Making Impact Count

TEXT: Aradhna Sethi - 12. December 2019

Helvetas speaks with Violeta Jovanović, Executive director at NALED, to know more about their definitions of impact, assessing it, good practice and challenges that come in the way of a development partner association.

National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED ) is the largest private-public business association in Serbia with over 280 member companies, local governments, and non-government organizations. The goal of this association is to create better living and business conditions within Serbia by improving the regulatory and institutional framework for doing business and strengthening the capacities and responsibility of public administration. 

Aradhna Sethi: How do you define impact and measure it?

Violeta Jovanović: From the perspective of NALED, impact is the tangible and measurable progress achieved as a result of a set of well-planned and carefully implemented activities, aimed at improvements within the business environment. NALED aims to accomplish its mission by supporting the economic reforms in Serbia with an active engagement and cooperation among businesses, local governments and civil society organizations.

Our impact is measured by our members and partners in terms of cutting red tape and creating better legislation to improve competitiveness and the standard of living in Serbia. These improvements are dependent not only on the resources and know-how to formulate smart solutions, but also on the advocacy and timing, which can be critical for the political will to support proposed solutions. Assessment of these factors is a complex task. Completing such a task helps us determine whether potential impact is a solid foundation for our sustained efforts.

Apart from program results, impact can also be measured internally from an organizational perspective by assessing the progress achieved by its employees who are exposed to numerous opportunities for professional and personal development. The challenge at both ends is to steer the organization and its capacities around initiatives that will be positive for all involved. Prioritizing and staying focused is an everyday exercise that helps the organization to reconfirm its mandate and zeal in pushing for structural reforms.

Good impact helps sustainability of organizations like NALED and reinforces the relationship with our constituencies – members, donors and partners as key stakeholders in our day-to-day operations. 

AS: Could you share some examples of good impact in development cooperation? What are the reasons for success?  And what were some of the challenges – internal as well as external?

VJ: In almost 15 years of development work, NALED has achieved many notable successes that have generated tangible impact in the quality of life and business environment in Serbia. Some of the more prominent ones relate to construction permissions and reform of seasonal workforce legislation. The bulk of our projects are related to core priorities of the organization listed in our strategic document as a guide to improving conditions for doing business and spurring economic development. The key to our success lies in the tireless efforts that go into exercising public-private dialogue in-house, among the ranks of our members; and externally with NALED’s key stakeholders – government institutions, media and international community.

Development projects that don't achieve impact can be attributed to a number of factors such as: failure to secure political will or momentum for reforms, lack of leadership and staff capacity and, often times, lack of funding and perseverance on the part of donors to sustain complex reforms over a timeframe of three to five years. Some of NALED-led major reforms like construction permitting were successful in over just a couple of years, whereas other less complex ones like elimination of para-fiscal charges are taking over five years of continued efforts and pressure to create political will and appetite on the part of the government to undertake the reform. 

A deciding factor is often institutional support of the donor that can make all the difference in the readiness of the political stakeholders to embark upon reform. The bulk of reforms that NALED initiated and supported was completed - thanks to concerted effort and strong coordination that speaks in favor of a well-thought out approach and institutional partnership, aided with smart media presence. This can literally move mountains in terms of effectiveness. Regional cooperation and exchange of know-how has also been a source of invaluable support and inspiration in advocating for change and offering readymade solutions that have proven to work well in the neighborhood.

It's through this mechanism that we have been able to convince the government to replicate best practices from the region and save time and resources in designing solutions. Targeted exchange with peers in the region is an efficient solution to failure and waste of scarce public resources. Ongoing cadaster reform in Serbia is tailored around the experience of North Macedonia that previously completed digitalization of its property registry. Similarly, Serbia’s experience in combatting grey economy has been taken up by adjacent countries, especially the fiscal lottery and campaign to raise citizens’ tolerance to operations in the grey area.

AS: What makes projects fail and what are some of the common challenges you face? Can you implement the learning through failure in other projects? What changes do you foresee that can lead to a higher success rate of projects?

VJ: Projects that have been unsuccessful are those implemented simply in order to meet the goals of the donor; not really to deliver change in line with the implementers’ mission. This is largely true for tendered services that are completed to respond to the call and earn profit, rather than serve the community. Another frequent shortcoming in the tendered programs is having many individual consultants who don't share a sense of common mission and aren't part of a team centrally managed and steered towards success.

Taking ownership of programs has proven to be key in NALED’s approach to delivering results and mitigating risks that can lead to failure. In pushing for reforms, it is essential to tip the fine balance between pressure and motivation of the decision makers to initiate change.

Talking about challenges… customary resistance of bureaucracy to change is a common challenge. It takes careful planning and implementation for projects to be embraced by institutional stakeholders. In this regard, shortcomings within the system and previous failure of similar initiatives can serve as lessons learned and help in planning interventions that can lead to success.

The labor law is a good example shared across the region of Western Balkans that generates a wealth of solutions regarding challenges shared by stakeholders in all economies of the region. Serbia picked up the partly successful experience from Croatia in terms of registration of seasonal workforce in the tourism sector and applied it in digitalized format in the sector of agriculture.

«Impact is the tangible and measurable progress achieved as a result of well-planned and carefully implemented activities, aimed at improvements within the business environment.»

Violeta Jovanović, Executive director at NALED

A change we notice is that donors are evidently becoming more open regarding inviting ideas from applicants rather than simply setting the agenda in their calls for applications. A more recent practice of having co-creation workshops allows for circulation of ideas and inputs that are openly shared to improve concepts and stimulate new collaboration.

In conclusion, sharing experiences, peer learning, institutional partnership, knowledgeable teams and smart marketing make a solid formula for success.

Read more on  Impact and Learnings from Failure.

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