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Dajana Cvjetković: Building peace and prosperity through the Western Balkans Project!

Join us as we explore the SMART Balkans project from the perspective of its manager, Dajana Cvjetković!
This extensive project spans six countries in the Western Balkans region, making it exceptionally dynamic and complex.
After two and a half years, SMART Balkans is halfway to full implementation.
Dajana shares insights into its achievements so far, the challenges faced by her and the project team, and her belief in the power of civil society as a driver of positive social change.


How would you describe your impressions so far, considering that the project has already halfway passed?  

Speaking about the impressions of such a large-scale project implemented in six Western Balkan countries is not simple. It is as if all the processors in my head are activated, where not even AI software can help summarize all the results, beautiful human stories, but also the less pleasant ones, all the unforeseen situations, travels, conferences, meetings… I could list those things until tomorrow, but this project has taught me to act quickly (now and immediately) and always look at the bigger picture, even broader than the Balkans. Everything is meaningless without people living in peace and prosperity – a long-term goal.  

The most intense impression of the project that will stay with me for a project’s most intense impression is the people it has touched. Our region is rich with not so many, but enough valuable, dedicated people who believe in a better life in the Balkans, who every day work hard with all their being to contribute a brick or a bit of mortar that makes our Balkan house better, more stable, peaceful, and functional for living.  

As for satisfaction with the results achieved!? I am a Scorpio who is never satisfied with the results because I am sure we could have done better and more. But aware of the socio-political environment in which we operate, the state in which peace and humanity find themselves, the aggressions that have struck Ukraine and Palestine, and the impact this has had on the economic standard, I must be a bit gentler and say that my team, as well as a large number of other organizations we support, has done a fantastic job results are visible and tangible on the ground.  


How would you assess the engagement of the community through the implemented activities?  

Community engagement is minimal. There are many reasons for this, and people in my environment and those involved in various studies cite the exact reasons for passivity: they do not trust government institutions (in all countries) and precisely identified this as one of our goals, which translates into two areas of action: strengthening the capacities and encouraging a more active role of civil society organizations, and the other aspect of the do not see the purpose of their participation. So, we have precisely identified this as one of our goals, which translates into two areas of action: strengthening the capacities and encouraging a more active role of civil society organizations and the other aspect of action is increasing the influence of citizens through civil society organizations.  

Compared to the last 10 years, I can confidently say that civil society in the region is making slight progress, reflected in activist initiatives, mass gatherings, protests and protests on the streets and rivers and on the streets, rivers, in front of municipalities or governments. Some organizations use different methods, advocate towards decision-makers, prepare lawsuits, while others collaborate with decision-makers seeking points of common interest for end-users. Through SMART Balkans, we support all forms of struggle, resistance, and participation in decision-making – but whatever method organizations choose, it is essential to have active and engaged citizens affected by the problem. I think we have made progress there, but we still need to work hard in this area, devise new ways and motives for participation, and promote cases where citizens’ voices are heard, as this will restore their hope and belief that their actions can indeed bring about change – and they really can!  


Tell us about the challenges and obstacles encountered while achieving the goals and how to overcome them?  

After two and a half years of project implementation, we can say that as a consortium, we have faced many challenges in several areas, from the global political situation resulting in significantly reduced project funds to operational challenges related to project activity implementation and achieving results.  

Although it may seem that all Western Balkan countries operate similarly, this is not true. Besides its administrative-political system, each country has its administrative-political system, mentality, and practices that we must continuously consider, pay attention to, and consider when making decisions. Regional cooperation, as one of the project’s key results, has shown that a certain number of organizations are not sufficiently capacitated to lead regional processes. Organizations often focus more on activities than on results. Besides its administrative-political system, each country’s results are based on donor policies, where activities are usually valued more than the concrete changes resulting from project implementation.    

A particular challenge in achieving set goals is the time needed for a change to integrate and be adopted, as well as changes in government. Advocacy processes have been more dynamic; some projects have been extended, others modified following emerging situations. Here, I must emphasize that our entire team strives to be available to the beneficiaries of our grants and understands the specific needs for project modifications, durations, budget reallocations, and work methods, which means a lot of additional work, administration, and verification for SMART Balkans. However, we do not complain because we are here to support organizations and make support mechanisms as humane and results-oriented as possible.  


