Brussels has turned a blind eye to complaints about the way Youth in Action funds are distributed in Macedonia.
by Zorana Gadzovska Spasovska and Kristina Ozimec
Youth NGOs from Macedonia, some of which are practically invisible to the public, have been receiving significant sums of EU funds for five years.
Most have no permanent address, no office and no website but are still regularly winning cash from Brussels under the Youth in Action programme.
While suspicions have repeatedly been raised that the distribution of European grants for youth projects in Macedonia has unfairly favoured relatives and friends, neither European nor Macedonian institutions have fully investigated the claims.
In a BIRN investigation, we focused on 11 Macedonian youth NGOs, as this is the number of NGOs that on average receive grants from Brussels at one time.
The investigation confirms that the recipients of grants from Brussels for youth programmes, worth thousands of euros, have often been relatives or friends of employees in Macedonia’s National Agency for European Educational Programmes and Mobility, NAEPM.
Questions put to institutions about these NGOs by BIRN concerning the results of their work were dismissed on the grounds that this information was secret.
The sums involved are not small. Over five years, local NGOs have received almost 2 million euro from the Youth in Action programme.
Most of this money came directly from Brussels. The rest was distributed by the National Agency in Skopje.
No known address:
BIRN focused on the following organizations: Jasna Idnina (Clear future); the Fund for Interregional Development; the Youth Creative Centre; Kvantum (Quantum); Denica (Morning Star); the Centre for Rural Development of South East Europe; the Fund for Youth Development; the Council of Youth NGOs; the Volunteer Centre; Macedonian Youth Press; Youth Forum – OKO.
It is hard to locate most of the NGOs that have received funds under the Youth in Action programme because two-thirds of them have no website or registered offices, or are registered at private addresses.
It is hard to find any information on the Internet about Jasna Idnina, the Council of Youth NGOs, Macedonian Youth Press and the Fund for Youth Development.
A similar problem occurs if one wants to find the central address of these organizations.
For example, the Council of Youth NGOs, which had implemented eight EU projects by 2011 worth 158,000 euro, registered each project at a different address.
The Centre for Rural Development has no website, no contact telephone number and, according to the Central Registry of Macedonia, no clear address, either. It is given as a “settlement without street system – Struga.”
Using data from the Central Registry, we tried to find some of these NGOs and talk to them about their formula for success in obtaining grants from Brussels.
We started in Struga, where several are supposed to be based. The smell of barbecued meat coming a small kebab house was the first thing confronting us when we found the address listed in the Central Registry for Youth Forum-Oko and the Fund for Interregional Cooperation.
Youth Forum-Oko has been one of the main recipients in Macedonia of funds from the Youth in Action programme. In recent years, it received at least 330,000 euro for 16 projects.
Oko and the Fund for Interregional Cooperation are both listed at 86, Marshal Tito St, Struga, but when we knocked at this address, an elderly woman told us that Oko had not been renting a small room in her home for over a year.
She believed that Oko now worked elsewhere, but did not know, even though her own children were activists in the organization.
“They left a year-and-a-half ago and are now located either near the local bus station or at the place known as the swimming area,” the woman said.
Strolling through Struga, other residents told us to look near at a cake shop near the bus station.
Above the cake shop, we found a nameplate over a locked door that read “Centre for NGOs – Struga”, including a landline telephone number. According to the Central Registry data, no association under this exact name exists.
Disappointed by our failure to locate the NGOs in Struga, we spoke to the owner of the cake shop, who said: “You are looking for these people in vain. They are not in the country and when the cat is away, the mice will play, so no one comes to the office anymore.
“Shemsedin is not here, he went to Afghanistan,” he added. “The office of the NGO is up there, but they are not there. They either went to Spain or to Italy.”
When we telephoned the NGO “centre”, using the number posted on the door, a male voice answered that no such NGO centre was based there. However, once we explained that we had visited the site and seen this number posted on the door, he told us to call back in five minutes.
When we returned the call, we got through to Zlatko Shurdoski, president of Youth Forum-Oko, who told us that their organization was still working on projects approved by Brussels.
“What I can tell you is that we are currently working on projects, and, when we send them, they (Brussels) evaluate them and call us,” Shurdoski told BIRN.
Regarding the Centre for NGOs – Struga, he said this was an informal umbrella name for the Youth Forum-Oko, the Centre for Rural Development and Youth Press.
He knew nothing of the Fund for Interregional Cooperation, which had also listed the previous address as the address of the Fund.
