A year ago, Croatia and the European Union Member States signed the Accession Treaty through which Croatia will become the 28th Member State of the European Union as of 1 July 2013.
At the time, I wrote a post about bottlenecks in the process of preparation of accession. Bottlenecks encountered not just by Croatia, but also by countries that joined the EU in 2004. I wasn’t referring to the tremendous challenge of adopting 80,000+ pages of legislation and policies.
What I find even more challenging is the real change needed to fit in – the change needed in strategic programming and planning, monitoring and evaluation as well as the change needed in looking at social partnerships. Copy-pasting relevant legislation is just a small start of that process, which in the end is in my view much more significant than adoption of the acquis on paper.
In November this year I worked with HMRR – a Croatian network of civil society organisations working on rural development. This network consists of a wide range of groups that are all committed to improving life in rural areas in Croatia. Some of them operate on the local level, as so-called LAGs (Local Action Groups, part of the bottom up LEADER approach to rural development), while others focus on capacity building of stakeholders or on influencing national policies and strategies. Their joint expertise and experiences could potentially be very valuable to the country’s rural development programming through IPARD and the like. They decided to contribute to improving IPARD and future programmes by developing a report on IPARD design and implementation, including practical recommendations based on experiences from the field. Last month, I facilitated a workshop in which they shared ideas and planned for the writing of this report, which is expected to be ready in the beginning of 2013.
During the workshop we went through the different measures IPARD provides, using the official reports on IPARD in 2010 and 2011 and experiences from the group members in the period 2010-2012.
Interestingly, only 4 out of 7 planned measures have been activated to date. It is worrying that the measure on participatory local sustainable development of rural areas (the LEADER measure) has not been approved yet. At the moment, it is expected that this measure will become operational in early 2013, but that still leaves precious little time for Croatia to try to catch up before the new programming period of the Common Agricultural Policy (2014-2020). It is puzzling that this measure has somehow been left so late – considering its pivotal role toward the other measures (the LEADER measure is supposed to lead to local strategic plans for sustainable development which would form the framework for all other investments) and considering that the IPARD programming document itself states clearly that this is an area that is new to Croatia and would require significant development. The good news is that despite the fact that the measure has not been activated, local stakeholders have not resigned themselves to simply waiting it out. Over the last few years civil society organisations like HMRR and its members have managed to initiate 31 Local Action Groups that are ready to move into action once the measure gets the green light. And that are being active even now.
Also puzzling is the fact that the measure for Technical Assistance has not been approved yet, and is thus not operational. The reason I find this fairly bizarre is because this measure would actually enable the Ministry to implement IPARD. The measure aims to provide financial support for preparation, monitoring, evaluation, information and control activities necessary for implementation of the programme (IPA Regulation 718/2007, Art 182). In its reports over 2010 and 2011 the Ministry complains about the fact that up until now all promotional activities are being covered from the national budget only, since IPARD budget is not available while the measure is not activated. It seems pretty weird that this measure was not prepared and approved first – before all the others – and I cannot fathom why the European Commission has not insisted on this. If they have, and if somehow the Ministry failed to prepare a decent ordinance I still do not understand why in that case the Commission has not lent a hand in drawing up a proper ordinance that they could have approved sooner.
Of course I can fully relate to the idea that a Candidate Country has to develop capacities to take care of such things by itself. But what I do not get is why there is not a more intensive – or successful – investment in actually building those capacities. We all know that existing EU Member States did not get where they are in terms of governance and programming overnight. And we all know that achieving real change is a tedious and time consuming affair. Croatia’s been at it for less than two decades and has been swamped with things to get done in that period on account of the massive operation of integration into the EU. It’s no wonder that not everything is done perfectly, even with the best of intentions. There is simply too much of it to be done in such a short time and under challenging circumstances.
It is a shame that there are millions of Euro set aside for IPARD in Croatia while only a small part of this amount is being used: as of end 2011 approx. 16% of allocated funds had been committed, while less than 2% of the total amount had been in effect paid out. Of course there have been tenders for the 4 active measures in 2012 so that by now use of allocated funds will be higher, but at the same time there are a lot of reports from different sides that approval rates are still low, and procedures take long to be completed. Delays seems to increase over time rather than decrease as a result of practice as you might expect.
All of this, in my view, points to a great need for support in handling IPARD. Support that, again in my view, should be provided with or via the Commission, with help of civil society organisations on the ground that can help identify bottlenecks and formulate possible solutions that will bring daily practice in rural areas closer to the intricacies of IPARD, that as a European funding programme needs to meet European standards in management and control. A network like HMRR, with a combination of keen policy thinkers and local community organisers, might be ideally placed to provide such support.
The realisation of such cooperation could also serve as a practical example of how a partnership between government institutions and civil society could help achieve crucial improvements for society – in this case, for rural communities. For the sake of those communities I hope this will happen sooner rather than later, because IPARD in Croatia is in urgent need of decisive action by all stakeholders to ensure that available funds are used effectively to genuinely increase the quality of life in rural areas.
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