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Better understanding vulnerability in Serbia

By Kate Ogden

Since July 2000, Kate Ogden has been a food security advisor in ACF headquarters, Paris. Previously she spent three years working in food security and nutrition with ACF in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chechnya and Kosovo.

The significant contributions of Yuve Guluma, Carole Lambert, Isabelle D'Haudt and Margie Rehm to the experiences of this article, and the work of the Serbia programme team, are gratefully acknowledged.

This field article describes ACF's experiences1 in Serbia where vulnerability assessment findings were used to inform, and hopefully influence, activities and social policy at a local and national level in Serbia.

FAO funded fodder distribution for elderly beneficiaries living in rural areas, Serbia.

Action Contre la Faim's (ACF's) mandate is to tackle malnutrition, especially in situations where food security is threatened by man-made actions - situations of war, economic crisis, or civil unrest - or by natural catastrophes. This was the basis of ACF's decision to intervene in Serbia in mid-1999, with possible areas of intervention including supporting refugees, the displaced, minority groups, and vulnerable Serbians, assisting in reconstruction, and the relaunch of economic activities in the most vulnerable zones.

In the early 1990's, the socio-economic situation in the Former Republic (FR) of Yugoslavia, traditionally based on industry, mining and agricultural activities, began to deteriorate. The difficult transition from being a Communist state in 1991, was subsequently followed by a disintegration of the FR of Yugoslavia culminating in war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was alleged mismanagement of state funds, large numbers of refugees and displaced persons in the country and declines in agricultural production. The situation reached its climax at the end of the 1990's, with the 1999 Kosovo crisis and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) intervention.

When the current Serbian government was formed on 25th January 2001 (democratically elected and internationally recognised), it inherited a country ravaged by war - a bankrupt state, devastated economy, dilapidated institutions, limited civil confidence, and a suspicious international community. Despite the government's programme of economic reforms, the unemployment rate rose by almost 50%, bringing with it a significant decrease in official incomes and growth of the 'grey' or 'informal' economy. The latter became the means of subsistence for the larger part of the population, with at least one million people engaged in this volatile sector either on a full or part-time basis.

The breakdown of traditional family support had increased the vulnerability of the elderly

Yugoslavia's complex social welfare system, operating through Centres for Social Work, nominally provided services for destitute persons and families, physically and mentally handicapped persons, 'broken' families, alcoholics and drug addicts, and elderly persons without relatives to care for them. Social welfare was paid to families earning income below the level of social security (so-called MOP2), others were eligible for child allowance, maternity benefits, foster family allowance, disability allowance and placement in a social welfare institution. In 1986, around 3% of the population received services from this system. During the economic crisis of the 1990's, the number of users decreased due to low and irregular payments such that the system effectively became irrelevant as a coping mechanism for the poor.

Vulnerability assessment

Programme activities - providing complementary food and non-food items to social institutions and subsequently, the wider population - meant that ACF soon became very familiar with the social situation in the country. All of the interventions adopted the Ministry of Social Affairs' social welfare categories for the 'needy', focusing particularly on MOP and institutionalised beneficiaries. However, through programme monitoring and additional surveys, ACF found that categorisation of eligible beneficiaries in this manner did not always best accord with those suffering from food insecurity. To better understand vulnerability, ACF undertook further investigations which culminated in a vulnerability assessment towards the end of 2001.

The main objectives of this assessment were:

It was recognised that the findings of the assessment needed to be effectively used and shared with organisations active in Serbia, as well as the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The study period ran from November 2001 to April 2002. A participatory methodology was used, supported by secondary data sources for orientation, to help determine trends and ranking of the most vulnerable socio-economic groups, as well as provide indicators of their vulnerability.

Key informant interviews were held to identify vulnerable groups and refine types of questions and issues for discussion. Four round table discussions were organised with key informants from academia, government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and civil society. These meetings worked at developing indicators of vulnerability for the four vulnerable groups identified during the preliminary stages of the assessment. They also examined ways of registering vulnerable households so that assistance could be effectively channelled to them through local, national, and international structures.

