The Roma Democratic Development Association SONCE is a non-governmental organisation working at the local, national and international levels to promote civil integration, democratic rights and equal opportunities for Roma in the Republic of Macedonia. Founded in 1996 as an informal self-help group for the Roma community in the Municipality of Tetovo and officially registered on 16 February 1999 as a non-profit organisation, SONCE has implemented more than 100 projects over the past two decades in a range of areas, including education, health and social care, employment and democratic participation of Roma. SONCE collaborates closely with other civil society organisations, public and state institutions and international groups to bring positive change to the Roma community. It is a member of national and international networks and bodies. The work of the Association is supported by a range of donors, such as the EU, the Council of Europe, the OSCE/ODIHR, USAID, UNDP, GIZ, etc.
In October 2016, representatives from the non-governmental organisation SONCE and the Municipality of Tetovo, North Macedonia, visited the Schleswig-Holstein region to learn about the approaches to diversity management northernmost German Federal State, famous for its minority politics. The study visit, organised and hosted by FUEN, was a part of the project "Minority in the Western Balkans",[i] implemented in a partnership with the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Schleswig-Holstein Chancellery, and the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI). During the meetings with minorities and public officials, the participants learned about their experience with existing institutions and practices. They could share views and opinions and discuss issues of common interest.
Reflecting on the situation and the needs of the various stakeholders within their community, the team from Tetovo concluded that establishing a structure for dialogue and cooperation between the public authorities and the minorities, as well as fostering the collaboration between the different minority organisations in the municipality, is of primary importance. Inspired by the Schleswig-Holstein model of the DialogForumNorden, the participants, assisted by the project partners, developed a plan for action for its adaptation. The initiative of NGO SONCE obtained full support from the Mayor of Tetovo and of the Municipality, and on 13th December 2017, the parties signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing a platform for social dialogue and cooperation – the Tetovo Forum for Social Dialogue and Cooperation.
Launched in early 2004 upon the initiative of the Minority Commissioner of Schleswig-Holstein, over the years, the DialogForumNorden (DFN)[ii] developed from a Forum for the exchange of information between the four minorities of the German-Danish border region to one of the central tools for communication and interaction between the four minority communities, the Minority Commissioner, and the local public and private institutions.
The DFN is an informal, non-hierarchical cooperation and communication forum without institutional rights or obligations. It is administered by the local educational institution European Academy Sanklemark, and the Minority Commissioner of Schleswig-Holstein calls and chairs the meetings. Meetings are occasionally structured along thematic lines; however, most of the time are usually dedicated to the reports of the participating institutions and organisations. Members of DFN are local and regional actors from both sides of the German-Danish border, including minority organisations, civil society representatives, NGOs, and public authorities.[iii] Each member of DFN remains independent and sovereign. Joint statements can only be made with a complete consensus of all members. Although DFN plays a significant role in achieving mutual understanding among stakeholders concerned with minority issues and fostering cooperation, its impact is somewhat indirect as an informal organisation focused mainly on exchanging information and communication.
Establishing the Forum for Social Dialogue and Cooperation became a civil society initiative welcomed and supported by Tetovo's local government (LG). Upgrading the DFN model, the Forum was conceptualised as a mechanism to function for the benefit of all groups in need of social support, of all vulnerable groups, of all ethnic communities, and hence of the society at large. It was set up as a consultative and decision-making mechanism to support the work of the LG, with membership open to all citizens and their associations regardless of their gender, ethnic background, socio-economic status, professional activities, political affiliation or any other grounds. Officials from the municipality, Centre for Social Services officers, and other public servants were to represent the LG. The Mayor of Tetovo will chair the meetings. At the same time, Association SONCE, as a Secretary of the Forum, will communicate with the members, the local government and civil society.
