Civil Society Dynamism Inspires New Western Balkans Program Guidelines

From its inception in 2001, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) Western Balkans program has focused its support on European integration through democratic practice, peacebuilding, and sustainable development. The last review of the Western Balkans program, in 2019, described a region in transition. Five years later, the region still faces challenges. 

The Balkans have not been immune from global democratic backsliding. Ethnic nationalism, which drove the devastating Balkan Wars of the 1990s, is back on the rise. And despite assistance from the European Union (EU), trade deficits and increased emigration are contributing to the region’s economic decline. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to impact countries of the Western Balkans politically, economically, and symbolically. But the Russia-Ukraine war also highlighted the Balkans’ regional importance, and the EU returned its attention to the region in 2023, emphasizing fundamental reforms to strengthen democracy and pave the way for accession. 

There are other reasons for hope. Across the region, authoritarians are losing support, new grassroots political forces are emerging, and civil society is growing stronger. 

RBF support has contributed to these advancements. Our grantees helped strengthen an organic, cross-border network of environmental advocates that highlights the democratizing potential of environmental movements and empowered victims of war crimes to demand their rights. They have expanded the capacity of investigative media to expose corruption and led the development of local philanthropy, which has grown from two regional foundations to a network of hundreds of foundations, development networks, and professional associations. 

Recognizing both the region’s challenges and signs of progress, the Western Balkans program has made minor adjustments to its grantmaking guidelines. The program will continue to prioritize democratic reform and peacebuilding in response to the urgent situation in the Western Balkans. It will also strengthen engagement in sustainable development to respond to environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change in the region. Given the promising progress of domestic giving ecosystems in the Balkans, the program will retire its strategy focused on indigenous philanthropy with confidence that longtime partners in the region will continue philanthropic development. 

The RBF Western Balkans program remains steadfast in its support for civil society organizations under threat, effective partnerships, and regional initiatives. Progress in the Balkans is important not only for the region, but also for Europe and for prospects of global peace.