Toolkit of GOOD PRACTICES on Citizen Participation!


Community Centre


Country: Croatia

Context

The problem of social exclusion has been a long-term one known to the public as one of the crucial social issues of modern society. Initially, social exclusion was directly related to poverty; however, today it is clear that the causes are found not only in the effects of poverty but also in a whole series of interconnected factors.
In the Republic of Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina social exclusion is present in the form of marginalization of the poor, unemployed, minority groups and young people. A defined, effective model to solve the problem of social exclusion does not exist; nevertheless, it can be developed in line with realistic needs and specifics of the environment, considering the root causes of the issues. Equally, we must take into consideration the differences and similarities of transitional states, in this case Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, and their inhabitants who, due to war-related events, face similar problems and consequences. During the 90s the conflictual environment created interethnic clashes and resentment, leaving similar and lasting consequences in both countries: unemployment, poverty, low level of education (generations of people who participated in long war processes did not attend school or did not complete their formation process or develop with the advancement of technological demands), migration of ethnic groups and adaptation to new environments, establishment of new states and new legislation, which citizens struggle to stay up to date with and understand, and due to this are in a position of being under-informed and disadvantaged in regards to their basic rights.
As the City of Petrinja was greatly affected by the war, it still suffers great post-war consequences and it requires systematic work on the construction of not only economic, but also democratic development of the community. War migration brought about a new population structure in Petrinja and its 55 surrounding villages, made up of domiciled Croats and Serbs, Croats immigrated from Bosnia, Serb returnees, Croats from Kosovo, Bosnians, Roma, Macedonians and other national minorities. Prejudices are present against certain ethnic groups and so we continue to experience problems that set the community back. A traditional and quite primitive treatment of women is the cause of their social isolation and ignorance.
In order to better integrate socially isolated/excluded persons into society (often called an "information society") we also need to provide poorer citizens with access to computer equipment and internet, to enable them to use information and communication technologies.
Guided by the fact that prolonged unemployment leads to the deterioration of work skills and capabilities, we wanted to offer long-term unemployed jobseekers more intensive assistance in finding employment and in labor market participation. Many of them need to change their negative perception of employers, strengthen their self-confidence, improve their ability to ‘sell’ themselves on the job market, learn the processes of job seeking and competing for jobs. The search for employment can be made easier if managed within a group of people with similar problems/challenges. This would avoid the jobseeker feeling alone or isolated in their search for employment.
The official data on the web site of the City of Petrinja (www.petrinja.hr) report that more than 730 families are social welfare recipients. Over 3000 people receive humanitarian assistance of the Red Cross Society. The city’s budget consistently allocates substantial funds to cover the cost of procurement of firewood (750 families), housing (300 families), school kitchen (500 students) and with the help of the local meat factory Gavrilovic bears the costs (bread, staff and overheads) of the soup kitchen in which daily meals for over 190 users are served.
The activities of our organization are focused on providing social services in the community with the aim of integrating users, improving their quality of life and overcoming the situation of social exclusion.
The Community Centre is a 'one-stop-shop' for community members, providing administrative, legal and job seeking assistance, as well as referrals to other community services and educational and creative activities with the aim of social inclusion and empowerment of citizens.

Measure

Overall objective:
Improve access to services for all citizens and strengthen the regional identity of civil society. The overall objective of the action “Community centre” is that of supporting activities for citizens and building the capacity of fragile civil society organizations and their members in order to more intensively and actively participate in and contribute to the development of the community.
The overall objective led to networking and capacity building of civil society in the regions’ targeted areas and informed citizens in order to increase their awareness, promote human rights of fragile and socially excluded citizens, their needs and specific roles within the target communities, and significantly improved communication, cooperation and active engagement among CSO’s and their members in the region.

Specific objectives
1. Improve the level of existing services, knowledge and skills of long-term unemployed and other persons at risk of social exclusion: the Community Centre provided a range of new services in the community as a result of the analysis of needs and social concerns of socially excluded community members. The centre is open 20 hours a week to assist citizens. It provides free use of computers with access to the internet, newspapers, computer training for long-term unemployed and a variety of creative and interactive workshops for all members.
2. Inform citizens and encourage civic activism. Encouraging inclusive volunteer activities for all citizens, especially those at risk of social exclusion. In order to increase the transparency of civil society and create a better flow of information among citizens a web platform and a Facebook Community Centre group were created.
3. Develop partnerships in the border regions and strengthen the impact of CSOs to facilitate the faster adoption of European standards in different sectors and improve service delivery for all citizens: Insufficient interaction between civil society organizations in the area led to the implementation of two three-day seminars for civil society representatives from the region. The seminars focused on developing the capacity of CSOs and building networks and partnerships and resulted in 3 new EU project submissions.