One of the main differences between the DFN and the adapted model was that the Forum was conceived to serve not only as a platform for dialogue and cooperation but as a structure to initiate projects, organise training, raise awareness, and promote minority rights, equality and non-discrimination. Its sessions became part of the agenda of the Municipality, and it was offered the possibility to submit project proposals to the Municipal Council for funding approvals. Today, the FORUM holds monthly meetings and its work is funded by the municipality's budget.
Devoted to improving the situation of the region's vulnerable groups, the Forum aimed to become a multidisciplinary platform bringing together different private and public actors and intersecting the interests of all stakeholders. Members of the platform are also the Council of the Municipality (including the Head of the PR office), local-level institutions (Employment Agency, Office for Social Services, Health Centre), the local business, and six civil society organisations, representing the Roma and the Albanian minority community, the LGBTQI+ community, the local youth and other groups in need of social support. Through a people-oriented and non-discriminatory approach to decision-making and seeking to actively involve the people needing help in finding adequate solutions, the Forum enabled the groups at risk to communicate directly with local government administration, becoming a local-level advocacy mechanism.
A significant impact on the development of the new structure, however, had the Social Protection Law adopted at the end of 2019. According to its provisions (Chapter VI, art. 142-143), each municipality in North Macedonia had to establish a Council for Social Protection, composed of representatives of the local level public administrations, the Centres for social work, service providers, civil society associations, representatives of the religious communities, and other public and private stakeholders, engaged with the provision of social support to the people in need. The development of the Social Plan, mapping the vulnerable groups and their needs, the capacities and availability of social services, and the resources needed for addressing the identified deficiencies at the community level are also stipulated by the Law.
The Social Protection Law has placed the already established and functioning FORUM on a solid legal basis. It has legitimised it as an official structure in support of the City Administration. The fact that the law does not have special provisions about the Council's design and functioning allowed the FORUM to take over the new role without changing the organisational model and the achieved structural and operational arrangements. Furthermore, its two-year experience has made Tetovo a leader in the field and constituted the Social Dialogue Forum as a model to be replicated in other municipalities facing the need to establish the Social Councils required by the law.
The table below provides a comparative overview of the key similarities and differences between the Tetovo Dialogue Forum and the original DialogForumNorden (DFN) model.
DIALOGUE FORUM SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN MODEL (original)
* Non-formal structure; non-hierarchical cooperation and communication Forum
* Information exchange between minorities - facilitate the information flow between the participants and agreements regarding any relevant issues
* Meetings are called and chaired by the Minority Commissioner of Schleswig-Holstein
* Members – the Schleswig-Holstein Parliament, public authorities, Universities of the region, NGOs, minority organisations
* Indirect impact on developments
* Informal organisation functioning as a consultative body external to the state-level public administration
SOCIAL DIALOGUE FORUM TETOVO MODEL (adapted)
* A formal structure of the City Administration of Tetovo
* Public-civic partnership for the socio-economic development of the community and better planning and provision of support to vulnerable groups
* Regular meetings chaired by the Major of Tetovo
* Members - public authorities, NGOs, minority organisations
* Direct impact (decision-making powers)
* Since 2019, merged with the LG Social Council (mandatory by law structure to the local level public administration)
The real work of the Forum as a platform for structured dialogue and cooperation between the civil society and the public authorities of Tetovo started in late 2018 – early 2019 when the project proposals prepared by the Forum members were approved, and the City Council supported their implementation. At the beginning of 2019, Association SONCE addressed on behalf of the newly established Forum of Social Dialogue, the mayor of Tetovo, outlining identified needs at the community level and suggesting measures to manage them. The Forum requested that the initiatives are included in the municipal budget for 2019.
The proposed actions were aligned with the adopted Action Plan of the Forum, based on analysing the problems faced by the vulnerable groups in Tetovo municipality. One of the main problems identified was the challenged access to the labour market. The analysis revealed that many people at social risk do not have the education or qualifications to make them competitive in the labour market. At the same time, there were no adequate and active measures in place to support the people belonging to the vulnerable groups to acquire the needed skills. The lack of systematised official data about the number of people in need and their profiles impeded the designing of concrete solutions. In addition, information about existing measures was hardly reaching the target groups. Among the measures proposed by the Forum to the Municipality were financing qualification courses for people in need, establishing cooperation with the business sector so that private sector positions are offered to vulnerable groups and opening positions at the Municipality for people from the target groups.
