Concern + Trust = Hope

Author: Codru Vrabie

Codru Vrabie reflects on why civil society is being accused of inappropriate ties to politics, the real story of active NGOs in Romania and leadership issues leading to burn out syndromes and one-man shows rather than movements



In early 1990, in just about the last weeks of my military service (I'd been drafted just a few months before the anti-communist revolution of 1989), Romanian TV went up in flames over some terrifying footage of HIV-positive children held in terrible conditions at the gruesome castle of a former nobleman, in a remote location of the Romanian North-West. I was only 18 and a half, and that was the first time I heard about civil society organizations coming over from Western Europe, with truckloads of humanitarian aid—food, medicine, clothes—to help the children, as well as seniors and adults, of a country whose rulers kept them famished, diseased and poorly clothed during decades of communist rule. On 26 June 2008, during an NGO-sponsored debate over the need to reform the Romanian Constitution, the former President Emil Constantinescu (1996-2000) blamed domestic civil society for the shortcomings of the current state of affairs, outlining the stark contrast between the civic activists' situation during the communist regime and after: Then, they were very few in numbers, and had no tools, no laws, no resources, but still achieved radical change; now, they are quite a lot, have all the necessary instruments at their disposal, but achieve nothing! I was shocked, and I felt wronged, because for the past ten years I'd been involved with Romanian civil society, affiliated to several NGOs, and even representing those involved in the fight against corruption on the National Integrity Council; because I believe that my actions of the past 10 years brought about change; because I do not feel we are so many, just as I do not think we have all the instruments we need... The question, then, is obvious: Against what standards and/or benchmarks should we measure success in civil society? Why are perceptions so different—at least between myself and the President?

In his speech of June, President Constantinescu clearly stated that. 
All misfits of the intellectual elite and civil society can be traced either to vested interests, to lack of vision or to intellectual laziness, that [generally] prevents the members thereof from being informed and knowledgeable about the things they discuss and debate. For 18 years, our civil society has obsessed with politics! Why? Because of its own ineptitude! It's easy to blame politics for not achieving things that civil society itself should have done. [. . .] I must tell you—if an objective judgment is in order—that politicians achieved, in 18 years, NATO and EU integration, the transformation of the economy. What has civil society achieved? The model of the lesser evil, types of pathetic debates, the creation—unique to Romania—of a lip-service press, unacceptable anywhere else in the free world. Hence, [in my opinion] Romanian civil society regressed, being weaker now than in communist times [. . .]. Having a civil society that pays tribute to political leaders, displays obedience to political power, or acts cowardly in relation to political institutions, is much more embarrassing, since there's no [authoritarian] pressure.
And this speech helped me identify more clearly some of the goals of civil society, from the early 1990s: Civic activists were set to remove all pressure from fundamental freedoms and the ability of Romanian citizens to actualize, and benefit from, those freedoms—association, expression, and private initiative, at the very least!
Frustration with the old goals makes them still relevant today! Many Romanians still harbor the feeling that private initiative had been captured, since the early days of the 1990s, by exponents of the communist regime. They had connections, information, and managerial skills unavailable to the majority of the population, hence they've become the first “class” of Romanian entrepreneurs, regardless of whether legitimate or not. They have easily grasped the potential benefits of association in political parties, and are reported to have infiltrated the ranks of all political movements. While consolidating their economic interests with shallow political legitimacy, they have also pursued freedom of expression in effectively emasculating any and all efforts at promoting lustration. To me, this process looks like a perfectly sound (albeit ruthless) behavior that takes advantage of a chaotic environment, in order to promote individual prosperity at the cost of a placid, naïve and immature public. Of course, I hate the fact that we let it happen! At the same time, however, this brief account may bring about an explanation as to why civil society is so obsessed with politics. Just as well, as, in understanding the need of those “illegitimate” entrepreneurs for economic prosperity and security, it becomes crystal clear why their front-end politicians actually achieved NATO and EU integration, as well as the transformation of the economy.

