Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN) is comprised of fourteen CSOs from ten countries in South-Eastern Europe. The organisation occupies itself with empowering CSOs and advocating for enabling civic environments at national and regional levels. Its mission is to promote functioning and sustainable democracies in the Balkans.
BCSDN’s network-based structure provides open spaces for discussion and deliberation across existing members and other organisations. Beyond that, the organisation experiences notable strengths on key Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) matters: Its staff are aware of and active in ameliorating language barriers, its internal bodies are often women-led and, while uncomfortable, anti- and positive discrimination is discussed for excluded groups like ethnic minorities.
At the same time, BCSDN struggles in operationalising and institutionalising D&I reforms across its policies, processes and culture. Namely, internal policies made only passing reference to D&I principles, and further, staff did not have knowledge of a complaint mechanism contained within its Code of Conduct. Further, no D&I criteria were outlined in BCSDN’s recruitment processes, the organisation instead opting for an approach based solely on merit. Outreach and engagement processes were similarly missing D&I measures. Finally, and importantly, the inability to easily translate D&I language from English alienates leadership and staff already disillusioned by inaccessible and problematic ‘CSO language.’
All in all, alignment on D&I principles at BCSDN is more about leadership and staff having similar values and less about the deliberate policies, processes and culture of the organisation. While this alignment lays a promising foundation for the completion of future D&I reforms, BCSDN should be intentional about operationalising and institutionalising the recommendations suggested by the audit. In undertaking these reforms, the organisation can stand to become a D&I leader in the Balkans.
Ensuring equal opportunity through a new human resources (HR) policy:
Developing a new HR policy was a priority for BCSDN. As it stands now, this new policy is supportive of D&I principles and provides a clear understanding of and fair opportunities for career advancement. Even more, all BCSDN staff had the opportunity to feed into the development of the policy. After the submission of the policy to the BCSDN Board, this body has furthered D&I discussions by raising the importance of the organisation’s executive office nurturing a rewarding and inclusive workplace environment. As a result, the board has recommended the establishment of a salary system that will adequately reflect its commitment to being a fair, transparent and inclusive employer.
The audit revealed that the working culture at BCSDN is very positive and that all staff are able to communicate and cooperate. BCSDN thus focused on capturing this positive work culture in the formal policies of the organisation, as both practices and policies are needed for sustainable D&I progress. Ensuring respect for D&I measures, preventing cases of harassment and promoting the value of non-discrimination has been made possible by linking BCSDN’s Code of Conduct with its Rulebook on Working Relations. As such, adherence to its Code of Conduct has been introduced as part of its employment agreement through adding articles to the beginning of the Rulebook which stipulate equal legal force for the Code of Conduct as for the Rulebook. Based on the feedback collected from BCSDN staff, this change has allowed the organisation to entrench its current prioritisation of D&I by influencing its organisational values, ways of working and legal obligations.
Implementing value-based systems across the network:
As a regional network, BCSDN wanted to ensure that their inclusive values were being implemented across its membership. To this end, BCSDN announced that all of its member organisations needs to have anti-discrimination policies in place in order to become part of its network. The organisation ensured that its Secretariat would provide support surrounding creating these frameworks for each member organisation. Additionally, BCSDN made sure that its Code of Conduct and complaints mechanism became accessible to its entire network and regional stakeholders. Following the feedback received from staff, the complaint mechanism was simplified and made less formal in order to respond adequately to the dynamics and needs of the organisation. A Code of Conduct Committee, with an external committee of stakeholders, was also proposed to hear complaints against the Code. This step is especially helpful to mitigate any conflicts of interest and to give the network access to the independent body
Reinforcing constituent-based accountability:
Global consensus on reference points and standards for institutional adoption remains in progress, but the variety of emerging projects aimed at tackling them are encouraging. As we continue to advance, clear guidelines, systems and reference materials must be collectively built as a public good to ensure responsible uptake of these technologies.
BCSDN created and has been hosting a regional hub called the Regional Civil Society Development HUB (the HUB). The HUB’s objectives are to strengthen civic space and foster civil society development by sharing knowledge and innovating techniques to support the advancement of civil society in the Western Balkans. Although the HUB is a regional centre, it aims to have global impact.
What is unique about the HUB is that it has been consciously created based on the principles of D&I. In fact, D&I is one of the main pillars of the HUB. BCSDN identified this pillar as a priority for the HUB given its recognition that excluded groups, such as women, LGBTQI+ folks, and young people, among others, are the ones commonly involved in and impacted by shrinking civic spaces and increasing civic space incidents.
To protect and promote the rights of excluded groups, the HUB serves various roles. First, it provides different types of grants to CSOs, enabling them to complete and expand their work. Relatedly, it systematically monitors civic environments as a means of ensuring that CSOs can continue to complete and expand their work. Finally, the HUB provides a platform for exchanging knowledge and best practices surrounding overcoming civic space restrictions and building vibrant, pluralistic and rights-based civic spaces.
As such, the HUB provides opportunities for CSOs to engage in capacity strengthening initiatives based on the principles of D&I and accountability. Trainings, mentoring activities and peer-to-peer learnings are made available in order to promote innovative uptakes such as exploring the collective power of different vulnerable groups. The goal of these initiatives is to support CSOs in finding solutions to civic space restrictions and, in the process, growing and transforming communities.
Through the tools and mechanisms developed and implemented at the HUB, BCSDN, as the leader of this centre, stands at the forefront of D&I work in the Balkans. Through this work, it is positioned to become a leader on D&I in the region, as its network-based structure and its capacity for collaboration allows it to disseminate and institutionalise these principles and practices within and outside of the HUB.
This article is an adapted version of a case study featured in the 2019 CIVICUS publication, The D&I Diaries: Civil Society Organisations’ Journeys through Diversity & Inclusion.