Children from socially disadvantaged families and children with special needs were identified as the second major group needing support. The problematic access to kindergartens was outlined as a significant challenge resulting not only from the socio-economic situation of families but also from the lack of a sufficient number of places in the educational institutions, despite the positive effect that the Tetovo municipality program for subsidising the costs for ten children had, further measures were needed to address the high number of potential beneficiaries.
The lack of personal documents of parents and, respectively, of official registration of children in civic registers was an additional negative factor that added to the lack of official data about the number of children in need, was impeding the planning of concrete actions to address the issue and to improve the situation for the children in social risk and especially for these with special educational needs. Opening day-care-centres was outlined as one of the possible measures to prevent children from begging in the streets and integrating them into the educational system. The idea was that the children could acquire essential life skills in the day-care-centres by participating in various activities. This would also enable them to receive specialised professional support for their needs. At the same time, the measure was also seen as supportive to parents to find a job and keep it. The positive effect of the 25 daycare centres opened in the Republic of North Macedonia by that time has already been proven. Therefore, the Forum believed that the opening of additional centres in Tetovo would have an immediate impact on the community.
Referring to the commitment of the Municipality of Tetovo to the Forum as a joint initiative of the civil society and the local government of Tetovo, as well as the commitment of the Municipality to building a more humane and inclusive community, we Forum requested that the proposed activities are considered at a subsequent session of the Council of the Municipality and that their implementation is provisioned in the budget of the Municipality for 2019. "Tetovo, a municipality that provides conditions for equal access and rights to all citizens regardless of their ethnic and social affiliation", was the motto of the Forum of Social Dialogue and Cooperation, which was also offered to be adopted by the Municipality to promote its activities in support of the vulnerable groups.
A critical challenge that the FORUM faced during the first years of its existence was the lack of trust among the members of the vulnerable community members. Despite the targeted outreach, the close contacts and the established networks between the civil society organisations, members of the FORUM, and the target groups, the stakeholders did not immediately recognise the new structure as a trusted service provider. The adequate intervention during the Covid19 crisis endorsed the Social Dialogue platform as an efficient tool for communication and cooperation and an important support mechanism for communities.
In March 2020, social unrest increased due to the outburst of the pandemic. The local government of Tetovo called upon the FORUM members to talk to the protestors who gathered in front of the Municipality. Thanks to their excellent mediation, a communication channel between authorities and the citizens of Tetovo was opened, and the flow of information improved. Using the established telephone lines, emails, and mainly the post boxes installed in front of the offices of the six civil society organisations – members of the FORUM, the stakeholders started providing active details about their needs and concerns. Association SONCE collected the letters from the post boxes regularly, processed the provided information, and reported the results (problems and concerns) to the FORUM. The communication channel proved highly efficient, and the collected information complimenting the data gathered by the Mobile Teams during their outreach work. This enabled the partners to create a database about the actual community needs, which besides the COVID-19 challenges, related to housing problems, lack of IDs, and returnees’ issues.
Although some of the problems required long-term intervention and planning of complex support, the identification of imminent needs enabled the FORUM to start providing direct assistance to the communities in need through the NGO members. The organised delivery and distribution of food packages and hygiene products (such as personal protection masks and sanitisers) to the local Roma population significantly increased the trust in the new structure as a municipal mechanism for social protection. A factor that enabled the efficient relief work was the fact that the Head of the Public Affairs of the Municipality of Tetovo, acting both as a FORUM member and a Head of the Municipal Crisis Team, established a direct connection between the two structures. A positive aspect was that the mobilisation of support during the period of crisis was funded by both the national and the local budgets, for funding appeared among the significant challenges before the work of the FORUM, especially when problems require long-term intervention (for example, the introduction of sustainable waste-management solutions).
