South-East Europe local governments have been and will certainly remain at the forefront in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In such difficult times, they not only coped with the crisis, providing the necessary prevention measures, supporting vulnerable and subsidising local economies, but many of them also took a brave step forward: using innovation and digitalisation to solve the problems caused by the pandemics.
What started as a health crisis turned into the biggest economic recession since the World War II, with severe and long-lasting consequences – and it is not over. All local governments of the region have been greatly affected by the crisis, facing huge losses of revenues and extraordinary levels of uncertainty. By 2022, they may lose up to 30% of their revenues, for a total estimated loss of 17 billion Euro, which jeopardises local service provision and infrastructure investments.
More than ever, the region needs effective intergovernmental policy consultation and coordination. SEE local governments call for targeted support from central government, increased financial decentralisation, stronger local tax powers and higher intergovernmental transfers. To ensure successful recovery, local economic development must be given a priority.
These are some of the key conclusions of the Online Mayors’ Conference: South-East European Local Governments in post COVID-19 Socio-Economic Recovery, organised yesterday by NALAS, under the auspices of NALAS President Emanuil Manolov and the National Association of Municipalities in the Republic of Bulgaria (NAMRB). The conference gathered over 140 Mayors, municipal experts, representatives of NALAS member LGAs and international organisations.
“Looking ahead, we need to perceive the crisis also as an opportunity to improve local services and boost local development in long term”, said the President of NALAS, Mayor Emanuil Manolov in his opening speech.
“Efforts must now focus on the recovery of our communities and economies. At the same time recovery should not be an aim in itself, but also provide for sustainable development and active policies. Now, more than ever we need real vertical and horizontal cooperation, coordination and consultation between levels of government, to prevent overlapping activities and to minimise the risk of fragmented responses.
Local Government Associations play a key role in the coordination and cooperation across levels of government and therefore have an irreplaceable position in the response to the pandemic and in planning and implementing the social and economic recovery. They must be supported in these challenging tasks.
As we will see today, lessons learned and shared experience can help SEE local governments in coping with future crisis. It is our responsibility as a regional network to document this knowledge and create opportunities for effective exchange. Similarly, we need to develop also policy recommendations and support advocacy efforts of our national local government associations”, concluded Mr. Manolov.
In her key address Ms. Gunn Marit Helgesen, President of the Chamber of Regions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe focused on safeguarding local self-government in times of crisis, pointing out: “Unfortunately, during the crisis we have witnessed very strong recentralisation trends towards the national executive, reduction in local decision making and budgetary autonomy, imposition of measures – even push for territorial reforms – without proper consultations with local authorities, postponement of local and regional elections, and difficulties of elected councils to fulfil their duties. The crisis has had a serious impact on the functioning of democratic institutions and on local self-government in particular, prompting the Council of Europe Secretary General to issue guidance to national governments. In this guidance, the Secretary General has made it clear that any measures that change the division of competences between national, regional and local levels must be temporary and the situation must return to normal once the crisis is over.”
Presentation of the Survey
In its strong commitment to support evidence-based policy dialogue, NALAS, in partnership with KDZ and NAMRB conducted the Survey: SEE Local Governments in Post COVID-19 Socio-Economic Recovery. The purpose is to help improving the understanding over the impact of the COVID-19 crisis at the local government level in SEE, identifying effective and innovative social and economic recovery strategies and ultimately helping formulating concrete policy proposals to inform advocacy efforts of NALAS member Local Government Associations.
Mr. Thomas Prorok from KDZ presented the key survey findings, highlighting that the key challenges of South-East Europe local governments for 2020 and 2021 are related to local economy, social protection and public healthcare.
Conference Panel Discussions: Exchange of good practices
As a knowledge centre for local government development in South-East Europe, NALAS has the power to collect, formulate, disseminate and scale-up good local government practices. In this capacity, with the support of its Advisory Concilium, NALAS collected 40 good municipal practices and selected six of them to be presented at the conference, in three panels/thematic areas: 1) Community mobilisation in dealing with COVID-19, 2) Improving access and opportunities and 3) Support to local economy. Short introductory videos were developed and presented during the conference, describing each of the practices.
Panel 1: Community mobilisation in dealing with COVID-19 featured the good municipal practices by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Turkey – ‘Pay It Forward’ Campaign and Colibashi, Moldova – Mobilisation of diaspora and upscaling the local brand “With love from Colibasi”.
Istanbul’s ‘Pay-It-Forward’ campaign builds upon community’s long-lasting tradition of solidarity, this time initiated by the municipality, to support vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19 and in the same time easing the financial burden of the public utility companies in difficult times. Learn more about it from the video below.
“Building on our tradition for solidarity and supporting our neighbours in need, we have assisted 60,000 families of Istanbul”, said Mr. İbrahim Orhan Demir, Deputy Secretary General of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.
Mr. Naim Erol Özgüner, Head of IT Dpt., Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, added: “Experience, flexibility, knowledge were all very important for managing this unprecedented crisis. But above all-sacrifice”.