Protracted Problems
As for civil society, per se, one can always look back, and try to learn from past mistakes... Who knows?, maybe the following inventory of problems that affected the growth of Romanian civil society would help us take on the challenge, and redirect our efforts towards a new change, towards finally achieving those original goals in the next decade. Let's take a look, first of all, at association: Reportedly, tens of thousands of NGOs have been established during the 90's but less than 25% thereof appear operational, when consulting the balance sheets submitted to fiscal authorities. Then, if I were to report on the number of effective NGO's that cater to the needs of issue-constituents or society at large I'd say it's little over 200. From this perspective, then, one may easily differentiate the drives for association. On the one hand, the external drive appears strongest: many NGOs were established in order to make use of potential tax breaks, to serve as cover for (marginally legal) commercial activities, to support underground political/electoral schemes. Indeed, most of them died out, in the meanwhile. On the other hand, quite a number of NGO's were established in order to take advantage of donor programs that injected sizable amounts of money into the Romanian economy. Many such “nonprofit entrepreneurs” withered away, being incapable of recognizing their links to a social segment, of focusing on serving the identified needs thereof, or simply of building a constituents base and of consolidating their value added in specific communities.
Let's assume the 200+ effective NGO's truly mirror freedom of association in Romania—the majority thereof operates at local or regional level within Romania, catering to the needs of very specific social and/or professional groups, while some 20 NGOs are extremely visible at central level. These NGO's, in turn, peruse freedom of expression to promote the views of their constituents, advance hot topics on the public agenda, contribute to shaping policies—indeed participate in governance, at all levels of government. Many politicians challenge them on grounds of representativity, often times missing the point that numbers of voters cannot compare to constitutional rights—while an MP may have an electoral base of 50-100,000 voters, an NGO of “only” 5-50 members has an issue base of 20+ million right-bearers. Under these circumstances, courting a political leader that champions (for individual reasons) the cause of a particular NGO becomes an advocacy technique that should not be mistaken as lip-service, obedience or cowardice. Leaders and champions come and go, but the cause is there to stay! Indeed, to the naked eye, perceptions may be deceiving, and some NGO's may appear to have polarized the political inclinations of civil society, to have softened the tone towards some institutions, to have simply sold out to the highest bidder. But recent reforms in public management, decentralization, procurement, child protection, human trafficking, domestic violence, anti-corruption, justice, even elections, owe a great deal of gratitude to issue-based NGO's that had set the agenda, formulated policy alternatives, influenced decisions and ensured proper implementation.
What about private initiative, then, will you ask? A great number of these 200+ NGOs had to diversify their fund-raising techniques, in order to consolidate their budgetary needs. Income-generating activities that bring about 25-30% of an NGO's annual budget truly represent a breakthrough for the Romanian nonprofit sector. The financial stability of their core operations, based on perfectly independent activities, reinforce the NGO's ability to pursue their mission and strategic objectives, as well as their involvement in governance. More interesting, the income-generating services that these NGO's perform actually cater to the needs of specific stakeholders, at the same time reinforcing their ability to gather relevant information, consolidating their credibility and legitimacy, supporting their capacity for effecting institutional change in relation to public authorities. Public support for such activities is growing, and NGO's benefit both from public and private money, either via subsidies for servicing marginal groups, or via corporate social responsibility programs. Essentially, then, things are quite rosy for these 200+ NGO's, and I can sense your perplexity as to where are the problems of the Romanian civil society, or why are the original goals still relevant, 20 years later? I just argued that fundamental freedoms such as association, expression and private initiative are going quite well for a small number of NGO's—the challenge is to understand why this proportion is so small, at less than 1% of the total number of registered NGO's?

Challenges Ahead
Trust—social and/or public trust—is, probably, the greatest challenge for the Romanian civil society. Although opinion polls point to a constant increase of the public trust in NGO's, civil society still lags far behind the church and the army. Social capital is extremely low in Romania, very few people being able to trust their fellows with solving matters related to education in local schools, health-care in neighborhood hospitals, security in community police, garbage collection and sewerage in residential areas, etc. Paternalism, as instilled by decades of communist rule, and maintained by current politicians with vested interests, enforces an expectation that public administration is exclusively responsible for solving the problems. An attitude of learned helplessness in relation to public authorities—caused by, and/or entrenched with, a lack of responsibility—is quite pervasive at all levels of government. Thus, ordinary people look with caution, even suspicion, at the most active citizens and their “odd” NGO's. As a consequence, very few people feel the drive to associate in order to solve specific problems, and even fewer actually take the initiative to act upon that drive, get involved and express their opinion. Thus, the number of “genuine” citizens, truly involved in public affairs, who choose to experience trusting one-another, delegating tasks and contributing their own resources, is low—not as low as President Constantinescu evoked in reference to communist times, but not large enough to form the critical mass needed to finally achieve the original goals of the early 1990s.
Last, but not least, due to minimal numbers of people involved in civil society organizations and activities, Romanian NGO's face a different challenge, namely elite fatigue. The leadership of the 20+ highly visible NGO's active at central level has not changed a great deal during the past 10 years. As long as leaders do not change, ideas and objectives are unlikely to evolve—leaders, and organizations alike, tend to become entrenched in seemingly everlasting problems, in rather dubious crusades, in one-size-fits-all solutions. In the absence of elite rotation, some NGO's lose credibility, being easily dubbed as “one-man show-offs,” the public getting bored with the same figure, the same topics, the same vocabulary, the same message. Of course, with little public trust and minimal involvement, there's no room for NGO leaders to grow; in turn, without a selection base, current leaders simply cannot be replaced with equally capable, versatile and articulate challengers. Consequently, quite a few NGO's face internal governance difficulties, especially when the leadership's advocacy efforts appear to associate the public image of the organization with one of the political parties. The extreme tensions on the political scene, especially in the eve of the November parliamentary elections, with the three major political parties recruiting potential candidates from all walks of life, currently place the most visible Romanian NGOs in a state of dire fragility. Whether, and how many, of these NGO's will collapse after the next elections is a question that still awaits an answer—a cruel answer that will teach us all a lesson in leadership, trust, initiative, expression and association.

