Keith Brown is Associate Professor at Brown University's Watson Institute. He spoke about his current research project (titled "From Idea to Impact," which is sponsored by an IREX Policy-Connect grant) at an EES Noon Discussion on March 12, 2008. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 348.
Since the 1990s, an array of international organizations has devoted considerable time and energy to democracy promotion in the Western Balkans. A major strand of this work has comprised civil society assistance, increasingly targeted at the community level. Official evaluations of this work tend to emphasize quantitative indicators of increasing civic participation, reduced incidence of inter-ethnic violence and socio-economic progress. They tend not to portray the empirical realities of democratization, or the less tangible, longer-term impacts of such efforts. The ongoing research project described here aims to offer a longitudinal case-study in US civil society programming which combines academic and policy perspectives. Our goal is to examine closely and systematically the impacts and lessons from a single project, while factoring in the wider context. We also hope to demonstrate the advantages of qualitative, open-ended inquiry for researchers interested in uncovering what might be termed the "invisible legacies" of external democracy promotion efforts, as well as offer a better understanding of what we term internal democracy promotion efforts, often with deep historical memories of their own, which have been ignored or overlooked.
In January 2008, I traveled to the Republic of Macedonia with two colleagues to conduct oral historical research on the birth, implementation and after-life of one civil society program, which ran from 1995-2004. This program, DEMNET, was part of an integrated package of interventions designed and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to foster a vibrant civil society in the country. As part of a wider effort, which operated in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and other East and Southeast European countries, Macedonia's DEMNET program was spearheaded by the Vermont-based Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), a non-governmental organization (NGO). ISC worked with local communities and NGOs to develop their capacities in strategic planning, advocacy, lobbying and effective cooperation. Much of this work was done by Macedonian nationals who, through their work for ISC, gained new insights and skills regarding civil society's role and structure within a democratic system. As USAID has downscaled its funding and ISC has reduced its footprint, ISC's target communities, partner NGOs and former employees face the challenge of sustaining the momentum of reform.
I have worked in and on Macedonia for the past 15 years: my research partners are Paul Nuti, a former ISC Macedonia country director with whom I have previously collaborated, and Paige Sarlin, a documentary film-maker with interests in the role of media in democracy. Our interviews were structured as informal conversations: we called it muabet, a Turkish loan-word also used in Macedonian, Greek, Albanian and Serbian to mean "chit-chat." We chose this form in part because of our sense that more formal evaluations (as well as hypothesis-testing) often miss something. Focus groups and specific question sets are used to establish objectivity and distance between an individual interviewer and members of an organization: human rapport is considered as undermining the validity of the information gathered. This project is based on a different model of knowledge-production, which we consider profoundly collaborative. It was an attempt to talk about impact in a holistic way: not counting specific indicators, but rather asking people to share less tangible results and observations.
Thus far, we have interviewed eight former ISC staff and six other civil society activists, focusing in particular on individuals with their own histories of community engagement and involvement in participatory politics. All of the former and three of the latter interviews were conducted in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where between a quarter and a third of the country's population live, and where most of the country's largest and longest-running NGOs, as well as virtually all foreign agencies, are based. The remaining three interviews were conducted with community leaders in Vevchani, a small municipality with around 2,500 inhabitants, in Western Macedonia, the significance of which is discussed below. In Skopje interviews were conducted in English, and in Vevchani, in Macedonian.
Our interviews in Skopje offered a glimpse into the uncertain future of the civil society sector, insofar as it still relies heavily on external funding. A majority of donors have closed or are winding down their programs: EU pre-accession funding is coming online, but has specific demands in terms of formats. One of our interviewees, for example, offered the following observation:
I sometimes have a hard time to understand the European approach, because they're pretty much service-oriented… it's so mechanistic, so Newtonian in a way, everything must be in blocks or tables… Development is about making changes in the lives of people. Development is not making blocks and plans two years ahead, especially in an environment like the Balkans, but in any place, really. This environment is so changing and complex, that you cannot have a mechanistic approach like some donors have... It's a formula for how to fail. Of course, standards are there in terms of spending and monitoring… but looking for results in this global level management-for-results approach introduced by the UN, I think might cause more problems and bureaucratization than change.
