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Dubioza Kolektiv, a popular Bosnian avant-garde group would say – or rather, sing – that Bosnia-Herzegovina is in Europe “just in Eurosong“. According to them, the country is only welcome as a full-fledged member of Europe when it benefits the image of a multicultural, welcoming continent, but when the lights of Eurovision go off, Bosnia disappears from public discourse. If anything, it may come up in conversations simply as the place where “there once was a war”.
In part, this is understandable. How is it possible that a European country could be majority Muslim? Why does it stubbornly refuse to behave like a “normal” democracy? And yet, since February 2016, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been a candidate for accession to the EU. In 2010, the country joined the NATO Membership Action Plan. Therefore, no matter how divided or unstable, Bosnia is clearly a member of the wobbly, colorful European family.
Can NGOs Help Young People Escape Unemployment in Bosnia?
Bosnian youth are also, by extension, a part of the European youth. Their dreams, aspirations, and difficulties are not so different from those of young people born on the other side of the Adriatic. Their starting ground, however, is not the same. Their social, economic, and political context is complex and hard to navigate. Even 25 years after the conflict in Yugoslavia, Bosnia still has a long way to go.
This article will investigate the role of NGOs in confronting the shortcomings of the political and educational system in Bosnia. It will do so through the words of Zorana Selak, Project Manager of the NGO “Most” [The Bridge], based in Gradiška, Bosnia. This interview will help to shed some light on the benefits of informal education. Can local organizations help overcome ethnic divisions and gaps in formal education?
Where is Gradiška?
The interview took place in the town of Gradiška, situated in the Banja Luka district of Republika Srpska. Many of its inhabitants would describe it as being Bogu iza noga [behind the legs of God], which roughly translates to “in the middle of nowhere”. One might think that there is not much worth investigating. The joyful appearance of this town resonates well with its motto: “Nothing much happened here“. However, not only does the town have a very peculiar history, but it is also the blooming cultural center of Bosnia.
A Brief Historical Overview
The area surrounding this town was of strategic importance as early as the Roman era. In fact, the municipality was built on the precise location where the Sava river used to be crossed. The town was identified for the first time as Gradiški Brod in 1330 A.C. In 1537, the town came under Ottoman rule and was renamed Berbir.
Gradiška in the ’90s
Even during the most recent war, Gradiška did not lose its centrality. Here, wartime began almost a year before the “official” beginning of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) on April 6, 1992. As early as May 1991, the town was implicated in the escalation of hostilities in Western Slavonia. As the Croatian forces and the Yugoslav People’s Army prepared to confront each other, Gradiška developed into a strategic outpost.
Its geographic location made it the ideal place for organizing the military activities of the Yugoslav/Serb forces. The downside was that from September 1991, its proximity to the frontline exposed the town to Croatian airstrikes. By December, Gradiška appeared on the front page of the Serb newspaper Glas Srpske as “the most endangered town in [Bosnia-Herzegovina]”.
The Consequences of the 10-year War on the Ethnic Composition
Being on the frontline throughout the 10-year war was not inconsequential. As a result, in Gradiška there are now two different communities of war refugees. The first group is constituted by the Serbian population that left Western Slavonia during the first phase of the conflict. The second is the group of people – predominantly ethnic Serbs – who relocated to Gradiška from Southern Bosnia. Many came from Donji Vakuf after the town fell to the Bosnian and Croat armies in the summer of 1995.
The massive influx of refugees caused changes in the ethnic landscape of Gradiška. In 1971 Bošniaks (Bosnian Muslims) accounted for 56% of the population, whereas the Serb presence amounted to 30%. As of 2013, the town’s population of 51,000 is made up of 77% Serbs, and only 17% Bošniaks. Understandably, the traumatic experience of war gave way to personal grievances and political acrimony. But how does this translate into the lives of young people in Bosnia today?
Taking the Future into One’s Own Hands
To gain some insight, TNGO interviewed Zorana Selak, a 26-year-old Project Manager at the NGO “Most”. The first question was how a young woman such as herself decided to pursue such a career path. In the Balkans, in general, and in Republika Srpska in particular, NGOs encounter a certain suspicion. For many, their international breadth implies unwelcome foreign meddling into the regions’ affairs.