* Among its key activities and achievements of the FORUM for the five years of its existence can be outlined:
* Facilitated cooperation among the public authorities, civil society, and various local stakeholders
* Facilitated collaboration among the different minority communities represented in the FORUM
* Improved information exchange between the parties engaged with the provision of services and assistance to vulnerable groups
* Mapping vulnerable groups and collecting first-hand information about people’s needs through outreach work (involvpeople'sMobile Teams in the process)
* Enabled targeted planning and provision of services based on screening and analysis of the real needs of the targeted beneficiaries
* Improved access of the local actors and beneficiaries to the decision-making process
* Developed project proposals – 3 presented at the Council of the Municipality of Tetovo session and approved for financing (their implementation was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic). Among the first proposals developed and put forward by the FORUM were: conducting a more detailed mapping, opening a Daycare Centre for children with special needs, increasing the inclusion of children from vulnerable families in preschool education, organisation of qualification courses, and supporting the employment of persons in social risk,
* Advocating for and mobilising funds for improving a community water supply infrastructure (during the COVID-19 pandemic).
* Promoting the need for vaccination against COVID-19 among the vulnerable groups in the region.
* Promoting the Social Dialogue Forum model among civil society organisations – adopting the ROMACTED methodology, the model was transferred by Association SONCE to another 11 municipalities: Berovo, Bitola, Gostivar, Devar, Kichevo, Kochani, Prilep, Shtip, Strumitza, Veles, and Viniza. In 10 out of the 11 locations, the model has been implemented as a joint local government-civil society initiative. It must be noted that in the only municipality of Viniza, where the local government does not have a partnering NGO or other civil society representatives, the functioning of the structure is somewhat challenged.
Initiated as a transfer of a Schleswig-Holstein diversity management structure to improve the dialogue between minorities and local authorities of Tetovo and between the different stakeholders at the grass-root level, from adaptation, the Forum for Social Dialogue became an innovation. The initiative appeared to fill a communication gap identified as problematic by the stakeholders and addressed deficits the local government administration has been challenged with.
In 2002, the adopted Law on Local Self-government (2002) opened the door for the decentralisation of North Macedonia, viewed as a mechanism to foster democracy in the country and to enable the adequate management of the multi-ethnic regions. Apart from defining and regulating the revenue generation and fiscal management of Local Government Units, the Law (article 22) envisaged that the competences of the municipalities will cover all issues of local importance, including social welfare services, child protection, education, health care, urban and rural planning, communal activities, sport and regional economic development.
Three years after the adoption of the Law, in 2005, the decentralisation process in North Macedonia started with the administrative and financial decentralisation of transfers. However, the reform did not achieve the expected success levels for a decade after that. By 2017, it was already well known that municipalities struggled with efficiently allocating funds and budgeting, especially in providing social services. The top-down planning and delivery of services without consultations with stakeholders and their involvement in the processes have been preventing the local government administrations from identifying and adequately addressing the needs of vulnerable groups. As a result, the targeted services and the use of resources were largely ineffective.
Offering a new people-oriented and bottom-up approach to shaping local policies and providing services to vulnerable groups, the FORUM offered support to the local authorities and a solution to the struggles with designing programmes for social assistance that correspond to the real needs of the community and their adequate budgeting. On the other hand, the FORUM became an amplifier of the voices of the stakeholders and a mechanism to empower them not only to participate in the decision-making process but also to become active implementors of the envisaged solutions.
Based on the principles of non-discrimination and equality and inspired by the “Leave No One Behind” vision, the Social Dia"ogue Forum became a"participatory structure for joint civic-local government activities aimed at social inclusion, poverty alleviation, and reduction of inequalities. It seeks multidisciplinary, client-centred and evidence-based interventions to help people (re)integrate into community life, (re)gain independence from the support services and become active participants in the public and decision-making processes. With the idea that the multi-actor and multi-disciplinary platform for cooperation intersects various fields and capacities, depending on the type of welfare system, alongside the representatives of the Local Governments and NGOs (of minorities and other civil society groups), the Social Dialogue Forum can include different players, such as health and social services, employment services, education services, social or private insurance companies, employers, trade unions, and media.
