The Serbian NGO sector is facing many challenges today. A survey conducted in 2005 (but still applicable) by a group of international human rights organizations (Freedom House, Oxfam Netherlands, civic initiatives and the Federation of NGOs in Serbia – “Vanredno izdanje: NVO sektor u Srbiji“) highlighted a number of the main problems of the Serbian civil society. The survey cited lack of state support and withdrawal of international donors as the main problems followed by inadequate cooperation with the business community (read: not enough donations), non-stimultive legal regulation, insufficient cooperation with local authorities, etc.
To my mind, the most important issue highlighted by the research was the poor esteem in which NGOs are held by a large part of society. How come?
NGOs as a driving force of opposition to Milosevic in the 1990s
Back in the 1990s, when most of the present Serbian NGOs were established, they were in opposition to Slobodan Milošević, the president of Yugoslavia, then Serbia and his regime. He and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) used to call civil society “a bunch of traitors and foreign mercenaries.”
Milosevic might be right only in the second part of the sentence – because most of the finance for NGOs did indeed come from abroad. This is why Milosevic’s supporters considered local NGOs as enemies of the regime who would try to overthrow the government if given half a chance. As Serbian opposition parties couldn’t unite and form one single front against the dictator, it was NGOs that tried to raise people’s awareness of the consequences of Milosevic’s long-time rule.
Some organizations fought to protect human rights, most of them were against the war in ex-Yugoslavia and Serbia’s involvement in it. During the electoral campaign and after elections in September 2000, the final blow to Milosevic was given by the NGO “Otpor” (“Resistance”). The well-known symbol of the clenched fist and a motto – “He’s over” (“Gotov je”) became a symbol of victory and the overthrow of Milosevic after more than a decade.
Later, “Otpor” became a political party; even more crucially, it also became a role model to other countries fighting against dictators (numerous organizations -in Ukraine, Georgia, and even in some African countries – said that they had learned from Otpor’s way of work, and some of them were even trained by Serbians).
A new age for civil society
After the democratic changes in October 2000, the Serbian NGO sector benefited from a new wave of enthusiastic support but also from new funding as the international community wanted to support the new “free country” on its way towards European integration and admi9ssion to other global institutions.
Various funds, foundations and international NGOs established contact with Serbian representatives of civil society. This played an important role in spreading information and educating people about the new possibilities (especially in terms of the European Union and international forms of cooperation in different fields). Many new organizations were established in this period as they could finally work legally without fear of someone banning them.
After adopting the new Law on Associations in 2009, NGOs had to learn their new duties, rights and responsibilities. At the same time, a new environment for their work was created (as new laws on voluntary service, youth, public property and others relevant matters were passed).
The legal framework was changed and NGOs no longer had to register with ministeries but rather with the Serbian Business Registers Agency (although they are not businesses). These changes made for easier procedures but pre-registration was a very time-consuming affair (a certain period was given to NGOs to adopt their documents and ’move’ from one register to another). Considering the snail’s pace of administration in Serbia, NGOs probably lost a few calls for projects while waiting for their new papers.
Even though the new law means that the NGO sector is now better integrated in society, this does not mean that NGOs will automatically regain the trust of citizens that has been damaged by a recent series of scandals.
Over the last months a serious clash among Serbian NGOs was provoked by the article published in the daily newspaper “Danas”, on July 6th, about some organizations monopolizing funding or having “dictators” for managers. The Humanitarian Law Center, and the Initiative for RECOM were two of the human rights organizations slammed by the paper.
At the same time, the Serbian Business Registers Agency published its annual report showing that non-profit organizations received about 1.3 billion euro from different donors including the state yet (according to the Serbian daily “Vecernje novosti”) their expenses were about 5 million EURO higher than their income.
The loss in their accounts is probably the result of imprecise classification of associations – the non-profit sector includes NGOs but also chambers of commerce, sport associations and similar organisations so the journalists concluded wrongly that NGOs made a loss although this is theoretically impossible.
The whole discussion was too wideranging with questions being raised about ideas, ideologies, and “who-did-what-in-the-past”. But what it did clearly reveal was that the NGO sector doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation among ordinary people, mostly because they don’t understand the principles on which they base their work and “what-they-do-at-all”.
Some of the comments in daily newspapers like the online edition of “Politika” said things like “all NGOs should be shut down, except the Red Cross. For all other questions there are certain ministeries, so we don’t need that many NGOs!” or “when will we stop giving foreign money to some people”, and – speaking of the budget line for financing NGOs – “we don’t need budget money for NGOs. If government controls NGOs, they become GOs”.
Some organizations have moved their activities from civil society to a more political level or at least they are trying to do so, yet Serbian people do not place too much trust in any kind of politicians (sometimes deservedly so).
More transparent work, including a clearer presentation of goals and activities, but also of financing and the way NGOs “earn” and spend their money would certainly help improve their relations to the public and explain that civil society is a necessary connection between government and the people. NGOs bring many opportunities through participative democracy where citizens can be involved in decision-making process or just have an influence on everyday life. But in times of economic crisis and high rates of unemployment, people need to be much more motivated before they take part in any kind of activity…