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Covid-19 – a wake-up call to re-invent regional cooperation in the Western Balkans

The advent of Covid-19 and all its health, security, social and political fallout represents a new challenge for the Western Balkans Fund (WBF) and overall regional cooperation processes. In the conditions when gains achieved in regional cooperation are still fragile and in the context of regional fragmentation, there is no time to retrench behind borders and boundaries.

The Civil Society Organizations across the region are facing substantial difficulties. In general, they left out from Government support schemes and are struggling with the impact of the pandemic on their funding, communications and human capital. Those who adapt will survive. Those who do not, will struggle to navigate this new un-predicted world full of restrictions, but also with opportunities.

Meanwhile those who do not favor the growth of regional cooperation may perceive the pandemic as a way of reinterpreting the notion of ‘social distancing’ into a permanent practice – the very antithesis of regional cooperation.

True, the pandemic is making people-to-people contact almost impossible in the short-term. One of our concerns is that the fear of infection will be stoked to create long-term opposition to regional exchange, and thus undermine the nascent culture of regional mobility that the WBF seeks to enable. As organizations struggle financially in the wake of the pandemic, many find themselves in survival mode, and do not perceive regional connectivity as critical to their survival. 

Donors surely, have to step up and prove them wrong. This is the time to reinforce all the myriad ways that organisations and communities can reach out to each other across our region. The pandemic is a wake-up call for us all to reinvent regional cooperation. Unless we take now concerted action to adapt donor programmes, the gains made in recent years could be reversed.

Applying the Strategy with flexibility and nourishing a new culture of labour under Covid-19.

The WBF’s Council of Senior Officials recently signed off on the Fund’s new five-year Strategy. However, the Senior Officials determined that the Strategy document must reflect an adaptability and a flexibility in order to respond nimbly and effectively in a volatile political, economic and social (and now, public health) environment.

A real valuable Strategic plan cannot hold the organisation hostage to fixed approaches that no longer make sense when the whole world has changed, six months after the plan was written.

Thus, when the pandemic hit, the Fund immediately mobilized a series of adaptations to its partnership and support approach aiming delivering results:

–       The Secretariat continues to be fully operational, using a hybrid of remote and onsite work methods.

–       The Fund’s grant programme is now even more targeted than before. We are adapting our support to the individual needs and circumstances of all our partners. Contract negotiations and advisory meetings and monitoring continue, unabated.

–       The main challenge is to ensure the continuation of each project, while not jeopardizing the desired impact & mitigating the risks.

–       We are providing hands-on support to grantees, maximum flexibility for best solution and preparing back-up plans for transforming physical activities in virtual ones,

–       We are increasing the level of communication with our partners, and using a wide variety of social media instruments adapting our approach according to the technology they have available. This is important for organisations who do not enjoy rapid internet access, and particularly important in terms of accountability.

–       We are learning. Like many organisations, we are reviewing our face-to-face approach examining new ways of being present with our partners, and expanding our outreach, even when we cannot be physically present.

–       Our partners are learning. Many indications show that they are adapting their regional projects to continue their implementation virtually. Indeed, there are some new gains here. Zoom, Skype, Facebook and all the social media platforms are making it easier for more people to resist the isolation of lockdown and find new ways of staying in touch. More people from more partners than ever before are now talking to each other more often, and building their projects in unison – electronically.

This is no time to downplay the work of regional cooperation or retreat in the face of the pandemic.  On the contrary, this is the time to demonstrate – and with increasing visibility – the need, the benefits and the opportunities of regional cooperation, even in the toughest of times.

Positively surprised by the maturity, professionalism and dedication of our stakeholders, encouraged by their delightedness for the support we are providing on these difficult and un-precedence times, the Fund will continue working on its mission and to ensure the sustainability of existing regional cooperation networks, in order that the gains made not to be lost or reversed.

                                                        Dr. Gjergi Murra, WBF Executive Director