VIENNA – The 2015 refugee crisis led to the reinvigoration of civic activism in Greece and North Macedonia. However, while CSOs in both countries benefited from the availability of greater amounts of funds to manage the refugee crisis, they failed to capitalise on this context to increase their resilience and improve their organisational capacity, concludes a new Policy Brief published by the WB2EU Network.
The Brief, titled “A missed opportunity? Civil society organisations in Greece and North Macedonia after the 2015 refugee crisis” recommends that the EU should increase the funds in support of the resilience of CSOs, earmark funds exclusively for CSO capacity building and support transnational civil society links, while the national governments should improve the legal framework to stimulate the growth of civil societies.
It also recommends to CSOs themselves to become less funding-driven and pursue their own priorities, adopt long-term strategies and invest in the growth of their human resources. CSOs from Greece and North Macedonia should consider the formation of a civil society platform where non-profits from the two countries may exchange ideas and best practices.
The authors point out that, before the 2015 refugee crisis, a chronic vulnerability of the civil society sector in Greece has been its dependence on the state. In North Macedonia, CSOs were in constant effort to achieve institutional stability, ensure continuous and stable funding, and address the challenges posed by a non-supportive constituency. Moreover, since 2009, democratic backsliding has presented an additional challenge to their resilience.
According to the Brief, the availability of funding that came with the refugee crisis in 2015 led some small- and medium-sized CSOs in Greece to shift their priorities. A few non-profits readjusted their mission, downscaling their support to other vulnerable groups aiming to focus on migrants and refugees.
In that context, the presence in the field of international CSOs (e.g., International Rescue Committee, Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam) and their interaction with Greek non-profits were crucial.
“However, these transnational partnerships were rather ephemeral, and Greek CSOs did not use the opportunity to strengthen their resilience and organisational capacity”, the document states.
In addition, a noteworthy movement of volunteers has been recorded, while several new grassroots organisations have popped up. Although many of the latter were short-lived, a great number of volunteers were absorbed by the CSO sector, increasing the ability of organisations to carry out their work in fields such as human rights advocacy.
In North Macedonia, the refugee crisis has had a similar effect on the CSO ecosystem, the Policy Brief found. International CSOs came to the country and joined forces with local organisations to provide immediate assistance. Moreover, grassroots movements emerged, such as the initiative ‘Help the Refugees in Macedonia’, which started as a Facebook group with no institutional structure and was in due time supported by the UNHCR.
“However, the interaction of local non-profits in North Macedonia with EU institutions, international organisations, and international CSOs during the refugee crisis did not have a lasting effect on its ecosystem of CSOs”, the authors conclude.
The Brief points out that precarious financial viability of CSOs in both countries impacts the implementation of their strategic goals.
“Indeed, it is commonly accepted that financial limitations shift CSOs’ focus away from implementing long-term strategies and investing in their capacities. CSOs remain entrapped in chasing donor-driven projects, which very often are not even close to their scope and mandate”, it states.
The absence of financial viability and security also works as an inhibitory factor in attracting highly skilled staff or retaining the most experienced officers.
In addition to this, the general EU practise of allocating most of its funds to specific actions and projects instead of covering the core expenses (e.g., salaries of permanent staff) of the applicant CSOs has prompted many non-profits to hire external service providers instead of investing in the growth of their own staff.
However, some positive signs in the organised civil societies of both countries do exist, Policy Brief concludes.
“These, among others, include a successful advocacy campaign in North Macedonia about the prevention of changes to the Electoral Code that could hamper independent civic lists and the pressure by Greek environmental CSOs on the Greek government to pursue more ambitious goals. Another step forward is the establishment of stronger collaboration between CSOs from the two countries, starting with the “Cooperation for Common Future” programme, which supports the growth of cooperation linkages between the youth of the two countries”, it states.
The Policy Brief is published in the framework of the WB2EU project. The project aims at the establishment of a network of renowned think-tanks, do-tanks, universities, higher education institutes and policy centres from the Western Balkans, neighbouring countries and EU member states that will be most decisive for the enlargement process and Europeanisation of the region in the upcoming years. The WB2EU project is co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme.