Helvetas has been present in Serbia since 2015 and currently implements several very important projects while working on a new strategy that will enable it to maintain a strong local presence in Serbia and the region in the coming period
Both the ACT and MED projects deal with citizen participation, though they use different approaches. One works directly with citizens, while the other works through cooperation with local governments. However, they certainly cooperate mutually, exchanging experiences and good practices, and strive to convey the Swiss culture of active citizen participation to Serbia.
Helvetas is an international non-governmental organisation with Swiss roots that has been contributing to transformative changes in Southeast Europe since the early 1990s. Currently, in addition to two projects (ACT – For an active civil society together, and MED – Accountable Public Finance and Citizen Participation Programme) that are being financed by the Swiss Government, Helvetas also works together with partners on the implementation of the Organic Trade for Development project, supported by SECO, Reconomy, supported by Swedish Government, and the Landscape Fire Management Regional project in the Western Balkans, which deals with climate change and is also funded by the Swiss Government.
ACT – For An Active Civil Society Together
The project “ACT- For an active civil society together” is a four-year project supported by the Swiss Government and implemented by Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Civic Initiatives from Belgrade. ACT was launched in September 2019. Its first phase will be completed this September and preparations are underway for the next fouryear phase.
The largest number of civil society organisations in Serbia started their work more than thirty years ago, and until ten years ago only a third of citizens perceived them positively. More than forty per cent of Serbian citizens today recognise the effects of their work and believe that they protect the public interest and fight for social change.
Helvetas believes social cohesion is crucial for a strong society, promoting unity, interconnectedness and a shared identity
“Despite these positive changes, the general level of engagement of citizens in their communities is still low. At the local level, 15% of citizens participate in some form of decision-making, while at the national level it is only 4%. The initial idea behind launching the ACT project was to make civil society organisations operating throughout Serbia more sustainable and more responsible, thereby empowering and motivating citizens to participate more in the decision-making process, especially at the local level. That’s why, in addition to financial support for the implementation of their initiatives, we also provided them with entire capacity building packages of education and mentorship by excellent experts in the field of communications, public advocacy and citizen mobilisation,” says Snežana Mišić Mihajlović, international team leader of the ACT project at Helvetas Serbia.
During the four years of project implementation, close to 200 civil society organisations from 60 towns and cities across Serbia were supported, with more than 100,000 citizens benefiting directly from the supported projects and initiatives. “These organisations engaged citizens in public dialogue, participatory decision- making and advocacy, and several initiated cooperation with local authorities on issues of public importance. Significant changes have been achieved, such as the amendment of the regulations on the representation of women in local communities and the introduction of the green chair at the local level. At the national level, for the first time, women aged over 45 were recognised in the Gender Equality Strategy as being a more difficult to employ category, and the Youth Strategy envisages the development of youth responsible budgeting. Many of them can today more legitimately represent citizens and better mobilise people, while they are also able to express their needs and be heard by the authorities,” concludes Gorana Radovanović, adviser on the ACT project at Helvetas Serbia.
MED – Accountable Local Finances And Citizen Participation Programme
Helvetas believes that social cohesion is crucial to creating a strong society, promoting unity, interconnectedness and a shared identity. This cohesion fosters trust, support and stronger relationships, fostering economic prosperity and promoting collaboration, innovation and collective progress.
This is why Helvetas responded positively to the elevated demand of the Government of Serbia to implement the Swiss supported MED Programme in over 60 local governments across Serbia. MED fosters the social contract between citizens and local governments by promoting efficient taxation on the governments revenue side and participatory decision making on the expenditure side.
Within the scope of the MED Programme, which is supported by the Government of Switzerland, technical assistance and financial support have been provided to local governments accross Serbia that are committed to supporting projects proposed by citizens through special budget allocations. Almost a million euros was allocated for these projects, 60% of which was allocated from the local budgets of municipalities and cities, with 40% co-financed by the Swiss Government. A total of 149 projects were submitted, proposed by informal groups of citizens comprising a total of 2,858 families who have settled their property tax obligations.
“In the area of improving local public finances in the MED Programme, the Swiss Government finances the hiring of additional associates to work in local tax administrations, for which funds of 480,000 CHF have been provided and more than 100 people have been hired to date. In the previous period, local governments supported by the Programme managed to increase the total collection of their own-source revenues by 30%, thereby securing additional funds to finance local priorities from their budgets. Considering that these are important local services, the Swiss Government also helps both the improvement and development of digital services in this segment, with the aim of facilitating the availability of public services to citizens,” says Alexander Grunauer, team leader at MED, Accountable local finances and citizen participation.
With its MED Programme, Helvetas is a partner of Serbia in its efforts to construct a strong society that combines social cohesion, citizen participation, collective decision-making, efficient and transparent taxation, and economic prosperity. By nurturing these interconnected aspects, Serbia can create an environment where individuals thrive, communities prosper and a collective sense of wellbeing is achieved.