Focus group discussions were held to collect information on the social and physical environment of vulnerable groups and to assess the level of community support provided.

Individual household interviews were conducted in fifty randomly selected households for each vulnerable group, using semi-structured interviewing techniques to collect qualitative and quantitative information.

A novel aspect of the methodology was to involve indirectly the municipalities and control groups. This involved a detailed community questionnaire, sent to every municipality in Serbia in an attempt to collect and map information on differences in socio-economic infrastructure between municipalities and communities. The aim was to locate the whereabouts of vulnerable groups in the overall population, as well as to compare local authority perceptions of different vulnerable groups. The community questionnaire also provided an opportunity for local community representatives to contribute to the formulation of programme recommendations (data from 76 municipalities and 442 local communities were analysed).

Two control groups, comprising thirty families registered for social support (excluding Roma, single female-headed and isolated rural households), and thirty 'average3' Serbian households were interviewed. All information from these sources was cross-checked.

Vulnerable groups

The assessment findings identified six vulnerable socio-economic categories in Serbia. Some of these fell within the existing social welfare criteria but were not distinguished as a separate group.

Single female headed households

Women did not have equal entitlements to men with respect to job opportunities, pay, ownership of real estate and decision-making positions in government and the business sector. The period of economic crisis had widened the gender gap and this category was generally stigmatised by society. Opportunities for obtaining employment, already limited and primarily in low-paid or unskilled jobs, were even lower for women over 35 years of age or if they had school-aged children.


This group remains one of the most vulnerable groups in Serbia, based on indicators of standards of hygiene, health, food, education, employment, shelter, etc. The low educational level of the Roma meant they had little employment, or worked in low-paid and unskilled jobs in the informal or formal labour market.


There were approximately 400,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina who lived in absolute poverty and had been hit much harder by the economic crisis than the general population. They had limited access to land, credit, and social assistance and those who worked were usually involved in 'grey' economy activities. Major donor agencies and international organisations were planning to reduce their assistance to refugees in the coming 12 to 24 months. This was anticipated to have a significant impact on refugees and other vulnerable groups who currently relied heavily on this assistance.

Elderly Rural Agricultural Households

In addition to average pension payments being low (the rationale for which was based on the assumption that these households were capable of working and were self-sufficient through agricultural production), payments were irregular for more than a year. Health costs, late pension payments and exclusion from grey economy activities (due to the age barrier) had increased the vulnerability of elderly households. The breakdown of traditional family support, due in part to the migration of youth and working adults from rural areas to urban centres, had increased the vulnerability of rural elderly households.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

There were approximately 200,000 IDPs, mostly residing in Central Serbia and originating from Kosovo. Approximately one-quarter of IDPs were living below the lower poverty line and were particularly affected by the economic crisis. Many IDPs had difficulties obtaining work documents showing a valid termination of employment from their former employer (which would enable them to register for employment benefits). Perceived comparative advantages (some well-founded) of IDPs over refugees in regard to access to job opportunities, social welfare, property claims, and unemployment benefits, had led to neglect of this group. Of particular concern were the Roma IDPs, since a large number had been left out of the official registration process due to lack of documentation. The majority of Roma IDPs, rejected by residents of collective centres, local communities, and unassisted by municipality authorities, tended to live in appalling conditions in 'cardboard cities' in separate parts of local Roma settlements.

Redundant Workers

It was difficult to assess accurately future trends in the socio-economic status of the Serbian 'unemployed'. The collapse of industry and the restructuring of the economy in Serbia were causing thousands of people hired by state companies and banks to lose their jobs. A social plan, adopted in March 2002 by the Serbian government, sought to protect the redundant workforce through the transition period.

Informing social policy

As a result of the assessment and in consultation with members of the identified vulnerable groups and key informants, ACF put forward a number of recommendations. The needs for each of the four main vulnerable groups: Roma, single mothers, isolated rural elderly and refugees, were defined in terms of urgent shortterm needs, additional short-term needs and longer-term developmental needs.

