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SLOVAK NGOS IMPATIENTLY WAIT FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO APPROVE THE MECHANISM OF SUPPORTING PROJECTS FOR COUNTRIES IN NEED

Aid projects abroad to receive Slovak money

A DAY before the invasion of Iraq started and a couple of days after the first foreign humanitarian worker - a Swiss employee of the International Red Cross - was killed in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, Nora Beňáková arrived in Afghanistan. Together with Czech and Polish aid workers, she spent 16 days monitoring the situation there in order to prepare projects that could help improve it.
"Because I'm a woman, I wasn't welcomed by Afghan men the way my male colleagues were. But on the other hand, because I'm a woman, I was the one who was allowed to talk to the women in the villages and in the hospitals, and even see them unveiled," says the 30-year-old Beňáková, the executive director of the Slovak NGO People in Peril (ČVO).


NORA Beňáková (left) spent 16 days in Afghanistan, monitoring the situation there.
photo: Courtesy of Nora Beňáková

A DAY before the invasion of Iraq started and a couple of days after the first foreign humanitarian worker - a Swiss employee of the International Red Cross - was killed in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, Nora Beňáková arrived in Afghanistan. Together with Czech and Polish aid workers, she spent 16 days monitoring the situation there in order to prepare projects that could help improve it.

"Because I'm a woman, I wasn't welcomed by Afghan men the way my male colleagues were. But on the other hand, because I'm a woman, I was the one who was allowed to talk to the women in the villages and in the hospitals, and even see them unveiled," says the 30-year-old Beňáková, the executive director of the Slovak NGO People in Peril (ČVO).

Beňáková had already been to Kosovo and Romania on similar monitoring missions, but this time she went with higher expectations than before in terms of initiating fruitful projects. The reason for that is that until now, the only way NGOs could generate money for such projects was through collecting money from the public. That can be very difficult in Slovakia, where many feel they should be receiving aid money rather than giving it.

"There is an unbelievable gap between the Slovak public donating money to humanitarian activities and the rest of the world [doing the same thing]. While [NGOs in] other countries have no problem collecting money from the public, Slovak NGOs cannot even think of basing any of their long-term projects on the money they collect directly from the people," Beňáková says, explaining why ČVO's work abroad has been limited to monitoring.

The situation is about to change. After becoming a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2000, Slovakia went from being a country that received aid to one that gave it. Every year the government, through the Foreign Affairs Ministry, allocates money from the state budget to programmes that help countries in need.

The government allocated funds for the first time last year, but none of the funds were distributed to NGOs, firms, or other government ministries. The reason given by the Foreign Affairs Ministry is that the funds were provided from privatisation, and when the government restructured privatisation disbursements, allocation for official development assistance was cancelled.


AFGHANISTAN is desperately in need of foreign aid.
photo: Courtesy of Nora Beňáková

"Slovakia is just learning, and people who have been working on preparing the necessary legislative documents are doing it for the first time," says Kamil Smetana from the ministry's department of international economic cooperation and official development assistance.

This year, the government allocated Sk140 million (€3.4 million) for the National Programme of Official Development Assistance. Based on the amount of the money allocated, Afghanistan is the highest priority after Serbia and Montenegro. At the Donors Conference in Tokyo in 2002, Slovakia promised to provide €1.7 million to projects in Afghanistan within a three-year period.

"Traditional donor countries and organisations like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are providing comprehensive assistance for all Slovak stakeholders in this field," Smetana says.

In January, the UNDP provided a grant to the ministry for the purposes of carrying out an analysis of countries eligible for development aid plans. The ministry offered part of this grant to six Slovak NGOs, including ČVO, to send missions to the countries that have been given priority status as recipients of development aid and to come up with ideas for projects that could be administered there.

Two people from ČVO, an aid worker and a doctor, who were sent to Afghanistan in January have since written proposals for projects and have been asking the ministry to free up some money since their return.

"We understand that NGOs expected the process to be activated earlier, however, they have to admit that there is a certain inexperience on their side as well. We try to prepare the system and all the documents the best we can, so that we don't face problems with the National Control Office, the financial police, or any misunderstandings in the future," Smetana says. He did not specify a date by when this will all be ready.


PEOPLE in Peril wants to set up a mission in the country.
photo: Courtesy of Nora Beňáková

Slovakia is one of the first EU candidate countries - along with the Czech Republic, Poland, and Estonia - he says, that have a system of development cooperation partly prepared and a budget allocated for it.

"Other countries, such as Hungary and Slovenia, are still flirting with the system - there is some cooperation, some projects going on, but they haven't developed the system yet," he says.

For the ministry, whose main priorities are integration into the EU and NATO, development aid is part of a wider cooperation among international organisations.

Being a top politician in an aspiring member of the EU and a member of OECD, Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Kukan understands the importance for Slovakia to participate more actively in humanitarian and development aid work abroad. He has said in the past that he wants the Slovak presence in selected developing countries to be more visible, and he would like the idea of increasing donor assistance to become more popular among Slovak citizens.

Since her return from Afghanistan in April, Beňáková has proposed three long-term projects that could prove useful in villages and mountainous areas there. These would include teacher training, literacy courses for women and old people, and income-generating activities helping women to become more independent. The projects, though, are designed to be accomplished with the help of the Czechs or Poles, as Slovak NGOs have not had any experience in carrying out long-term assignments in developing countries.

"If the government decides to grant us money for a long-term project we have prepared for Afghanistan, we might have the first stable mission abroad," says Beňáková.

"And once we get out there, we should have more opportunities to attract other, bigger grants from such international agencies as the UNHCR and USAID, which are present in Afghanistan."

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