The Current Quandaries of NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe

Author: Jiří Kopal

International funding and steering has created un-rooted CSOs in CEE and with little contact with grassroots, increasingly dependent on EU funds designed far away from reality, Jiri Kopal is arguing that civil society is incapable of taking a lead in society


In the last two decades, freedom in both the private and public spheres has grown in Central and Eastern Europe at an unprecedented rate[i]. The development of civil society has been due, in large measure, to the extraordinary level of aid – idealistic if not always far-sighted – given to non-traditional organizations in the region such as watchdogs, think tanks and advocacy groups. The most generous grants came largely from foundations in the United States, with smaller contributions from the British, Canadian and Dutch embassies or programs supported by their ministries of foreign affairs. In contrast, in much of continental Europe, from Germany and Finland in the north to Portugal and Greece in the south, there is no strong tradition of supporting watchdog or advocacy organizations that are independent of government and political parties and their foundations and funds.

In awarding grants, foundations and embassies wanted to bring about change in various areas of these previously hermetically sealed societies, with their many hundreds of thousands of former communist party members and secret police agents, whose integrity had been irrevocably damaged. An important aim was to create stronger roots for the rule of law, a system of natural and practical principles enshrined in law and enforceable by law. In recent decades, continuously-evolving systems of this kind have helped Western societies to achieve both commercial success and dignity for ordinary citizens. In post-communist societies, however, despite what could be termed ‘small revolutions’ between 1989 and 1991, the very concept of ‘change’ remains traumatic for most people, who prefer to cling to traditional practices within their political and professional circles. Many of them cannot bring themselves to countenance the adoption of good practice from other countries that will lead to the stricter observance and protection of the rule of law in their own.
Consequently, many NGOs face a very difficult challenge in finding ways to replace the idealism and financial support provided by US foundations and some European governments with funding from sources in Central and Eastern Europe, given that their societies and citizens do not yet have a tradition of charitable giving[ii] and do not have many counterparts among the older EU members in the West as models for inspiration.
Here I would like to present some potentially controversial arguments that I hope will encourage further critical reflection and a lively debate on the development of civil society, or at least those parts of it involved in governance and the rule of law.
Professional NGOs, but to some extent artificially created
►Are full-time, fully paid up employees of NGOs part of civil society, or are they simply ascending another kind of career ladder? Some dissidents from the communist era have been embittered on seeing that the kind of work that they did previously on a voluntary basis has been remunerated for the last fifteen to nineteen years by foundations that come to the region only on condition that the grantees can communicate with them in English. As many of these NGOs also prioritize and promote interests held by sometimes unpopular minorities – here I could mention the conditions in different places of detention (such as prisons, orphanages, psychiatric hospitals, care homes or asylum centers), the Roma community, the mentally disabled or the influence of transnational corporations – these organizations are sometimes regarded as somehow unnatural, at least until there is a visible or overwhelming problem that needs to be solved. It is also very common in these societies to feel that politicians and the state or regional authorities should be responsible for preventing and solving any and all problems or tensions.
►Now consider those international NGO Board members who come from various English-speaking countries to Central and Eastern Europe for quarterly meetings with no actual constituencies in the very countries they criticize for trampling on minority rights or endangering the environment. Are they pursuing their own agendas, or providing a career for permanent or temporary international travellers? Do NGOs of this kind contribute to civil society? They often lack any counterpart or active ally at a local or national level, and it is therefore difficult to see how their policies can benefit specific individuals in practice nowadays. How do others at a national level regard their role? Shouldn’t we question the legitimacy and validity of their arguments for change in practices that they criticize at a local level? Wouldn’t calls for change be more successful in the long term if they were based on relationships of trust and active involvement with people and institutions at the grassroots level, rather than external criticism?
►When public interest NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe collaborate, they agree to focus on only a few major issues at any one time, since the problems to be addressed are so vast. The authorities have a great deal of power but are also largely indifferent, while corporations violate workers’ rights and pollute the environment on a regular basis. The NGOs find that it is not realistic to rely on people who do voluntary work in the evenings but have full-time jobs during the day. Whereas Western European civil societies depend to some extent on part-time volunteers, in Central and Eastern Europe volunteers (except for university students) are overwhelmed by the work to be done and their achievements are usually limited to public announcements and one or two events or round-table discussions. As a result, a ‘volunteers-only’ mode of operation without professional administrative back-up does not constitute a driving force capable of bringing about societal change. Without long-term financial support, NGOs are unable to create stable independent institutions or trusted think tanks that can advocate and press for legislative changes or pursue cases that have languished in court for years. Western European societies tend to respect the rule of law as a consequence of discussing and solving problems more gradually and naturally, over a long period of time. Societies in Central and Eastern Europe, however, don’t only have to overcome the legacy of paternalism and draw closer to the Western European model, but also face the same new challenges as other parts of Europe and the world.
►Civil society, without leadership from lawyers, economists, academics and the like, tends to mature only in the wake of tragic or emotional events. Such events may help launch successful careers on an individual basis, for example in politics, which can occasionally have a positive effect. At the same time, catastrophic situations make it far more difficult to construct stable civil institutions that are committed to achieving long-term goals regarding the rule of law and are able to remain independent from the centers of power.
►If the professional NGOs were able to persuade at least some sections of the local population that their goals would benefit society, members of the public might be willing to contribute a small percentage of their salaries or commercial income to support them, thus replacing foreign sources[iii]. Between three and six NGOs in each country of the region, some of them with an international humanitarian focus, did stage public campaigns that were featured in the media and generated a certain amount of public support. But a handful of NGOs do not create a civil society. If the majority of professional NGOs, many of them defending the interest of marginalized groups, were unable to persuade the public that they deserve their backing, do they lack legitimacy? Are they incapable of doing anything more than managing a few EU projects, while sometimes concealing their true goals from the eyes of an indifferent and unwieldy EU bureaucracy[iv] at the same time? Do these NGOs deserve to survive or not? I personally have always thought not, as it is unfair to expect that external sources will always support such national NGOs on a permanent basis. Societies get what they deserve, both with regard to politics and civil society. But is this not too harsh a judgment in a globalised world, where in some places people need the support of those with similar values and a similar style of working based elsewhere to implement goals that increasingly frequently go beyond national boundaries?
►What should be done when, after almost twenty years of unprecedented levels of international philanthropy, the next stage of development could easily see matters of public interest falling increasingly under the influence of the state[v] and four to six political parties (as well as their foundations and think tanks), with the input of civic volunteers in last place. How strategic and far-sighted will those idealistic philanthropists feel when they see their legacy vanishing in this way? What actually is their legacy? Do they have any idea?


