LAURA PALMER PAVLOVIĆ, Director of USAID’s Office of Democratic and Economic Growth in Serbia: I am a Believer that Activism Can Thrive

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USAID supports numerous projects which aim to facilitate further development of democratic culture and practice in Serbia. Director of USAID’s Office of Democratic and Economic Growth in Serbia Laura Palmer Pavlović speaks for the DC on the situation in the civil sector and the perspectives of Serbia.

What is the current situation in the civil sector in Serbia like? What does your CSO Sustainability Index tell us about the latest trends in this segment?

— The current situation in the civil society sector, much like the rest of the country, is complex. Over the last couple of years we have seen both some advances, for example in areas related to philanthropy and the growth of civil society-private sector partnerships, and some challenges in areas related to the public image of civil society and the enabling environment for advocacy. This is also reflective of USAID’s Civil Society Sustainability Index trends around the world, which has rasised global concerns regarding shrinking space for civil society.

Given the current circumstances, can activism thrive at all? What are the strengths of the civil society in terms of improving civil participation in decision-making processes in the society?

— I am a firm believer that activism can thrive anytime and anywhere if it responds to local needs. People have been activists throughout history, though their themes and tools have changed based on circumstance and need. The most successful activists are those that are able to translate their ideas into tangible and effective initiatives that connect with people’s daily hopes and challenges. I think that one of the greatest opportunities and challenges civil society faces today is the speed with which grassroots movements can mobilize citizens around topics they care about. This is a huge demonstration of the faith people have that their engagement in causes can make a difference. At the same time, we’ve seen that it is critical that these movements are able to convert citizen demands into concrete policy proposals and engage with decision makers to advance them. Thus, I think that the role civil society organizations play in connecting up societal challenges with proactive policymaking is more important than ever.

You support numerous projects which aim is to facilitate further development of democratic culture and practice in Serbia. Which practices would you like to single out as the most successful?

— Two years ago we commissioned a study that looked back at our assistance in Serbia, in the area of democratic governance over the past two decades, and what had sustained, and why. We were very pleased to learn that many of the initiatives we’ve supported, from Citizens Assistance Centers to One-stop Permitting Centers to Annual budget letters from local self-governments, continue in most of the communities in which we’ve worked across Serbia. We’ve also found that results are better designed and sustained when they engage all of those affected by an issue. Lastly, engaging broad groups of stakeholders is not easy—thus, utilizing creative ways to raise awareness, engage stakeholders and establish partnerships between different sectors.

How much did the activities of the National Coalition for Decentralization change the way in which things are done in Serbia and the way in which decisions are made, considering that both processes are highly centralized?

— NCD has made Nis the epicenter of civic activism in Serbia and has brought issues of centralization and decentralization to the forefront of public debate on issues ranging from the geographic distribution of Members of Parliament and the impact of this issue on citizen representation to supporting local campaigns focused on things such as air polution, digital safety of children and labor rights intitatives. What makes them unique is that they truly practice what they preach in terms of empowering local actors to pursue their own interests and agendas, as opposed to taking on these interests and agendas by themselves.We are excited to be working with NCD to support community intiatives throughout Serbia because we too believe that when communities come together to address shared challenges great things can happen.

Can such initiatives survive without donor support?

— We believe so. The first step is to strengthen the system by which these initiatives can more easily access a combination of donor, private and public sector funding as well as mobilize community resources.This is why USAID is supporting a number of different projects that are exploring tools such as online crowdfunding, endowment building, venture philanthropy, public-private dialogue, and social entrepreneurship, that can help contribute to meeting these needs We are already starting to see the results of this approach. In the last year alone, the donacije.rs website, which was relaunched with USAID support, has faciltated the crowdfunding of nearly $100,000 to assist citizens and groups in need across Serbia. All of this takes time, patience and strategic thinking on both the civil society and donor side. We hope that in a couple of years we will not only have a number of new, strong
civil society actors addressing the needs of Serbian citizens, but that they and others will also be in a position to take further steps towards self-reliance.

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