Recommendations were made for social policy to emphasise specific reforms that could promote better social care of the most vulnerable, including recommendations for Ministry of Social Affairs and other ministries, as well as for Reform of National Social Laws & Policy and Reform of the Local Social Network.

Wide-reaching programming recommendations were also made for NGO and Local Association Level in the areas of food security/nutrition, water and sanitation, hygiene, training, advocacy and campaigning. The proposed activities ranged from fulfilling the most basic of needs, i.e. food, hygiene and shelter, through education and vocational skills development, to campaigning for women's rights and advocating for allocation of resources for medical home care.

Once the assessment report was completed, it was presented and disseminated in a number of ways. A principal aim of dissemination was that the report should be read by all key national players in the Serbian social field (ministries, donors, World Bank 'Poverty Line Assessment', NGOs) and used as an element in programming and resource allocation decisions, including the design of a new social welfare system.

The Ministry of Social Affairs endorsed its conclusions before it was disseminated to bilateral donors. There was a presentation of key results at the 'Princess Katarina' meeting, a forum for humanitarian and social agency actors. The assessment was posted on the ICVA site4 and a detailed presentation and discussion was held with humanitarian actors. The document was received positively at the various presentations, giving a strong indication of the utility of assessment.

Promoting social change

Activities included fulfilling basic food needs

Arguably the reason why such analysis had not been carried out previously was that criteria for vulnerability were already clearly defined by the government and were being used for targeting humanitarian assistance. There was, therefore, reluctance to re-visit a vulnerability analysis, coupled with the political implications of doing so. Previous macro-level analyses focused on economic indicators of development, creating a false homogeneous picture of poverty in Serbia and obscuring the true picture of vulnerability as determined by social, cultural and geographic factors.

Vulnerability in Serbia remains fluid and volatile and will partly depend on social and economic trends during this transition period. Positive developments in job creation, unemployment benefits, increased social assistance, recognition of socially excluded groups, targeting of the most vulnerable households, successful economic and social reforms, and funding for programmes, will all play a major role in the fight against poverty in Serbia. The system inherited from the previous government has many faults and has neglected to identify hidden poverty. Hopefully, current and future reforms, along with political will, should create mechanisms for improved identification and targeting of those in the population with special needs and will aid in the development of appropriate programmes addressing these needs and the social complexities associated with them.

However, although these needs are considerable, they pose no direct threat - outside of a high level of poverty - to the overall food security of the Serbian people. Since a key aspect of ACF's mandate is to tackle food insecurity of populations, the decision was taken to phase out of Serbia but not without ensuring maximum dissemination and understanding of the assessment, and in particular highlighting the existence of the hidden vulnerable. The degree to which the assessment findings are acted upon remains to be seen but the involvement of the Ministry and municipalities during the survey gives the results and recommendations an added value, credibility and 'ownership'.

For further details, contact Kate Ogden, Action Contre la Faim, 4 rue Niepce, 75014 Paris Tel : +33 1 43 35 88 31 Email :

Show footnotes

1Vulnerability Assessment in Serbia (excluding Kosovo). Identification of vulnerable socio-economic categories with special needs. ACF Mission in Serbia. May 2002 Vulnerability Assessment: Belgrade, Kraljevo and Nis, Serbia (excluding Kosovo and Metohija). ACF, May 2001

2MOP : Materijalna Obezbedjenje Pomoc, or Financial Aid for Social Cases

3It was extremely difficult, (due, in part, to the grey economy) to delineate socio-economic classes in Serbia. In between an elite and well-off minority and an extremely poor population, there was an apparent homogenous middle grouping (i.e. no recognised distinct middle, lower middle, or upper middle class). Therefore, the term "average" was used to define a stratum of the population, which were not considered poor but perceived as having a living standard considered to be "normal" at that point in time.

4International Council of Voluntary Associations

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Better understanding vulnerability in Serbia. Field Exchange 19, July 2003. p29.



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