He went on to stress the difference between the rigidity of such audit-driven approaches to programming (in which, in particular, "logframes" occupy a central place) and the greater flexibility and empowerment he had experienced while working for ISC during the implementation of DEMNET. The imagery of Newtonian physics, in particular, which conjures inputs, outputs and predictable, guaranteeable results, represents an affinity with social scientific critiques of "top-down" approaches to governance and assistance, such as James Scott's discussion of "high modernism."
Another interviewee spoke of enduring rivalry between donors, which manifests itself in prejudice on the part of European employers against those perceived as acculturated in the ways of US project management. In this regard, it was interesting to observe how different NGOs in Macedonia were tackling the thorny problem of financial sustainability. While some (including the Open Society Institute [FOSIM] and the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation [MCIC]) are retooling to apply for EU funding sources, a key strand of development for ISC's legacy organization, the Center for Institutional Development (CIRa), was philanthropy development and the promotion of corporate social responsibility in Macedonia. This focus on private giving—which involved both public education and lobbying to reform the tax code to incentivize giving—marks a profound philosophical difference from approaches that see public funds as central.
Finally, our conversations with former ISC employees also made clear the extent of their professional mobility and development. A core of the young activists recruited in the 1990s by ISC country director Terry Armstrong now lead CIRa: others work in managerial and analytical roles at other international organizations, including the British Council, and the Swiss and Swedish development organizations. Several have earned internationally-accredited masters' degrees in the professional field of development studies, and a common theme in our conversations was their commitment to fostering collaboration between different governmental and non-governmental actors to bring about positive change in the country. In this regard, several reflected on the distance they had traveled from their early, "instant" activism (organizing trash pick-ups, for example) to an awareness of the need for protracted, incremental work to embed progressive values in the legal code, and change public attitudes.
What was also common, as noted above, was the pivotal importance in their own professional development of working for ISC. One of our interviewees, now the director of a regional organization that brings together local associations from different Southeast European countries to share best practices, tried to capture that experience as follows:
It's a different working culture. It's difficult to describe, you know, it's just a feeling you have, when you get up and go to work, and also the liberty you have in being more creative about doing something, or having the opportunity to say when something is not going as well as you wish, or spending time to discuss those issues. In many other organizations there's no time for such things—you're just running and doing things just as they are written in advance. So we were spending some time thinking about how to improve things, and I think not only the product is better, but the feeling of the employees and the staff that they can do it and they should think about it, is very important.
He stressed that he was trying to replicate this sense of shared purpose and empowerment in the organization he now directed. The terms he used resonate with those of the first interviewee quoted above, with their shared concerns about the limitations of operating, as it were, "by the book."
ISC's DEMNET program, then, left an imprint on those Macedonian citizens directly involved in its implementation. In our next round of interviews, we plan to widen the circle of inquiry and visit some of the communities and organizations outside Skopje where ISC provided support through specific projects. In several interviews, former ISC employees expressed curiosity about the outcome of their work in particular locations, and we will continue our documentation of project afterlife in a sub-set of the score or so of communities where ISC was most actively engaged.
We also plan to return to Vevchani, a community which was never on ISC's map. This represents something of a paradox, as Vevchani strikes us as a site where, historically, citizens participated in activist efforts to make local government more effective, responsive and accountable, and thereby acted in accordance with several of USAID's strategic objectives for DEMNET. The town is the location of a yearly carnival, which residents claim represents a 1400 year old legacy, and also attracted publicity when in 1992 it declared itself, in an act of playful politics akin to those documented elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Republic of Vevchani. In our research, though, we focus on the legacy of events in 1987, which we argue constitute a locally-driven project in their own right, in which "foreign assistance" took a rather different form. In August 1987, following a dispute with local government officials over a proposed redistribution of water from the springs in Vevchani, Macedonian police clashed with local residents, mostly women and children who put up barricades and blocked access to the springs. Despite the non-violent tactics of the townspeople, the police used dogs, tear gas, conventional truncheons and also specialized prods that delivered electric shocks against the population. The townspeople nevertheless continued their resistance, protesting and publicizing police methods through a hunger strike and non-violent protest meetings.
They were motivated, in part, by skewed media coverage of the events. Nova Makedonija, the newspaper of record, reported that Vevchani's Orthodox Christian population had refused to share their water with their Macedonian Muslim neighbors in the village of Oktisi, and the police were compelled to intervene for the greater good. Vevchani's activists recall that in fact, they had been negotiating with Oktisi, and had reached an agreement on sharing water resources, but that the local government had tried to impose its own plan, which involved piping Vevchani water to an elite settlement of villas of party members at Elen Kamen, on Lake Ohrid.
