Strengthening active citizenship after a traumatic civil war: dilemmas and ideas in Bosnia and Herzegovina

I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) last week to help Oxfam Italia develop advocacy and campaign skills among local civil society organizations. They have their work cut out.

Firstly, there is a crisis of trust between the public and CSOs, which are poorly regulated, often seen as little more than ‘briefcase NGOs’, only interested in winning

Protests in February over jobs and corruption have fizzled out
Protests in February over jobs and corruption have fizzled out

funding, and under constant attack from politicians. Many CSOs seem pretty disillusioned, faced with a shrinking donor pot and public hostility.

I think there’s a strong case for the CSOs to take the lead in putting their house in order, practicing what they preach on transparency and accountability, and working with government to sort out the legitimate organizations from ones that have registered (there are some 10,000 in the country) but do nothing, (or worse).

Meanwhile, Oxfam is working with some of the more dynamic ones to develop the advocacy and campaign skills of what is still a maturing civil society network (after decades of state socialism, followed by a devastating war, and then an influx of donor cash that had mixed results). Two days of conversation and debate with some great organizations working on everything from disability rights to enterprise development to youth leadership identified some big issues and dilemmas:

Actions speak louder than words: ‘People trust you if they directly benefit from your work.’ When CSOs have a reputation for being self-serving talking shops, people want to see practical results – advocacy-only approaches look like a non starter.

Coalitions and alliances: CSOs sometimes seem reluctant to play nicely with others – faith organizations, politicians, officials, academics, business groups. Yet doing so not only increases impact, but could also increase public trust and legitimacy. There’s a clear role for Oxfam in helping get those conversations going.

Municipal v National: National politics is a fragmented, multi-tiered mess (see yesterday’s post), with little clarity on decision-making. How do you campaign when you have no idea who’s in charge? Better to focus on the municipal level, where lines of accountability are clearer, and NGOs are more likely to be taken seriously.

Positive deviance: Conversations are dominated by (often well-justified) complaints. One Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) network had painstakingly compiled and published 147 obstacles to SMEs (credit, red tape, infrastructure, skills etc etc). But is that really the best basis for a campaign? Why not identify, analyze and publicise examples of positive outliers – which municipalities have done better than most on any given issue and why? As another SME lobbyist observed, ‘Carrots work much better for mayors – they like photos with awards’.

Putting those last two together, one option that got people seriously interested was the PAPI project in Vietnam, which publishes league tables comparing local government performance. Why not put together some of the issues CSOs are working on, develop a credible methodology and then use league tables to start a ‘race to the top’ between photo-opportunity seeking mayors?

Next generation: with such a complex and often poisonous legacy from statism and civil war, it is tempting to skip a generation: how to identify and develop student leaders-of-tomorrow? How to break the cycle of ethnic hostility?


A window slams shut?
A window slams shut?

Windows of Opportunity: CSOs seem a bit trapped in their project and funding cycles, exacerbated by dependence on external funding. A graphic example was provided by the response to the recent floods. After talking about the sudden upsurge in citizen activism, the anger with the authorities and its great plans to work on improving water and sanitation, one leading activist commented ‘Our role is to be on the same track as before the flood, get back to the developmental things. We didn’t have a conversation about windows of opportunity.’ Oh dear.

Easy wins to build momentum: when people feel frustrated and powerless, find an easily winnable, small thing, and make a very big noise about winning it. In Cardiff, my son’s organization, Citizens UK, found that young Muslims were fed up with the local Nando’s not offering a halal option. So they organized a very noisy, public campaign, and of course, Nando’s changed the menu. A phone call might have done the trick, but a big public campaign helped the local kids realize that they had the power to change things.

Norms, implementation gaps or new Policies? The CSO default option seems to be to lobby for new laws, when everyone agrees that BiH already has lots of lovely legislation, all largely ignored in practice.  One alternative would be to work on implementation gaps. But maybe, faced with such a difficult and unresolved set of ethnic and religious tensions, and generalized sense of powerlessness and futility, working on norms might make more sense. For example, identify those bits of society that cross religious boundaries – sport, business, youth culture – and build on those.

