Issue 8 - Article 3

The role of NGOs in social reconstruction in Post-Yugoslav countries

May 1, 1997
Paul Stubbs

The potential role of NGOs in social reconstruction in conflict and post-conflict societies, often expressed in terms of the importance of building local capacity and civil society, is increasingly central to international debates on linking relief and development in what have been termed ‘complex emergencies’.

Research undertaken since late 1993 by Leeds Metropolitan University’s International Social Policy Research Unit, in Post-Yugoslav countries, particularly Croatia, Slovenia and latterly Bosnia-Herzegovina, question some of the central arguments in this debate and have begun to outline alternative policy and practice options for donor agencies and international NGOs (INGOs).

Adopting an ‘action research’ approach to the work explicitly distanced it from both technical and pure academic approaches. The work is based on a long-term engagement with local social processes, and support for specific local NGO initiatives, in the context of concern over the role of global agencies and institutions in the making of national social policy.

The research has highlighted pertinent differences between the countries studied in terms of social development, (although it is important to note that the use of ‘Former Yugoslavia’ as an all encompassing framework somewhat clouds an understanding of the ‘uneven development’ of the Former Yugoslav republics – the different impact of war and destruction, forced migration and post-socialist transition on those countries).

A key finding from the research is that the nature of emergency intervention by INGOs influences the development of a sustainable local NGO sector.

The existence of large numbers of INGOs, directly providing ‘own brand’ services, aggravates problems of communication and mistrust, contributes to the erosion of the professional middle-class and to the suspension of local civil society activities.

In Slovenia for example, few foreign organisations have been directly involved in service provision outside specific refugee programmes and only a small number have engaged in developmental work with the indigenous NGO sector. The latter has its origins in social movement and grassroots activities in the 1980s, introducing considerable innovation in methods of working with marginalised and oppressed groups and there is evidence that such national NGOs are beginning to influence broader social welfare policy and practice.

A case study from the research illustrates how Save the Children Fund (UK) was able to recognise the positive elements of this legacy of civil society, and build a longer term partnership conducive to the development of the sector as a whole.

Croatia by contrast has been much more actively involved in the war. In Croatia, civil society movements were more divided and the role of grassroots nationalism in this context should not be underestimated.

In addition, a significant number of foreign organisations began programmes, on the basis of predominantly emergency-based funding, yet often without a clear exit strategy. Many set up parallel services not connecting with or building on existing social welfare provision, notably in the psycho-social field aimed at combating trauma. Only recently have agencies started to recognise the need to take on a more developmental role with more emphasis on self-help and community-based approaches. And even this change has been criticised by some as driven by decreased funding as part of ‘just another trend’.

In light of these findings, a key recommendation must be for clearer assessment of local civil society and its capacity prior to intervention by donors and INGOs. Too often, in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, a crude reading of Former Yugoslav republics as ‘communist’ and therefore ‘lacking a developed civil society’ meant that opportunities for conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction were missed.

In addition, donor and INGOs’ implicit or explicit understandings of what constitutes an NGO, together with their criteria for funding, have tended to inhibit diversity within the sector and, indeed, have turned many grassroots initiatives into large bureaucracies.

Exceptions to this rule, in particular in Croatia, include the Anti War Campaign and its member groups, including the Osijek Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights, which have maintained their independence, often through partnership with donors who are tend to support programmes with a more ‘solidaristic’ than ‘service-delivery’ role.

The research also points to the relative absence of clear evaluations of NGO work, or even of agreed criteria and working methodologies, much less a commitment to involve beneficiaries centrally in this process. This has tended to reinforce a situation noted elsewhere, namely that “providing resources can be mobilised, it is an almost anything goes type situation” (Duffield, M. The Globalisation of Public Policy, University of Birmingham, 1996).

For this reason, the research has sought to work with local NGOs to increase the confidence of staff in developing their own approach to evaluation and promoting participatory evaluation as an indispensable component of community-based work.

The research further questions the emergence of parallel welfare systems in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with INGOs on the one hand working mainly with refugees and displaced persons, and local and central governmental services on the other, working with the local poor.

Where donor agencies and INGOs tend to work either through governmental institutions or through local partner NGOs, this can lead to competition with independent local NGO initiatives for scarce resources and results in a drain on the local skilled workers (INGOs are often in a position to offer higher salaries and benefits).

Although there may be relevant questions about the legitimacy and accountability of national government institutions and agencies, the need for sustainable linkages between local NGOs and government is not addressed by setting up and maintaining parallel services.

By undertaking a clear social policy assessment, by rendering their own implicit social visions explicit and open to debate, and by building on existing welfare infrastructure wherever possible, donor agencies and INGOs can promote social welfare for all, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.

As an example Prijatelj (meaning ‘Friend’), a local NGO formed when an INGO left, which works with Roma (gypsies), refugees and others in a particularly deprived part of Zagreb, has begun to prioritise joint work with the local Health Centre and Centre for Social Care, with the encouragement of international donors.

Specific case studies show that it is often grassroots initiatives, including volunteer projects, such as Pakrac (Croatia) and Gornji Vakuf (Bosnia-Herzegovina) which may offer opportunities for the development of new social meanings and hence, of ‘peace from below’ through the identification of alternative community leaders. An ‘integrated’ approach to peace-building as social development is seen as far more valuable than recent attempts to promote more discrete, project-type, approaches based on micro-sociological understandings.

Issues of poverty, unemployment, and social exclusion not only on the basis of ethnicity, but also of age, class, gender, ability and sexuality need to be examined. NGO development and infrastructural rehabilitation, should not be promoted as an end in itself, but seen in the context of overall social welfare and peace building.

Thus the Centre for Peace Studies, a local NGO based in Croatia, combines training in peace-building for activists from post-Yugoslav countries with an attempt to ensure that lessons learned from grassroots initiatives are taken on board by UN agencies, donors and INGOs.

Rather than seeing NGO work in conflict-affected areas as inexorably divided between cheap service delivery and an only vague concern to rebuild civil society, the research has worked closely with local activists seeking to break down these divisions through, for example, local community development programmes, legal advice centres etc. In the process, new relationships between politics and development are born, questioning crude notions of NGO work as ‘non political’.

In Croatia in particular, the process has been adversely affected by new legislation which reflects a suspicion of NGOs by dominant political groups (This is discussed at more length in my chapter ‘Croatia : NGO development, globalism and conflict’ in Bennett, J. (ed.) NGOs and Governments, ICVA, forthcoming.)

Generally then, the research suggests the need to combine the core concerns of social policy with those of development studies, underpinned by a concern with social visions at the supranational, state, regional and community levels. Questions of entitlement, capacity and sustainability, and their converse, of need, vulnerability, and distortion, are of immense importance in ongoing debates about social integration.

Case studies of post-Yugoslav countries demonstrate the shortcomings of global and international agencies in a European context, in terms not unknown to commentators on the African situation, raising acute questions about how to address causes rather than symptoms, build capacity rather than parallel provision, promote genuine civil society rather than mirror images of opportunistic INGOs, and above all, contribute to sustainable peace rather than a balance of ethnic terror.

Action research can help to identify constraints which hinder progress in these areas, and highlight good practice and alternative conceptualisations which can offer ways forward.

For copies of the original research report, subsequent summary and dissemination papers, or more details about the research and other publications, please contact:
Paul Stubbs
University of Zagreb, School of Social Work
Nazorova 51, 10 000
Zagreb, Croatia
Fax: +385 1 48 21 206

Paul Stubbs is Associate Research Fellow, Leeds Metropolitan University, International Social Policy Research Unit.


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