The Nature Conservation Program in North Macedonia, a Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) project, will end in January 2024 after 11 years of operation. The first phase of the program was implemented by Helvetas in partnership with the local company Farmahem. Farmahem took over implementation in the second and third phases, with Helvetas continuing to provide back-stopping support. This has been a positive collaboration throughout and a successful localization effort – so what worked? Below, we highlight three important aspects that laid the groundwork for sustainable locally-led development.
First, a little background: At its core, Farmahem is a company that specializes in laboratory equipment. However, it also has a thriving environmental consultancy department that began with small-scale environmental protection projects and then expanded to broader fields, including nature conservation. Marjana Shushlevska and Katerina Atanasovska are both long-term Farmahem employees who have worked on the Nature Conservation Program since its inception. Marjana is now the Team Leader and Katerina is the Program Officer. On the Helvetas side, Jane Carter has been providing advisory services to the project since 2020; earlier key advisers were Thomas Stadtmüller and Zora Urech.
Developing a shared understanding
SDC announced a tender for a new nature conservation project in mid-2011. At that time, Farmahem had no experience working with Swiss development cooperation. What they did have, though, was solid knowledge of the Macedonia context at the national, regional and local levels. Helvetas, meanwhile, was and is highly familiar with SDC requirements and is a trusted implementation partner in many countries. An initial outreach by Thomas to Marjana was quickly followed by a scoping visit and a collaborative effort to prepare a technical project proposal. SDC awarded the contract to Helvetas, with Farmahem as the local partner.
“In the early days of the project, the role of Helvetas was the brain, and we were the hands and feet implementing on the ground,” said Marjana. “Helvetas taught us how to monitor the implementation, how to coordinate, how to take a holistic and bottom-up approach, and how to encourage ownership among the state organizations. These were new ways of working for us – and were game changers for processes that in countries like ours are typically long and challenging.”
Building capacities and familiarity with donor processes
Another important aspect of the project approach was capacity building. “Since Helvetas has an extensive presence in the Balkans, we were invited to different trainings organized for Helvetas staff,” said Marjana. “We attended regional trainings on gender, negotiation techniques and managing finances. The latter was especially important, since through this our finance people became familiar with SDC’s reporting requirements. Although the contracted party was Helvetas, we started to have regular meetings at the Swiss Embassy in Skopje. They also organized many workshops and we were invited. Those trainings by Helvetas and the Swiss Embassy were crucial learning grounds.”
These new financial skills were soon tested during a project audit. “In the latter part of the first phase, there was an external audit,” said Marjana. “A few hours were planned for the auditor’s presence at Farmahem – but he came for three days and asked everything that could be asked! His report stated that Farmahem’s reporting capacities were good enough for us to be a direct implementer in the second phase. The embassy therefore invited us to prepare the documents for the new phase, with Helvetas as the back-stopper.”
Introducing new tools and concepts
“There are many things that Helvetas brought to our collaboration, even in the second and third phases when we were the project implementers,” said Katerina. “Companion modelling is one example; this was proposed by Zora, who replaced Thomas when he retired. Zora also specifically framed the project as taking a landscape approach.”
"We have also acquired the skills necessary to create results-oriented logframes, and have become more proficient in applying participatory and holistic processes, which were always stressed during the program's implementation. Collaborating with the Swiss has taught us the art of concisely conveying our thoughts and ideas, moving away from our Macedonian tendency to use excessive words and elaborate explanations. Maybe we still need to improve on that, but we have made a lot of progress!"
Deepened localization in the future
According to Marjana, it is now Farmahem’s turn to push the localization process further; this is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the project approach.
“Now that we have reached the end of the third phase, it is Farmahem who is doing the localization,” said Marjana. “In some regards, this was underway right from the start when we opened the local office in Pechevo and employed a local person (Jasminka Pashalisk Andonovska, who is still a staff member).
“But it is our local partners who will continue the nature conservation activities. The municipalities, the Macedonian Ecological Society, the Public Enterprise National Forests, and the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, to name a few. They have become familiar with the approaches of participation, stakeholder consultation and engagement, and can now use them themselves.”
University exchanges have also been a productive part of the program – and one that will continue in the future. “Through the Nature Conservation Program and the Bern University of Applied Sciences’ School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences, the Hans Em Faculty of Forest Sciences, Landscape Architecture, and Environmental Engineering of Skopje University has gained many personal contacts in Switzerland and beyond,” said Marjana.
“But perhaps the best example of localization is the Center for Development of the East Planning Region. We worked a lot to build their capacities, and the Nature Conservation Program even employed one of their staff members for several years to coordinate tourism activities. From this third phase onwards, they are acting independently, with no further financial support from the program. But of course they are still invited to all our activities as an important stakeholder, and they always participate.”
Meanwhile, for Farmahem, the end of the Nature Conservation Program does not mean an end to working on nature conservation. The company is already implementing another SDC project in the Western Balkans addressing landscape fires – coordinating a program across six countries and one other political entity. Here, too, Helvetas provides advisory services.
About the Authors
Marjana Shushlevska is the Head of Department for the Environmental Consultancy at Farmahem, and the Team Leader of the Nature Conservation Program.
Katerina Atanasovska is a nature conservation specialist in Farmahem’s Department for Environmental Consultancy and a Program Officer for the Nature Conservation Program.
Jane Carter is Helvetas’ Senior Advisor for Natural Resource Governance.