The Centre for Civic Education (CCE) is an organisation that has been playing an important role in Montenegro for more than two decades, seeking to promote democracy, human rights, and Europeanisation. In this interview with DaliborkaUljarević, Director of CCE, we learn about the organisation’s history, including the obstacles it overcame and the positive social improvements it initiated.
The Executive Director of CCE,DaliborkaUljarević, explains her own journey into the world of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and discusses the significance of this field. Her dedication to civic and political involvement was sparked by her participation in the Belgrade student protests of 1996–1997. She worked briefly in international media and organisations before deciding that nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are the best venue to bring about change in Montenegro.
• What is it like to be the leader of an organisation that has been around for almost two decades, like the Centre for Civic Education? Can you share more about your experience in that position?
Some routes are organic yet unintentional. My involvement in the nonprofit sector was like that.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were in their infancy when I began studying international relations at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade almost three decades ago. At that time, few people in my generation anticipated becoming professionally involved with NGOs. It began with an effort to address long-standing student concerns and the formation of a student organisation, and culminated in the student protest 96/97, which “infected” all of us involved with the movement with a lifelong commitment to civic and political engagement. After dabbling for a while in international media and organisations, I settled on the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) sector,as it allows the most leeway and flexibility to actually make a difference.
There, the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) was formed, and a few years later, after I had finished my education, I chose to devote myself wholly to helping the people of Montenegro strengthen their democracy. There were other opportunities available to me, but I’ve never once regretted choosing to work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) instead, and if you’re young and full of life, I’d recommend looking into NGOs.
Being at the helm of an organisation like CCE is both demanding and a privilege. There are currently very few actors who are characterised by consistency and principle, as well as the responsibility to maintain it in dynamic and turbulent times, the trials of which many have not known or been able to face in the proper way.
• Organisations like yours serve an important function in our society. What opportunities and challenges do you face as the leader of a long-standing non-governmental organisation?
The CCE has grown into one of Montenegro’s most prominent institutions and enjoys a solid international reputation. Oursis the fruit of decades of hard labour and the relentless efforts of countless coworkers, friends, comrades, and allies who have helped form our CCE and who truly embody its vision and mission.
The road wasn’t smooth or simple since no government likes hearing criticism of its actions and policies. Thus, one of the constants of our job is being attacked by individuals who have forgotten that with power comes responsibility and constraints. During the previous administration’s many decades in office, CCE and I, as its leader, were targets of various attacks and dirty tactics. The problematic practices that we called out before and after the change in government have not been addressed. Of course, with this came a slew of new attacks and shady campaigns.
But just as in life, success in this field depends not on how often you fall but on how many times you pick yourself back up. With the knowledge that it will be a long time before we have decision-makers who will respond to criticism with arguments rather than attempts to discredit, we have built processes to emerge from it stronger, with lessons learned, and more prepared for new activities.
Consistency, perseverance even with the ad hoc positioning of many, and keeping the big picture in mind are the greatest challenges we face. Only in this way can the force for good and advocating for the core principles upon which a democratic society is founded gain the respect they deserve. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector is also competitive; its success is tied to factors including the willingness of donors to provide support, the credibility of the organisation’s proposed solutions, and the donors’ own priorities. Application development for projects and responsible project management are both significant jobs that call for expertise, devotion, constant learning, and quick and creative decision-making.
The benefits are obvious: you get to be the one who sparks off positive change, who helps bring about something new, who educates, who inspires, and who helps shape public policies, public decisions, and democratic practices that have far-reaching, positive effects on the lives of all people in the community.
• What does civic education entail, and how far along is it in Montenegro right now? What is the average level of civic education in Montenegro?
Unfortunately, Civic Education, a topic that had great potential and introduction of which the CCE advocated, has been marginalised for a long time within the formal education system and cannot be replaced by informal programmes due to their lack of scale in terms of participants and sustainability.The younger generations are similarly hampered since they are not taught to think critically and are developed during a time of great upheaval and influence from many different quarters.
Nonetheless, I maintain that our people should not be underestimated despite this. Those who claim to or actually lead people politically should be on the hill where you can see more and better, but several indicators suggest that peopleare actually maturing faster than them. Both men and women deserve much more thanthe failed expectations they have now.
• Using your experience, what are some of the Centre for Civic Education’s most noteworthy projects or initiatives over the years? What benefits have been brought to the community as a result of these efforts?
