A regional conference titled “Environment and Balkan Citizens: The Role and Sustainability of Civil Society” was held in Belgrade on December 11-12, 2017. The event attracted more than 100 representatives of civil society, international organisations, and national and local governments throughout the region. The conference was organised within the framework of the Environmental Civil Society Support Programme for Serbia (CSOnnect), which is financially supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and implemented by REC Serbia.
The conference was opened by the Executive Director of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC), Mihail Dimovski, who noted that the assembled participants represented a blend of everything the REC is committed to, namely: transparency, sustainable development and successful European integration through the promotion of cooperation among governments, non-governmental organisations, businesses and other stakeholders.
State Secretary at the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the Republic of Serbia, Ivan Karic, pointed mentioned that the event offered an occasion for exchanging opinions and a chance to hear the needs of civil society in Serbia and the Balkans.
State Secretary at the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism of Montenegro and newly elected President of the REC General Assembly Sasa Radulovic emphasised the regional dimension: "I firmly believe that the REC, with its established network, is in a unique position to strengthen regional cooperation at the level of various actors — from government institutions to businesses, foundations, non-profit associations and civil society organisations."
The introductory remarks of donor representatives followed. Ola Andersson, Head of the Department for International Development Assistance of Sweden in Serbia, stated that Sweden donates about EUR 11 million annually to Serbia, and that the country has support Serbia with approximately EUR 250 million since 2001.
“There is no doubt that it is necessary to establish partnerships between state institutions and civil society on all levels in the process of European integration,” Andersson said.
Representing the Delegation of the European Union to Serbia, Antoine Avignon said: “We know that the environment does not know national borders. The pollution of air and water, degradation of the coastal zone and waste management are problems that many countries face. In the Balkans, we can strengthen cooperation on this issue in order to solve numerous environmental problems together.”
Filip Radovic, director of the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), spoke about the cooperation that SEPA has achieved with the REC in the past years.
“I believe that the projects we have implemented have changed the environmental management system, putting it on a higher level,” Radovic explained. “In cooperation with the REC, we have managed to raise environmental taxes, put new information systems into place, hold numerous conferences, and work together to raise awareness about the importance of environmental protection.”
Conference participants had the opportunity to hear interesting and successful examples of advocacy in the environmental field, primarily through the experiences of Eco Albania, Go Green from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Young Researchers of Serbia. During a workshop on innovative approaches to public participation, based on a comprehensive experimental study, participants attempted to answer the question: ‘Is the group smarter than its smartest member?’
The last part of the first day was devoted to a panel discussion on possible ways to enhance cooperation between civil society organisations and local authorities. The participants had the opportunity to learn about experiences related to local self-government from Montenegro, as to hear from organisations from FYR Macedonia and Serbia. A recurring theme during these discussions was the importance of partnership between civil society and local authorities.
The conference continued with a discussion on legal tools and advocacy in environmental protection, examples of good practice, and recommendations from representatives of organisations from Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. Afterwards, through an interactive workshop of trainers from the Trag Foundation, participants learned about financial sustainability and strategic planning as important aspects of their further development.
The event concluded with a discussion on cooperation between civil society and the business sector, during which representatives of the private sector and foundations, as well as CSR experts, spoke about best practices and possible forms of partnership between civil society and private companies.