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

June 25, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

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.