What disadvantages should be considered in connection with the inevitable growth of the information society (since the advantages are more or less clear, and will not provoke critical discussion)?

►IT development cannot replace face to face communication between people. Meetings and discussions among NGOs are particularly useful for sharing knowledge, information, experience and insights. However, NGO personnel in Central and Eastern Europe have met only very rarely in the last three or four years, especially when compared with previous years. NGO members in Western Europe meet a little more regularly, often paying their own travel and hotel expenses.[vi] NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe, on the other hand, are unable to bear the cost of travel and accommodation, and invariably need project support.

►There are a lack of key contacts in NGOs in this region who are able to communicate on the international arena. The very few ‘focal people’ in any particular NGO are generally overwhelmed by the volume of international e-mail communication, as they will be working simultaneously on specific national projects at the same time. As a result, many contacts never get a chance to develop, also because of the impossibility of even succeeding in arranging to meet.
►Many web pages are never visited and are of little use to anyone when a project ends after one or two years. The sites are not sufficiently interactive and NGOs do not have enough money to pay administrators who can coordinate discussions on 2.0 web profiles every day. Although some volunteers have the ability to craft such web pages and blogs successfully, they seldom participate in key matters such as legislative proposals, impact litigation, long-term advocacy strategies or practical advice on lobbying politicians. They simply spend most of their free time on the internet, replacing ‘pub discussions’ with ‘internet discussions’. They do not have a place where they can meet regularly and lack the energy and strategies for improving the issues about which they have been complaining. The solution has to be closer association with more professional organizations. Problems can occur if these people prove to be individualistic and uninterested in being part of a wider movement or structures managed on a different basis from their blogs and forums.


