AIM: start

FRI, 29 JUN 2001 00:49:17 GMT

Non-government Sector Still Weak


AIM Sarajevo, June 18, 2001

Amateurs who couldn't find jobs in government institutions? Seekers of donations and easy money? Idlers who have nothing better to do, or followers of certain local parties and Western power centers? This is how the Bosnian-Herzegovinian public and many journalists perceive those who work in hundreds of non-government organizations in the country. Some might concede that certain NGOs indeed care and offer daily assistance to the most vulnerable segments of the population. But the unfortunate misperception prevails -- the third sector is thus appreciated only when its activities are humanitarian, but as far as the building of civic society is concerned, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a domestic politician here and there still have the main say. In this, NGOs are nowhere to be seen.

Why is it that, as opposed to Croatia and Serbia, the non-government sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still too weak to monitor elections and influence their outcome, develop civic society, or topple autocratic leaders, which certainly are not in short supply? And the country literally craves for NGOs that would inform the public of things political and economic power centers are trying to hush up and hide, and strongly influence the building of democratic institutions. Some cynically say that Bosnia was intellectually always lagging behind its neighbors, some may rightfully claim that nationalism and war destroyed not only the economy but the civic spirit as well. But there is also another reason not so frequently mentioned -- as opposed to its neighbors where donations meant for the development of the civic sector were able to reach NGOs directly and assist their activities, in Bosnia, such funds ended up in the OSCE budget, and only occasionally reached certain NGOs. In other words, the international community instead of Bosnia's citizens, took charge of the money and responsibility for developing civic society. The results are obvious -- there is progress, but its extent is such that no sane person, except for the occasional dutiful international bureaucrat, is or should be content with it.

Much like independent media outlets, non-government organizations in Bosnia began emerging during the war and thanks to occasional assistance from abroad. Today, when this assistance is drying up, they, much like the media, have to find their true identity, vision and goals, and a manner in which to attain them. Or, to use the simple language of the U.S. diplomacy, they should find a way to survive on the market, regardless of whether anyone here knows how this is done or what this should actually mean.

The presence of international mediators in Bosnia-Herzegovina still offers a good basis for reviving the country and, consequently, the non-government sector as well. The Bosnian Parliament recently reviewed a bill on associations and foundations prepared by OHR and OSCE experts. After the bill is adopted, there will be no entity borders for NGOs, and their activities, ranging from the promotion of civic society and human rights to health care, education, science, culture, sport, to tolerance and religious freedoms, will be boosted. The law will furthermore finally end the communist mutants, government organizations turned non-government, such as tourist and automobile associations, even chambers of commerce. Such organizations are now registered as NGOs, but thanks to a forced government decision (by Edhem Bicakcic, Party of Democratic Action, former premier of the Muslim-Croat Federation) all physical and legal entities are obliged by law to finance them! When automobile associations are in question, for example, this practically means that each of the 500,000 car owners in the Federation, when registering his/her vehicle, has to pay DM8-15 to the Bosnia-Herzegovina Automobile Association (BHAA). The association, which thus receives over DM6 million has a single obligation -- to inform the public of conditions on the roads! Many say that no organization has succeeded in selling its information at a better price! Of course, the BHAA charges for its other services.

The bill on associations, of course, envisages that certain NGOs can carry out activities of public interest on behalf of the government, that is, that the government can hire them to do so. Candidacy for such a status, however, has to be clear and transparent (if this journalist, for example, tried to found a car association and expected the government to grant her funding, she would soon end up bankrupt). NGOs, on the other hand, as in all other countries, have to invest most of what they earn in developing the sector they are active in, attain the goals for which they were founded, and pay only those members who are directly involved in these activities. Unfortunately, of the enormous funds the BHAA or tourist organizations in the Muslim-Croat Federation had access to during the Izetbegovic era, the politicians (who else?) sitting on their boards and committees, and not the workers, profited the most.

