Local Governments Working for a Brighter Future for all Kosovo Citizens

Rahovec

Three years older than South Sudan, Kosovo is the second-youngest nation in the world, and faces many challenges in its progress towards joining the ranks of the developed nations of Europe. Among these challenges the tense ethnic and political situation continues to create uncertainty and conflict.

The land is claimed as the historical birthright of both ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs. Neighboring Serbia, along with other Serb allies such as Greece and Romania, has refused to formally recognize the nation's independence (unilaterally declared by the Assembly of Kosovo in February, 2008). However, recent high-level political breakthroughs between Serbia and Kosovo have opened a door to future normalization of relationships. If such normal relations are to accompany long term peace, ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo will have to find ways to work together to (re)solve problems at the local level.

While both ethnic groups in Kosovo have long-standing reasons to mistrust the authorities, local government has an important role to play in facilitating cooperation and smoothing the path to a lasting peace in the region. By effectively communicating that all citizens must be treated equally and that the rights of both minority and majority citizens must be considered equivalent, local governments can begin to establish trust within the community. Since most interactions between citizens and governments happen at the local level (water, garbage, street lights, paying taxes, or applying for a business or marriage license), local governments are well-placed to be the primary actors in enhancing Kosovo's commitment to a democratic, multiethnic society.

Since 2010, the Urban Institute has worked with 21 local governments in Kosovo under Democratic Effective Municipalities Initiative (DEMI)—a project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). A key focus of the project is to improve the quality and distribution of local services to citizens regardless of ethnicity. For example, to ensure efficient and even-handed delivery of services in town halls, many municipal offices have begun to adopt a numbered tickets system. The numbers on the tickets are automatically entered into software that tracks how long it takes municipal employees to address a citizen's concern and the outcome. The software collects current data, such as the identity of the clerk, the nature of the complaint or request, and other relevant data. Municipal officials can then analyze this data to gain insight into the efficacy of service delivery and how best to improve it, and which offices may need additional training and capacity building. Moreover, the Urban Institute supported and continues to support local leaders who engage all citizens, increase transparency and performance for these and other services, and are accountable and committed to publically-agreed targets.

Many local officials have taken to these methods, and are already making progress in (re)solving ethnic tensions in a more cooperative fashion. Prevalle/Prevalac is a forested area situated between the municipalities of Strpce/Shterpce (a Serb-majority municipality) and Prizren (an Albanian-majority municipality). Until recently, the area had been used as a dumping ground for household and commercial waste, due in part to limited waste collection services. The two municipalities decided to work together to rehabilitate the forest to serve as a public green space, and came to a formal agreement to share responsibility for both initial cleanup and ongoing trash collection services.

Broader data suggest that this not an isolated example. A 2013 nationwide survey of citizen satisfaction polled a representative sample of citizens across the country on a variety of issues, including the local provision of public services, citizens' satisfaction with local governments, and optimism for the future. The findings indicate that citizens that live in municipalities where DEMI has been working to strengthen local government are significantly more satisfied with an array of public services. More importantly, on a personal level citizens in DEMI municipalities are more optimistic about the future with respect to their municipalities, and with respect to the nation as a whole. This last finding is particularly notable in a region where optimism for the future has been historically (and perhaps understandably) scarce. The survey data is not without limitations, however, as it reflects citizens' perceptions, rather than concrete service provision. A next step in documenting the relationship of service delivery and citizen confidence in government would be to capture and analyze information on actual service delivery levels.

It is surely unrealistic to expect a donor-supported project to quickly resolve centuries-old ethnic resentments, or to completely revolutionize the local public sector in a country only recently emerged from violence and civil war. But in this instance, there is some evidence that engaging local leaders and their citizens in multiethnic conversations on how to solve shared problems represents a solid and consequential step towards more effective, transparent, and inclusive local government. Moreover, there are some indications that these efforts have been accompanied by a shift in optimism towards the future. From here, it looks like a good start.

The USAID-funded DEMI project was implemented by the Urban Institute in several partner municipalities in Kosovo from August 2010 to August 2013. For information on this Highlight, contact Charles Cadwell.