Marija Vishinova and Simona Mladenovska
Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN)
August 22, 2022
In recent years, the global trend towards shrinking civic space continues to deepen in the Western Balkan region. BCSDN’s monitoring of the state of fundamental freedoms in its annual Monitoring Matrix exercise, as well as Civicus Monitor updates for the Balkan countries record numerous cases of state interference, government’s intimidation, harassment, and use of strong measures against CSOs, media, and activists, curtailing their effective operations.
The campaigns against the media, the negative narratives toward environmental NGOs, the SLAPP lawsuits, and the disputable legal frameworks on anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) are among the actions that adversely affect the Western Balkans civil society enabling environment. In addition, the Albanian CSOs still encounter challenges with their registration. While in Bosnia and Herzegovina, media agencies and CSOs have faced barriers to access public information, which is essential for demanding accountability from public officials. And attacks against journalists has been on the rise in Montenegro. Similarly, physical and verbal attacks on journalists, as well as cyber-attacks have affected Kosovo’s civic space. Meanwhile, in Serbia, the ruling party MPs has accused CSOs and activists of being “foreign agents” responsible for destabilizing the country. In North Macedonia, CSOs have limited participation in public consultation, especially during pandemic times.
Yet, these challenges have not hindered civil society, media and other stakeholders acting in the public interest. The increasing trends towards restrictive civic spaces has contributed to bring civil society’s attention around an essential form of CSO engagement and accountability: with their primary constituents. It means shifting from conventional accountability processes towards a holistic approach by expanding the stakeholder groups -in particular, to the communities targeted by projects – to whom a CSO must be accountable. One way of doing so is by having an organization conduct a stakeholder mapping and feedback loops in order to guide the CSO long term vision and mission – as proposed in the results and indicators framework from the Guidelines for EU Support to Civil Society in Enlargement Region developed by the EU Commission.
One of the latest BCSDN’s research on Constituent led accountability in the Western Balkans reflects that civil society organizations in the region also face internal challenges such as power imbalances and limited engagement with the people they serve. This research states that “…most CSOs implement limited feedback and accountability mechanisms. Even when this is done, those are mostly oriented towards the donors rather than to their direct beneficiaries and partners.” The Global Standard for CSO Accountability aims to address these challenges and its dynamic accountability approach seeks to foster effective learning, responsiveness, positive horizontal relationships between stakeholders, and trust with the general public when adequately implemented. The study unveils that, in some instances, CSOs lack accountability mechanisms, policies, and practices that ensure equality, inclusion, and diversity, which are also commitments included in the Global Standard.
Public institutions’ trust has been declining since 2015/2016, and non-governmental actors have recognized that public trust could only be regained by properly communicating with and engaging the communities and people which they work with and for. Constituency building has been closely associated to the CSO accountability, that is., by having organizations be responsive to the needs of the communities which they claim to support. In recent years, CSOs across the Western Balkans seem to have seized their opportunity for such engagement. We have witnessed a few examples where accountability has played a significant role in terms of popular support for the cause of non-governmental actors.
In the Serbian case, during the environmental protest in the winter of 2021, over 1400 citizens were charged with misdemeanors for practicing their civic rights. Besides taking a vocal public stand on the events and condemning the abuse of power, BCSDN’s member Civic Initiatives conducted comprehensive fundraising efforts to cover the expenses of the wrongfully charged citizens, while timely informing the public on the use of the funds raised. Furthermore starting as an informal eco-initiative, the Green Humane City in North Macedonia, with the support of experts in the field and synergetic communication with allies from the community, succeeded in getting into two councils in the local elections in 2022: the city council of Skopje and the council of the municipality of Center. Nowadays, Green Humane City is representing and advocating environmentally friendly solutions on a local level. Also, through a public campaign, Futural from Albania, involved not only women and girls but also men and boys in advocacy efforts to protect the rights of girls and women. The action mobilized more actors in support of local referral mechanisms for domestic violence in the country.
Finally, in the Western Balkan region, where CSOs continuously encounter a fragile operating civic space, marked by lack of public support and absence of CSOs’ inclusion in public decision making processes, engaging with their constituents and enhancing public trust is essential for contributing towards civil society legitimacy. The recent examples demonstrate that Western Balkan’s CSOs can lead the paradigm shift and, through their transparent and accountable work, regain the public trust.