Food for Thought
Now I know why I don't always feel comfortable within the ranks of Romanian civil society—I think I managed to pinpoint, for me and for you, what might be wrong, where the inconsistencies lie. Of course, I share in the larger concern regarding the fragility of the Romanian NGO sector. I do not fully share President Constantinescu's opinions, but I am now more aware of the problems lying ahead, as well as of the causes. Many more of us will learn valuable lessons from this retrospective, and will start working with the causes, in order to fix the problems. Actually, I trust that many fellow activists from the NGO sector already share my views—I am quite sure we will meet, and start exploring solutions, if not for the entire NGO sector, at least for the organizations where I am a member.  When concerns meet awareness, and trust joins the problem-solving effort, there is hope for the Romanian civil society—hope in the ability to finally achieve the original goals of the early 1990s, as well as hope in the capacity to identify new goals and formulate new missions! Good luck, to all of us!

Codru Vrabie is a trainer and consultant in the field of public administration and public service reform from Romania. He has international experience in non-profit and public management, administrative capacity and institution building, strategic development, fighting corruption and transposing provisions of acquis communautaire. Besides the 6 years spent with the Romanian Chapter of Transparency International, his work experience includes Access Info Europe of Madrid, Spain, the Romanian Institute of Training, as well as the Center for Legal Resources of the Soros Open Network in Romania. In addition to his native Romanian, he speaks fluent English, understands French, converses in Bulgarian and has a smattering of other European languages. Since July 2007, Codru is serving a 3-year mandate as CSO representative on the National Integrity Council in Romania. From Oct. 2007—July 2008, he was an advisor to  the Speaker of the lower House of the Romanian Parliament on public consultation processes related to the upcoming European agenda. His latest NGO project relates to establishing a Bucharest-based think-do-tank regarding the implementation of European Union policies in/through Romanian public administration. 

Among his recent publications:
“Burning Phases vs. Burning Bridges” pp. 60-67, chapter in Dragomirescu, C. et al. 2007. Advocacy Campaigns—Practical Guide for Membership Organizations Timişoara: Advocacy Academy.
Georgescu, I. & Vrabie, C. 2006 "Instruments for Monitoring Public Procurement" Bucharest & Baia Mare: Romanian Institute of Training/Cornelius.
“The Role of Parliament and MPs in a Democratic Society,” and “The Legislative Process," pp. 21-39, chapters in Alexandru, V. & Iorga, E. (Eds.) 2006. How to Lobby Your MP. Bucharest: Institute for Public Policies. 
Zăbavă, O. & Vrabie, C. (Eds.) 2005. "The National Integrity System—Romania 2005" Bucharest: Transparency International—Romanian Chapter.
Firăstrăeru, A., Georgescu, I. & Vrabie, C. 2007. "Monitoring Public Policy Implementation—Practical Guide for Non-Governmental Organizations" Bucharest: World Learning for International Development/Anima.

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.


Comments by readers

Posted by: A reader from CEE

On: Monday, November 10 2008 @ 05:40PM

I like the personal tone of the essay and its conclusions which go beyond the subjective to what concerns us all in Central/Eastern Europe. The fragility of civil society is diagnosed here, and it's our task to work on it - in spite of frustrations.

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Tuesday, November 11 2008 @ 07:50PM

thanks, <reader> :) after reading Agnieszka's piece, i'm thinking how amazingly similar our problems are... i'm quite happy with the Trust's initiative for in-depth scrutiny and exchange! i can see lots of value-added :) cheers!

