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Social mapping in the Western Balkans pulls back the curtain on exclusion

To address social exclusion in their communities, local governments first need to see problems clearly. By exploring the daily reality of some of the most invisible members of society, social mapping enables municipalities to understand the underlying causes of exclusion – and steps that can be taken to reduce it.

Simona Joveska oversees programmes for people living in vulnerable situations in Bitola, a city of 90,000 inhabitants in North Macedonia. She and her colleagues in local government know that persons with disabilities are excluded to different degrees from many aspects of community life, from education and employment to access to health services and recreational activities. But until recently, what they haven’t known is how this exclusion is experienced by persons with different types of disabilities – physical, intellectual, sensory and developmental – and what solutions they believe would improve their lives on a daily basis. 

‘We were trying to develop programmes to support persons with disabilities, but we needed a deeper understanding of the everyday situations that people and their families are facing,’ says Simona Joveska. Without this, it was difficult to know how to prioritise the limited resources the municipality has available for social services.

In 2021, the city of Bitola seized the opportunity to undertake a ‘social mapping’ of the situation of persons with disabilities in the community. The results confronted local officials with some difficult truths, but also opened up space for action. Bitola’s ‘social plan’ was thoroughly revised in light of the insights generated, with measures to support persons with intellectual disabilities receiving particular attention. Just as important, the social mapping process led to closer cooperation between the municipality, its social protection council and civic associations which work on disability inclusion or represent persons with disabilities. ‘Social mapping is a process that has brought a lot of benefits,’ says Simona Joveska.

A practical tool for local governments as they plan social services

As the countries of the Western Balkans work towards membership in the European Union – as well the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals – social inclusion is increasingly in the spotlight. The aim is to ensure that population groups which are economically, socially or culturally excluded – or which are at risk of exclusion – are fully integrated into society and not ‘left behind’. Persons with disabilities are one such group; others include Roma, single parents, adolescents exiting social care, survivors of intimate partner violence and human trafficking, and elderly people. 

Local governments in the Western Balkans see the effects of social exclusion up close – and, in the context of decentralisation, are beginning to exercise a larger role in the provision of social services in their communities. Social mapping is a practical tool which helps them in this process. It allows municipalities to collect quantitative and qualitative data about groups of people whose situations cannot be easily grasped through existing statistics – in part because they experience multiple or intersecting forms of discrimination or inequality linked to their gender, age, ethnicity, place of residence, educational attainment or other factors. The evidence generated by social mapping not only plugs data gaps, but also helps to uncover factors which contribute to exclusion and to identify pathways for addressing them. This allows municipal officials, such as Simona Joveska, to improve the design and implementation of social services.

A Roma settlement near Belgrade
A Roma settlement near Belgrade

On behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) has supported 22 local governments in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia to undertake social mapping as part of a regional project on social inclusion which is implemented in cooperation with the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South East Europe (NALAS). The approach, with its focus on understanding who is excluded or discriminated against, how, and on what grounds, reflects the commitment to intersectional approaches enshrined in Germany’s Feminist Development Policy

For Natalija Spasovska, a technical advisor with GIZ, social mapping is powerful because it challenges entrenched ideas about what people need and the nature of the challenges they face. ‘Policy should be based on evidence, not assumptions,’ she says.

When you ask people in detail about their daily lives and the problems they face, you get a lot of new information you didn’t have before. You get into the ‘causality’ behind the vulnerability. There is a lot that is not visible on the surface. It requires digging deeper.

Natalija Spasovska, Advisor, Social Inclusion of Disadvantaged Groups in the Western Balkans project

How does social mapping work? A look at the process in Bitola

The first step of a social mapping process is for a municipality and its partners to identify one or more groups of people living in vulnerable situations in the community whose day-to-day realities they wish to explore in depth. This is guided by an understanding that such groups are not homogenous, but comprise individuals with different characteristics which give rise to discrimination and which subsequently inform their individual realities. 

In Bitola, this decision was made by the municipal social protection council which comprises local government officials, representatives of social service agencies and civic associations. ‘We had several meetings where we discussed what we wanted to accomplish with this process,’ recalls Simona Joveska. In the end they decided to tackle a gap which became apparent during the development of the previous ‘social plan’ for the municipality: the lack of detailed information about the issues facing children and adults with different types of disabilities.

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Working in cooperation with Indago, a research company based in Skopje, they developed a survey questionnaire and guiding questions for focus group discussions. In line with the model suggested by the United Nations’ Leave No One Behind framework, questions were clustered to explore five major factors which contribute to exclusion: geography, discrimination, socio-economic status, governance (participation) and vulnerability to shocks. Local organisations which represent persons with disabilities and/or which work on disability issues were part of this process. They reviewed and refined the research instruments to ensure that the questions were relevant, comprehensive, and phrased in a non-discriminatory way.

The next step was to assemble as complete as possible a list of households containing children or adults from each of the four sub-categories of disability (i.e. physical, intellectual, sensory and developmental) so that an equal number of households from each group could be surveyed. ‘This was by far the most difficult part of the process,’ says Simona Joveska. It required accessing and compiling data from various municipal departments, social work agencies, local social service providers and civic associations – something which had never been attempted before.

Once the list was ready, local data collectors trained by Indago approached a selection of households to participate in the survey. According to Diana Milenkovska, who oversaw the data collection on behalf of Indago, this, too, was challenging. ‘Although we had contact information from local organisations, not all respondents were willing to participate,’ she said. They persisted, and ultimately 262 households were surveyed. Additionally, focus group discussions were held with the caregivers of children with sensory impairments and adults with pervasive developmental disorders – two groups which proved difficult to cover in sufficient numbers via the survey.

