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South-east Europe has tremendous natural and human assets, with treasured mountains, marine areas, forests and rivers, significant renewable energy resources, abundant local food systems and resilient people with a strong sense of local community connections.
Unfortunately, ecological health in the region has been significantly undermined in many places – with chronic air pollution, degraded water systems, chemical and plastics pollution of land and soils, and marine litter. South-east Europe also faces intense vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change.
Modernisation of industry; development of efficient buildings, energy, waste and water systems; creating of sustainable agriculture and tourism systems; biodiversity restoration and deployment of green modes of transport have all been uneven at best and generally delayed across the region, especially when compared to other parts of Europe. This exacerbates ecological and social challenges.
Many of the biggest challenges in SE Europe are social and economic.
Social and economic gaps have widened since the financial crisis of 2008, with unemployment and the threat of poverty remaining major issues that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated.
Conflicts in the Western Balkans in the 1990s marked a period of social dislocation, economic decline and international isolation that impacted significantly on many communities’ progress – and reverberated across the wider region. Discord and pain sown by these conflicts remain.
In many of SE Europe’s young democracies, significant trust, transparency, participation and creativity issues also remain. There are many structural elements that inhibit innovation and leadership for genuine community development. Genuinely democratic practice, politics and policymaking remain elusive in many places. Corruption in both business and the public sector cannot be ignored. Low wages, out-of-date policies and typically hierarchical education and management systems stifle opportunities for entrepreneurs and young people.
Stemming from these challenges, emigration is a significant issue and generally populations are shrinking, especially in smaller cities and rural regions. There is an underlying sense that if people are able then they are leaving for other places and opportunities, creating a ‘brain drain’ from SE Europe that further exacerbates social and economic vulnerabilities.
The challenges in SE Europe are structural and require radical and systemic responses to tackle them on multiple fronts at the same time. Significant work and investment is needed to rebuild community and civic cohesion, creativity and collaboration to reverse current dynamics and create a thriving future.
Unfortunately, the much-needed enabling work for systemic and transformational change remains under-prioritised, uncoordinated and under-resourced.
It is for these reasons that SE Europe is currently the priority region for Thriving Communities.