Working with the Diaspora: There are millions of Bosnians overseas, sending home about $1000 per head of the remaining population. What else could/would they do, if encouraged and facilitated? Fund social investment? Mentor new businesses? VC style funds for social innovation?

Northern campaign tactics: BiH is relatively well off, highly connected, and very European in feel. So importing ideas from northern campaigns might make a lot of sense – clicktivist crowd sourcing on corruption (OK, that one’s from India) or public services; whimsical campaigns by ad agencies working pro bono; celebs (sadly, UNICEF already grabbed Edin Dzeko, the national soccer hero).

And one question for readers – how to rebuild active citizenship after a bloody conflict in a European country, with big ethnic/religious divisions– what would be good comparators for exchanges of lessons? Northern Ireland? Your suggestions please.

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4 Responses to “Strengthening active citizenship after a traumatic civil war: dilemmas and ideas in Bosnia and Herzegovina”
  1. milford bateman

    Sad, but very true, posting. I have personally seen so many of the CSOs and NGOs started by the international development community in Bosnia go on to egregiously and quite predictably undermine the local communities they were designed to help. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the hugely popular microfinance option, where virtually all of the microfinance NGOs then rapidly commercialised under the ‘expert’ guidance of the international donors and in the preferred deregulated business environment, and then ended up destroying the local community and society in so many ways. I’ve often written about the main gender-empowering NGO, for example, which was ‘Women for Women’ (Zene za Zene). Heavy on the (self-)publicity for its operations and Director, Zene za Zene entirely predictably ended up doing nothing more than over-indebting thousands of its women clients to no good effect. ‘Women for Women’ was forced to close down because these women were unable to repay their microloans taken out to establish already abundant handicraft operations, street stalls, second hand clothes repair services, etc. A donor community NGO-driven disaster if ever there was one. Our article on this is here:

  2. John Scott

    Having been in Croatia and Bosnia a lot in recent years, we see the frustration of people who lost their source of employment and self-worth as well as their homes and families. What people need is basic employment in meaningful work. Bosnia is one vast building supply yard as random and chaotic rebuilding goes on to house a society of displaced persons that needs a roof and a job. The floods hurt poor areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia and on and on, and brought out a very selfless spirit in all countries which was/ is a true window of opportunity. In former Yugoslavia there were youth groups and work parties to build/rebuild the country. Croatia recently announced it would pay any unemployed person a basic wage to engage in the reconstruction work there. This is an example of concrete answers. The Marshall plan is still active in Bosnia, or was some time ago, doing conferences on security-building. What is needed now is infrastructure building – Mostar downtown floods in any rainstorm due to destroyed and neglected infrastructure (storm drains). The lack of trust and the chaotic situation is tragic. However, small enterprises like long-distance taxis (e.g. Sarajevo-Mostar) seem to be flourishing. Services that meet needs, not dependent on tourists alone, would be welcomed by locals. I hope the floods do wash away some resistance to cooperation, and that the world does not forget Bosnia again. The focus on the Sarajevo assassination may be used for reporting reality now. Documentary and news teams seem to have given Bosnia a wide berth recently. Djokovic is a Serbian example of a star who is using his reputation for all the flooded region. Great man, on and off the court. Bosnia’s soccer team is trying hard, and won lots of attention and respect. at the world cup. Those are sports-related leaders of future civil society. Norwegian NGOs help our oldest Sarajevo friend with basic life needs. Real life, not pipe dreams. Brcko District is an example of what can work if the world pays attention, by the way.

  3. Ken Smith

    Don’t know if you can explain the rationale behind Oxfam Italia working in Bosnia Herzegovina , a country with a high human development index. Is it just opportunity ? and in the answer to the question of how to build an active citizenship maybe is to get the communities together to work for other countries a bit further down the HDI ladder.

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