Agreement on Establishment of the Western Balkans Fund (WBF) was signed on 13 November 2015 in Prague, by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia. The WBF is financing and co-financing of small and medium projects in WB countries in the fields of common interest such as education, environment, human rights, youth exchanges. The European Western Balkans spoke with dr Gjergj Murra, Executive Director of the Western Balkans Fund.
European Western Balkans: Since you have more than sixteen years of diplomatic experience in the region, how would you assess the current state of regional cooperation? Is it improving throughout the years?
Gjergj Murra: The regional cooperation remains one of the greatest achievements of the Western Balkans region, positively influencing regional stability and brining various practical benefits for its citizens and societies.
The European integration perspective is the main driving force fostering region’s stability, cooperation and development. To this end, strengthening of the regional cooperation represents an essential requirement for the Western Balkan countries in their EU membership aspirations. The Berlin Process aimed at revitalizing the multilateral ties between the Western Balkans and EU member states, is bringing new impetus to the development of common regional strategies in priority areas, such as transport, energy, trade, environment, information technologies, mobility etc. More and more the countries of the region are taking the ownership of the process, including also more financial responsibilities, as well.
Following also my personal diplomatic experience, let me highlight that today the region is ready more than ever to assume greater ownership of regional cooperation processes and in this sense, the establishment of the Western Balkans Fund represents a clear evidence of it.
EWB: Could you tell us something more about the Western Balkans Fund? What kind of grants it provides, what kind of institution it supports and in which areas?
GM: The Fund’s main objective is to boost cooperation between its members, to strengthen relations and regional cohesion, to advance integration into the European Union.
It will be done by promoting common values among citizens, civil society and regional actors, by strengthening and providing a concrete approach at the “people-to-people” level.
The Fund aims to achieve these goals by supporting common regional projects and by bringing people to share mutual experiences and be aware of values, traditions and culture of their respective countries.
The process of preparation and implementation of projects by regional actors, representatives of civil society, business community and local institutions will serve to increase the capacity for larger and more complex projects in the future.
WBF finance small and medium projects with the main objective of increasing regional and cross-border cooperation in these key areas: Education and Scientific exchanges; Cultural cooperation; Sustainable Development.
The matters pertaining to youth, gender and cross-national cooperation were regarded as cross-cutting issues.
The project partnerships represent the central requirement for the applications to the WBF grants. Project partnership is consisted of the lead-applicant and minimum two project partners. Partnership parties must come from at least three different WB6 Contracting Parties.
The application for funding are simple and accessible from a wide range of stakeholders aligning from regional civil society networks, local or regional public entities; including municipalities or regional development agencies, business associations; including business clusters, agriculture associations, chamber of commerce, tourism associations, educational institutions; including universities, schools, institutes, libraries, research centers, academies of science/music/art, institutions of culture or sports; including museums, art galleries, theatres, libraries, or associations of cultural institutions, sport association, etc.
EWB: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges in the work of the Western Balkans Fund so far?
GM: WBF is in the process of creating its own identity by originating also the necessary mechanisms, rules, guidelines and procedures for its proper functioning. “Learning by doing”, as the motto of our work, has significantly and positively influenced the capacity building of the Secretariat staff, creating the bases for a more professional and high-performance in the future.
For us, the first Call has been a learning process, and I am glad to inform you that today, after managing all grant-making activities by relying on internal resources, we know more than we knew when we started.
Organizing the Call, the Information Campaign throughout Western Balkans and the evaluation process, have been a challenging task, but also an opportunity to learn more, about our region and the key drivers of regional cooperation.
Limited access to financial means still represents the main obstacle to further operations of the Fund, impedes its capacities to grow and to act as a meaningful instrument of regional cooperation in the Region. Through its first call WBF has demonstrated its potentials, however, this positive momentum could be diminished due to the low granting base which also can decrease the effects of the interventions.