Around 250 projects have been carried out so far through the CCE’s three initiatives: Democratisation and Europeanisation; Human Rights; Active Citizenship. It is difficult to single out specific projects and initiatives because we have opened and positioned so many issues on the social and political agenda, including corruption in education, public funding for the media, honorary citizenship, the status of juvenile offenders, the importance of building political memory, etc., or because we were a key pillar alongside other colleagues in sectors like advocating the rights of LGBTIQ persons, advocating for a better position of young people, insisting on the fight against corruption, a systemic approach to dealing with the past, resistance to clericalization and re-traditionalization of society, etc. In addition to our many ongoing projects, we also engage in a wide variety of other activities, such as providing pro bono legal services, working to improve the efficiency of existing systems, making public appearances, doing research, etc.
As the largest European Union-supported project in the Montenegrin NGO sector, I feel it is important to point out that CCE has been implementing the project “CSOs in Montenegro – from basic services to policy formulation – M’BASE” with partners and collaborators for almost three years, with the support of the Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro. During the preceding difficult period, which was also marked by the marginalisation of the sector by institutions, that project was crucial in maintaining the fabric of a critically oriented and diverse NGO sector. Thousands of people, including some of our most vulnerable residents, have benefited from the work of the 82 initiatives financed by this project, which have been carried out or are being carried out by 146 NGOs acting as either lead or partner organisations.
In addition, the 13th Montenegrin human rights film festival UBRZAJ has become a well-known cultural, artistic, and human rights expression in Podgorica, Kotor, and Berane. The festival’s goal is to affirm the culture of human rights through a new and more immediate medium and to promote the production of films that explore human rights issues from a variety of angles in Montenegro.
• Montenegro is making progress towards EU membership. What role did the Centre for Civic Education play in helping to bring about these democratic changes?
For the past eleven years, Montenegro has been in negotiations with the European Union (EU). The CCE has closely monitored these talks and pointed out their many flaws, appealing to and admonishing all previous power holders, from whatever structure they came, to take European affairs as seriously as they would domestic ones and to approach them with the utmost seriousness, political responsibility, honesty, and dedication, which, unfortunately, was not the case until now.
The CCE contributes by keeping an eye on everything from the beginning to the end of the negotiation process, as well as through studies, analyses, advocacy, conferences marking the negotiations that bring together different stakeholders in the outcome, and a plethora of educational programmes aimed at different demographics to increase awareness of the European Union and its values.
• To what extent does the organisation modify its operations in response to societal and environmental shifts? What strategies do you employ to adapt to changing circumstances and challenges?
Through unceasing progress, by bolstering our own capacities and scope of action, with the appropriate intervention measures that bring social sobriety into our context, and through those that widen our horizons.Every day, we work hard to live up to the ideas and values that guide our actions as much as possible. Many of the problems we face today are the result of years of neglect and buildup; this is not an area in which visible progress can be seen instantly; therefore, any change, no matter how modest, should be celebrated. No matter how horrible things first seemed, they become easier to endure, and there is no lack of enthusiasm when you know you are on the correct path and your only obligation is to be loyal to yourself, your vision, and your mission.
• How do you see the future of the Centre for Civic Education developing? How do you envision the organisation making future contributions to societyin the coming years?
CCE’s position in society is the result of unwavering vigilance, initiative, commitment to values and beliefs, preparedness to defend them, and a critical approach that avoids calculation, which we will maintain. Of course, we are always thinking strategically and preparing ahead to develop those programme linesand methods for a more efficient approach to addressing existing difficulties. To that end, in the near future, CCE will place a greater emphasis on research, analysis, and policy proposals in the areas in which we operate, as well as the collection of data that can be instructive to decision-makers who are truly committed to the public interest. We were, and still are, an organisation that welcomes anyone who feels lost in the maze of broken government to come to us with any number of troubles, legal issues, or other concerns.
• How can individuals and the community support the work of the Centre for Civic Education and contribute to the achievement of your goals?
There are never enough “hands” to help make this society a better, more decent, and more promising place, so any and all initiatives, volunteer work, donations, and other forms of support that can help get things done or inspire new ones are greatly appreciated.
The CCE has grown into one of Montenegro’s most prominent institutions and enjoys a solid international reputation.