Posted by: A reader from CEE

On: Tuesday, November 18 2008 @ 12:12AM

How to overcome the limitations of civil society? How to make it work? Where shall we find trust, according to Codru Vrabie, the greatest challenge to civil society? This is just the beginning of a much needed debate.

Posted by: pdt

On: Wednesday, November 19 2008 @ 11:41PM

interesting thoughts! Along the lines of 'reader' some constructive questions:
- if social glue and trust is lacking, how can NGOs work to generate support from the public?
- wouldnt a closer connection with constituencies and people in general be crucial for the future of civil society and its ability to influence policy and draw attention to their causes (as well as alternative sources of income) in the future?

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Friday, November 28 2008 @ 02:30PM

thank you for your comments, <reader> and <pdt> :) i think you are both on the right track, in the sense of asking very legitimate questions... i wish i knew the answers--i would've written my piece along precisely those lines if i did :)

a couple of days ago, flying to prague for a conference, i found this article by Aviezer Tucker in the Prague Post:

"[...] The events of 1989 were not followed by a significant redistribution of power or wealth or a radical change in social mores or habits. Totalitarian regimes seek to eliminate all potential alternative elites, from priests to village elders to ballerinas. They prevent the growth of any potential challenge to the system by controlling admissions to higher education, job distribution and promotions. Consequently, when totalitarian regimes collapse, there are no qualified replacements for totalitarian elites. While there were Czech dissidents to replace communist political elites, and others contributed to an emerging free media, this is where such changes end. [...] The transition is not over."

you may find the rest of the article at, but i think it's just as provocative as your questions... i'll be waiting for your thoughts :) cheers! --Codru

Posted by: clem

On: Tuesday, December 02 2008 @ 03:41PM

codru, if I may add something, you more than understand French: you speak it and write it very well as well, do not be so modest.
very well done in any case. I am very proud.

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Monday, December 08 2008 @ 08:51PM

merci, Clem :) t'es bien aimable, mais je me les connais bien, mes limitations! ce qu'il me faut est la pratique, surtout en _parlant_ le francais :) au revoir! --Codru

Posted by: Paul Davies

On: Tuesday, January 13 2009 @ 05:52PM

Very much enjoyed reading your article, and i would like to access more of your publications, are they available online?
As a Project Manager for a long-term INGO working with HIV-infected beneficiaries, I would like to know if you have any advice on how I could access the "tax-breaks" you mention in your article? The taxes on salaries and vehicles here are sucking the life out of our small much of the hard-earned funds ending up in government coffers not where it was intended.

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Wednesday, January 14 2009 @ 01:31PM

thanks, Paul :) unfortunately, not too m any of my writings are in english, but rather in romanian :( write me an email with what you'd be interested in, and i'll see what i can do :)

as for the tax breaks, it goes like this: there was a time, in the early 1990s, when non-profit entities were exempt from customs duties on automobile imports, for instance... while some NGOs got second-hand cars from western europe in order to keep in touch with the grassroots, others established a quasi-legal business on car imports :( and that was my point--in some cases, the external drive for establishing an NGO had nothing to do with civil society, civic attitudes or social problems/objectives :( fortunately, such most of those entities died out when stricter rules and regulations were adopted/imposed...

indeed, you raise an important point: sizeable amounts of money are diverted from an organization's mission into government coffers :( i can understand your concern, from an NGO management perspective, but i also understand the counter-arguments... this diverted money is needed in other walks of life--if your officials do everything by the book, this money's put to good use; if your officials are corrupt, this money's most probably lost :( personally, i would advocate for more integrity in public spending and more transparency in public priority-setting, rather than more exceptions to existing rules... and i'm aware you may disagree :( but, keeping with my initial line of argument, more exceptions never build more trust :(

thanks, again, for your comment :) let's see if this also ties in to the other papers that were published?!? all the best! --Codru

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Thursday, January 29 2009 @ 06:56PM

just to keep you in the loop, yesterday i participated in a meeting of some 270 romanian NGOs with the new speaker of the lower house at the romanian parliament... you may find details at (romanian only, sorry!) the meeting may have been and actually became a great opportunity for creating a common platform for cooperation and dialog... alas, i also spotted behaviors that go along the lines of my concerns above :( i've seen politicians that couldn't resist the urge of giving patronizing lessons to NGO representatives, and i've seen NGO reps more eager to advance their private interests, rather than seize the moment for a greater, public good :( nonetheless, i'm still optimistic, and i trust we'll find a way for calm and constructive dialog, as this is the only hope for obtaining, eventually, concrete results related to the 20-year old objectives of romania's civil society... there's always hope in a new parliament, right?!? ;)


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