[BLOG] Civil Society Role in Participatory Democracy in Times of COVID-19 in The Balkans


By: Biljana Spasovska, Executive Director & Marija Vishinova, Communications and Information Officer, BCSDN



The Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) and European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL) organized a joint online conference on 13 July 2020 about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the public participation in the region, and the ways to promote participatory and multi-stakeholder approaches in the relief of the crisis. The conference gathered more than 25 participants to discuss how to enhance civil society’s involvement in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, together with the two keynote speakers: Anna Rurka, President of the Conference of INGOs at CoE, and Paul Maassen, Chief, Country Support at Open Government Partnership (OGP).

As the conference delivered some though-provoking points, BCSDN and ECNL will deliver a series of blogposts on the topic, to explore them in more detail and to encourage further discussion on the topic.

The conference was a follow-up event to the earlier webinar organized by ECNL and BCSDN on 8 May, 2020: Emergency End Game- Oversight of COVID 19 Measures that impact civic space in the Western Balkans, Croatia, and Romania.

Reinventing the Civic Space in times of the pandemic

Although the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have proved invaluable in responding to the citizens’ need in times of this crisis, the pandemic and the measures taken by governments have tremendous effect on the civic space in the region, and globally. On one hand, the partial and full bans of movement, the absolute ban on public assemblies, and restrictions to the freedom of expression and information in various occurrences, had limited the active role that CSOs play in their societies. Therefore, as Anna Rurka pointed to, the need for collecting evidence of the shrinking civic space is exceptionally important, in her view, at all 3 levels: legal environment, political environment, and practice.

On other hand, the crisis has triggered new forms of citizen engagement and an influx of citizens and professional associations and organizations that are organizing themselves to better voice their concerns and demands. This increased civil society mobilization is very important momentum, because it demonstrates the power of the civil society to the wider public, and the importance of free civic space. Bearing in mind the civil society public image in the Balkans had been under continuous orchestrated attacks, generating wider support for civic space by showing citizens what civil society is all about might be one positive unintended consequence of the COVID-19 crisis and even an opportunity.

In this direction Paul Maassen has pointed two examples how CSOs can re-approach the shrinking of civic space: firstly, CSOs should better anchor their agenda in local needs and priorities to demonstrate why their work is relevant to people, and be able to better explain why one of the things perceived as elite civil society agenda are in fact the peoples’ agenda; secondly, civil society can better tap into the energy of citizens’ movements and use the skills to convert this energy and anger into long-term reform.

Part of the discussion at the conference was to look to the topic from the other side, asking the question “How can governments be more proactive in ensuring civil society and citizen’s participation, especially in times of crisis?”

In Ana Rurka’s view, the governments need to ensure both institutionalized, ad-hoc forms of participation or citizens. Eventually, CSOs and Governments jointly should rethink participation to create stronger partnerships in the decision-making process and work more cohesively together.

Paul Maassen, pointing to several studies, has reminded that governments and civil society should look at engaging people where they already are and work on connecting those spaces to their agenda, rather than setting up and inviting citizens to new spaces.

Civil society as a leading actor in participatory democracy

The challenges with public participation in political-decision making had not been new in the Balkans, but have been further aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. Civil society participation has faced significant changes, and it has suffered even in countries that had positive developments before the crisis. The lack of cooperation between the governments and the civil society in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic had been evident with CSOs rarely being involved in the decision-making processes, despite having the experience and know-how in the relevant areas.

Drawing on similar challenges from European and global level, the two speakers shared their take on how CSOs to be the leading actor in the post-pandemic reconstruction. Ana Rurka, reflected on three crucial aspects:

  •  The legal aspects of emergency measures and context during the pandemic and the lockdown;
  • Development of mechanism, or platforms that would be beneficial in the emergency context;
  • The changes that civil society faced in different form of participation during the pandemic.

Building on this, Paul Maassen pointed to the four entry points through which citizens are being empowered in the society, that should be the overarching aims of the civil society organizations aiming to promote participatory democracy:

  • empowering citizens with information;
  • giving citizens a tool to participate, and shape policies services, and budgets;
  • inclusion of citizens groups which have been historically excluded;
  • empowering citizens to monitor the work of the Government of public service delivery to keep governments accountable.

These four roles of the civil society have become prominent in the Balkans, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. BCSDN has been evidencing the impact and the CSOs responses since the start of the crisis, and the following have been the most prominent types of actions undertaken by the CSOs:

  • CSOs have been providing citizens, especially the most vulnerable groups, with relevant and accurate information on the preventive and mitigating measures in the wake of the pandemic;
  • CSOs have been monitoring governments’ transparency and accountability, especially during the state of emergency;
  • CSOs have been a medium and a tool for voicing citizens’ concerns and needs, shaping government policies;
  • and CSOs have proved to be crucial partners to the state by providing services to the most vulnerable groups in the society, even in such unprecedented crisis.

For more details on the variety and examples of inspiring CSOs response during the COVID-19, check our separate website dedicated to this  Balkan Civic Practices online edition.


Biljana Spasovska, Executive Director, BCSDN

Marija Vishinova, Communications and Information Officer, BCSDN


*** BCSDN and ECNL will deliver a series of blogposts going in more details on this topic so readers can dig into and examine different aspects of it.


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