N.G.O.'s in the Balkans: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Orphans and children affected by war gather at a summer camp operated under the supervision of the Global Children's Organization, near Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in July 2005. (Photo: Elvis Barukcic / AFP-Getty Images)

The start of transition in the Balkans saw the exponential rise of N.G.O's. The public space previously reserved to several government created and supported organizations, such as those for youth, women, or the disabled, was filled with a myriad of groups pursuing a great diversity of causes ranging from relief and economic development to democracy, human rights, and anticorruption—and a lot more.

The context was one of challenge: The wars and the tasks of relief and reconstruction, democratization and the goals of opening democratic space and fighting authoritarian tendencies, economic and social transformation. One thing should be taken as given—there were many tasks in this complex process of multiple and turbulent transitions that were only done, and that could only be done, by N.G.O.'s. Or N.G.O.'s, as the cliché goes, were uniquely positioned to address them. With all the criticism of N.G.O.'s that goes around, a lot of it deserved, this should not be forgotten. In some cases, these were things that governments wouldn't tackle; in others, it was about confronting governments themselves.

The scope of this new civil society in the Balkans was never accurately measured in terms of numbers of groups, or, even more intricately, of financial base and strength. It is very difficult (though not impossible) to assess the overall resources that produced the growth of the civil sector. In the 1980's, Lester Salamon, likely the foremost scholar on the nonprofit sector, using robust empirical data, gave a precise breakdown of the financial base of the third sector in the United States, with an aim to show that its relationship with government was essentially one of partnership. Such an exercise in the Balkans would be quite a challenge given the fact that civil society is a newborn entity and that data is chronically lacking.

One thing is beyond doubt though—over 90 percent of the funding for N.G.O.'s in the Balkans came from foreign donors. Or in other words, there is a close and very clear link between foreign aid to the Balkans and the burgeoning world of civil society. To offer a general idea, official development assistance to the (Western) Balkans from 1990-2005, not counting aid from private sources, was around $40 billion. Realistically speaking, a small share of this (only nominal) amount went to local N.G.O.'s, but that is still substantial.

As for the number of N.G.O.'s, there is a clearer idea, although they are sometimes exaggerated because of groups that exist only on paper. The USAID N.G.O. Sustainability Index for 2006 put the number of registered local organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina at approximately 7,000, of which one-half are active. The number of registered groups in Kosovo was 3,800, a much smaller share of which was active, circa 150. For Macedonia, the index reported 6,000 registered groups, of which an estimated 5% (or 300) were active. Although these numbers are somewhat tentative (it is unlikely that there are more active N.G.O.'s in Macedonia than in Kosovo), which only additionally confirms the data challenge, the USAID's N.G.O. index remains the most relevant, cross-country, longitudinal survey of civil society in the region.

One thing is quite clear. The Balkans has experienced a civil society explosion over the last 15 years. This explosion was supply driven. A lot of the foreign aid was distributed via N.G.O.'s, sometimes because of ideology, such as the notion that N.G.O.'s are the building blocks of democracy, and other times for reasons of effectiveness—they easier to start up, operate, and control—or simply because of legal constraints in distribution of aid.

Was there really a need for so many N.G.O.'s? And what are the possible downsides of this third sector big bang?

Perhaps the major downside is the disruption in the state-civil society balance. Too much state shrinks civic space; too much civil society can weaken institutions of government. After 50 years of too much state, the balance was somewhat unwillingly tipped in the other direction.

Even literally, the mandatory channeling of the funding through N.G.O.'s restricts the resources available directly to governments. New and fragile governments need the support just as badly. Nadia Diuk from the National Endowment for Democracy recalls the democratic opening in Poland to make the point that donors are often constrained to deliver aid through private groups: "Jacek Kuron [former Solidarnost frontline activist] who was then minister of labor asked that the assistance be channeled through government. He said the government needed to be strengthened. We could understand the argument but we couldn't help."

Ray Jennings, a former USAID official in the Balkans, asks, "Does Bosnia really need a few thousands of N.G.O.'s?" He points out that that the insistence on measuring the level of democracy and the health of civil society through the numbers of N.G.O.'s has lead to an artificial inflation of third sector groups.

Sometimes, the numbers do not aggregate quality.

"In Bosnia there are many N.G.O.'s but little civil society," says Daniel Serwer, a Balkan expert from the United States Institute of Peace.

Perhaps the most evident way in which N.G.O.'s drain potential resources away from government is by taking away skills and talent. Benefiting from international funding, N.G.O. salaries are usually several times the national average. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Bosnia and Kosovo. "These countries are anomalies," says another analyst, "the international community has substituted society, and anyone with any skill is either a driver or interpreter for the foreigners." Even if this view exaggerates in order to convey the point, and many skilled locals are in positions of responsibility in the N.G.O. sector, the fact remains that civil society despite its ability to watch over government cannot actually substitute it. Government also needs skill and talent.

Another downside is that of fragmentation. The mainstream of short-term project-based assistance through N.G.O.'s has resulted in too many one-off interventions of limited duration that often overlap and are uncoordinated. "We have Balkanized assistance to the Balkans," lamented European Union Commissioner Chris Patten over the entangled mash of assistance instruments to the region.

The role a vibrant civic sector has in many facets of life in society is self-evident, be it in advocacy or service provision. In the years ahead, the region will likely further enhance the role of private organizations in the delivery of services, which over the previous period was by and large the responsibility of government. Nevertheless, the third sector cannot be a substitute for stable and healthy institutions of public administration. There are certain things that can only be done by the government.

Previously published on OneWorld South East Europe (

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