Following its virtual launch at the end of 2022, the Western Balkans Regional Hub held its Inaugural Workshop in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on 8-9 February, 2023. There, mayors, deputy mayors, presidents of municipal councils, municipal officials and other local practitioners, together with national government, civil society, multilateral and international donor representatives from across the region gathered to discuss the roles, priorities and needs of local government in preventing and responding to hate, extremism and polarisation as part of a whole-of-society approach to addressing these challenges. They emphasised how the Western Balkans Regional Hub can usefully draw more attention to the unique role that local governments can play in addressing these challenges and the steps that need to be taken to allow more such governments to play this role.
Participants agreed on the need for more local government-led efforts to address inter-communal tensions, unresolved historical grievances and lack of trust in government institutions, which are helping to fuel extremist and hate-motivated violence and threatening the multicultural fabric of cities and communities across the region. Additionally, they shared how cities have unique insights into the concerns and needs of their residents as a result of their regular interacts with communities through the provision of various public services.
Discussions also highlighted, however, that cities across the region generally lack a clear mandate to engage in prevention work (and a clear understanding of the variety of ways they can do so), despite this and other comparative advantages they offer.
Participants shared how, although some national P/CVE strategies refer to cities, national governments have rarely involved their local counterparts in the design or implementation of these frameworks. Local officials from Bosnia emphasized how the complicated multi-layered governance system in that country and the lack of defined, prevention-related roles and responsibilities among the different levels of actors there only exacerbates the challenges. Despite these obstacles, cities such as Sarajevo have taken steps on their own to address hate speech and nurture social cohesion in their multi-ethnic environments through campaigns, festivals and addressing specific minority needs.
Additionally, participants discussed how the difficulties cities have in accessing data and other information from central governments related to the threats in their communities impedes the ability of local governments to leverage the full prevention local potential. The Mayor of Kumanovo (North Macedonia) pointed to an example of how a local government has been able to overcome these challenges and collect the data needed to inform local prevention policies and programmes. He highlighted its Community Resilience Study, which maps the city’s resilience to extremism and hate, as an important tool that has helped shape multi-stakeholder prevention efforts in that city.
Local officials discussed some of the practical implications of the limited information sharing and communications more broadly between law enforcement and the municipality. This includes, for example, security services failing to alert local governments when foreign terrorist fights and their families are repatriated into their communities. Without this information, local governments are unable to help prepare their residents to be able to facilitate the reintegration of the returnees.
Participants shared how the limited information sharing and broader cooperation between national and local actors that does occur across the region is dependent on personal rather institutional relationships, an approach which is neither sufficiently predicable nor sustainable.
Beyond the information sharing and data access barriers, more than 70% of the workshop participants said that their cities either do not have the relevant programmes, resources and expertise to prevent extremism, hate and polarisation, or do not know whether such capacities exist. For example, the Mayor of Danilovgrad (Montenegro) stressed that even though his city has not faced violence to the same degree as other cities in the region, it has limited resources and professional staff to address issues of polarisation which are rising. He also pointed to the need for guidance for mayors and local governments on how they can better understand their role in prevention and unlock their potential based on experiences from across the region and beyond. On this last point, the Deputy Mayor of Shkoder (Albania) noted how his city is testing different prevention models and has benefited from learning from other cities’ experiences in his country and others in the Western Balkans.
During the two-day workshop participants also shared and exchanged views on different locally-led efforts across the region to develop multi-stakeholder prevention frameworks and programmes, and engage young people and youth-led groups in their jurisdictions. Participants discussed the funding and other challenges that impede the sustainability of these approaches. These include the perception among many municipal practitioners that involvement in these multi-stakeholder structures is unpaid work that is in addition to their “day jobs”. When it comes to local government-led efforts to engage young people, participants cited, the lack of trust in government institutions which hampers meaningful partnership and engagement.
At the end of the workshop, participants developed country-specific workplans based on city needs, which will inform the Western Balkans Regional Hub engagement moving forward. This engagement will include more peer-to-peer learning opportunities, access to good practices from within and outside the region and guidance and other support delivered by the Regional Hub’s helpdesk and/or Strong Cities’ technical support fund and expert pool. Additionally, participants highlight the need for Strong Cities to encourage national government, civil society and multilateral partners across the region to meaningfully involve local governments in their regional and country-based programmes. Finally, the it was noted that the Regional Hub will contribute to ongoing regional P/CVE and related mapping initiatives by providing an insight into city prevention capacities, programmes and needs to national governments and multilateral bodies and by helping to ensure that local governments are informed about relevant regional and country-specific programmes and practice.