Our colleague Bogdan Gavanski, who heads up our Serbia office & programming, wrote an essay on his work in civil society for Novi Magazin in Serbia. The English transcript is below. We love his perspective on the power and energy of citizens!
There are active citizens in Serbia, after all!
Here is a widely accepted definition of civil society: “Civil society is a term referring to all societal institutions and actors that perform certain public functions without backing from the state and without a primary economic interest.”
Let’s look into this matter further. According to another definition – the one studied at the London School of Economics – civil society is the realm of “non-coercive collective action” around shared interests, goals and values, whose institutional forms differ from those of the state, family and the marketplace.
Or, if we look further back in history, to the Greeks and the Romans, we’ll see that, according to their belief, a civil society is one where citizens take an active part in the shaping of politics.
For more than two years, I have been the head of the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) in Serbia, an American-based non-profit organization founded in the early 1990s, with a vision of offering hope, support and knowledge to communities and citizens around the world, in order to help them face the increasingly complex developmental challenges of our age. For almost a decade, it is in partnership with the Institute for Sustainable Communities that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been providing support to the development of the civic sector in Serbia, in an effort to strengthen democratic processes in our country. Even though working in international organizations often entails complying with numerous bureaucratic procedures and involves tedious administration tasks, in doing this job- and luckily so- I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to witness the above-mentioned definitions of civil society come to life. This includes civil society organizations taking over responsibility of certain public functions (and frequently performing them better than the state itself), people self-organizing and coming together around common interests and goals, and proactive citizens directly influencing and shaping politics in their environment.
It is no longer a secret that there are many people across Serbia (and not just in Belgrade and the other larger cities, as is frequently and wrongly assumed, but in small, rural surroundings) who have earned the status of “active citizens,” and who, through their work, truly make an impact in the life of their community. Perhaps these stories are not given enough credit in mainstream media, but they exist because there are still individuals with a healthy need to fix a problem, who raise their voice, get organized, and put their views forward. I’ve seen it numerous times, and in many places across the country, over these past two years. Serbia is, after all, a country of active citizens.
If it wasn’t for these active citizens, an impoverished and neglected place like Bela Palanka would not have seen its movie theater re-open after a decade long hiatus. This was not done by the state, but by citizens of this town, who self-organized and provided support to their community by offering alternative solutions. Had it not been for active citizens, activists from the Women’s Initiative, women in Priboj would not have access to free legal aid services for victims of violence, had these activists not recognized that the number of women, their fellow citizens and neighbors, suffering from domestic violence, had dramatically increased. Activists from Association Rainbow from Šabac, engaged in improving the position of the LGBT population in this part of Serbia, have started building a hostel that will employ people who, due to their sexual orientation, cannot find work! Together with my colleagues from Vermont, a small but progressive US state with a great track-record for citizen activism, where the Institute for Sustainable Communities is headquartered, I took a tour around a neighborhood in Zaječar where people self-organized, informed, and trained, and then collected funds from donors and private businesses to arrange the front entryways of their buildings. There you can see, just like in any neat and tidy Central European city, an underground irrigation system watering the lawn in front of the buildings, an enclosed and sectioned-off zone for waste removal, and ivy and other decorative plants neatly trimmed in the front entryway. All this was done by local residents of these buildings, who invested their energy and enthusiasm, and joined their skills and knowledge to address the problem. Through these actions, these individuals have demonstrated that positive changes, even the smallest ones, are possible wherever there exists good will and awareness about the need to self-organize and solve a problem together.
Today, CSOs come in the form of powerful think tanks and expert groups, with remarkably skillful activists armed with knowledge, with the capacity to propose and change the legal and regulatory environment, and – as agents of change and social watchdogs – point out the wrong moves of public officials. The Belgrade Center for Security Policy investigated corruption in the security sector, opened a dialogue on a number of hot security topics in the region, and brought together investigative journalists and civil society activists. The work of the Autonomous Women’s Center has contributed to the establishment of comprehensive legal solutions and policies aimed at fighting against gender-based violence in the Western Balkans, and, in the process, fulfilled EU preconditions for democracy, human rights, social inclusion and compliance with European values. The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence constituted the main framework of the project, and, to a large extent, the credit for its adoption last year by the National Assembly of Serbia goes to the Autonomous Women’s Center and their partner organizations.
Through the Civil Society Forward program, with support from USAID, we have provided support to 17 civil society organizations across Serbia, either through non-refundable donations to their projects, or through technical assistance in the form of training and education. The basic goal of this support was strengthening these organizations’ credibility as reliable partners of the state, as well as to all other key social stakeholders, in the processes underway to strengthen the European perspective of our country and to adopt European principles and values. Today the state – if it is willing (and it should be) – has a strong ally on its path to the EU in many civil society organizations, which have people with knowledge, contacts and skills to effect positive change. Whether or not the state will recognize and use this knowledge, will serve as a good litmus test to measure the essence of its European commitment.
Citizens stand ready to answer the call.