How Serbia’s Civil Society is Building Resiliency

Serbia is home to a robust and diverse group of civil society actors. Since the early 2000s when a civil resistance movement contributed to the ousting of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, local civil society developed a track record of advocating for democratic reforms, providing services to marginalized communities, and holding government accountable to uphold democratic values and systems.

So what is happening in Serbia now that has civil society and civic space under threat? And what does it mean for civil society going forward?

Changing Tides

Things began to change in Serbia in 2016 with shifting political dynamics and accelerated in 2019 and 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic. Politically, there has been a consolidation of power and reduction in competition with oppositional parties. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report 2021 found that civil liberties are eroding and pressure (at times outright intimidation) is being applied to independent media, journalists and civil society organizations to stop criticizing the government.  The CIVICUS Monitor downgraded their classification of Serbia’s civic space rating from narrow to obstructed as a result of these trends.

The democratic backsliding and closing of civic space are worrying for civil society – one of the main drivers of democratic resilience in Serbia. Not only are the rights of citizens and organizations being weakened (or violated altogether), but vulnerabilities within the sector are emerging as a result of the shrinking space. The pandemic exacerbated the financial instability of civil society organizations (CSOs), shining a light on outdated business models. Internal sector-wide discord is making it difficult for civil society to organize collectively against the trends or discuss points of sectoral weaknesses. And civil society’s legitimacy is being undermined by the spread of false information and its cybersecurity systems are being compromised.  

A New Approach

Give the rapidly evolving environment in Serbia, CSOs realized they needed a more flexible and adaptable approach to better prepare for and respond effectively to the shifting dynamics in their civic space.

PartnersGlobal began testing a new civil society Resiliency+ Framework based on more than 30 years of experience supporting CSO growth and reemergence through the USAID-supported INSPIRES project. The Resiliency+ Framework helps CSOs to identify the external threats and internal vulnerabilities impeding them from operating freely. Using this information, the Resiliency+ Framework then facilitates, identifies, and applies tailored strategies, tactics, tools, and coaching support to help CSOs increase their resiliency in one to seven key drivers needed to adapt quickly to an often volatile, uncertain, and fast-changing external environment.

From 2019-2021, twelve Serbian CSOs were selected to pilot the framework and embarked on their resiliency journey. Several were skeptical about the process – how is it different from a general strategic planning or organizational strengthening process? Will it really bring about different outcomes?

Each organization in the group was paired with an international Resiliency+ Coach and Local Serbian Facilitators from Partners Serbia (a Partners Network member) and CIVIC Initiatives, two well respected, longstanding civil society organizations. This dynamic team guided the CSOs through a process of self-assessment in all seven factors, as well as an ecosystem and scenario analysis and roadmap development.

Building Resiliency

Integral to the resiliency process are pause and reflection moments –beneficial moments throughout the journey to take stock of progress made towards benchmarks, identify challenges that emerged, reassess environmental dynamics, and make any changes to the path necessary to becoming a more resilient organization. As a team at PartnersGlobal, we decided now is one of those moments for us, as the first cohort of Serbian CSOs reaches the end of the accompanied part of their journeys. This is what we learned:

The comprehensiveness and consistency of accompaniment of the process have been overwhelmingly positive and insightful for participating organizations. One organization noted,

“Continuous mentorship and guidance provided by our coaches encouraged us to think outside the box, expand our views and perspectives. The roadmap designing and scenario planning techniques have shown us our weaknesses, but also provided us the tools to resolve the issues we mapped.”

It also contributed to a deeper awareness of the specific vulnerabilities and strengths within them. As one CSO reflected,

“[This process] allowed us to understand better what we need to become more resilient. Focus on improvements of our narrative competencies and opening to a new constituency that can also become our donors in the future is the key. The ecosystem workshop at the end also made a huge shift in our thinking, increasing the urgency to optimize our digital tools and improve our narrative on values.”

Another organization offered,

“It enabled [us] to more strategically approach internal capacity development through identifying concrete needs of the organization. In this regard, considering that the crisis communications aspect was assessed as the most vulnerable, we worked directly on strengthening these capacities. This process also provided [our organization] with the opportunity to think about communications more strategically, to act proactively in order to prevent potential crisis situations, and use communications to overcome potential negative influences on the organization, with consideration of shrinking space and deteriorating conditions for civil society operations in Serbia.”

The development of tailor-made tools was the most significant outcome of the process for another organization:

“[The process] initiated concrete actions…resulted in developing resiliency tools (forms, guidelines and system for staff performance review, crisis communication plan, CRM IT platform for faster and effective communication in times of crisis).”

A unique aspect of the experience for many of the organizations was the inclusion of staff from all levels of the organization’s structure. Often, strategic planning processes involve only the top leadership. However, part of being a resilient organization is providing space for staff to get involved in more participatory ways. Why? Because it strengthens everyone’s connection to the mission of the organization and therefore, its success. One organization noted that as a result of the inclusion of all staff in the resiliency process,

“When something needs to be done to improve the resiliency of the organization, it became the priority for the entire team, not only for organizational leaders. That is a significant change.”

The greatest transformation however was the mindset shift. Adopting a resilient mindset is one of the most important aspects of organizational resiliency. A resiliency mindset is one that embraces uncertainty and welcomes flexibility and adaptation. As one organization puts it,

We learned to embrace uncertainty as a team. This is a big takeaway. Working in an environment with so many uncertainties, it is important to know how to enjoy your work despite or maybe because of this uncertainty.”

Another offered,

“Taking time to reflect on our own work brings long-term benefits to the team and that developing the resilience of the organization is not just a matter of spontaneous dynamics, but planned steps.”

The Journey Continues

As the accompaniment part of the original cohort of Serbian civil society organizations comes to an end, the second group of CSOs prepares to embark on their resiliency journey. Collectively, all participating organizations are contributing to a stronger, more durable civil society sector in Serbia and will continue to share experiences, resources, and lessons learned throughout the remainder of the INSPIRES initiative and beyond.