What is the most significant contribution to raising awareness of the importance of the civil sector’s role in development initiatives?  

The level of democracy in our countries is not high. Consequently, we notice that citizens value less the projects contributing to creating a more quality, fairer, and more inclusive society – because they cannot see the benefits immediately. On the other hand, grant recipients have undertaken dozens of smaller and larger initiatives, of course, which have immediately yielded results and involved the community. I can say that citizens mostly trust environmental activist organizations.  


How do we deal with challenges in establishing regional partnerships between CSOs (civil society organizations)?  

In the corridors of civil society circles, we often hear how difficult it is to work on projects in partnership and reconcile different organizational cultures, working methods, dynamics, and processes. It takes a lot of trust, understanding, synchronized teamwork, and compromise, and we Balkans are not inclined to compromise through dialogue and pursuing a higher goal. I have refuted this through this project, which makes me especially happy.  

When we were writing the grant allocation methodology and thinking about regional solutions to security, stability, and governance issues that civil society organizations can contribute to, we realized that we had to create a framework suitable for different types of organizations, from service providers to think tanks and purely advocacy groups. It had to be time-friendly for a larger undertaking, allowing organizations time to solidify partnerships and make initial project implementation arrangements. Then, the funds needed to be sufficient for the implementation of an entire narrative – not just organizing one or two activities. So, we created a grant scheme, announced a public call hoping to receive around 50 applications, and planned to award 9 or 10 projects. In the first round, we had 122 applications that passed the administrative check. We selected 9 projects that immediately started working. We regularly communicate via email, online meeting platforms, and GMP. Still, the most beautiful experiences are when we visit them in their cities and feel the energy of the activities they are carrying out.  

Many implementation projects have had additional value, and some activities were initiated independently to improve results and expand their effects. Established partnerships have grown into friendships and long-term relationships between organizations, and we have not had any problems between partner organizations. So, those initial fears at the beginning of the project disappeared and were replaced by curiosity and a sense of love and unity among the Balkans. 


Share with us a positive example of the impact of the SMART Balkans project on the community?

Before I give a more specific answer, I want to say that many organizations and people have worked towards achieving goals and results. Even the thought of singing out one makes me nervous because I cannot allow myself to exclude anyone and listing the results of 199 (literally) projects and their outcomes would be a never-ending story.  

I must admit that some projects did not achieve the desired effects despite their efforts to plan and implement everything they had intended.  Unfortunately, the political situation was unfavorable, and decision-makers did not accept any arguments – which was expected.  

For me, the greatest result is evident through the 46 core grants we awarded to organizations in all six countries. In addition to the results they achieved in the community, from sensitizing citizens to the needs of marginalized persons to advocating for the enactment of laws, new occupational treatments, or social welfare services to uncompromising reporting in the Republic of Srpska, significant progress has been made in strengthening the institutional capacities of organizations, which makes them more stable – something I am most proud of.  


What message would you share with those who continuously follow the growth and development of the project?  

Primarily, I would send a message to organizations – no matter how difficult and sometimes seemingly futile it may be, persevere because the results are visible, necessary, and make our lives easier. Thank you for everything you do.  

To citizens, I would say to be more considerate of the work of organizations and before saying “they are all the same” or sharing another juicy but half-baked piece of information about organizations – to remember what organizations have done for them in the past 100 days, not more. If we all paid attention to the work of organizations, we would be more grateful. Still, here I am not appealing for gratitude but for support, involvement, and joint efforts to change everything in our society that does not suit us. Because we really can bring about change in the Balkans.  

To authorities, I would urge them never to deviate from the path of unity, prosperity, peace, and stability, which is why we need a rule of law in which the rule of law is not a utopia. We need functional institutions and better social and economic measures, and organizations can help achieve these, as well as goals on the path to EU integration – so make partnerships with us.  

Finally, I address the donors: investing in civil society is like investing in Bitcoin in 2008; invest a bit now in the civil sector in the Balkans, and you will see long-term effects in 10 years because we are crucial for the quality development of the EU, too.