Post-NATO Serbia
by Nicholas Scott-Flynn, Regional Director, ICVA June 2003

Prior to NATO action, Serbia was already in economic and social decline, with an estimated three million people living below the poverty line. This year has witnessed a drastic drop in economic activity with a corresponding decline in living standards.

It is the most vulnerable groups in society that feel this the most, including the internally displaced. The numbers of this latter group have been swollen by the influx into Serbia of an estimated 220,000 people from Kosovo, displaced by both NATO action and, as indicated in a previous article, the subsequent violence directed against Serbian, Roma and other communities in the province. This has added to the existing 520,000 refugees already in Serbia, mainly from Croatia and BiH. This group is often referred to as the ‘Dayton caseload’.

For the past four years economic sanctions have been applied against Serbia, which is viewed as a pariah state by the international community. Despite the war, there is still little international and donor interest in the country. As a result many NGOs, along with UNHCR, are becoming increasingly worried about the plight of this forgotten refugee group – the largest in a single country in the region. To rectify this NGOs and inter-governmental agencies have sought to highlight this group’s humanitarian needs and to de-politicise the aid agenda.

The progress that had been made in this respect up to March 1999 was shattered in the wake of NATO action. At the time of the bombing most of the international community left Serbia, though many NGOs kept their offices functioning with local staff despite confiscation of equipment and other forms of harassment. When the conflict ended the INGO community had to assess the full resumption of its activities in Serbia. Within agencies it was also a time for reflection and consolidation as local staff struggled to come to terms with the experience of being under bombardment when their international colleagues had had the opportunity to leave. There was also the distraction of Kosovo where large amounts of donor money was now being directed and which was draining the pool of human resources within the NGOs in Serbia.

A counter-balance to these considerations was the overwhelming evidence of a growing humanitarian crisis within Serbia, arguably the worst in the region. An assessment carried out by OCHA in the late summer of 1999 highlighted massive need, which has now been compounded by rocketing inflation. The economic consequences of NATO action have seen a doubling in unemployment – which now stands at 33 per cent [December 1999], or approximately one million people. With no outside aid for reconstruction under the present political circumstances the numbers in need are growing. The Yugoslav Red Cross has reported a sharp rise in attendance at soup kitchens and is making plans to feed well over 100,000 people this winter. There is also a growing need among some population groups who are not normally vulnerable. For example, workers in urban areas on fixed incomes have either not been paid or have seen their income lose value in real terms. They have no recourse to growing their own food in the way that those in rural areas are able to, and so have become more vulnerable.

Damage to the electricity infrastructure has resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in capacity. In real terms this will mean that hundreds of thousands of people will not have any form of heating this winter. Along with this there has been a sharp reduction in the quality of the drinking water supply: over 90 municipalities tested have indicated unacceptably high levels of microbiological or chemical contamination.

A meeting of INGOs and UNHCR in Geneva in August called upon the international donor community to respond flexibly to the humanitarian need and not to politicise aid. Grave concern was voiced about the plans of some of the major bilateral donors to channel aid strategically to opposition towns. The division of aid in this way is not ethical and does not guarantee assistance, equally, to all vulnerable groups.

As winter approaches many INGOs have resumed full activities in Serbia, despite a continuing lack of legislation under which to operate. However, with continuing political uncertainty and economic decline there is growing humanitarian need combined with great fear for the short term. It is in this context that the NGO and international community should show solidarity with the most vulnerable. If political change does come about much of the work being done now by the NGO community – both national and international – will prove to be a solid investment for the future, as well as addressing current need. It is in no one‘s interest that there is avoidable suffering in Serbia, least of all those who long for this region of Europe to be stable, democratic and prosperous.