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Civil society blossoming in Serbia: a park in Zajecar

Blog post by Richard Paisner

It was my privilege to represent ISC in Serbia last month at the close-out ceremony for our Civil Society Forward project, which is winding down. ISC has been working in Serbia for a decade, and in my time on the board I have had the opportunity to host local champions from Serbia at my home and to see them in action in their own country.


I wish everyone in the greater ISC community could have been at this event, so filled with appreciation and hope – for the work that’s been done and the progress still to be made. There were a series of roundtables at the event, and I sat in on the fundraising discussion with a talented group of devoted and sophisticated activists from around Serbia. The discussion was cordial and collaborative but more important, the discussion was at a level any NGO in the US would have appreciated. The pluses and minuses of corporate giving; endowments and reserves, etc. confirmed my sense that even as we leave Serbia, we have trained and enabled so many competent and skilled community activists.


Here are some of my remarks from the event:


“A little more than a year ago, my wife Christie and I dragged our tired bodies from the back of a car in a suburban apartment complex in Zajecar. We had spent the previous week in Belgrade meeting the ISC staff, government leaders and the best and the brightest of Serbia’s emerging civil society – passionate and skilled advocates, deeply compassionate but intensely practical mothers of children with disabilities, leaders of businesses large and small committed to social justice.


We had left Belgrade early this morning of our last day in Serbia and, at the indefatigable Christie’s insistence, we stopped at the Roman ruins of Felix Romuliana en route to Zajecar. The Emperor Galerius built this fabulous retirement home for himself over 1700 years ago, but, as I understand it, he died before he got to occupy it. We have a phrase for that and I imagine you do too: “Man plans, God laughs.”


Which brings me back to that apartment complex. Slightly puzzled about why we were there, Christie and walked under a brightly colored metal trellis to the back of one of the buildings. Imagine our surprise: we were the guests of honor at a very special occasion: the residents of that building had constructed a park: the trellis, four ambitiously planted trees and, at a distance from the building, another brightly colored structure for trash, and we were there to help open the park.


As I stood listening to the speeches (and eating the great food), I reflected on two things: first on the unquenchable human desire to plan and organize for a better future; despite the clear evidence of Felix Romuliana that all we build today will someday be in ruin, we persist in this simple endeavor – to make our lives and our communities better for ourselves and for our children.  


My second reflection involved ISC: the celebration at the park captured in a profound way the founding event of our own organization. Standing, almost a quarter century ago,  by a polluted river in a small Bulgarian community not unlike Zajecar, Madeleine Kunin – then the three times elected governor of the small state of Vermont and later US Ambassador to Switzerland – had this notion: if we could identify local champions for change and provide them tools to inspire and lead their fellow citizens, they might find their way to working with government and industry to get that river cleaned up. And once they recognized what they had done, beautifying their town and improving the health of their children – well, there is no end to the possibilities of an empowered people. So, as you might imagine, I left Zajecar with a tear or two in my eye.

The Serbia we celebrate today is very different than the one ISC first came to. In so many ways, this country is stronger – for its people, for its environment, for its citizen leadership and engagement and activism. And ISC is stronger. We have learned so much on this journey from all of you. We’ve worked alongside true local champions, people of amazing vision and passion for tackling social challenges and inducing positive change in the local communities – and they have achieved real and meaningful change. And, of course, none of our work would have been possible without the stout support of USAID both for our funding, but, more important, for its incredible commitment to civil society in Serbia.  


The organizations we’ve partnered with on the Civil Society Forward Project will be champions for Serbia for decades to come. They will  make positive change in the lives of their members, their neighborhoods, villages and towns; they will make positive change for the social groups they advocate for, influencing legislation, public administration and even national government-decision making.


As I think about that park in Zajecar, I envision trees bursting with blossoms – a tribute to the will of the community. And as I think of ISC’s role in Serbia, I see a blossoming of a new age in this country’s history – a time of citizen action, economic renewal and social justice. We are so proud to have been part of these accomplishments.