How to avoid creating a ‘virtual’ civil society

Žarko Papić

After the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995), which put an end to the four-year war, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) became a major beneficiary of international support. Six years later, neither the economic situation nor the role of law nor the development of civil society in BiH have changed. What can be learned from the experience of BiH that is relevant to international support policies in other countries in post-war conditions?

A large portion of international support has rightly been aimed at the democratization of BiH and the development of civil society. This article will focus on policies of support to civil society, which are in many ways inadequate.

Supporting an elite

One point that needs to be emphasized is that this support ‘covers’ a very small elite within the population. Consequently, this elite is professionalized; it separates itself from ‘grassroots’ problems and social reality. Hundreds of roundtables and workshops take place, attended by the same 100-200 civil society ‘partisans’. As a result, one receives a greatly inflated view of the great efforts of these local partisans and international organizations. The result – a ‘virtual civil society’.

This closes the circle of dependency, which BiH also faces in other areas. Changes in ‘real’ society and strengthening of active citizen and grassroots initiatives are needed if  this dependency is to be escaped.

Understanding how this virtual civil society elite has come about must be the first step in moving away from it, but this step has yet to be taken. Instead, everyone was amazed when the ‘virtual picture’ was destroyed by the election results, which demonstrated clearly that the NGO elite does not have the influence on the population that we had all believed.

This article will focus mainly on the development of one segment of civil society, local NGOs. There is not enough space for a complete analysis of international support to civil society. This is an important point, since civil society is very often reduced to NGOs alone, and the wider civil society, whose values should permeate all segments of a society, are neglected.

Development of local NGOs in BiH

Given BiH’s ethnic divisions and weak institutions, development of local NGOs is important. Local NGOs can achieve a great deal in terms of reconstructing tolerance and trust and establishing multi-ethnic cooperation through pluralism of ideas, activities and forms of a common life. All experiences show that multi-ethnic cooperation is most rapidly reached at the grassroots level, around the important and simple common problems of everyday life.

The exercise of citizens’ rights and responsibilities at the local level and participation in public activities – from the fight for human rights to social protection – will help rebuild society at the grassroots level and provide a basis and motivation for the functioning of other civil society institutions and government and public institutions.

International organizations from the UN system and others cooperate with the authorities at the government level but they prefer to give aid at the local level (as directly as possible) through NGOs. BiH did not have a tradition of NGOs so their number was very small. This empty space was ‘filled’ by the international NGOs, who were the main providers of support in the field. The international NGOs helped to establish new local NGOs to carry out their programmes. These were not formally branches of the parent NGOs but they were very dependent on them. This seemed to be the only solution in the circumstances, but it caused many problems. These NGOs were ill equipped to deal with specific local situations and characteristics, and their ‘costs’ were very high.

This situation came about largely because of the funding polices of major international donors. Money needed to go into ‘safe’ hands, as they perceived it. Such donors tend to be wary of grassroots organizations, fearing that money may be misappropriated or not used effectively. Funds therefore went either to the international NGOs themselves or to the new NGOs established under their auspices, sometimes termed in Bosnia ‘INGO clones’. These often had non-local personnel, who were familiar with international standards and accounting practices.

The main problem with international support to local NGOs in BiH is that it comprises a particular ‘sector’ of support policies, oriented towards NGOs as such. Most attention is given to NGOs that work in areas like democratization and human rights – a reflection of funders’ own priorities.

The best way to support the growth of local NGOs is through their early inclusion in all forms of international support. This means including them as implementing partners in all ‘sectors’ of international support, from humanitarian assistance and development of the social sector to the fight against poverty, education, good governance, etc. This may mean formation of new NGOs and provision of training with a clear purpose.

It is particularly important to support the development of grassroots NGOs, for it is they that develop the practice of civil society. The development of civil society thus becomes a part of all support policies, and the policies themselves become ‘civilly coloured’.

Why is the local NGO sector still so weak?

The weakness of the local NGO sector in BiH, even after five years of support, is partly the result of the break in the tradition of free association of citizens during the socialist period. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were over 1,300 organizations in BiH that would be called NGOs nowadays. In 1992 there were only a handful. In 1998 there were 1,500 such organizations (more recent estimates do not exist).

Most local NGOs had a role in delivering humanitarian aid, and many focused on democratization and human rights (for which funding was readily available to the international NGOs), but they did not extend their activities to other areas of human need. In particular, they were not encouraged or assisted to develop a wider role in community building. While international organizations and international NGOs showed limited interest in building local capacity and supporting the sustainability of local NGOs, the local NGOs were themselves fragmented and did not cooperate with each other.

Sadly, the conditions that would enable existing NGOs to become sustainable and new ones to develop do not exist. The main problems here are:

  • Until the second half of 2001, there was no legal framework governing the establishment and operation of local NGOs, including resource mobilization for their work. The new law on NGOs for the whole BiH will be useful, but it has come very late.
  • A lack of comprehension of the importance of local NGOs on the part of the BiH authorities at all levels has led to a lack of contact and cooperation.
  • Frequent changes in the priorities of international donor organizations has undermined the sustainability of local NGOs. Donors’ practice of providing funds for short-term projects often means that local NGOs can survive only for a very short period of time.
  • A lack of investment in strengthening local NGOs has meant that their internal problems (lack of managerial experience, inability to find resources, lack of direct cooperation with NGOs from other countries, etc) remain unsolved.
  • There is little media coverage of NGOs and a general lack of information about what they do.
  • There is no continuous monitoring and analysis of the situation and problems of the NGO community in BiH. This might help pick up problems and suggest solutions to the local authorities and international organizations.

The overall result is that the local NGO sector is not sustainable without direct financing from international donations. A great number of local NGOs will close, owing to the current (and logical) reduction of funding for the reconstruction of BiH. Inadequate support policies for this segment of civil society will mean a step backwards in relation to the current situation. And the current situation is far from good.

1 For more details, see Žarco Papić (ed) (2001) International Support Policies to South-East European Countries: Lessons (not) learned in BiH Sarajevo: OSF BiH/Muller.

Žarco Papić heads the Sarajevo-based International Bureau for Humanitarian Issues. He can be contacted at

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Special feature to read

Charitable giving in Asia more than expected

Jaime Faustino