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Improving EU-U.S. Cooperation in Civil Society Support in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans

By Rosa Balfour, Nicolas Bouchet, and Joerg Forbrig

The European Union and the United States devote considerable funds and programs to supporting civil society in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans – support that is being confronted with old and new challenges. Closing civic space is now entrenched in many countries and the means to undermine civic actors has become more sophisticated. The sustainability of civil society organizations (CSOs) remains a challenge. This requires the EU and the United States to work with and alongside each other more efficiently to make sure that their funds are used in the most impactful way.

This report is the result of a one-year research project, supported by USAID, into the extent to which the EU and United States cooperate in supporting civil society in the region, and how, through case studies of Belarus, Serbia, and Ukraine. It is based on interviews with European and U.S. policymakers and implementers, representatives of multilateral institutions, and international democracy-promotion organizations, and civil society representatives in the three countries as well as in Brussels and Washington.

There have been efforts to foster knowledge exchange and cooperation, but there is considerable scope and justification for the EU and the United States to cooperate more at all levels of decision-making and in designing and implementing civil society assistance, without sacrificing independence or priorities. This can take different forms and have different impacts, beyond improving the effectiveness of their programs.

It is important to progress beyond the current level of dialogue on the ground but more crucially between Brussels and Washington.

The two largest outside supporters of civil society in the region visibly backing the same goals jointly as well as in parallel increases the legitimacy and political weight their efforts. It can also reduce operational risk and provide better protection to CSOs. Further cooperation could be the ultimate confirmation of the synergies in strategy between them in the region.

The gains of the existing EU-U.S. cooperation in civil society support in the region have been mostly at the country level. It is important to progress beyond the current level of dialogue on the ground but more crucially between Brussels and Washington. The strategic discussion around the broader challenges of supporting civil society in the region should take place between capitals where larger decisions are made.

Senior policymakers have to support improving how the EU and the United States cooperate. A structured and regular technical dialogue between Brussels and Washington would improve the quality of assistance-design exchanges. A broader dialogue at the senior level is also needed for a more strategic understanding of the situation in the region and how to navigate it better. Such efforts would also send a strong message to the political actors and citizens of the region.

The EU and United States agree that supporting civil society in the region requires a comprehensive approach to building resilience through developing its financial viability and diversifying its funding. Closer EU-U.S. cooperation can have a more system-wide impact in optimizing the use of existing funds. While there are efforts to simplify EU and U.S. procedures, for most CSOs the requirements associated with application and receipt of assistance still use up much of their operational capacity – a sub-optimal use of capacity that has been required or funded by donors.

The awareness of the need to engage in a genuine dialogue with civil society on building sustainability needs to be translated into programs that respond more to its inputs. The EU and United States can improve how they reach out to emerging highly localized, non-traditional or non-institutionalized civil society. They can also increase the impact of their assistance by looking at how to tailor their programs more to the self-identified needs of a more diverse range of civic actors.

A serious challenge remains in terms of understanding and addressing the structural and societal drivers of the closing space in individual countries. Related to this, the cooptation of civil society actors and the creation of organizations by repressive regimes needs more attention. As the EU and United States encourage government-civil society contacts, understanding more clearly the true nature of some of the actors involved and their impact on the resiliency of the sector is crucial.

Clear regional dynamics and similarities call for a regional dimension to assistance. It is important for the EU and the United States to reinforce cross-border civil society links in the region. Both back existing regional approaches, adding an important layer to their civil society assistance. However, there is room for more such mechanisms that would enable them to scale up significantly cross-border support.

Improving Exchanges and Mutual Inputs

The EU and the United States should build on the examples of successful in-country information exchange by requiring their missions in all countries of the region to do this in a more institutionalized way, while leaving considerable leeway to in-country staff to determine the modality that is most appropriate to the local context. It should be standard for the EU and the United States to push together for there being a technical level working group on civil society in each country. The exact way in which such groups should operate should be flexible to reflect the number of donors on the ground and the nature of their respective assistance portfolios there. While in some cases ad hoc consultations in-country may meet many of the same goals at the technical level, the process of convening a working group would also in itself put more political weight behind assistance efforts and helping drive change on the ground.

The EU and the United States should also look into ways to formalize and institutionalize knowledge exchanges and dialogues between relevant regional and thematic staff at the capitals level.

