In the immediate post-war reconstruction in the Balkans, the role of civil society was a new idea that was quickly developing. Today, despite significant growth over the past 15 years, civil society in the region cannot yet be considered fully mature, and limitations remain. Local civil society organizations continue to be criticized for being unsustainable and unproductive, and are often seen as big spenders that cannot make a tangible, positive impact on the ground. In addition, politicians in the Balkans are not used to being held accountable, and the promotion of civil society development remains low on their list of priorities. 

Although the European Union uses incentives to promote civil society development in potential EU member states, these have become less attractive over recent years, with little to no prospect of EU accession for Balkan countries in the near future.

The Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) recognizes the importance of developing civil society in the regions and promotes civil society as a value, rather than an administrative issue, as most governments in the regions currently approach it.

“Our monitoring and advocacy ensures the basic rights of every citizen to propose, initiate change, express his/her views opinion, establish, run a civil society organization, and operate it in cooperation with others freely, without interference [and] with public funding and other support,” said Tanja Hafner-Ademi, executive director at BCSDN.

Founded in 2001, BCSDN is a network that brings together 15 organizations in Southeast Europe to empower civil society and influence national and European policies in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Their primary goal is to create a more enabling environment for civil society development in order to support sustainable and functioning democracies in the region.

BCSDN developed a monitoring matrix to influence European Commission civil society support through the 2014-20 Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance Civil Society Facility, a funding mechanism through which the European Union promotes reforms in potential enlargement countries. Developed by civil society organization experts from ten countries and supported by the European Centre for Non-Profit Law, the matrix outlines benchmarks in three main areas: basic legal guarantees of freedoms, framework for organizations’ financial viability and sustainability and governance, and the civil society organization relationship. The matrix is a monitoring mechanism, allowing local civil society organizations and donors to track and evaluate the state of civil society legislation by measuring clearly defined indicators. The project also comprises activities such as monitoring EU- and national-level policies, advocacy for improved funding policies and procedures, increased communication, and the preparation of a first regional report. The idea is that this framework will set the optimal standards for civil society and will enable governments and civil society organizations to react more quickly to regulatory initiatives in their countries.

However, the multi-faceted nature of civil society development can be challenging. Hafner-Ademi explained that it is an “over-arching, cross-cutting, horizontal issue that can be hard to describe to policymakers.”

Indeed, civil society development can be quite technical. The key issue, she explained, is not necessarily what it is being funded but how it is being funded. “The development of civil society is not sexy, or interesting,” she conceded. “It is very complex, but it is crucial. It’s these underlying structures that are the core support of a strong civil society.”

The Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD) has supported the BCSDN initiative from its inception in 2001, when post-war reconstruction was in its early stages.

“We have had BTD support right from the start at the point when the network registered as a legal body,” said Hafner-Ademi.  “BTD was the first support in a way we have not had from any other donors. They allowed for a lot of flexibility.”

BTD-financed experts developed the matrix and facilitated events and meetings to familiarize European Commission officials and other key policymakers with the matrix. In addition, GMF’s Brussels office hosted a policy workshop to present the matrix publicly, bringing together 40 representatives from DG Enlargement, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Regional Cooperation Council, and civil society organizations from Brussels, the Balkans, and Turkey.

Hafner-Ademi also emphasized the benefit of creating a mutual partnership, rather than a hierarchical relationship with donors, highlighting that partnering with BTD “has really been a collaboration. BTD has been a donor that understood why it was important at this time to have a civil society network.”

She said that BTD has been “an institutional supporter, someone who was mature enough to support us, and helped us fund the monitoring of EU support.”

In terms of concrete policy changes, the project has successfully managed to set the agenda of civil society development at the EU level by offering the monitoring matrix as a starting point for the EU guidelines. Thanks to the matrix, Hafner-Ademi said, the initiative has “changed the discourse on a national level – determining the relationship between civil society organizations and institutions.”

Equally as important is the positive impact seen on individuals.

“The impact of investing and working on civil society development is most concrete and visible at the local and personal level. It is in the small communities and on an individual level that concrete changes are seen on citizens and CSOs campaigns, services that make difference in life of ordinary people,” said Hafner-Ademi.

See the matrix and learn more here.