Civil Society 2.0?

Author: Ioana Avadani

Ioana Avadani provides us with a list of issues, highlighting categorization of civil society in two groups, lack of internal and external support, common misconceptions among the public and internal organizational problems affecting the future.


Civil Society in post EU Romania – the burn-out syndrome
- A Very Subjective View -

A bit of casual history
The “civil society” was quite an alien concept in the communist countries and it remained so for many years in the so called “transitional democracies”. Even now, most Romanians associate the “civil society” with just a couple of NGOs and they tend to keep those accountable for what happens (or not) in terms of public reaction. Usually, powerful civil social actors – religious organizations, trade unions, etc. – are not perceived as being parts of the “civil society”. Other mechanisms, especially public participation, are more elusive, not being perceived as being materially relevant for the society.
The first NGOs that appeared in Romania after the fall of the communism were dedicated either to democratic values, or to relief administration. This situation somehow imprinted the whole evolution of the CSOs as organizations that, until this day, are perceived as gathering in two main streams: the human rights advocates/defenders and the community-based, social needs caterers, delivering immediate solutions to clear and present problems. The organizations catering for less obvious group interests – animal lovers, alternative cultural organizations – are not considered to be mainstream. While the numbers multiplied (there are currently some 70,000 NGOs registered in Romania), just a couple of hundreds are really active – and with only a handful enjoying significant public recognition and/or notoriety.
From the recent history prospective, there are some differences between the two main types of NGOs. The HR advocates are perceived as being the “big” organization (in terms of annual turnover and amount of projects run rather than number of staff), visible, aggressive, connected with the centers of power. Their apparition was stimulated (and in some cases, was helped) by international players and they preserved this connection with the international governmental and non-governmental scene (including by being quoted in international documents). This support from abroad also functioned as an “import of credibility”. They are mainly national in their coverage and (mostly) Bucharest-based. Through their programs, they managed to impact public policies, legislation and affect the rules of the game at large, at societal level.
The CSOs delivering social services are mostly small, local, community-based, less visible outside their constituencies and struggling for public recognition. Through the services they provide, they impact immediately and beneficially the life of their constituencies and beneficiaries. Of course, there are notable exceptions that are testing the rule, without infirming it.
Given this unbalance in terms of visibility and public profile, some of the characteristics of the “big organizations” have been projected, generally and uncritically, to the whole civil sector. Therefore, the “civil society” has played, in some periods, the burden of being (perceived as) the real opposition of the country, in times when the political opposition was weak. Moreover, the “civil society” is perceived as being more of an “intellectual elite” rather then grass-root initiatives of concerned citizens, being build top-down, relying more on foreign aid than on the contribution of their members/constituencies/local donors.
There are also negative features associated with the “civil society”. Given to some distorted political discourse meant to dwarf the criticism of the NGOs, they are labeled as “burning/eating/stealing foreign grants”. Their critics tend not to take into consideration their contribution to the development of the society or the specialization of the most serious organizations, focusing more on the costs associated with their functioning. Accessing foreign money (especially European funds) is sometimes perceived as something surreptitiously dangerous and malevolent. Unfinished and un-digested public debates on corruption consolidated the idea that the European funds are there only for the use of the “shrewd” and dishonest.
Against this troubled and sometimes unfair background, the civil society faces some problems that may amount to a systemic crisis if not dealt with properly.
Current challenges for the CSOs
  1. Constituency identity crisis