She proudly recognized that her choice was somewhat unusual, stating that: “As for myself, I am kind of ambitious. But the school that I went to was pretty… realistic. Once finishing school I told myself: “Ok, I’m going to work in a company, do some accounting or something and just be a regular worker. And then I saw that that’s not enough for me. I want something else. I want to be useful, I want to help somebody, I want to be more active. And then I saw that Association Most had a very beautiful project at that moment.“
Selak then volunteered at the Daily Nest Centre for children at risk for a year and a half. When the opportunity arose to become more involved, she did not hesitate to say yes. Through the association, she was able to further her education and gain more responsibilities. Gradually, she started managing her own projects. The most impactful experience she had was not only getting to know people and their difficulties, but also seeing the effects of the NGO’s projects on their lives.
What is NGO “Most”, and How Does It Help the Youth in Bosnia?
But how did NGO “Most” come to be? The association was born in 2008 and formally registered in 2009. The founders were three close friends striving to gain funds for their youth-oriented projects. Their initial purpose was to help young people from around the country travel, in particular for Erasmus+ youth exchanges, regarding which, Zorana added: “But then it got kind of bigger, we didn’t stop at just those exchanges. Instead, we spread our activities to three main fields: support for the local youth, social entrepreneurship, and environmental protection.“
In 2010, the local government offered “Most” an old building which had been turned into an office space. And, after a lot of hard work, the place was finally ready for inauguration. Currently, “the youth center is now 12 years from its formal foundation. We receive a lot of positive comments. We are very recognized in the community for our very good work with young people, especially in the field of informal education.“
Promoting Social Entrepreneurship and Environmental Protection
The association also acts as the headquarters for the local volunteering service. That means that all its partner organizations and institutions that need volunteers can contact the organization to help them out. Of course, this guarantees that “Most” remains integrated into a network of national and international associations. This is important not only because the volunteers that lend their service have an opportunity to network with international organizations, but also because they get a “Passport of the Volunteer”. That is, a document that registers their activities and the skills developed, that they can use for future employment.
“Most” is also active in the field of social entrepreneurship. “We have our very own start-up, or small business if you want: Funky Guerrilla, under the FG Group. It produces and sells clothing as a social entrepreneurs company. 50% of the profit that is made by the company goes back to the company. The other 50% goes into financing the activities that we have, including Environmental Protection.“
In fact, “Most” pays close attention to keeping the environment as healthy as possible, a valuable effort in a country that still relies on coal for 45% of its needs. Activities span from protecting certain animal species to school programs and concrete cleaning actions.
Young People and Party Politics
When it comes to Bosnia, party politics are very different from that of Western countries. In Western Europe, party politics often appear to be far away from everyday people. People may have their preferences, but generally do not perceive politics to be an active presence in their lives. In Bosnia, however, party politics are pervasive. It is not unusual to see political personalities attending social and cultural events that, apparently, have nothing to do with politics.
The ubiquity of politics goes hand in hand with high levels of corruption. Frequently, people affiliate with a party just to get a job, or a better contract. It is not even necessary to be genuinely in line with the political beliefs of the party. What matters, apparently, is the outward expression of allegiance.
This “my way or the highway” attitude often encounters forms of resistance. Last month, the YouTuber Amir Hadžić launched a petition to arrest Milorad Dodik [the representative of Serbs in the Bosnian Presidency] for his alleged corruption. Yet, these sporadic actions cannot, alone, eradicate a system that is sewn into the political fabric of Bosnia.
Can NGOs Still Thrive in Bosnia?
Considering the situation, can NGOs still enjoy the freedom of action? With regards to this, Zorana answered that: “Well, the Bosnian system has a lot of obstacles. But on the local level, we had, from the beginning, pretty good cooperation with our local government. They supported us on any kind of actions in the first few years. Then, they saw what kind of activities we do, what kind of results we give, and they were good results.“
“They said: Every activity that you do, if you need some kind of permission or anything, please just tell us. We’re going to help you. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they financially support us. We aren’t financed by Republika Srpska. The office space that we use belongs to the city, and we receive a small amount for local volunteering services. But most of our funds come from international organizations and international projects.”
