Civil society plays an important role in ensuring that corruption in infrastructure projects and wrong priorities do not disrupt a 30 billion-euro financial plan for the Western Balkans, write a group of authors, according to Euractiv.
The authors – Albana Rexha, Aleksandar Macura, Ana Krstinovska, Ardian Hackaj, Gresa Smolica, Jelica Minic and Marko Sosic – represent several think tanks fighting for integrity in infrastructure projects.
Up to 30 billion euros will be funded in the service of recovery, economic development and green transition in the Western Balkan countries for the next seven years, of which 9 billion euros will be grants provided by the EU.
This amount represents a qualitative increase in financial assistance to the region towards a development model based on projects that run in parallel with the country’s reforms. However, what has not been reformed, at least so far, is the governance mechanism which makes it possible to advance the most important projects to ensure their effectiveness.
Although efforts have been made and significant resources have been allocated to the preparation of funding files, internal problems that directly affect their successful implementation are only partially addressed, and often, not addressed at all.
Corruption, cited as a structural weakness of the Western Balkans in EU reports, has not been identified as a “key aspect” that conditions the success of the European Investment Program at the WBIF meeting in December 2020.
The need for specific conditions from the EU regarding the distribution of the amount of 30 billion euros, has been accompanied by the need for additional reforms, without specifying the standards, or the “carrot and stick” mechanism. The growing presence of third parties in the region does not appear on the WBIF risk list.
A Delay Action Plan acknowledges that there are many challenges to rapid project implementation, such as changes in project requirements, low quality of preparation, changes in procurement strategies, low beneficiary involvement, and changing priorities after changing governments.
But the proposed strategies are limited to establishing a “monitoring and reporting system”. Although it increases transparency, the system fails to address the cause of the problems identified.
The problems of the Connectivity Agenda are related to the problems of governance within the country. When we talk about good governance in infrastructure projects, we are talking about the practical and tangible implications of the rule of law in the daily lives of the citizens of the Western Balkans. In the new enlargement methodology, the progress achieved conditions the progress of negotiations in the fields of transport, energy or digitalization.
But in the case of EU-backed infrastructure, the citizens of the Western Balkans will not need to consult EU Progress Reports to learn about the progress of reforms and how they can affect their lives.
In addition to its direct impact on citizens, infrastructure is a key element of enlargement, as it may delay the economic progress and reforms envisaged in the Western Balkan countries.
Incorrect infrastructure prioritization can affect medium-term economic forecasts. The financial oversupply in project financing and any resulting liabilities will affect the 3-year budget plans; corruption in public works will jeopardize structural reform agendas.
Moreover, the emergence of connectivity initiatives around the world will undoubtedly be felt in the Western Balkans as well.
In the region, we have witnessed parallel priorities: one that produces mature projects according to the EU methodology and others that prioritize and finance infrastructure projects through different mechanisms and criteria and not related to those of the EU. The availability of alternative sources of funding for projects that do not meet EU criteria weakens the EU conditionality factor.
The Berlin Process, with its focus on connectivity, has emphasized the role that infrastructure plays in enlargement, not only because of its financial capacity, but also to make the transformative power of the EU tangible.
Finally, since 2014, we are dealing with specific projects in specific locations and not only with the size of funds transferred from the EU to the governments of the Western Balkans. The citizens of the Western Balkans now know better where a considerable part of EU money goes.
They can also compare EU-backed projects with those of the government and look at changes in cost and quality. Specialized think tank groups have taken advantage of this opportunity and since 2015 have issued various monitoring reports, evaluation analyzes and proposals.
They have brought their unique knowledge of the local context and expertise in tackling the challenges with the rule of law, which directly affect connectivity agenda infrastructure projects.
Consequences of special laws drafted for contracting infrastructure projects and lack of a national development plan in Serbia, political prioritization of highways in Kosovo, alternative branches of national projects in Montenegro, low quality of project preparation in Macedonia and North, the environmental impact in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the considerable use of PPPs and the change of project parameters in Albania, have all been discussed as topics at the Civil Society Forum organized in Berlin in June 2021.
By intervening in the planning and implementation of Western Balkan infrastructure, think tanks, Western Balkan specialized organizations and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are trying to eliminate the democratic deficit in policy-making, contributing to the efficiency of the way how taxpayers’ money is spent in the region.
The current EU review of how the € 12.9 billion budget will be spent over the next 7 years is an excellent opportunity to consider the irreplaceable role of civil society organizations in the Western Balkans.
The integration of the basic elements in the Economic and Investment Plan will not be successful without the involvement and empowerment of the citizens of the Western Balkans. Local think tanks and CSOs are a key player in this effort.