Bosnia and Herzegovina is a small yet complicated country, with a thousand-year history and less than three million citizens. In the post-war period, the country was burdened with corruption, torn by an illogical constitutional order, facing the greatest political crisis after the war and in the midst of monumental global geopolitical shifts. Against this backdrop, the country’s civil society has been largely silent and its role peripheral. What factors might explain this phenomenon?
First, civil society organizations have gotten lost along the way, divided between frantic fundraising in the struggle for survival on the one hand and accomplishment of their mission on the other. Here, survival is the top priority, so it often happens that organizations only reactively follow calls for projects from donors; becoming donor driven.
Since Bosnia and Herzegovina has numerous levels of government (to exemplify, there are 13 Ministers of Education in a country of three million), and each of them allocates a certain part of the financial support budget to associations and foundations, the government is the largest donor to local civil society organizations (CSOs). While that sounds great, it also dulls CSOs’ critical edge, because there are fewer incentives to criticize someone who finances you. In addition, there are other anomalies in government funding of associations: these organizations are indeed often (mis)used for political agendas and the government avoids transparency, clear criteria, and even reporting of thegrants given.
Of course, there are organizations that are funded by foreign sources, and they are quite active and vocal. However, they are few and far between, and over time they have also grown closer to donors and more alienated from citizens, grassroots organizations, and their needs. These large organizations end up existing in their own bubble, far above the situation on the ground and comfortably tucked away with money.
For over 10 years, donors have been providing funding for mega projects aimed at strengthening civil society and important reforms, implemented by international agencies and consulting firms. As a result, domestic CSOs are becoming objects — rather than subjects — of social change and are directly supported by a minimal amount of these large, multi-million-dollar projects. Domestic organizations no longer initiate nor lead processes: big projects have taken that away from them. If anything, civil society organizations have become service providers.
There is an obvious, direct link between the above-mentioned trends in resource allocation and civic space. With such a systematic disempowerment of domestic organizations it is not surprising they lack the strength and capacity to defend themselves in the face of increasingly pronounced attacks against civic structures.
In addition, everything that remotely touches upon politics is completely avoided. That may make sense when politics is responsible, elections are fair and democratic, and local governments are close to the citizens. However, that is not the case in Bosnia: politics has become a media battle of mostly incompetent actors; general legal uncertainty is rampant; and the first seed of democracy that had begun to develop after the war has now been destroyed by a storm of corruption, nationalism, and crime. Separating civil society from politics is a luxury now.
Of course, it is inappropriate for CSOs to be tied exclusively to certain political parties, because the difference between them is lost. But CSOs have the right to require authorities to act in a certain way to achieve specific goals (each organization declares its goals in its statute). Perhaps CSOs’ greatest role is to insist on European values and the respect of human rights amid these turbulent times. The citizens of BiH deserve to live a dignified life in a democratic country.
It is precisely on the basis of these values and principles that a social movement has recently emerged in Bosnia and Herzegovina, initiated by civil society organizations gathered around the Declaration on Constitutional and Other Reforms of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the Road to the European Union and NATO. The text of the Declaration is the product of several months of talks led by four non-governmental organizations (HNV, SGV, VKBI, and the Forum of BiH Parliamentarians 1990), whose goal is to work together to offer adequate solutions based on international judgments. The Declaration supports the Principles for Amendments to the Constitution of BiH given by the signatories of the Declaration as well as over 63,000 citizens. This social movement, with the support of prominent experts in the field of international and constitutional law, is becoming an indispensable factor for the promotion of human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This initiative has been joined by CSOs, political parties, academia, and diaspora organizations — all the forces seeking to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a country governed by European democratic standards, where the rule of law is imperative, and without ethno-national divisions and corruption.
Though this is a good start that signals an important step forward for civil society into a more active role and stronger influence on the country’s current processes, more change is needed. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking: the time for commitment and courage is upon us.
We all need to change for civil society to be stronger in Bosnia and Herzegovina: we in the CSO sector must re-think our role in society with brutal honesty. Will the repertoire of our activities continue to comprise endless workshops, exhibitions, debates, trainings, reports and research? Donors must be bold and mobilize to change approaches and methodologies in strengthening civil society. The current approach fails to lead to substantial change: a lot of money does not necessarily mean a lot of results. Authorities need to be more open to communication and cooperation with civil society and to distribute money to associations more responsibly and transparently.
The first sign that civil society is (once again) on the rise and recovering from "projectitis" will be a growing number of initiatives that are not financially supported by donors alongside a bolder and clearer response to threats against peace and stability.
If not us, who? If not now, when?