Although the bill envisages and gives a strong incentive for transparency in spending and operating to NGOs of public interest and to all citizens associations, it is highly unlikely that this will be attained soon. Six months ago Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a law on free access to information that applies to all documents, especially financial and budgetary. However, neither are reporters enthusiastic about using this unique opportunity, nor are local power-mongers ready to make such documents available. Thus, for example, a reporter from the Doboj Jug attempted to learn exactly what was included in the sum of DM90,000, said to be an estimate of damages from recent flooding and to whom it will be distributed. Municipal officials simply shrugged him off, as if he had inquired about a top secret issue!

Reporters should not be blamed for everything regardless of the extent of their misunderstanding of the importance of NGOs and their own profession (recently a Sarajevo reporter said she was not interested in the Helsinki Committee of B-H Citizens because "it is a foreign organization that has nothing to do with us in Bosnia-Herzegovina"). The fact is that the third sector has failed in taking a true step forward in struggling for the goals it purportedly pursues. All their efforts end in announcements saying that there is something wrong in the state of Bosnia. But even before the bill on associations was drawn up, NGOs in Bosnia had an opportunity (quite rare even in much more developed countries) to participate in preparing bills in the sectors of their activity, to justify them before the Parliament's legislation committee or even "defend" them at plenary sessions if they failed to find a common language with the committee. Needless to say, local NGOs never used this opportunity to step out of the domain of criticism into the arena of true action, that is, to take initiative. Such an opportunity for participation in drawing up regulations was created last year, during the rule of "hard-line" nationalists, when international representatives in Bosnia needed a vehicle to push their election bill through the Bosnian Parliament. Since it was complied by a group of international and domestic experts (a part of the letter coming from Bosnia's non-government sector), and the person who launched the motion, one Ljubic from Biljana Plavsic's Serb People's Alliance, knew about the bill as much as any other ordinary citizen, Parliament's Rules and Regulations were immediately expanded to include a provision that NGOs could explain and justify their proposals before that body. Thus instead of Ljubic, OSCE foreign experts defended the election law, which fortunately failed due to its ethnic discrimination, but left a window of opportunity for other non-government groups to play a more active role in reviving Bosnia and leading it on the path of democracy. Unfortunately, to this day it remained but an opportunity.

The first reading of the bill on associations shows that the U.S. NGO model in Bosnia will prevail over the European. The powers of the administration will be reduced by being transferred to the public interest NGOs. This could, ultimately, result in activities of common interest for all Bosnian citizens, regardless of the entity they come from. For example, sport associations would no longer be restricted to the entities (RS representatives, for instance, still refuse to adopt a bill on sport valid for the whole of Bosnia), and environmental, social, professional, cultural, health care and minority issues will no longer be stupidly divided into "yours" and "ours."

But transparency in government will once again be the crucial issue, that is, how it will be decided which NGO will be granted the right to act in the public interest (the bill leaves it to the ministries to regulate the issue through special decrees), and how the budget funds for the NG sector will be distributed. Although it is not a problem to find data on what NGOs received funding from the Party of Democratic Action government in 2000, not one NGO representative will say he/she knew about it or has documents revealing such details. Similar is the attitude of journalists. This is to say that certain data may be public but this does not mean that the public will be informed of it. Well acquainted with the manner in which the nationalistic parties used to govern, most of potential witnesses will say that budget funds were certainly approved to "their people" in the NG sector. This, of course, is not untrue. But such a state of affairs is controlled and changed only by initiative and the force of arguments, because it is not certain that the new authorities will not succumb to the temptation to take better care of NGOs dear to them. It should be noted that last year the government of the Party of Democratic Action and the Croatian Democratic Union approved over DM1.5 million to the NG sector. On the rather long list of recipients, not one NGO active in truly pursuing civic society can be found. But all those dear to the hearts of the nationalistic power centers are there. The lists includes the following: an organization representing the families of martyrs for the Islamic faith, the Association of Families of Soldiers Who Died for Mostar, the Union of War Veterans of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Association of Croatian Volunteers Who Fought in the War for the Fatherland, the Council of Bosniak Intellectuals, the Bosnian Archbishopric, the Association of Young Muslims, the Croatian Cultural Association. And the list goes on and on.

Ivana Drazic