Mercy Corps will assist over 1,000,000 people in rural villages and small towns in southern Serbia through a $40 million grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). This grant helps launch the international communityís major efforts to rebuild Serbia and supports democracy and peace in the Balkans. The five-year program will enable Mercy Corps to assist poor communities in overcoming organizational, infrastructure and environmental barriers to community revitalization. This grant is the largest in Mercy Corps' history.
Serbia continues to suffer from an unemployment rate of over 26% and hosts more than 400,000 refugees and internally displaced people, the highest number in Europe, mainly from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo. The devastating effects of economic collapse, deteriorating infrastructure, social difficulties and political uncertainty felt throughout Serbia have been most acute in the areas south of Belgrade. Investment has bypassed the area and the decade of economic sanctions and 1999 NATO air strikes has had a disastrous effect on the numerous industrial centers scattered throughout central and southern Serbia. This area, predominately populated by ethnic Serbs, also contains large pockets of ethnic Albanians, Roma and small numbers of other ethnicities. Although inter-ethnic fighting has subsided, tensions persist.
Mercy Corps will work in partnership with Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu-Emerging Markets, one of the world's leading professional services firms, to empower communities to prioritize, plan and implement projects to:
Improve citizen participation
Community action has until recently been limited to opposition activities, and women and minorities have had limited roles in formal decision-making. However, widespread support for decentralization, the presence of mature, well-organized non-governmental organizations and a government plan to increase the role of minorities in decision making bodes well for democratic initiatives.
Improve local infrastructure and environmental practices
This area of southern Serbia, generally an underdeveloped area, also suffers from neglect of facilities and services, lack of maintenance and an overall lack of local ownership of facilities. There is also limited public awareness of safe waste disposal methods while traditional methods are often damaging to the environment. There is, however, a community consensus about the importance of rebuilding infrastructure and a willingness to solve problems.
Support economic development
Lingering inter-ethnic tension has wrecked local businesses and led to the flight of Serb and Albanian workers to Kosovo and other parts of Serbia. Little access to credit, poorly trained managers and pre-conflict, production-driven operations have limited new economic opportunities for the region. However, the region holds great possibilities for the production of food, clothing and household items.
Mercy Corps' strategy will emphasize clustering of communities to take advantage of one another's multi-sectoral resources and build upon existing linkages. The program will help revitalize more than 250 multi-sectoral community groups representing over one million people in rural villages and small towns throughout Serbia.
Mercy Corps has been active in Serbia since the fall of 2000, initially distributing winter clothes to refugees and local citizens in need. In March 2001, Mercy Corps was awarded USAID's first reconstruction grant for Serbia since the 1999 NATO air strikes. In this $2.4 million Southern Serbia Community Revitalization Program, also based on the "cluster" model, Mercy Corps assists eight municipalities to promote inter-community cooperation and participation and identify priority development needs in the areas of economic opportunity, infrastructure rehabilitation, environmental protection and improved civil participation.