EU project policies

►Problems abound when EU grant policies are managed at the local level, quite apart from the well-known problems concerning the unbelievable length of time it takes to administer grants and calls for proposals directly in ‘Space Shuttle Brussels’[vii]. All too often, the EU’s bureaucratic software malfunctions, and NGOs often confront complicated IT systems that fail before a proposal is completed. Here again, IT development can play a rather negative role.
►In addition, although EU forms can readily accept quantitative criteria, they fail to provide for the entry of qualitative data, particularly those that address human rights and other issues of public interest. At the end of the project, administrators and evaluators – 23-27 year-olds without any previous work experience, particularly in an NGO – have been trained under EU guidelines to use only formalistic criteria. This has become humiliating for some NGOs, and many organization heads refuse to tolerate this approach. Some of them have already left for the private sector (more or less abandoning public interest activities) and their potential and abilities will be difficult to replace. Clearly, the EU’s technocratic evaluation system will not find supporters among the new EU states, including civil society leaders. On the other hand, it is true that there have been problems with transparency and accountability in the civil society sector, so these complicated systems have been developed partly to counteract fraud. Therefore one could argue again that civil society in the EU has got what it deserves.
►National and local NGOs from Central and Eastern Europe are currently not in a position to maintain a presence in Brussels and are consequently unable to promote their ideas and interests or influence policy there. Nor can they expound on concerns, for example, about the invasion of privacy threatened by the current EU antiterrorist and data retention policies. This is easier for the few international organizations with real clout; but these often have little real contact or involvement at a local level. Such NGOs are also better placed to enlist the support of EU bureaucrats for their international projects, many of which are entirely impractical. Those that focus on different forms of discrimination have particularly lacked any positive effect at local level.


Partial conclusions

►Over the past twenty years, some modest accomplishments have gradually helped to improve respect for the rule of law and public interest protection. However, a lot of money has been wasted, which is not unusual during transitional periods. This has also led to failures in building strong institutions that develop from the grass roots. Some projects have been tarnished by fraud and mismanagement, and these grave failures have generally not been discussed openly in order to save face for the funder and the grantee. So these shortcomings in civil society management have been cloaked in silence.
►The response to such cover-ups and the disappearance of US-based foundations and some ministries of foreign affairs programs from the scene should not be merely to replace them with EU projects which again would be tied to a large institution and a particular form of money management, as this tends to smother rather than support the development of a self-confident civil society. EU policies are anything but progressive when it comes to the development of the rule of law that at the same time takes into account the interests of civil society at the local level.  
►If we really intend to build a genuine civil society both within individual countries and between them throughout this region, support should come from the grass roots on the basis of direct dialog with ordinary citizens and from newly established foundations (if there are any donors generous enough) in the coming years. But those in the wealthier sections of Central and Eastern European society are hardly likely to support NGOs that continue to protect the interests of poor, marginalized or unpopular groups. In their view, the state should be responsible for supporting these people, or at least larger organizations (even if their remit is wider than merely providing social services instead of the state) as it did during the socialist era or as is the case in a slightly different form in Austria, Germany or Scandinavia. Some NGOs, compelled by financial concerns, will start or continue to work on issues that are ‘sexier’; others will only carry out state policies (as the state helps to distribute EU money) and some will cease to exist at all. In this latter case, public interest issues will go undefended, and other proposed changes will fall by the wayside due to lack of support.


