This dissertation investigated the phenomenon of civil society assistance. It focused on the various efforts of external actors to trigger and support the development of civil society in the democratizing states of Central and Eastern Europe from the outside. Starting slowly in the 1990s, civil society assistance became a major area of concern of development agencies in the middle of the 1990s. Until now it is and continues to be a prominent issue among actors that assist the political and economic development of states in East and South.
To what extent were the efforts to assist civil society fruitful, were external actors able to contribute to a vibrant civil society or did their activities and applied strategies even hinder civil society development and what conditions of “successful” transfer could be identified were the main questions that inspired this dissertation.
Critics doubt that external actors can contribute to civil society development in democratizing states. According to them, the deliberate, direct and explicit involvement of external actors into the domestic affairs of a country with the aim of strengthening civil society is bound to fail or may even yield unintended negative effects that hinder instead of triggering civil society development. Two main objections against civil society assistance have been made from differing standpoints.
First, critics point to the cultural prerequisites of civil society. Civil society is visible in voluntary, independent and self-organized forms of social interaction such as non-governmental organizations or associations. More important for civil society to flourish and to stabilize democracy are, however, moral qualities and patterns of behavior that ensure tolerance and mutual trust, peaceful conflict resolution among social groups, and an active citizenry capable and eager to participate in politics and to stand up for their rights. However, such a “civic ethos” (Offe 2000a), or “civilizational competence” (Sztompka 1993) is not open to deliberate design rather develops during long historical processes and is shaped by culturally defined habits and cognitive scripts. Consequently, civil society must be an indigenous product, embedded in the cultural and historical roots of a country and cannot be transplanted into settings that lack or even contradict this necessary cultural basis. Post-communist states, however, often lack this spirit. The cultural heritages of the communist past left their mark on political traditions, attitudes and behavioral patterns apparent in post-communist societies and are widely believed to inhibit the upspring of self-organized social activity. Piotr Sztompka (1993) even argues that state socialism not only hinders the emergence of “civilizational competence”, but results in the reverse, “civilizational incompetence”. In particular the image of social homogeneity and a resulting lack of interest differentiation and representation, a thoroughly discredited image of associations, citizens’ passivity tied with exceeding claims toward the state as protector and care-taker, and a deep state-society divide have been identified as the major factors deterring civil society. Following this line of thought, civil society assistance cannot work in CEE. Civil society assistance will result into nothing more than a supplementary stratum of “donor-driven” NGOs that lack domestic constituencies. Such “DONGOs” do not respond to local needs but solely satisfy donor’s wants. From this perspective, civil society assistance is thus not a suitable instrument to facilitate democratization. No matter what concept, strategy or program donors employ, recipient responses and domestic settings will determine the success or failure of external assistance.
In contrast to this first group of critics, scholars working on international assistance to democracy and civil society believe in the capacity of external actors to assist transformation processes abroad. They criticize donors, however, for their lack of concepts and inappropriate strategies. Mainly the overemphasis on institution building and a strong focus on project specific support yield unintended and even negative effects. More often than not, donors preliminarily conceive civil society as a plurality of non-governmental organizations. NGOs are thus supposed to be established, supported and institutionally strengthened. Thereby, donors neglect the fact that the support to single NGOs generates often envy and fierce competition among domestic NGOs. As a result, ties between NGOs and inside society are weakened instead of strengthened. Capacity building, i.e. the provision of training and know-how is part of donor strategies though, however, mainly in order to teach NGO activists how to do their job best. Additionally, project-specific support generates excessive dependence of local NGOs on donors and donors’ wants. Local NGOs often aim to satisfy donor rather than domestic needs. Moreover, there is a high risk that foreign assistance will have negative consequences, as it faces the problem of selectivity and legitimacy. Civil society assistance is not guided by altruism, but satisfies rational interests. The intention of donors is not to install and support civil society as a good in itself but as an instrument to achieve other ends such as democracy, peace and external stability. More often than not, donors thus deliberately pick recipients, which they assume to serve their interest best. The interest-driven and selective character of civil society assistance raises doubt about the credibility of the donor. International assistance is thus easily perceived as illegitimate interference into the domestic affairs of a country.
This dissertation followed the first line of thought with regard to the importance of domestic settings and responses to international assistance. Like scholars of international assistance, it is however more optimistic with respect to the possible outcome of assistance. Rather than questioning whether civil society assistance can contribute to civil society development at all, the dissertation investigated the conditions of successful transfer. When and how can external actors effectively support and assist civil society? In order to answer this question the study analyzed civil society assistance in Poland and Slovakia. Main recipients of international assistance, their activities and achievements were the main focus of research.
Is it possible to promote and strengthen civil society from abroad? And is it feasible despite an interest-driven and selective approach of donors? Having examined civil society assistance in Poland and Slovakia, I can now answer this question with yes. In both cases, external assistance contributed to the development of civil society. External actors triggered the rise of non-governmental organizations, empowered non-state actors, transported ideas about the importance and role of civil society and assisted their recipients in acting as carriers of civil society. One must note, however, that in both cases certain conditions such as a favorable international environment, a domestic willingness to accept international assistance and long-time partnerships between donors and recipients based on trust were crucial.
