Islands of resilience: civil society organizations in the Western Balkans.

These are hard times for civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Western Balkans. In many countries of the region, CSOs dealing with organized crime and corruption are under pressure from governments and threatened by people involved in corrupt or illicit activity. At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis has made it difficult for CSOs to have face-to-face contacts with many of the individuals and groups in society that they normally work with, like women, youth, former prisoners or drug users. To find ways to overcome these obstacles, the GI-TOC convened a cross-regional dialogue from 14 to 16 December 2020 to discuss current challenges and opportunities for strengthening resilience to organized crime and corruption in the Western Balkans.1

The online event brought together more than 50 civil society representatives from community-based NGOs, think tanks, media and academia to discuss challenges and good practices in their work. The participants discussed common challenges and ways to strengthen networks and received training on advocacy and security. Civil society representatives from different parts of the world who are engaged in similar work also shared their experiences on topics ranging from gender issues and reporting on corruption to engagement with governments.

The cross-regional dialogue was organized together with the GI-TOC’s Resilience Fund and is part of a project funded by the German foreign office to map the work of CSOs in the Western Balkans dealing with organized crime and corruption and to help strengthen their resilience. The meeting was preceded by national workshops with CSOs in each of the six countries of the Western Balkans.

As part of this project, in 2020 the Resilience Fund supported 13 CSOs from across the Western Balkans. These organizations are engaged in a wide variety of activities, including working with youth, addressing drug issues, fostering post-prison reintegration, fighting corruption, dealing with environmental issues and combatting violence against women.

A special effort was made to select organizations from smaller towns that are vulnerable to organized crime and that may not receive as much attention or funding from donors as CSOs in major cities. Indeed, the GI-TOC particularly focused on supporting CSOs from places identified in its report, ‘Hotspots of Organized Crime in the Western Balkans’, from May 2019.2 These hotspots are marked in red (see figure 3), while locations of the CSOs supported by the Resilience Fund are marked in green.

The GI-TOC analyzes the work of CSOs in the Western Balkans dealing with organized crime and corruption in an upcoming report, ‘Stronger together: Bolstering resilience among civil society in the Western Balkans’, which will be published in early February 2021. The report describes some of the challenges faced by CSOs in the region and looks at the different approaches that they use to counter organized crime and corruption in their communities. It also examines the crime-related issues that are of particular interest to them, like extortion and loan sharking, environmental crime, corruption, youth gangs and hooliganism, money laundering and labour exploitation, including sex work. The report also identifies several good practices and entry points commonly used by CSOs in the Western Balkans to engage with their constituencies and to raise awareness of organized crime and corruption.

In the report and at the cross-regional dialogue, practitioners discussed how to strengthen resilience. They stressed that organized crime and corruption need to be made tangible for the community, to demystify the topics and explain their impact in an easy and understandable manner. It was noted that many people either do not recognize the symptoms of organized crime and corruption or feel helpless to deal with them. Civil society therefore has a key role to play in raising awareness, explaining the harm and promoting integrity, transparency, accountability and good governance.

Participants stressed that networking among CSOs is important both nationally and regionally, as well as between Western Balkan CSOs and their counterparts in other regions. This is where the GI-TOC can help. More needs to be done to strengthen partnerships between non-governmental organizations, investigative journalists and academia working on issues of organized crime and corruption.

A dilemma for CSOs in many countries of the Western Balkans is how to interact with governments. In countries where the opposition is weak or has boycotted parliament, or in situations where the political elite is perceived as corrupt or even has ties to criminal elements, CSOs take on the role of the opposition. This creates the impression that they are anti-governmental rather than non-governmental organizations. On the other hand, governments label such groups – especially if they receive support from foreign donors – as ‘traitors’ or ‘foreign agents’ and go after them in the press through ‘law enforcement’ or even intimidation. A primary challenge is therefore to keep channels of dialogue open between the government and civil society and to strengthen cooperation against what should be a common enemy: organized crime. International actors can sometimes help facilitate such dialogue.

Another observation that came through in the cross- regional dialogue and the report is that international donors need to be more sensitive to the challenges of CSOs, particularly smaller ones outside of big cities. For example, they should be more transparent in their calls for applications, better understand local conditions (including finite capacity for project administration and limited language skills, as well as low absorption capacity) and ensure that support is need-driven. Donors should provide the opportunity for longer-term grants to enhance sustainability and strengthen resilience. They should also involve civil society in the entire project cycle from design through implementation. Finally, donors should stand behind CSOs during the implementation of projects related to fighting organized crime and corruption, to demonstrate solidarity and increase the risk and political cost to those who pressure these organizations.

In countries where governments are reluctant or unable to take a top-down approach to tackling organized crime, the work of civil society becomes even more important. A methodology based on strengthening community resilience can empower change agents and boost social antibodies against organized crime and corruption.

But in an ecosystem of criminal governance, there are limits to what CSOs can do on their own. Looking forward, the challenge is to move from islands of resilience to networks of support. This is a process that the GI-TOC and the Resilience Fund are committed to supporting across the Western Balkans.


  1. Xhilda Dedaj and Sonila Papathimiu, Environment Impact of Ex-Industrial Areas in Laç and Rubik and the Possibilities for Their Functional Transformation—a Comparative Analysis, European Journal of Economics and Business Studies, 3, 3, 184-193,

  2. Siobhan Darrow, Albania deteriorates into chaos, CNN, 13 March 1997,