Confusion over addresses is equally evident with the Struga-based Youth Press, which provided no less than three different addresses when applying for projects in Brussels.
Organizations from Skopje that have received money from Youth in Action are no better in terms of visibility and transparency than those in Struga.
Kvantum, a Skopje-based organization that has received funding for at least four projects, worth almost 70,000 euro, is presented on the Internet in only one statement, released by the Agency for Youth and Sport.
This stated that the organization had conducted a study visit entitled “Unemployed vs. Employed tour” within the Youth in Action programme back in 2010.
Jasna Idnina is another association whose activities aimed at young people are hard to identify.
The name of this association has occurred only at the press conferences of the opposition Social Democratic party, SDSM. The party claimed that it had paid for campaign adverts targeting its former leader, entitled “Resistance to Crvenkovski”, through this NGO.
Friends and relatives:
What is also alarming about the funding of youth projects in Macedonia – apart from the apparent non-existence of some beneficiaries of EU money – are evident links between employees in the National Agency, which part-distributes EU cash, and the organizations that receive grants.
Applying for European project funding involves serious administrative commitment and a working knowledge of the criteria set in Brussels.
Receiving funding from Brussels is manifestly less difficult, however, if contacts in the National Agency provide key information about priorities, objectives and other useful indicators concerning the receipt of grants.
Igor Domazetovski, who was once on the steering board of the National Agency, was an authorized signatory of the Struga-based Youth Press.
When BIRN asked him “whether his organization received grants when he was part of the agency”, the phone line went dead and repeated attempts to contact him drew no response.
The Council of Youth NGOs, founded by Katerina Stankoska, was awarded 158,000 euro for eight projects by 2011. The NGO closed after she later was employed at the National Agency as head of the Department of legal and line operations.
However, the Stankoska family home was not only used to register the Council of Youth NGOs but also the Volunteer Centre from Skopje in 2006 whose founder, Nikola Stankoski, was her brother. Violeta Stankoska, their sister, also worked in the Agency, until 2010.
The Volunteer Centre has received almost half a million euro in total of European funds, for 23 projects.
In 2012 alone, it received funding for four projects as part of the Youth in Action programme from central funds in Brussels worth 72,000 euro.
The Volunteer Centre, which has a network of over 200 young volunteers, is one of the few youth NGOs that we contacted that regularly publishes information about its activities on a website.
Still, the existence of relationships between the founders of NGOs who are beneficiaries of EU funds and employees of the National Agency inevitably raises questions about whether these NGOs received information that privileged them in obtaining grants when they applied for cash.
Nikola Stankoski, founder of Volunteer Centre, confirmed that one of his sisters is still employed by the Agency, while the other, Violeta worked there earlier.
However, he maintained that no conflict of interest had occurred in terms of funding because he had applied directly to the Youth in Action programme, and his sister had had no impact and could not have supplied him any privileged information.
“No one from the National Agency can call to lobby for a project in Macedonia. It is absolutely impossible,” he said.
“We have not received such privileges so far, and we were recipients of EU youth grants even before the Agency was established,” he added.
Shemsedin Iljazi was registered in the Central Registry as an authorized representative of the Centre for Rural Development of SEE, from the village of Jablanica, near Struga in 2010.
By 2011, this organization had received EU funding for five projects worth 92,000 euro, while in 2012 it received another 23,922 euro from the National Agency.
Shemsedin’s sister, Lulesa, works for the National Agency as head of Vocational Education and Training.
She said the award of funds in October 2012 to her brother’s organization had not involved a conflict of interest because she had no influence on who obtained grants because she was responsible for implementing another programme in the Agency.
“As of first of December 2012, Shemsedin is no longer representative of the organization,” she answered shortly.
Regarding questions of conflicts of interest, the National Agency said in writing that all project evaluators and employees in the Agency involved in the selection and awarding process for the Youth in Action programme had signed statements on conflicts of interest, and anyone contravening the rules would be excluded from further processing.
The Agency noted that Lulesa Iljazi was employed as departmental head of the “Lifelong Learning” and “Leonardo da Vinci” programmes. She was not an evaluator or a member of the commission for the selection of projects in the Youth in Action programme in 2012, and had not been involved in the selection of projects and awarding of grants at any time.
On being asked whether the kinship ties of these people raised questions about a conflict of interest, and how the National Agency ensured that Katerina Stankoska, for example, had not directly influenced the award of funds from Youth in Action, the Agency answered that over the past five years the organizations in questions were not grantees of decentralized funds managed by the Agency.