Target Group

Direct target groups:
1)            Socially marginalized community members: unemployed, socially excluded persons, returnees, minorities and other vulnerable community members. 500 in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 500 in Croatia.
2)            Civil society organizations (CSO) which work with marginalized groups: 13 representatives of CSO’s in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 13 representatives of CSO’s in Croatia which will participate in the modular training program in developing capacities of border region organizations; 20 CSO’s in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 20 CSO’s in Croatia that will use the services and access to information through the web and Facebook sites.

Indirect target groups:
1)            Citizens: visitors of the web and Facebook sites, 500 in Bosnia and Herzegovina and 500 in Croatia.
2)            Local media: media included in the promotional activities and other activities of the initiative.

Final beneficiaries:
1)            Socially vulnerable groups – people who will benefit from volunteer program (vulnerable groups at risk of social exclusion, unemployed young people and long-term unemployed, minorities and returnees). Minimum 100 beneficiaries on each side of the border: 200 in total.
2)            Local communities – targeted by the action, they will benefit from the development of community-based services. The local community includes all stakeholders like civil society organizations and citizens in general. There are around 105.000 inhabitants in Prijedor, 18.000 in Ključ, and 185.000 in Sisak-Moslavina County: 308.000 in total.

Methodology

The action’s methodology is primarily and intensively aimed to inform, educate and empower so that citizens and regional CSO’s:

• are directly given useful, targeted and understandable information and services (in relation with their perspective and interests)

• have ongoing access to enact their right regarding such information and services

• are encouraged and enabled to engage in a dialogue and are given the opportunity to test their opinions, theories and disappointments if such is the case and make informed decisions

• are encouraged and enabled to participate so that they may utilize their knowledge and experience as active citizens and multiply their efforts reaching other citizens

• have the information they need to take initiatives in ensuring that their actions have a positive impact on their livelihoods, their families and their community

• have the ability to readily exchange experiences with a similar person/organization they are easily able to communicate with on a more frequent basis  in order to discover the challenges and advantages of regional cooperation and cross-sectoral collaboration.

The majority of the promotional activities took place on the web site and the online social network of the Community Centre. The reason for this is that many citizens use the internet as a source of information. Less developed local CSOs are informed through direct contact, by phone, flyers and posters.

Cooperation among organizations in the border area began during three days of interactive learning at seminars/workshops, which provided ample opportunity for acquiring new skills, networking and exchanging experiences. These seminars produced lasting partnerships between organizations working on joint projects.

Activities implemented in the Community Centre:

1. Community Centre services: staffed to provide citizens with assistance on a daily basis, answer questions, advise or refer to appropriate community services; Job seekers club activities; Free legal aid

2. Organizing and leading creative and interactive workshops for community members threatened with social exclusion

3. Initiating volunteering activities in the community and motivating inclusion of unemployed and other members of the Community Centre in volunteer programs and actions

4. Public community forums to initiate a dialogue about local problems and work towards solutions with a focus on active citizenship

5. Encouraging the dialogue of civil society organizations in the project’s target regions through Facebook

6. Cross border cooperation, networking and education of CSO's

7. Promotional activities

Stakeholders

For the Community Centre to operate successfully all stakeholders had to take responsibility in ensuring activities and objectives were promoted and supported.

The Community Centre concept demands for the cooperation of all stakeholders: community service organizations, especially NGOs providing services to disadvantaged and socially excluded groups, responsible for involving citizens in all aspects of community life: social, political and economic; Public services such as those provided by the local government council, welfare centre and government employment services as well as the media responsible for interpreting and disseminating information to citizens. 

Where stakeholders were hesitant to cooperate, such as in cases of a lack of local government accountability, NGOs and the general population 'motivated' the cooperation through strong public dialogue and media support.

Citizen empowerment through Community Centre activities is a priority for achieving positive results and highlighting the necessity for cooperation of all key stakeholders.

Assessment

The project “Community centre” aimed to increase the access to services for all citizens and strengthen the regional identity of civil society in the border area through improving the level of existing services and the knowledge and skills of long-term unemployed and other persons at risk of social exclusion in target area; through informing citizens and encouraging civic activism; through developing partnerships in the border regions and to strengthening the impact of CSOs to facilitate the faster adoption of  European standards in different sectors and improve service delivery for all citizens.

The Community Centre introduced new services in the community for all citizens with a focus on those who are at risk of exclusion and disadvantaged. It provided a centre for gathering, socializing, encouraging creativity and entrepreneurship in every sense, from project writing to creative expression and more importantly for solving community problems. It increased engagement and active citizenship promoting democratic values, solidarity, and cooperation in general and cooperation in the cross-border region, identifying common values and shared problems. It promoted the assistance of the European Union in creating possibilities for citizens and improving their lifestyle at a local level and also promoted the work of community service organizations in regional development.