Colibashi, a small community in Moldova, was unable to meet its emergency needs at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that was made possible by mobilising its diaspora. In the same time, the local brand “With love from Colibasi” went online and started to sell local products throughout the country and abroad, as an important impulse to the local economy.
Mr. Ion Dolganiuc, Mayor of Colibashi and the Municipal Expert Ms. Alexandra Vutcariov explained how they nurture the cooperation with Colibashi diaspora. During the crisis, this resulted with the provision of much needed prevention supplies and ambulance vehicle.
Panel 2: Improving access and opportunities featured the good municipal practices by Kočevje, Slovenia – support to disadvantaged children to attend online schooling and Podgorica, Montenegro – digitalisation of municipal services.
Online schooling is one of the key emerging challenges for all during the COVID-19 pandemics. When the government fails to do that, can municipalities support all their children to remain included in the education process?
Kočevje Municipality had a systematic approach in addressing the challenges of online schooling during the pandemics, involving students and teachers, but also parents and the business community, successfully concluding the previous school year. Learn more from the video below.
Dr. Vladimir Prebilič, Mayor of Kočevje explained that special attention was paid to disadvantaged children, with continuous support, but also by providing IT tools and Internet.
The Capital City of Podgorica used the challenges of COVID-19 to speed up the digitalisation of its services to citizens. Lean more from the video below.
“In crisis situation, people change their habits and leave the comfort zone much more quickly than in usual circumstances. Podgorica used the already established online tools to speed up digitalisation”, said Mr. Džemal Lekić, Director of the Information System Service of the Capital City of Podgorica.
Panel 3: Support to local economy featured good municipal practices by Slatina, Croatia – Free business consulting services for entrepreneurs and Ciugud, Romania – Online platform for offering domestic products.
There is a saying: “Don’t give me a fish, but teach me how to fish”. Many municipalities provide ad hoc financial support to businesses. Slatina Municipality went a step further and provides free information and consulting services to entrepreneurs, which help them access different Government’s and other support programmes. Learn more about this in the video below.
Mr. Denis Ostrošić, Mayor of Slatina and Ms. Anita Rastija, Deputy Head of Development Department explained the results of their efforts, as an ongoing support to Slatina entrepreneurs.
In the time of the biggest global recession after the World War II, local economies are in a danger. Ciugud Municipality succeeded not only to support the promotion of local products, but also scaled it up nationally. Learn more about this in the video below.
“Ciugud Municipality has launched and promotes the concept of smart village. The online platform http://aprozarulvirtual.ro started locally and now supports agriculture producers from the whole country. For Ciugud, digitalisation is a solution to crisis”, said Mr. Dan Lungu, Ciugud Municipality Communication Officer.
In the session Local Government Associations’ Reflections, inputs came from Mr. Đorđe Staničić, Secretary General of the Standing Conference of Towns (SCTM) and Municipalities in Serbia, and Mr. Sazan Ibrahimi, Executive Director of the Association of Kosovo Municipalities (AKM).
“The SCTM advocacy activities towards national level consisted of: launching important initiatives in area of working relations of local employees (especially signing Special collective agreement with national trade union and Ministry for Public administration), status of EU funding of local projects, postponing deadlines in area of local finances, requests for defining national measures for financial support to local governments”, said Mr. Đorđe Staničić.
“I would like to thank to all the mayors and municipalities for being in the frontline and supporting their citizens”, said Mr. Sazan Ibrahimi. “We have always had proper cooperation with the central level, now the communication, coordination and cooperation is further strengthened. We are in daily contact with the Prime Minister, with relevant Ministries, but also with Mayors and our 17 expert Collegia. The Association was present and represented the interests of municipalities in all decisions taken”, said Mr. ibrahimi.
Summing up and Policy Positions
The Online Mayors’ Conference: South-East European Local Governments in post COVID-19 Socio-Economic Recovery was closed by Mr. Kelmend Zajazi, NALAS Executive Director, who summarised the conference conclusions (presented at the beggining of this article) and presented a set of policy positions that derived from the conference discussion and survey findings, organised in five areas: governance, finances, economic recovery, social recovery and digitalisation.
“We expect targeted support from central government to ensure successful recovery of South-East Europe municipalities. Local development must be given a priority”, concluded Mr. Zajazi.
Words of gratitude
Finally, we thank all the speakers for unselfishly sharing their good practices and experiences in general. Thanks to all 140+ participants for their valuable contributions and keeping the discussion so vivid that we almost did not feel the physical distance. We thank our Moderator, Mr. Stefan Friedrichs, for his commitment and professionalism.
We express our gratitude to our partners and supporters for believing in what we do. Finally, a huge thanks to our family: NALAS member Local Government Associations, in particular: NALAS Committee of Liaison Officers, Advisory Concilium and Task Force members; NALAS Knowledge Management Assistants and NALAS Secretariat. Last, but not least, a huge thanks to NALAS President, Mayor Emanuil Manolov and NAMRB, for putting this issue high on the agenda of their Presidency, as well as for initiating this exchange and supporting it in each and every step.
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