Visegrad Donors Look to Serbia

Coordinating donor assistance is no easy job. When representatives of the Visegrad Four (V4) official development agencies met last week at a workshop in Bratislava, significant discussions made their attempts to synergise aid to their southern neighbour come ever closer to reality.

Coordinating donor assistance is no easy job. When representatives of the Visegrad Four (V4) official development agencies met last week at a workshop in Bratislava, significant discussions made their attempts to synergise aid to their southern neighbour come ever closer to reality.

In 2008, the Visegrad nations of Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic, collectively donated just over €2 million to Serbia via the financing of various projects and schemes all designed to develop and expand Serbia’s vision of becoming a EU member state with wealth and a future to match.

Like the other V4 countries, Slovakia is a relatively new EU member state itself, and holds unique experience from the sometimes difficult path it took towards Brussels. Slovakia shares a lot with Serbia, not least a common history of living under recent communist regimes. When the Visegrad Four state aid agencies fund projects in Serbia, they do this with the knowledge that they are helping a neighbour and a friend.

However Slovakia and their Visegrad neighbours are also at a disadvantage. They are not in the same league as established major international donors such as USAID, SIDA or DfID. They cannot compete with multi-lateral agencies such as UNDP, EBRD or the World Bank. They are small fish and they know it. With the exception of a massive influx of government money, which under the current financial situation seems most unlikely, what can small donors such as Slovakia do to help increase their effectiveness? One solution to this dilemma is to coordinate.

Last week’s workshop was co-organised by the Bratislava-based Pontis Foundation and Slovakia’s official agency for development assistance, Slovak Aid, and was funded by the International Visegrad Fund and the Central European Initiative. The event was designed to provide a forum for V4 official development agencies to discuss ways to coordinate their work on behalf of Serbia. Participants came to the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs from around central Europe, and were joined by representatives of SIDA, USAID and DfID, as well as civil society delegates and officials from private foundations. Key to the discussions was the participation of Serbia. Gordana Lazarevic, Assistant Minister of Finance and head of the Development Assistance Coordination Unit known as DACU, along with Srdjan Majstorovic, deputy head of Serbia’s EU Integration Office, made up the backbone of the Serbian delegation leading the discussion with V4 agencies in hoping to improve their aid dissemination.

Although much was discussed, a number of key points came up. The importance of Serbia as a partner, rather than merely a recipient of aid, was made clear early in the workshop. This central theme of Serbian ownership re-occurred throughout the two days. It was strongly stressed that Slovak Aid and the other V4 official development assistance agencies should tap into, make use of and support existing Serbian donor organisational structures in their efforts to coordinate aid dissemination. This plea was accompanied by a call for Slovakia and the other donors to assess Serbia’s needs in its National Programme for the adoption of the EU acquis to ensure that assistance matches Serbia’s requirements.

During an important discussion, the Central European development assistance agencies were advised to better coordinate efforts in the field. USAID representatives view donor representation in the country as “critically important”. An inspired offer from the Hungarian Embassy in Belgrade to represent V4 at further donor meetings in the Serbian capital was met with support and a decision to begin discussions on making this a reality. In addition to this, the idea of making V4 aid more visible in Serbia was also discussed. Serbian participants stated their view that official V4 assistance visibility on the ground was very low, especially in the case of Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Other key points were the importance of exchanging experts between partner countries, as well as the concept of twinning various policy issues. The quality of expertise must be extremely high for any secondment to be valuable to the partner country. However challenges in this area were also examined. The difficulties in recruitment and the payment of high consultancy fees were previously identified as barriers. Real exchange of expertise in the form of twinning or direct secondments to line ministries which need support in applying the acquis is what is needed.

The workshop was the final part of a long-term project involving many organisations around central Europe and Serbia. Exchanging know-how, learning from each other, and recognising that Serbia is a partner of Slovakia, rather than just a recipient of its assistance, were central points of the discussion. True V4 coordination of its efforts in Serbia can only be successful if directed through DACU, with ownership firmly in the hands of the Serbs. Through partnership and understanding of the exact needs and requirements of their partners, Slovakia and its V4 neighbours can make donor coordination work.

Lucy Maizels works for the Pontis Foundation

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