From this perspective, let me underline the political importance of the decision of the WB ministers, just few weeks ago, during their Meeting in Sarajevo, to double up, starting from 2019, the Annual Contribution to the Western Balkans Fund budget. The decision is a clear message of the willingness in supporting regional activities, for increasing mobility of the people in the region, through common projects and actions.
This is a very important decision for us, in the process of implementation of the core strategic objectives of the organization. In the same time, it is also the right message of regional ownership in action, also towards European Union and other partners to support more actively the work and objectives of WBF in the future.
EWB: How would you evaluate the results of the First Call on Regional Project Proposals?
GM: The Western Balkans Fund is now a reality, a fully operational regional institution that has started to fulfill its own objectives: enhancing regional cooperation supporting the overall human mobility and strengthening people to people contacts in our Western Balkans Region.
On 15 November, the Fund launched its First Call for Regional Project Proposals. Although modest in size, the Call has produced results way beyond all expectations and has proved successful.
Through our First Call, 1,300 organizations, associations of culture, sports, arts and youth, institutions of education, local governments, business associations and many other non-profit stakeholders, have come together and cooperated to develop regional projects.
88 organizations and institutions will be directly rewarded either as lead applicants or as projects partners.
Through 350 applications, we have received more than EUR 3 million in grant requests, which clearly indicates the impact that regional cooperation projects could have if the adequate funding is provided.
Around 65% of applications came from the small cities and from the young organizations which showcases the Fund’s capacity to rise above and beyond the confines of central levels and connect all parts of the region, no matter how remote or small they are.
Another important insight is the large number of proposed projects pertains to EU integrations, distinguishing the EU integrations as an important factor of regional cohesion, and our intention is to reflect on this in our future calls.
In our assessment, the results of the Call are a clear sign that: The regional stakeholders are mature, willing and ready to cooperate; There is a strong need for support from civil society organizations; The decision, to create WBF was a timely one and very well accepted by our societies.
EWB: Out of 351 project application you have received, 20% was in the field of sustainable and economic development. The region is severely lagging behind the EU on this issue. Could we say that this is a relatively small number of applications in this area? What do you consider to be the reason for this?
GM: We see this figure as a very good one. In our region, economic cooperation generally is seen as a field where only business is involved. Actually having 20 % of the applications from this field shows the changing of the mentality. Initially when we published our First Call, the associations of business were surprised as we informed and invited them to participate with their proposals. We are very happy to see this percentage and we expect that it to rise in the coming Calls.
- Project applications per Contracting Party:
- Allocation of project applications per the area of intervention:
EWB: What will be in the main focus of work of the WBF in the upcoming period?
GM: Now we are entering into an important stage of our activities: that of the implementation of the projects. Here lays the impact of our actions, that’s why we already, in close cooperation with awarded organizations, have prepared a full comprehensive set of monitoring mechanisms to ensure the desired effects of the projects in the implementation phase. The quality and the experience of the leading applicants, makes us quite confident that this phase will be successful, with real impact of the actions foreseen.
We recognize visibility and communication as the staples of transparency. We rely on them to show that we are putting entrusted funds to a meaningful use, utilizing them as well, as means for promoting the Fund and the region.
We also recognize that fundraising, besides being core part of WBF operations, holds paramount importance for the development of the organization. Not only for increasing the financial means, but also as a way to promote the message and goals of WBF. Therefore, WBF has initiated a wide-scale fundraising campaign and we are optimistic on the results, which will allow us more funds for supporting more projects that aims to enhance regional cooperation and to bring.
Furthermore, the future success of the WBF largely depends on the effective implementation of the rewarded projects. This will require a close monitoring approach, while dissemination of the project results will require comprehensive promotional campaign.
Let me conclude by saying, that we at WBF are fully aware about the challenges and limitations as a young and small organization. But we also know that the political viewpoint behind our mission is so relevant and significant! That keeps us fully motivated and eager to do better and to grow, in the service of our beautiful region and its wonderful people.