The collected data was then analysed, shared with the municipality, and publicly presented on three different occasions, including to Bitola’s newly elected mayor and members of the municipal council. Representatives of civic associations which represent persons with disabilities or work on disability issues were also part of these workshops, which provided a chance to validate, reflect on and prioritise recommendations.

Results of the social mapping are presented to the mayor and members of Bitola council
Results of the social mapping are presented to the mayor and members of Bitola council

Learning from – and acting upon – the findings of the social mapping

According to Simona Joveska, the mapping exercise opened many people’s eyes to a reality which had not been fully grasped before. ‘For me personally, I still can’t face the information about how often people reported going to bed hungry,’ she said, ‘And I was shocked by the reported discrimination.’

I myself live with a disability and thought that there is less discrimination today than there was when I was a child. But it turned out that is my own personal perspective.… I realise now that there are persons with disabilities who are still facing discrimination on different levels.

Simona Joveska, Advisor, Bitola Municipality

The challenges faced by persons with disabilities, and particularly intellectual disabilities, are profound. Overcoming them will require fundamental transformations – many of which require shifts in structures of power and privilege – which go beyond what an individual municipality can address on its own. At the same time, there are plenty of places at the local level where one can get started. And Bitola has.

 For example, the municipality now supports educational assistants for high school students with intellectual disabilities, and is establishing ‘sensory rooms’ in schools. It has included persons with intellectual disabilities into a financing scheme which allows persons with disabilities to make adaptations in their homes, and supports cultural events in the community which involve persons with intellectual disabilities as participants, not only as spectators. In addition, it is supporting many other measures – from braille language markings to sign language interpreters and inclusive sports offerings – for people with other types of impairments. It has also backed a media campaign to raise awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities in the community.

Part of the media campaign to raise awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities
Part of the media campaign to raise awareness of the rights of persons with disabilities

As a result of the social mapping exercise, the municipality now works much more closely with disability-related civic associations than it did in the past. ‘This process really helped in establishing guidelines for sharing and exchanging information,’ says Simona Joveska. ‘It was hard at the beginning, but now we have a policy of sharing information every three months.’ This close engagement between local government and groups of persons with disabilities and self-advocacy organisations is important for ensuring that policies and programmes are effective and reach those whom they are intended to reach.

Trust is the ‘make or break’ ingredient in social mapping

Thanks to the enthusiastic backing of the Network of Associations of Local Authorities of South East Europe (NALAS), which now offers an online training course on social mapping for local officials across the region, interest in social mapping is growing in the Western Balkans. Recently, two German-supported projects in Serbia have also begun working with the approach. 

Katja Grbic, an advisor with the Public Finance Reform – 2030 Agenda project, was involved with a social mapping exercise in the city of Zaječar and is preparing to work with five more local governments in the coming year. She is convinced of the value that social mapping can add, but also sees that trust is the essential ingredient that can ‘make or break’ the experience.

Having a great methodology and the backing of local government is no guarantee that people will be ready to engage with the mapping process. There has to be trust in order to get a good result.

Katja Grbic, Advisor, Public Finance Reform – 2030 Agenda project

In Zaječar the municipality decided to explore challenges faced by three different groups in the community – single parents, adolescents exiting social care, and persons with disabilities – and found it much more challenging than expected to secure people’s participation. People who are living in desperate socio-economic conditions, or who feel let down or discriminated against by local institutions, are not necessarily willing to share details of their daily lives. ‘For social mapping to work, the municipality, social work agencies, civic organisations, and representatives of people living in vulnerable situations must work together,’ she says. The greater the role of community organisations the better, as these are often the most effective intermediaries between local government and members of the community.

Social mapping processes need to be introduced carefully, as there is a risk of raising expectations that cannot be met, explains Vesna Vidojevic, an advisor with Promoting Social Inclusion in Serbia project which is supporting 20 municipalities across Serbia to create gender sensitive and gender responsive local policies and practices, with a focus on integrated social service provision and intersectoral anti-discrimination measures. Social mapping will be introduced in selected municipalities which are interested in a more comprehensive approach to planning social inclusion interventions. ‘The challenge is to communicate that the mapping process brings together different stakeholders and creates a space to hear about and better understand the needs of marginalised groups,’ says Vesna Vidojevic. ‘Afterwards some needs may be met, but problems cannot be solved immediately. What the process really offers is empowering groups to represent themselves.’

Enabling partners to see – and begin to address – intersecting forms of discrimination

Addressing intersectional discrimination is one of the pillars of Germany’s feminist development cooperation. Efforts are now underway to translate this commitment into concrete approaches which make sense to partners and can help them in their work. Social mapping is one of them. It enables an intersectional approach, helps to better understand the context of marginalised groups, and centers their experiences with the help of disaggregated data. It pulls back the curtain on the realities of exclusion which people living in vulnerable situations experience every day and at the same time provides local governments and other stakeholders with the kind of information they need to begin addressing structural inequalities through policy making.

A Roma woman outside her home
A Roma woman outside her home

 ‘The changes which municipalities are introducing may seem small, but they need to be placed in a broader context. Social topics were not even on local government’s agenda a few years ago,’ says Tina Miteva, the gender focal point for the Social Inclusion for Disadvantaged Groups in the Western Balkans project. She and her colleagues are aware that more comprehensive actions will be needed to reveal and ultimately dismantle the power structures which underpin the intersectional discrimination faced by people living in vulnerable situations. But change begins by seeing problems clearly and taking action: ‘The fact that local governments are allocating some of their budget for specific measures is already a big step’. 

January 2024

© GIZ/Miodrag Bogdanovic
© Bitola Municipality
© Bitola Municipality
© GIZ Serbia/Miodrag Bogdanovic
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