Close to 500 civil society initiatives implemented in 53 local communities across the Western Balkans. These figures illustrate the results of the Regional Programme on Local Democracy (ReLOaD), which has been implemented over the past four years in the Western Balkans.

Yet ReLOaD is much more than just figures. Behind all of these projects and activities, there are dozens of local communities and thousands of citizens whose living conditions and chances for development have increased with the support of this programme.

As the first phase of ReLOaD is ending, the programme is celebrating the achievements of its partner civil society organisations and local governments across the Western Balkans. Over the past four years, ReLOaD has reached more than 100,000 people through various civil society initiatives designed to address the needs of citizens in local communities within the areas of social inclusion, culture, education, environmental protection, youth, and poverty reduction.

Samir Omerefendić, the Regional Programme Manager, says that one of the greatest achievements is the ability the programme has to support civil initiatives providing different services to meet the needs of marginalised groups.

ReLOaD reached more than 100,000 people in local communities over the first four year period. The effect of the civil society initiatives had a strong impact in local communities, and the changes that these projects have made to the lives of children with disabilities, marginalised groups, the unemployed, youth and other categories is worthy of mention.

Regional cooperation for achieving better results at local level

Initiated at the beginning of 2017, ReLOaD was one of the largest regional projects funded by the European Union (EU) and was implemented in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. It focused on improving collaboration between local governments and civil society organisations and on developing transparent funding mechanisms at the local level.

The Action builds on the good practices of the Reinforcement of Local Democracy (LOD) project, a model earlier developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and financed by the EU.

In the wider context, considering the challenging and complex socio-political environment in the Western Balkans region, ReLOaD strengthened participatory democracy and the EU integration process in the region by empowering civil society to take an active part in decision-making and by stimulating and enabling the legal and financial environment for civil society.

Liselotte Isaksson, Head of Sector of ‘Civil Society, Social Inclusion and Human Capital’, within Unit D.5 – Western Balkans Regional Cooperation and Programmes at the EU Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) said, “A vibrant civil society – also at the local level – is a critical component of the democratic system and an important player in the EU approximation process. It is for this reason that we are committed to supporting civil society organisations and their cooperation with local authorities and we are pleased to provide another EUR 11.35 million for the continuation of the ReLOaD initiative into its second phase.

Creating long lasting partnerships

Local governments were not only beneficiaries but also partners that co-financed civil society projects in their communities. For participating municipalities, programmes like ReLOaD are very important because they contribute to capacity building. Supported by the ReLOaD staff, local governments invested a lot of energy in adopting instruments for transparent allocation of funds to the civil society organizations, through training of local governance staff, internal changes, promotion, and visibility.

Ms. Dragana Milosavljević, an associate at the Department of Social Affairs in the Municipality of Šabac (Serbia), says that, through ReLOaD, their local government has built the path to follow in the coming years, and the experiences they shared with civil society organizations will help them to understand their needs better in the future.

“The exchange of experience with UNDP experts, and especially with colleagues from other local communities that participated in the project, contributed to building the capacity of our staff by preparing them for project evaluation, implementation, and monitoring. Apart from the possibility to help vulnerable groups in our local community in a more efficient way, through this project we improved project funding methodology, and we believe that this model will be implemented in our future cooperation with civil society organizations”, says Ms. Milosavljević.

Civil society organizations across the Western Balkans gained significant experience in project management and advanced their capacities in terms of providing efficient service to citizens while developing a sustainable framework for funding and more reliable partnership with local authorities.

Mr. Elias Mazloum, Executive Director of CSO Social Development Investment from Roskovec (Albania), says that ReLOaD has highly empowered them as a young organization, and has given them access to many opportunities. The procedures and guidelines provided by the ReLOaD team have become the backbone of their organization, starting from project development and implementation, through narrative and financial reporting, to promotion and visibility.

“ReLOaD empowers all the stakeholders - local governments, CSOs, and direct beneficiaries. We are grateful for this experience, especially to the UNDP team that has been supportive and guided us to a successful implementation of our project. Our initiative has become a social enterprise and the beneficiaries are still engaged in it, even 11 months after the project has been completed”, says Mr. Mazloum, whose CSO implemented the project that resulted in empowering unemployed women in Roskovec (Albania) through the creation of a soap production center.

Mr. Omerefendić says that the ReLOaD was a labour-intensive programme and the dedication of all participants was the key to the success.

“Aside from the large scale results in terms of 492 CSO projects in 53 localities across the Western Balkans, their results and impacts in different localities, the notion that every single ReLOaD team member gave their best to supporting civil society and local governments to change for the better - progress. This large amount of work, despite being personally rewarding for all of us, was solely the result of each individual determination to excel. Also, our team was not limited only to UNDP staff. It has been expanded to the colleagues from the European Union and EU Delegations and Offices across the region. Their advice and contributions were important to achieve good results. Thus, all of us in this complex structure feel like a small wheel contributing to something much bigger”, says Mr. Omerefendić.

Overcoming COVID-19 challenges

Facing the negative implications of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020, ReLOaD partners have demonstrated an impressive ability to change and adapt. ReLOaD was quick in reacting to the COVID-19 crisis and it managed to provide humanitarian aid to the marginalized groups in overcoming the challenges and consequences of the pandemic.

“These responses to COVID-19 were different and depended on the needs. They range from mobilizing the elderly to work out and be active while living in isolation, supporting children in online education, providing training and basic agricultural tools and materials in supporting livelihoods, youth volunteers supporting elderly, etc. Groups targeted by ReLOaD are often at the margins of society and these people even under usual circumstances live and struggle in daily lives, mostly in silence.  Together with civil society, we managed to adapt the processes and succeed with the provision of most essential support to those in need through 53 funded projects valued above 380.000 EUR”, says Mr. Omerefendić.

None of it would be possible without the EU partnership, which financially supported the project with a budget of more than 8.5 million EUR. It resulted in creating a network of local governments from the Western Balkans that gathered together with a common goal – to create a sustainable policy framework and partnership among key stakeholders on a local level while bringing benefits to citizens across the region. Furthermore, the ReLOaD initiative will continue in the next four years.

“Unfortunately, we were not able to accommodate all the interest expressed by local communities in the first phase. Still, with EU support we were able to increase our impact by ensuring continuity of the Programme for the next four years. Given our joint efforts, good results, and declared demand from local partners, the planning for the continuation was initiated even in early 2019”, says Mr. Omerefendić.

 He was also proud to inform that the second phase of ReLOaD starts in January 2021.

ReLOaD 2 will continue support to local governments and civil society, whilst also focusing on youth engagement in the Western Balkans. More detailed programme information will be presented soon.

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* For the United Nations, references to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999);

* For the European Union, this designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

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