By Jelena Brkic
Jelena works on public participation and public spaces at the Center for Environment (CZZS) in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The commons are at the heart of this work, and one of the main ways to foster, and preserve them where needed, is to get people involved in citizen initiatives. From education on legal mechanisms, to ways in which they can have an impact, Jelena writes about the local experience of CZZS.
Citizens of Banja Luka have shown, through several examples in recent years, what an impact of civic responsibility and timely involvement in decision-making processes is. The importance of civic initiatives is reflected in the ability to mobilize citizens to engage in solving problems that are typically aimed at local communities. Unfortunately, this important process is often neglected, and the public is involved in such a way that it meets the mere legal obligation and formality without taking into account the needs of citizens. In the example of public hearings it became clear that the mechanism was reduced to the level of “public hearing for the sake of public hearing”. Today, civic initiatives are very important, perhaps the only form of resistance that can significantly affect decision-makers, and an important aspect is the process of learning and sharing experiences through which one initiative passes and by that creating encouragement for others to use this.
Launching a civic initiative, whether formal like the Civic Initiative for Borik, or informal like the Civic Initiative Nova Varoš, is not difficult. What is needed to start a civic initiative is that you care about solving an issue, have will and perseverance, that is, you are willing to allocate a little spare time for your common good as well as enjoying the company of like minded people . Everything else comes by itself because there are already experiences that are being used to facilitate new initiatives. An important role in the whole process is cooperation with the media, similar initiatives, as well as openness to citizens.
Our experience has been translated into the Citizens’ Initiative Handbook, which explains the procedure for the formal launch of a civic initiative, reviews the relevant legal and subordinate acts, and also provides some concrete tips in order to avoid the most common mistakes.
Citizens of Banja Luka, and further , are aware that by taking on civil responsibility and by collaborating, they can achieve and create real change. This is born from the Civic Initiative for Borik, the Recreational Zone of Banja Luka, the Civic Initiative Nova Varoš, as well as smaller initiatives such as those in Lazarev, which provided the playgrounds for their children independently.
Civic participation in our country is still underdeveloped. Institutions are not doing enough to inform citizens about existing mechanisms and are not interested in experimenting with participating mechanisms, which leads us to rely on ourselves to work on promoting our basic civic and political rights, and already mentioned civic initiatives are an excellent mechanism through which we can achieve those rights . Exchanging experiences and talking about our daily victories plays a big part in the whole process that a civic initiative passes through from its creation to the fulfillment of what it stands for, as we develop it as a society and demystify what politics means for our everyday lives.There are also a lot of problems in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would require the launch of a variety of civic initiatives. The regulation plan for the central area of the town of Banja Luka is only one in a series of such. Namely, although the plan has still not been adopted, citizens have shown disagreement and dissatisfaction with proposed planning solutions for the functioning, development and layout of the city, but the authorities continue to work as if nothing has happened. The public debate and the number of comments received during the public inspection have unambiguously demonstrated that this plan is not the will of the citizens. We are considering ways to approach the problem of changing this regulatory plan and we hope that many citizens join us, or launch some new initiatives independently.
As previously stated, the most important thing is that citizens who start a new initiative stay persistent, and that they freely use the Citizens’ Initiative Manual if it is a formal initiative. Cooperation with other initiatives and the media is certainly advisable. If someone is ready and has the idea to launch a civic initiative, there is no excuse now! As always, we are at your disposal for advice and assistance to citizens regarding the launch of civic initiatives.
If the initiatives exercise enough pressure, the government will be forced to work with them because of their fear for positions, not because of transparency and the desire to improve the public participation process in decision-making. We recall that public participation in the decision-making process in terms of spatial planning and resource use is of crucial importance especially in times when institutions are oriented to the needs of investors instead of the needs of citizens who gave them a mandate.
The potential of civic initiatives could be manifested through the creation of a wider civilian front that could have a greater impact on political structures in order to exert pressure using available mechanisms such as public hearings, assembly of citizens, civic initiatives and other models. An important aspect is also to get acquainted with the public with the problems and policies that are responsible for the current situation, and often the initiatives also offer solutions for those existing problems.
Originally published here.