The Balkan Trust for Democracy is approaching its 6th birthday. An overview of these years' work and challenges in an interview with Gordana Delić, Senior Program Manager

18/08/2009 -  Risto Karajkov

As the period of transition in the Balkans continues, private donors have been important actors for international cooperation. They have contributed by funding projects in emergency relief and reconstruction, democracy assistance, inter-ethnic dialogue, and economic transformation, as well as committed themselves to the effort of bringing the region closer to the European Union. Often, they have acted as intermediaries or as partners of governments and of international institutions such as the European Union, the UN, or governmental aid agencies. This is the beginning of a mini-series by BalcaniCooperazione which profiles "old" and "new" private donors active in the Balkans.

The Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD) was created in 2003 as a joint effort of the German Marshal Fund (GMF) of the United States, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The three founders provided the BTD foundation with 30 million dollars in seed capital to be expended over its first 10 years of operation. Since then, many other donors, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Tipping Point Foundation, Compagnia di San Paolo, The Robert Bosch Foundation, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), have joined in. The foreign affairs ministries of Denmark and Greece have also contributed financially.
Over a short period of time, BTD has positioned itself as one of the main non-institutional donors in the region. Since its creation, it has allocated around 18 million dollars for democracy promotion and regional cooperation in South East Europe (SEE). BTD is led by Mr. Ivan Vejvoda, a leading intellectual, scholar, and political analyst in Serbia and the region. BTD's geographic scope is the wider SEE region. Countries eligible to receive assistance are: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia. In addition to NGOs, BTD also works with informal civic groups, media, governments, and educational institutions. NGOs received 63 percent of the total funding allocated in the financial years of 2007 and 2008. BTD's head office is located in Belgrade.

What kind of projects does BTD support?

We do both regional, cross-border projects and national, in-country ones. We generally do not have fixed priorities for the countries, however, we continuously monitor the situation in all countries of in the region and we set some annual priorities in fields we consider important to support in a given period of time. For example, recently we have been emphasising transparency and anti-corruption work in Montenegro. On a regional level, for the second or third year in a row, we are putting an emphasis on youth issues with the aim of promoting the idea of helping youth imagine their future in the region and, in this way, preventing brain drain. In addition to youth, another priority on the regional level is reconciliation work, especially inside the Dayton triangle and between Serbia and Kosovo, the main post-conflict areas. Our reconciliation work is action and future-oriented. We are generally not involved in the issue of dealing with the past. We are trying to contribute to normalising present-day relations and to establishing some form of cooperation, that is, re-establishment of cooperation. In this field we have many regional projects. Annually, around 30-35% of our funding goes to regional programs whereas the rest is allocated to national projects.

What are the challenges in your work?

From my point of view, the greatest challenge for anyone involved in development work is to measure the impact of what one does. How can you tell you have been effective in your work? This is extremely difficult to assess as we are all small parts of a much larger whole. In addition, this type of work is often about long-term societal change. These are things which are difficult to quantify. In this sense, you have to try to see change in more qualitative terms and then think about what the most important contribution is that you have made to that process. When we started our work, our biggest challenge was to set the benchmarks against which we would measure the effect of our operations. That was our challenge; how to recognize success in our work and how to report it. This is still our challenge and I think it will always be a challenge for the entire development sector.

How did you go about this?

We decided that the best way was to simply tell the stories of our grantees. We have a newsletter which we send out regularly. In this newsletter we tell the stories of the projects we support, and we actually demonstrate that what we do has meaning and can show results. In addition, we show that there is an effect beyond the expiry of the grant and that it really helps people and improves the quality of their lives. This is one part of the story. The other is that we have designed a reporting format which also comprises the quantitative aspects of the work we support, but we are nevertheless more focused on the qualitative aspect. From our point of view, it is always best to tell the story of what took place or what happened. This conveys the sense of what has been done and it helps people understand.

You said sustainability was a strong criterion...

It is important although it is not always the most important thing. Our major goal is defined as "linking citizens with government". In this sense, everything which helps link citizens to institutions is of interest to us. Everything which helps people become active citizens and take part in the process of decision-making can be of interest to the BTD. This is a broad definition and it can involve many different types of activities. Beyond this, we must assess the particularities of each different project. Is the project realistic? Is it tangible to carry out? So, yes, sustainability is important but it is not the predominant factor by any means. We see the project in its entirety. We receive many project proposals each year and then we try to select the best and the most realistic ones and we take a chance with the really innovative projects if we feel that in this way we could help produce best practices. When this happens, as it did, for example, with one of our projects in Romania, we try to share these best practices, to introduce them to other organizations in the region. This often results in cooperation, joint projects, or replication of such best practices. The point is that you do not have to re-invent the wheel each time.

What advice can you give to organisations in the Balkans that would like to cooperate with the BTD?

My advice would always be that the first thing is to be realistic. We often receive proposals which are unrealistic in what they aim to achieve. So, they have to have realistic expectations. Second, they have to try and work and include as many other organizations as possible. They should not be a 'one-man' operation. Thirdly, of course, they should be innovative. Innovation has always been very important for us at the BTD. To sum up, a realistic expectation is very important. In addition, when I say innovation, it does not mean that, each and every time, you have to come up with something new. It can often be the way you approach the problem. For example, you can take an alternative approach and look at or do things differently, like initiating alternative forms of education. This is something which is still viewed with a dose of distrust in our region. For example, right now in Montenegro we have an excellent project with an NGO which conducts non-formal education for young people in the judiciary. The program is about EU accession as it pertains to the judiciary. Because these young people never learned anything about this at school, they graduated from school with absolutely no knowledge about it. The reform of the judiciary also involves this educational aspect. It is not only about reforming the institutions. This is what we see as innovative in this project. Nobody else in Montenegro was doing this. For us, this was a critical issue in our decision to support that project. Another example is also related to education work. Formal education in the region does not know how to use simulation as a didactic tool, so maybe young people learn about the EU, but they do not know what it means or how it looks. They memorise information, but they cannot understand its essence. So, for example, we funded an NGO from Niš which did a project which involved this type of simulation. The project was very successful and it was subsequently replicated regionally. They did such great simulations for young people and they actually helped them understand how the EU Parliament functioned and what it means to be a Commissioner in the European Commission. This was a huge benefit to these young people and it improved their knowledge greatly.