According to a report concerning this issue published in April 2013 by the Macedonian Centre for European Education, “The existing relations of some employees of the National Agency with NGO-grantees are still maintained”.
The report also said that NGOs whose founders are related to employees of the Agency “were put into favoured position compared with other NGOs from Macedonia, significantly reducing the possibility of competition under fair and equal terms”.
The National Agency has considerable power when it comes to projects directly approved by Brussels.
One of its responsibilities is to evaluate the operational capacity of an applicant organization for proper implementation of the proposed project, as well as to monitor and evaluate the end-users of European grants. These tasks are performed by the Agency and by external assessors.
Based on the Law on Access to Public Information, we asked about the results of the monitoring of projects implemented by the 11 selected NGOs that had benefited from European funds.
In each case, we received an almost identical response, which is that our request had been rejected because the disclosure of information could adversely affect the future work of the NGO as well as the Agency itself.
The Agency added: “The European Commission i.e. the Directorate General for Education and Culture which signed contracts would disagree with such documents being exposed in public.”
Commission turns blind eye:
The European Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency declined to comment on any claims associated with the Youth in Action programme and directed us to the European Commission, which it said had “been dealing with these issues”.
The European Commission told BIRN that National Agency staff were not involved in the selection process of the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency.
As to alleged links between employees of the National Agency and organizations that have won grants under the programme, they said the rules on prevention of conflicts of interest were clear.
“Provided that the rules are properly followed, nothing excludes relatives of staff of the Agency from applying for grants.
“In such cases, EU rules require the Director of the National Agency to ensure that such candidates do not receive any additional information or support from the staff, and that relevant members of staff are not involved in decision-making in any selection or evaluation phase of the relevant project,” the Commission said in response to BIRN.
Asked for a response to the specific allegations contained in the report of the Macedonian Centre for European Education, that abuse of funding for youth projects in Macedonia has continued, the Commission said it had “no concrete evidence of misuse of EU funds”.
Sources in civil society organisations familiar with EU project operations believe one reason for this apparent indifference may be that the Youth in Action programme is ending this year.
“It mutually benefits all stakeholders not to raise a clamour about the issue,” one civil sector activist in Macedonia told us under conditions of anonymity.
All is well:
The division of European funds for youth projects in Macedonia has already attracted criticism that prompted the resignation of the then director of the National Agency, Bosko Nelkoski.
Nelkoski was the subject of a public outcry after Nova Makedonija newspaper reported in 2010 that, as Director of the Agency, he had awarded European money to an NGO in Struga that he himself had previously ran.
The newspaper wrote that senior officials of the Agency managing EU funds, along with their relatives and associates, were involved in the questionable allocation of funding.
Following the reports, the European Commission started an investigation into whether Nelkoski illegally allocated European money to organizations based on kinship ties and “friendly relations”. It meanwhile suspended the allocation of decentralized funds via the National Agency for two years.
Nelkoski resigned, still denying the allegations, however, and claiming he was a victim of a witch-hunt based on fabrications. He said an audit report of the Ministry of Education would establish that nothing contentious had occurred in his work.
In January 2011, Macedonia’s state-run Anti-Corruption Commission said it had asked the public prosecutor’s office to prosecute Nelkoski for misconduct.
It said that there was reasonable suspicion that, over 2008–2009, he had abused his official position and conducted reckless operations.
“When selecting the final beneficiaries of the programmes of the National Agency, the State Commission established that violations of the Law on Prevention of Conflict of Interest [had occurred],” it said.
“In his actions, financed by the European Commission and on the basis of agreements on co-funding, [he] had a discretionary right to select legal and physical entities and people close to the president and members of the Steering Board of the National Agency to benefit from programme funds,” the Commission added.
More than two years on from these contentious findings, BIRN contacted the Anti-Corruption Commission to ask about the progress of legal proceedings against Nelkoski.
They told us that the procedure was underway and the case was now with the public prosecutor’s office.
But when we asked the public prosecutor’s office whether any proceedings had started on the initiative of the Anti-Corruption Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption in the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office all maintained that no such initiative had been filed with any of them in 2011.
Cash keeps flowing:
In 2013, meanwhile, the Youth in Action programme made half a million more euro available to Macedonia.
The Minister for Education and Science, Spiro Ristovski, recently announced that 22 decisions had been adopted last year and 317,000 euro had been used.
Regarding allegations about the allocation of this money, he said the only important question for him the evaluation of the European Commission.
“We shall consider and check any objections, but as long as our communication and evaluations from EC are positive, I think that we should not be concerned in that part,” Ristovski said.