The Croatian institutional context for the sustainability and development of civil society consists of three key institutions: the Council for Civil Society Development (which is an official advisory body to the Government of the Republic of Croatia), the National Foundation for Civil Society Development (which manages a number of granting and re-granting programmes nationally) and the Government Office for Cooperation with NGOs (which is an administrative body of the Government itself).
This tripartite model has also been hailed as a desirable one in international circles, because it adequately provides for cooperation among an independent granting authority and government-attached bodies, with a strong participative component for representatives of civil society organizations. Representatives of the Government Office for Cooperation with NGOs and representatives of the National Foundation also have seats on the Council for Civil Society Development, leading to a representation of various parties in the Council.
Among other duties, it is the prerogative of the Council for Civil Society Development to monitor the implementation of the National Strategy for the Creation of an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Development (hereafter: National Strategy) – a key document for planning and programming funding from the European Social Fund, as well as to participate in programming the priorities in usage of EU funding in Croatia. The national strategy ensures commitments of the Government of Croatia towards civil society development.
In the spring of 2016, the Council for Civil Society Development initiated the process that was meant to result in the passing of the National Strategy for the period from 2017 to 2021. The process of drafting the National Strategy was participatory and had included more than 70 representatives of public authorities, academia and NGOs. The drafting was followed by a public consultative process gathering comments from a number of stakeholders, including citizens, NGOs and public authorities.
Relevant public authorities are meant to feed to this process by providing remarks to the comments of the public consultation and stating whether or not they had been implemented in the text of the draft being discussed. However, this process was critically delayed by the Ministry of Labour and Pension System (MoL), which also administrates several European Social Fund programmes in Croatia. For two years, the MoL has ignored its duty to provide its remarks in response to the consultation. In the latest development, the Director of the Government Office for Cooperation with NGOs stated that remarks by the MoL had „just arrived“, but they could not be disclosed to the Council for Civil Society Development.
Right now, the National Strategy is in limbo. At this point, it has become very difficult to interpret the MoL’s inaction as anything other than deliberate obstruction of the process on part of the MoL and the Government as a whole. Worse yet, even if the MoL were to submit its remarks right now, the foreseen strategic period (again, intended to be 2017-2021) is now more than halfway over, and drafting a new – or at least heavily amended National Strategy – would likely be imminent. In fact, this was already hinted at by the representative of the Office of the Prime Minister in the Council.
Due to the refusal of Government ministry to provide comments, the National Strategy has been in the works for long enough to become obsolete, while the time for meaningful implementation is running out. By choosing this path of action, the Government is refusing to stand to accountability before its own advisory body, the Council for Civil Society Development, in a blatant breach of trust. The purpose of this obstruction is unknown, but this delay hampers organisations’ ability to plan for the future and their financial sustainability. Call for funding are opened without strategic planning: organisations do not know when and if the funding will be available for their area of work. For example, to date, the call for funding for civic education has not been published yet.
Civil society organizations in Croatia, who were already subjected to strategies of financial exhaustion in 2016 by the previous Government, are obviously being undermined again, this time not by direct financial instruments, but by administrative malfeasance and stalling tactics employed by its asymmetrically powerful „partner“ – the Government itself. Apart from civil society organizations themselves, the victims of the process will be the same ideals proclaimed by the Government that is conducting the process – transparency, public accountability and good governance.