Next week, I will be in Sarajevo for a conference to mark the end of the Swiss Cultural Programme in the Western Balkans, (SCP) after almost 15 years. Set up by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and managed by Pro Helvetia, SCP has provided vital support to artists, cultural groups and activists from former Yugoslavia to Ukraine.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of projects, from contemporary dance and creative industries networks to programmes working on memory, history and alternative education. There have been scores of exhibitions, theatre productions, films, festivals, concerts and publications. Thousands of people have taken part—young aspiring artists at the dawn of a professional career, and older artists who have lived under socialism, war and unbridled capitalism.
What has impressed and moved me, in the 12 years I’ve been working in SE Europe, is the extraordinary commitment of these people leading the way towards a better artistic life in the region. Like their peers elsewhere, they have knowledge, skills and imagination. But they also have great courage in the face of social and economic upheaval, political indifference or interference, insecurity and instability. Lack of resources, especially cash, is a fact of life for most independent artists here. What they achieve with what they do have is simply extraordinary.
SCP is one of the last programmes active in this part of Europe. Most international agencies and donors have moved on, to places where misery, conflict and injustice are even more threatening than in the Balkans. Happily, the Swiss will still be active here, albeit at a lower level as far as culture is concerned, alongside others, like the European Cultural Foundation. Some SCP staff will be working regionally in a new organisation. So it can be hoped that this is less an end than a change of gear; perhaps even a further small step on from the crises of the 1990s.
A report on the achievements of the people SCP has supported will be published at the conference next week. It will be available to download from this site after that.