Nova Makedonija's coverage also sparked a reaction from Vlado Milchin, who was then a theater director, and who I interviewed in Skopje. He recalled reading the Nova Makedonija coverage and, because he knew of mixed marriages between people in Oktisi and Vavcani, knowing that something was not quite right. He went to Vevchani, where a friend lived, to see for himself, and ended up spending three days in his friend's house, filming and interviewing victims of police violence.
So after doing that, I remember that the next day, or two days after we came back to Skopje, I wrote a letter to the editor in chief of NM telling my view of what had happened. Basically it was a refutation of that editorial. It was not published, naturally. And then I recommended a performance from Vevchani to come to Skopje and to be a part of the program of Youth Open Theater Festival organized by the Youth Cultural Center. So they came, and then probably somebody from the theater group told Iso Rusi—then correspondent for the Zagreb weekly Danas—that I was in Vevchani and that I was investigating the whole story, then Iso came to me and asking me whether I would be ready to give an interview. We did the interview, not only about Vevchani, but the [wider] political situation, history, [especially] things which somehow are completely dark in the history… and Danas published that, and Danas was really a weekly with a reputation. I remember then I was professor at the faculty of drama, and the dean came to me and said "this is a bomb." So after Danas came Mladina, which was famous, very open weekly published in Ljubljana, and Valter from Sarajevo. And it was really a voice… the only voice from Macedonia, at least in the public, and that was something which was very instructive. I had no ideas of doing anything afterwards. But it happened that as result of that activity, actually, I was invited by Professor Branko Horvat to join perhaps the first NGO in Yugoslavia, the so-called UJDI, Association for a Yugoslav Democratic Initiatives. It was the beginning of a process which brought me to this world of civil society.
This story—told, I reiterate, in the mode of muabet—reveals the organic process by which Nova Makedonija's "big lie" came to be revealed as false: not by direct challenge (which was censored) but through a sequence of individual acts of friendship and loyalty. The chain of necessary conditions Milchin lays out is testament to the existing landscape of democratic potential in the former Yugoslavia: in this rich narrative account, we see how a friendship with a Vevchani resident (forged through the theater), a framework for theatrical collaboration, acquaintanceship with a trusted journalist, and then a network of alternative, critical media brought the first-hand account of events back around to people in Skopje. He nonetheless sees the moment—created by citizens in Vevchani—as pivotal in his own career path, which sees him as director of the Foundation of the Open Society Institute in Macedonia.
In Vevchani, interviewees confirmed a strong, enduring sense of community activism. Two years after the original events, residents marched to the government buildings in Skopje and then camped three days outside the building until a party spokesman came out and acknowledged that the police had gone too far. One of the leaders during the events, the former school principal, described the participants' sense of determination, "to show them that we would struggle to the end for democracy, freedom and for our dignity, which had been trampled on. For that reason Vevchani can be reckoned as a green shoot of democracy—or a spring of democracy, of a kind that didn't exist anywhere else at the time." This organic metaphor, evoking the growth of plants, and Vevchani's own springs, is part of a powerful rhetoric of spontaneous, authentic localism. Elsewhere she described the importance for people in Vevchani of voluntarism and action—as opposed to waiting for someone else to think or provide for them—which culminated in a successful campaign to have Vevchani acknowledged as a free-standing municipality, with substantial financial autonomy.
As I suggested earlier, the vision that the principal and Milchin express is close to that which ISC and USAID aspired to cultivate. But despite the apparent commonality, we identified a strange miscommunication. Before this trip, Paul Nuti, former country director of ISC, had never heard of Vevchani. Vlado Milchin—one of the leading figures in civil society activism in Macedonia before and after the break-up of Yugoslavia—indicated in our conversation that he had never heard of DEMNET. Memories are sometimes unreliable, and sometimes institutional rivalries play a role. But in this project, what we are uncovering is apparently disconnected conversations about the same thing—the importance, and the possibility, of locality, mutuality and human connection in participatory democracy. We hope to find ways to knit them together, and thus perhaps extend the after-life of both, and highlight the value of close listening, muabet, in grasping how and when democratic projects, home-grown or externally-promoted, take root.