“But still, it’s very nice to see that you are recognized in the local community as an association that does really good things that help others. And it’s also very nice when the government is not saying: ‘Ok, you cannot do this and that’. They are always like: “You have our full support and any kind of projects that you implement, count us in”. Therefore, it would appear that NGOs enjoy relative freedom and space for maneuvering. In this way, they can provide services such as informal education or other training that young people could not otherwise access.
Young People and Emigration from Bosnia
Bosnian youth, in fact, are a particularly fragile demographic even today. They are most affected by the precarious economic conditions of the country, even 25 years after the conflict, which leads to an unstoppable flow of emigration. The latest OECD figures show that since 2018, 44,700 people have left the country, going mostly to Germany, Slovenia, and Austria. The emigrants from 2013 and 2018 are estimated to be between 150,000 and 500,000 people. That would represent 15% of the entire population of a country of only 3.5 million inhabitants. The Western Balkans Democracy Initiative calculated that Bosnia is losing about €21,000 per person that leaves the country.
The role of NGOs in Tackling Unemployment in Bosnia
NGO “Most”, together with other similar organizations, is trying to counteract this trend. According to Zorana: “Being a volunteer is an amazing job, it’s a job that we all have to do. But then, if you don’t offer the volunteers something that is interesting for them, something that they need, something from what they can learn and gain new knowledge from, they eventually get lost, go somewhere else“. In particular, the association tries to focus on teaching young people useful hard and soft skills. The hope is, of course, that this can help them find a job.
“There is a bit of a situation in the Bosnian system, in the sense that it’s not very empowering for you. Young people don’t know how to get their own small companies starting. So we did a lot of education about how to create your own business, how to run a small company. We provided a lot of education that I hope served to make them feel pushed to get into the field. We just hope to help them out with all the resources that we have in here.” Furthermore, “Most” also has to run its own company. About that, she added: “I sincerely hope that we will also make new workplaces.”
Making Up for a Flawed School System
To make things even more difficult, the school system also has its shortcomings. This problem is not exclusive to Bosnia; on the contrary, the gap between education and work affects even developed countries. The effect is that: “The education that young people get in high school is often not enough. They don’t have enough social, linguistic, IT, and other work-related skills. In such a state of things, we paid a lot of attention to informal education. All the projects that we did were based on empowering the youth and underlining the possibilities of informal education. The objective was to help them get the skills that they need for University or employment.“
In other words, NGOs try to figure out what people need and deliver tailored projects. At the same, it is important to let volunteers bond and form connections. “We put a lot of effort into organizing different things for them to gather here, to hang out. That’s the thing, the informal activities that we organize, such as movie nights or music workshops, help to get the volunteers to bond. And then, when you call them to, let’s say, a volunteering action, they will come. Because you don’t just call them when you need them.“
The Opportunity to Meet Fellow Europeans
Another way in which “Most” tries to reconnect the youth with growth opportunities is through exchanges. In this way, teenagers get to meet their fellow Europeans and overcome marginality. Youngsters as young as 16 can apply, and spend some time in other European countries. “For young people it’s an amazing thing, when you’re like 16-17 and you get a chance to travel for 10 days to the Czech Republic, to Croatia, to hang out with other people from all across Europe, to meet new cultures. This kind of spreads their mind, you know. You get a bit more open-minded and then you’ll see how many chances you have.“
Plans for the Future?
When asked about the future of “Most”, Zorana says: “We cannot predict the things that will happen in the future. This past year has taught us that none of our plans are written in stone. But still, I think that, in the future, we’re going to have to make a stronger team. Sure, we have a lot of activities now, but I envision making it even bigger. I would like to include more people, even from all around Bosnia.“
Last year, “Most” hosted a project that included ten cities from all around the country, from Bihac to Travnik. That was an opportunity for people to connect, hang out, talk, across the entities’ boundaries. “So, in the future, we will much like to continue like that. To reconnect the youth all over the country, that’s kind of our plan.” There is probably no better example of how civil society can be the force for change in Bosnia. While older generations continue to hold on to clientelistic networks of power and old grievances, there is still a chance for young people. After all, aren’t they the future?
This interview is part of TNGO’s BA3G – Bosnia Across 3 Generations project.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The New Global Order. Any content provided by our authors is of their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company or individual.