The success of the needs-based approach to designing and provision of social support services stems not only from the multi-disciplinary approach that requires cooperation between the local institutions, civil society organisations and the local private sector but also from the awareness that only by joining forces, positive societal changes can be achieved and the commitment to the cause. With an NGO taking over the coordinator role, the FORUM can function as a politically independent structure, avoiding potential risks due to political instability in the country.
Acknowledging the potential of the innovation, the GIZ, together with the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South-East Europe (NALAS), engaged with the scaling up of the Social Dialogue Forum model across the Western Balkan states. Since 2019, several projects have provided training on diversity management and needs-based service delivery mechanisms to public officials and civil society representatives from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, North Macedonia, and Serbia. FUEN continues to actively support the work of GIZ and NALAS in promoting the model and its multiplication.
Association SONCE's initiative to establish a mechanism SONCE'suctured communication and cooperation between the public authorities and civil society, developed after the DFN model from the Schleswig-Holstein region, requires not only strong political support at the local but also at a national (parliamentarian) level. Political instability is one of the factors that can become a significant challenge to the continuity of undertaken social initiatives and interventions and the future development of the established structure. Nevertheless, as a community structure involves all types of local actors and functions for the public good, the FORUM has good viability chances even in turbulent times.
According to Association SONCE, the efficiency and impact of the FORUM would be enhanced if a similar structure, to function as a contact point for all the Social Councils in the country, is established at a national level. Such cooperation – between the local and national governments – is essential since some problems, such as lack of personal identification documents or issuing social security cards, can be addressed only at the ministerial level.
Looking forward to enhancing the efficiency of the work and improving the provision of support to vulnerable groups, Association SONCE aims to build the capacities of the FORUM members further and strengthen their skills in writing project proposals, organising and conducting advocacy campaigns, and lobbying. Training in preparing policy briefs would positively impact the communication of issues of importance among public authorities and the general public. The experience during Covid19 crisis made the NGO aware that developing a tool for e-advocacy would be an essential step forward. Alongside the need to secure funding for implementing planned activities and projects to support vulnerable groups, Association SONCE believes that networking at the Parliamentary level and improving cooperation with the state authorities will secure additional and more robust support for the work of the FORUM.
Last but not least, to continue its successful work, the Social Dialogue Forum has to continue constantly increasing the level of trust among the stakeholders and partners.
[i] The project “Minorities in the Western Balkans” was laun"hed in 2016, within the framework" of the GIZ Social Rights for Vulnerable Groups (SoRi) Programme 2015-2019, covering Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, North Macedonia, and Serbia (https://www.giz.de/en/downloads/015_RP_SocialRights_EN.pdf)
[ii] Further information about DFN can be obtained from http://www.schleswig-holstein.de/DE/Fachinhalte/M/minderheiten/minderheiten_minderheitenbeauftragter.html
[iii] Members of DFN are the Minority Commissioner of Schleswig-Holstein, the permanent representative of the Europe committee in the Schleswig-Holstein Parliament, the Director of the Schleswig-Holstein Parliament, Bund Deutscher Nordschleswiger (Association of Germans in Nordschleswig), Sydslesvigsk Forening (South Schleswig Association), Frasche Rädj – Friesenrat Sektion Nord (North Frisian Council), Verband Deutscher Sinti und Roma – Landesverband Schleswig-Holstein (Association of German Sinti and Roma Schleswig-Holstein), Südschleswigsher Wählerverband (South Schleswig political party), Jaruplund Højskole (Jarplund educational centre), Nordfriisk Institut (North Frisian Institute), Minority Commissioner of the European University Flensburg, European Academy Schleswig-Holstein, European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), Region Syddanmark, and Region Sønderjylland-Schleswig.