It is my pleasure to see such a large audience today for the kick off of our new civil society Program, called – For an active civil society together – or ACT –. This Program will be implemented by our partners Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Civic Initiatives.
The main goal of this Programme is to strengthen civil society and to engage citizens in political decision-making, particularly at the local level.
As you all know, civil society has a critical role in promoting democracy, human rights, accountability, inclusive and just societies.
In Switzerland, civil society activism is deeply anchored in the society. Around half of Swiss citizens are members of some kind of non-profit associations. Civil society in Switzerland actively contributes to the public debate, mobilizes citizens for campaigns and acts as a watchdog over the government.
Switzerland also stands for a long and diverse democratic tradition. As part of our international cooperation, we like to share our good practice with other countries, including of course with Serbia. This seems even more important in light of Serbia’s journey to join the European Union as being a fully-fledged democracy is a key condition for accession.
We unfortunately live in times where democratic values are being questioned and the space for civil society is shrinking in a number of European countries, including in Serbia.
The recent downgrading of Serbia by Freedom House to a partially free country and the deteriorating civil society environment noted by the CSO Sustainability Index are evidence of this trend.
In our eyes, these developments make it even more necessary to support civil society as well as to protect the space they are working in.
While civil society plays an indispensable role, it is also not perfect and the sector is often perceived by citizens as being donor-driven and having lost touch with the citizens.
Meanwhile, citizens themselves show limited interest in participating in public affairs. And despite a recently improved legal framework, civic participation in Serbia remains low.
At the same time, local governments as the first entry-point for citizens are not yet fully equipped or willing to better involve and consult citizens in their work.
ACT Program seeks to address several of these challenges, which also came out strongly during broad stakeholder consultations in the course of the Program’s making.
First and foremost, the Program focuses on strengthening the legitimacy and credibility of civil society, by building back the roots to the people they represent, by overcoming fragmentation and by strengthening their internal governance.
The Programme will support CSOs active in favor of advocacy for civic rights, good governance, gender, monitoring the implementation of laws and policies, decentralization and social inclusion.
Another issue that came up strongly in the consultation process is the gap between Belgrade-based CSOs and those from the rest of the country. Therefore ACT Program will deliberately give priority to CSOs located outside Belgrade.
An additional key feature of the Program is the provision of institutional grants, which will help CSOs to re-focus on their core mandate, rather than being implementers of donor-driven programs.
The Program further supports civil society networking to increase their leverage, and provides technical assistance to local governments in favor for better cooperation with civil society.
Knowing that it takes time to achieve these kind of changes, the Program adopts a multi-year approach. The Swiss support in the framework of this Program amounts to around 4.8 Mio EUR. It is less a question of money than a question of solidarity to improve the strength and vigor of the civil society in Serbia, a topic dear to my country.
Let me also use this opportunity to mention that Switzerland has supported the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government in the development of a new Law on Referendum and Civic Initiatives. Though there are still some open issues regarding the law. I believe this law constitutes an important step in strengthening citizens’ democratic rights and their participation in public decision-making.
At the end, it is important that democratic values such as civic participation remain firmly on the agenda. I urge civil society actors to join forces to collectively defend this aim. Switzerland stays a reliable partner of the civil society on this challenging journey.
I would like to use this opportunity to thank you all for your commitment, your persistence and courage to work in sometimes challenging circumstances.
Let me conclude by wishing us fruitful results all along this Program. Thank you for your attention!