While the CSOs delivering social services managed to clearly define their constituencies and associate these constituencies as an element of their brand (as low-profile as it may be), the human rights organizations still lack such a clear definition in the public opinion. Their activities deal with rather fluid and “ethereal” notions such as freedom, respect for civil liberties, accountability, democratization – but these are not strong social values. People either do not care for them, or consider that they are/should be embedded in their lives, given as such, once the country “graduated” the democratic test and joined the European Union. Constituencies as broad as the entire society are hard to monitor, hard to evaluate in terms of impact (especially when measurable indicators are expected). Concepts and ideas to which little or no social value is attached – such as the human rights matters, especially those dealing with minority rights – are difficult to advocate for. The CSOs involved in this field have the difficult task to fight the authorities for an enabling environment for the exercise of such rights, while “forcing those rights down the throat” of inexperienced, unaware and rather amorphous targeted audiences. Paradoxically enough, the EU accession made the work of such organizations more complicated, as both the external pressure and the internal expectancy decreased. Given this low level of social implication and valorization, the very legitimacy of such organizations is at stake.
  1. No internal support for the civil sector through CSR
The “democratic graduation” came with the expectable and foreseen exit of the main international donors, who have provided the main resources for the CSOs. In theory, their place should have been filled up by the increasing local resources, mainly coming from responsible governments or concerned businesses, via their corporate social responsibility programs. The experience of the last years demonstrated that CSR is just a budding concept – often misunderstood, misused and abused by the business sector. One time too often, the CSR programs are used as PR or advertising opportunities by the companies. They support CSOs social programs, but ask the recipients to make sure they get the deserved visibility, through contracts that resemble more to advertising clauses. Even a quick analysis of the agendas of the most CSR programs indicates a heavy “social agenda” – most of the companies’ priorities are associated with poverty reduction, children, education, environment and, sometimes, health and domestic violence. None of the CSR programs includes democracy, participation, transparency or accountability.  This prompts us to believe that the CSR programs are just an expression of the “emotional vampirism” present quite frequently in other sectors of the society (media, populist political measures, etc), a conduct building on people’s sympathy and emotions rather than on clearly identified needs and priorities.
  1. No external support for CSOs
Romania’s accession into EU put the local CSOs in a rather awkward position, as they found themselves competing for support on a larger and more diverse market. Nobody denies the value of competition, as long as it is fair. But in this “project funds field”, the battle is not at all equal, as local CSOs have to compete not only with larger but similar organizations in Europe, but with companies specialized in project management, with significantly larger turnouts and access to resources. As the accent, in most of the public bids, is put mainly on the management capacity – rather then on the actual content expertise, the local CSOs find themselves in junior positions (just delivering experts for the international consortia) or downright at the loosing end of the process. While most of the local CSOs developed “survival strategies”, setting up alliances and partnerships with larger foreign organizations, the issue of their secondary importance in such programs persists.
  1. The burn-out syndrome
Many civil society activists feel today the need to reassess their positions and to evaluate their priorities. Given the vast expertise they accumulated and the diverse and multiple contacts they socially established, as well as their management skills, they are highly appreciated on the consultancy market. Therefore, a significant number of CSO people took the leap into the business field, “depopulating” the civil sector. Such an attitude is perfectly understandable and justifiable – especially given the financial benefits. The question of CSOs is how to keep such good, qualified, experienced people, as well as how to attract “new blood” into the sector. It appears that the initial enthusiasm for the non-profit sector wore off, as the new generations seem to be more pragmatic, more career-driven and more competitive.
  1. The organizational scarcity
This aspect is closely related to the previous one. Most CSOs are built conservatively, from the point of view of the human resources, as most of them are project-based funded. Therefore, there is little margin for steady, consistent growth inside these organizations. They cannot offer a predictably climbing (and attractive) career-path (promotions, etc) to young, ambitious professionals. Most Romanian CSOs are too small to grow from the inside, while it is very difficult for them to grow institutionally. Moreover, for most CSOs, their identity is strictly related (sometimes even overlapping) with the one of their leaders. While this helps the visibility, it weakens, on a long term, the institutional construction of those organizations, turning them in the public’s eye, into “personal projects”, rather than in entities with mission, goals and strategies.

Ioana Avadani is the executive director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest. She has experience of some 15 years in the media field, having worked as a news agency editor, a TV editor and as a media developer and is dedicated to a freer media and real citizens’ voices being heard.



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