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UN: Conference Concludes NGOs Have Often Failed In Efforts To Develop Civil Society

Civil-society organizations and donors from the Balkans and Central Asia met in Albania's port city of Vlora this week to discuss the effectiveness of their work over the past decade of transition. Alban Bala of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service was there and found substantial dissatisfaction among UN Development Program experts about the low level of civic engagement among most nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, in the region.

Vlora, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Experts from the United Nations Development Program, or UNDP, met in Vlora, Albania, this week and spent time discussing what they view as the failure of NGOs to develop greater participatory democracy in the former communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Christine Musisi is a UNDP expert working in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.

"In Central Asia, the state has been very strong in some countries and has not encouraged the development of a free civil society. So it is more difficult -- especially in countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- for civil-society organizations to actually grow and become influential enough to push for democratic governance. In my opinion, the financing of civil society has been bigger in service delivery and humanitarian assistance because of the crisis that occurred when the countries moved to capitalism. And financing of political organizations has been limited just to a few organizations," Musisi said.

Musisi stressed that, "not enough time has been given for civil society to grow organically in the region." She said the challenge for the UNDP is how to support organizations on their own terms.

The UNDP's Sarajevo-based Svetlana Pavelic said civil society in Bosnia consists of numerous donor-driven NGOs, which she said are not sustainable.

"So much money has been poured into the NGO sector in Bosnia, and you don't see the real impact. I cannot see it, at least. If you'd ask citizens in the street [whether] they know [anything] about certain NGOs, they don't know. And that particular NGO has eaten up to millions of dollars," Pavelic said.

Sonja Stefanovska, a UNDP officer in Macedonia, said that in her country, NGOs are politically driven. Stefanovska claimed that this has resulted in these organizations having an unclear mission and status.

"The problem with the NGOs in Macedonia is that they do not have a clearly defined mission -- most of them. They are either everywhere or nowhere. They don't have a mandate. If there is an announcement for a grant, all NGOs will be applying, irrespective of whether this enters in their area or not, or their mission is advocacy or representing certain rights," Stefanovska said.

Stefanovska said NGOs are not focused on real social issues like poverty. Rather, she noted, about two-thirds of them are chiefly concerned with arts and sports.

Maria Zlatareva-Pernishka is a program analyst from the UNDP in Bulgaria. She said that, according to their survey conclusions about civic participation in governance, "Bulgarians are only halfway toward civil society."

"They still prefer the individual form of participation rather than the collective form of participation, like NGO participation or participation in political parties. And one surprising result was that their willingness to participate is much higher than their actual participation. And the main barrier for the Bulgarians is that they do not believe that their participation would change anything," Zlatareva-Pernishka said.

She said that even the significant integration progress made in her country has not contributed to a better structuring of civil society.

The UNDP's Musisi said this is due to the traditional beliefs of the countries where the projects are implemented. She said donors do not necessarily show any respect for the traditions of the countries where they operate. As she put it, "The donors come with their own procedures, their own concepts -- the concept of the civil society is Western and the challenge is how do we make it a concept for the region."

Massimo Diana, an Italian UNDP officer based in Bosnia, found broad support for his proposal to take a closer look at religion-oriented NGOs.

"I think we should really look at the religious organizations, because at least in Bosnia, religious groups are not pursuing a policy of peace -- actually, rather a policy of division, of separation. And, of course, there's a lack of trust, and the social networks have been destroyed by the war," Diana said.

Michael Hoffman is director of the Tirana office of the Carter Center, a nonprofit public-policy center founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Hoffman said that mechanically imposing a model does not solve anything.

"I think that the donors in general, including bilateral donors and also the international organization -- whether it's the UNDP or the World Bank or whoever -- I think they made a number of mistakes. I think they failed to understand the painfulness of the transition, the complexity of the transition, the need to recognize that, even though it may be Europe, it's still not the West," Hoffman said.

The UNDP is calling for a new stand to be taken toward economic associations, as well as prominent individuals. Experts say the partnership of civil societies with government authorities should be expanded to better deliver social services in poorer countries.