiju i ljudska prava (Toplica Center for Democracy and Human Rights) from Prokuplje. This organisation, active primarily in anti-corruption has long since been present on the national level and very much determined to use all available ways to deal with this issue that significantly slows down the society development. However, they have not forgotten the community in which they work, and their office is the place where people from Prokuplje and the neighbouring places come every day and present their problems. In most cases, Toplica Center is not the one that can solve those problems, but they are ready to listen and at least refer them to the right address, or offer a proposal for the solution of their problem.

Serbia is a significantly centralised country and Belgrade is often the only address authorised to make the final decision. In the last twenty years, the central Government has not demonstrated good will and sincere intention to change such a situation. Financing of the civil sector in Serbia additionally strengthens such a picture of the situation. However, experiences from Sweden, Palme Centre’s country of origin, probably the most decentralised country in Europe, as well as some examples mentioned previously, support the need for decentralisation in Serbia, and the need for additional support to local communities. To the south, east, west, or north – the differences are constantly decreasing.

Text: Danilo Milic

Published: 2015-05-05

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