In addition, this project strengthened relationships among CSOs both locally and within the bordering region. New projects were created of which one was accepted at the concept stage and aims to work on improving conditions for the elderly by providing new and better services to this vulnerable and excluded part of the population and through this to further strengthen CSO relationships in the border regions. The CSO training within the action evidenced the lack of capacities within the sector for EU project applications, the difficulty in finding partners, in particular on the BiH side, as well as the additional need to work on strengthening the capacities of CSOs within the region. Additional projects were created by community members themselves during this action, in particular through youth volunteering, ensuring the sustainability of youth engagement in solving local community problems.

The introduced services of free legal aid and administrative support identified the need for local government support and partnership in sustaining such services, as a result of a greater number of citizens accessing these services on a continuous basis, as did the service of the Job seekers club. The public employment services currently provided are not able to meet the demands of the growing population of unemployed or provide tailored services to decrease the unemployment rate. The job seekers clubs in all community centers assisted daily many unemployed people with job applications. Not all of them attended the intensive job search training but through job search assistance available 20 hours per week 34 people found an employment. As a result of the work with the job seekers in Petrinja the Community centre also offered new courses free of charge for them: English, German, Spanish, French, Sign language, and Project writing for youth. All these services aimed to strengthen community members, increase their confidence and competence but also introduce them to the possibilities of active citizenship, taking ownership of making changes in their own communities.

Successful implementation of this project, variety of activities completed, satisfied target groups, increased trust and strengthened position of project partners, established community centers that became visible and important “one-stop-shops” for the citizens threatened of social exclusion – all that confirms that the problem analysis during the proposal’s development was thorough, and that responses to the problems offered through this project were most appropriate for the local circumstances. This project has responded in the best possible way to the needs of the people threatened by social exclusion and of CSOs in the target area. The clearest indicator of its success is the number of the target group members from the socially vulnerable groups that got involved and still keep in contact with the partners and other individuals even after the end of project, despite lack of local tradition and habits to engage in volunteering or lifelong learning activities. This project was and still is highly relevant in the target area and in both countries.

The services provided through this project continue, with necessary adjustments in order to fill in the existing gaps between local needs and available services. At the same time, the capacities of CSOs should be strengthened in order to be able to transfer the knowledge and experience gained through this project to the other CSOs and communities, as well as to contribute to policymaking with their unique perspective of organizations based outside big urban centers that are pioneers in social innovation.

Impact

Final beneficiaries

1) Socially vulnerable groups –1469 citizens (629 citizens in BH and 840 in CRO)

2) Local communities –105.000 inhabitants in Prijedor, 18.000 in Ključ and 185.000 in Sisak – Moslavina county: 308.000 in total.

Target groups

1.             Socially marginalized community members - 1333 citizens in total: 413 Community Centre members; 313 beneficiaries of free legal aid; 481 participants in 43 creative & interactive workshops; 35 completed computer training; 91 new volunteers in 16 activities; 3 opening program ceremonies in Community Centres in Petrinja, Kljuc and Prijedor with over 90 participants.

2.             CSOs that work with marginalized groups: 22 representatives of CSOs in BiH and 17 representatives of CSOs in Croatia.

Indirect beneficiaries: 1) citizens: 254 citizens in public forums, over 156259 total visitors to the web pages in Croatian and BiH, 3874 total likes to the Facebook pages in Croatia and BiH, over 5057 people daily engaged with the Facebook pages, over 86620 notifications in newsfeed.

Local media: printed and electronic media included in promotional activities and other activities in the action posted in BiH 19 news on local media. In Croatia 30 local media news reports, 2 TV reports.

Swot

1. Strengths (characteristics of the measure that give it an advantage over others):

Association IKS credibility and experience; Existing Association IKS infrastructure and capacity; Strong community partnerships; The Community Centre model; Careful and detailed planning; Consistency in carrying out activities and crucial follow-up measures; Competent and capable team equally motivated to eliminate barriers.

2. Weaknesses (characteristics that place the measure at a disadvantage relative to others)
Financial insecurity of NGOs, which compromises sustainability of services due to political climate and general lack of government support (especially local and regional) in efforts to develop democratic environment and systems.

Community members' inertia. Lack of active citizenship and sense of responsibility due to a lack of understanding of the concept of democracy and citizens' role in creating a democratic environment.

3. Opportunities (elements that the measure could exploit to its advantage):

Further capacity development of NGOs (a strong civil society is necessary in Croatia due to mass corruption at all levels as well as distorted values); Further strengthening of international NGO cooperation; EU policies, strategies and funding opportunities especially ESF.

4. Threats (elements in the environment that could cause trouble to the measure):

Political environment. New laws and policies that impact on NGOs are creating impossible administrative workloads for NGOs, compromising their existence and mission. Financial instability of NGOs due to lack of financial transparency and non-existent funding structure at local and regional government level for NGOs’ overheads (NGOs’ yielding results).

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