In countries where there is already good information exchange, the EU and the United States, along with other donors, could develop a simple joint due-diligence framework to identify local partners that have been established to be most trustworthy. This could also provide a basis for experimenting with joint assistance efforts in which, for example, monitoring and reporting procedures could be simplified so that more of the capacity of these identified trusted partners can be freed for implementing projects, contributing to addressing the issue of sustainability.

The EU and the United States should also look into ways to formalize and institutionalize knowledge exchanges and dialogues between relevant regional and thematic staff at the capitals level. For example, the process by which the EU is developing its new generation of road maps for civil society in the region offers an ideal opportunity for such a discussion to take place. This should then be followed up by a reciprocal consultation of EU peers when similar strategies are being prepared by the United States.

The EU and the United States should also consider convening an annual technical-level working meeting, possibly on the sidelines of a regular transatlantic event, such as the EU-U.S. development dialogue. They should also initiate more frequent regular “virtual” meetings of regional and thematic experts, as well as those of other donors, to discuss matters or countries that are of particularly high interest.

Supporting Sustainability

The EU and the United States should develop and fund jointly a pilot mechanism to provide baseline core support over a longer period (e.g. 3–5 years) for a few trusted CSO partners working on key issues, so that these can develop and implement a more strategic agenda based on their own priorities. The funds for this could be “ring-fenced” within the EU-U.S. overall assistance budget cycles.

Within this, the EU and the United States should also test the use of new ongoing reporting, monitoring and evaluation processes that are rigorous but less onerous on these CSOs. Care should be taken not to give the impression of picking and entrenching privileged partners so as to avoid any counterproductive backlash in the rest of civil society. While still in its early stages, the USAID LocalWorks initiative could provide a valuable example of how to support CSOs in a different way for a joint EU-U.S. effort for medium-to-long-term capacity development.

The EU and the United States should also review together to what extent their requirements for how partners can spend funds on salaries, infrastructure, and activities respectively can be amended in favor of greater discretion by partners, at least in some cases.

Diversifying Reach

The EU and the United States should entrench the initial progress they have made in working with re-granting partners to widen and diversify the reach of their civil society assistance, and should develop further their dialogue about how to expand such efforts together as well as with other donors and international implementing partners that have strong knowledge of the grassroots situation in the countries concerned.

To further widen and diversify their assistance reach to civil society in the region, the EU and the United States should look into a joint effort to produce a generic model for a basic-needs assessment of very small CSOs and non-traditional civic actors. This would identify some appropriate basic forms of support that they could provide to help them become more sustainable, which could then be provided through short-to-medium-term “light capacity building” or small project support. In this respect, it would be crucial to devise financial and administrative procedures that are simple and with limited reporting requirements – perhaps even more so than for traditional and larger CSOs.

Pushing Back against Closing Space

The EU and the United States should collaborate on activities that support a deeper analysis of the drivers of the closing space so as to inform better their current and next efforts to keep civic space open. A joint analysis could pave the way to collaborations on specific mechanisms or in specific countries. In particular, the EU and the United States should also develop a joint effort to study how and why governments in different contexts are able to implement measures to close civic space with the (at least) tacit acceptance of large segments of society, if not their actual support, and how donors can help CSOs reach out to these citizens to raise awareness of the issue and gain their support for keeping space open.

In order for this to feed more directly and quickly into their civil society support discussions and activities, such analyses should be built in as a component in the joint EU-U.S. efforts proposed above.

Furthermore, the EU and the United States should investigate the possibility of developing a new joint initiative directed specifically at how to assist civil society in innovative ways in the more extreme closing space cases.

Government-organized, Non-independent and Coopted Civil Society

The EU and the United States should pool technical expertise and resources, in-house and external, in a joint effort to map out the use by governments and political actors of government-organized, non-independent or coopted CSOs, including how they can be used to render meaningless donor efforts to foster genuine government-civil society engagement.

A further dimension of such collaboration should be working toward some broad donor guidelines for engaging with such organizations, including through any assistance channels. This exercise could also be used to provide better guidance to the work of donors and re-granting organizations when it comes to due diligence on CSO partners.

The Regional Dimension

The EU and the United States should work more together in determining how to scale up and widen the reach of their initiatives to bring a greater regional dimension to their civil society support mechanisms in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. This should include connecting their regional assistance efforts better with the different civil society networks, platforms, and fora that operate there, as well as investigating the potential of developing a specific line of assistance dedicated to helping regional civil society diasporas. The latter could be done initially within their existing regional mechanism where they could experiment in this direction at a low cost, either together or in coordinated parallel.


Compliments of the German Marshall Fund