World's Charity Comes at a Price For Bosnians

Last spring, two international donors in Bosnia were on track to buy separate telecommunications systems - one in the Muslim-Croat Federation, the other in the Bosnian Serb Republic.

Then, just before the multimillion- dollar purchase orders were signed, they realized the two systems were incompatible, undercutting freedom of communication, one of the main tenets of the US-brokered peace plan.

The problem: miscommunication among international organizations, one of the major challenges facing one of the largest aid efforts in history.

In a push to rebuild this war-torn country, more than 400 international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have set up in Bosnia. Groups like the Dubai Charity Association work along side larger ones like Save the Children, which in turn rub up next to the likes of the United Nations. There are more than 100 groups working on the issue of displaced persons alone. Bosnia has become NGO country. The economy here, international observers say, is fueled by the international presence. But some say there is far too little communication among the groups and no real organizational structure.

"There really are too many," says George Devendorf, director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies in Bosnia. "There's no overarching plan and thus, there is duplication and waste."

More than $3 billion dollars in international aid has been poured into Bosnia in the past two years. Most evidence points to effectual efforts in areas such as refugee returns, housing, and redevelopment. Debbie Duncan, program coordinator of Oxfam, says, "Coordination really has been effective both locally and by sector. The problem is really on a national level." NGOs are generally only required to report to their individual donors, leaving no command authority.

The problem of lack of coordination and waste among international organizations is not new. There is the commonly told tale of one organization that flew in thousands of bottles of Gatorade to the former Zaire in 1994, causing difficulties in transport and leaving thousands of empty bottles to be shipped out.

"Compared to any other reconstruction effort on this scale, the communication is very good," says Chris Bennett of the London-based International Crisis Group. "There's been real growth of local NGOs, and that's what's important.... They will carry on the work once everyone else leaves."

Though there, too, he says, there are challenges. "Bosnians are used to the state running everything. Now they are trying to empower and build a civic society that this country has no experience in."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.