[i] While in Britain, France and Germany, anti-terror measures after 11/9 began to interfere with the right to privacy more or less immediately and were combined with the increase of Big Brother technologies, these developments only started to have an effect in Central and Eastern Europe some 3-4 years ago, as can be seen from government approval of dangerous policies and legislation.
[ii]With the exception of ad hoc humanitarian crises such as earthquakes, floods, tsunami and the like, or even on occasion aid to children in orphanages or the homeless.
[iii]Attempts to replace foreign sources of funding with corporate charity have proved unrealistic because businesses in the region tend to be small with very limited and strict project criteria lacking the wherewithal to fund even a single salaried member of staff in an NGO for a year, and often providing no financial support at all. Moreover, charity from the business sector is at best only a partial solution, since entrepreneurs starting up new businesses usually have enough trouble drawing a salary themselves, let alone generating enough profit to fund an NGO. In addition, there are then fewer capable people available to work on public interest protection, as the best of them have to take part in activities that compete for profit.
[iv]I cannot imagine anything as far-removed from the citizen as this otherwise quite useful formation of European states. Have ‘leaders’ ever in the history of mankind previously attempted to submit something as unreadable as the Lisbon Treaty (a refrigerator service manual would be more comprehensible) to the public for a referendum – even if in order to achieve very important and necessary outcomes for the ordinary citizens of the EU? How can such officials understand what is required to develop and support civil society at a national let alone a local level? Only with the help of national governments and their authorities which are very often blighted by conflicts of interest, corruption and passive resistance to reform of the rule of law and law-enforcement?
[v]These societies also successfully functioned for a long time in the western part of continental Europe, established chiefly because of the fear of socialist promises from the Soviet bloc after World War II, with the tremendous expansion of the welfare state, predominantly in the seventies. There are of course many advantages and disadvantages to these developments in comparison with the former communist bloc countries that have now become EU members, which will have to be debated in the future.
[vi]Members of NGOs in the West typically have higher salaries than those in Central and Eastern Europe, which come from different sources (for example university posts or independent jobs in fields other than their volunteer involvement in NGOs). Some – especially in the Netherlands – work only four days a week and therefore have more time for civil activities. NGO volunteers in the West are also more likely to be more idealistic about their work.
[vii] Oldag, A., Tillack, H. M. Raumschiff Brüssel: Wie die Demokratie in Europa scheitert. Argon Verlag, Germany, 2003, 320 p.

Jiří Kopal is chair of League of Human Rights (LIGA), Brno, Czech Republic, which he initiated in 2002, and Deputy Secretary General (for Europe), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Paris, France. He earned his law degree from Masaryk University in Brno and spent a semester studying and carrying out research at the University of Basel, Switzerland, at the Max Planck International Public Law Institute, Heidelberg, Germany and in the Center for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, New York, USA. Jiří started his public interest activities in 1999 as a volunteer for the Environmental Law Service. Since 2002, he has been a member of two committees of the Czech Government's Council for Human Rights. He was appointed Deputy Secretary General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)in 2007. As LIGA Chair, Jiří focuses on developing LIGA’s legal capacity, including impact litigation, its cooperation internationally with other NGOs, and its strategy for improving the systematic protection of human rights in the Czech Republic, particularly in the fields of criminal justice, police misconduct and mistreatment of detained individuals, the practice of coercive sterilization and discrimination against Roma children in the educational process.

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: Codru Vrabie

On: Monday, December 22 2008 @ 04:55PM

Jiri, i think you're right on target!
- i've also discussed, some time ago, about the way decision-makers adjusted "rule-of-law" to become "rule-by-law," and even "rule-by-my-law," during the past 20 years :(
- on the other hand, with regards to internet-based communication being unable to replace face-to-face discussions, i have first-hand experience (not just within my organization, but also in relating my public role with other organizations), and couldn't agree more!
i'm very curious as to what other people think of this topic... all the best! --Codru


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