Both case studies reveal that donors are selective as the Polish case demonstrates in particular. Only 16% of Polish NGOs state that they benefit from foreign funding (BORDO 1998). Donors thus do prefer certain recipients and leave others with little chance to receive funding. Three main types of major beneficiaries of aid have been identified in both cases, known as “thematic organizations”, “democracy promoters”, and “infrastructural NGOs”. In the early years of assistance in particular donors supported some “favored cliques” (Wedel 1998), i.e., thematic organizations of well-known personalities of the Solidarity movement that received large scale funding.247 The supported organizations thus received a head start that ensured their privileged position in the domestic sphere. Donors additionally focused on “democracy promoters”, i.e. NGOs whose primary aim is the promotion of democracy. Civic education projects as well as training for NGO leaders are their major activities. In the middle of the 1990s donors widened their scope and increasingly focused on what has been called “infrastructural NGOs”, namely NGOs whose major aim is a vibrant civil society and a favorable environment for civil society activity. This focus follows the insight that a vibrant civil society consists of more than a set of non-governmental organizations. What is needed is a favorable environment, an “infrastructure” of civil society that consists of a respective legal framework, a supportive state policy, as well as networks of NGOs.
Despite the selective approach of donors, the suspicion that civil society assistance will result in nothing more than a supplementary stratum of donor-driven NGOs could not be confirmed. In both case studies main recipients are rooted in domestic structures. One must note that main recipients live from the implementation of donor projects and have been highly influenced by donors especially if skills and applied techniques are concerned. Nonetheless all organizations under investigation have their own interests and agendas, are regarded as legitimate domestic actors, are sustainable in the long run, and act as carriers of civil society.
In both cases main recipients are driven by domestic concerns. The NGO sectors additionally reflect country specific characteristics. In Poland nearly all of the examined organizations have roots in the Solidarity movement. Either main activists were already concerned with the statuary objective of their organizations throughout the 1980s248 or they have their roots in the civic committees initiated by Lech Wałęsa in 1989. And a further fact reveals that the Polish NGO sector is shaped by domestic concerns: The majority of registered NGOs in Poland are active in the area of social service provision. Especially in the early years of assistance such organizations hardly gained foreign funding. Rather than being donor-driven, they are the result of a strong charity tradition in catholic Poland. In order to receive funding, such organizations often took up the activities of what has been called ‘infrastructural organizations’. As a result, most infrastructural NGOs are not artificially created by external actors but are often aligned with and respond to the needs of social service oriented NGOs.249 In Slovakia as well, “democracy promoters” and “infrastructural NGOs” are not exclusively concerned with the promotion of democracy and civil society, but often have a second major objective such as education or the environment.250 In contrast to Poland, social service oriented organizations play a minor role in Slovakia, as the Mečiar government largely maintained the social security system of the communist state. As a result, there was no need for private organizations in this area. Instead organizations concerned with education and research sprang up as the NGO sector served as a refuge for oppositional intellectuals.
Bearing the domestic roots of main recipients in mind, it comes as no surprise that according to opinion polls such organizations are not perceived as puppets of alien influence but as legitimate domestic actors. Furthermore, international contacts and assistance did not undermine but instead boost the credibility and reputation of recipients. In both countries, international contacts are highly valued. The very fact that an organization has international partners is often taken as proof for its experience and competence.
The domestic rooting of main recipients is also made evident by the fact that all of the main recipients under investigation succeeded in ensuring their existence after donor funding ended. Democracy promoters often started to work abroad where their experience with democratization was eagerly sought. International donors stopped funding in Poland and Slovakia, but they are more than willing to do so in countries further East such as Byelorussia or Ukraine. Other organizations commercialized part of their activities and sold their services to enterprises or to public administration. Moreover, in both countries public and private domestic funds are increasingly available. In this regard, the activities of main recipients have been decisive. In both countries various efforts have been made to establish community foundations. Finally, with the membership in the European Union NGOs from both countries can draw on structural funds of the EU. The withdrawal of American donors is thus partially absorbed by additional European funds.
Furthermore, it became clear that the activities of main recipients contribute to civil society development. In both countries, main recipients provide services to other NGOs with the aim to facilitate NGO activities. A large share of NGOs benefit from training courses conducted by infrastructural NGOs and democracy promoters that impart skills in management, fund-raising or lobbying. In both countries, infrastructural NGOs run an internet platform with NGO relevant information reporting on new legislation, new funding possibilities and major events. Moreover, main recipients struggle for a respective legal environment and funding possibilities. In Poland it took a long battle and intensive debate between NGO activists and governmental representatives until after several years a law on NGOs, the “Public Benefits Activity Act” was finally adopted in 2003. Beforehand, public benefit oriented activities of NGOs were severely constrained by unfavorable tax regulations, an unclear legal situation, the coexistence of old and new legal regulations, and bureaucratic procedures.251 In Slovakia main recipients started a country-wide campaign in response to a new law on foundations proposed in 1996. The law was widely believed to be a repressive measure by the Mečiar government aiming to oppress oppositional NGOs. The so-called “Third Sector SOS Campaign” failed to prevent the new law. Nonetheless, NGO activists point out that the campaign contributed to NGO development. The campaign raised public awareness for NGO issues and the importance of non-state activity. Moreover it proved that NGOs in Slovakia were capable of common action and unity against the government. Katarina Koštálová, executive director or SAIA-SCTS in 2000, describes the importance of the campaign as follows:
“Then we learned how to do this; how to reach compromises inside (the) sector; how to organize publicly. We additionally learned how to invite international groups to express solidarity with Slovakia” (interview with the author).
Funding was a further pressing problem addressed by main recipients. Some of the organizations under investigation managed externally financed NGO support programs. They thus acted as intermediaries that passed on external civil society assistance and were recipients and donors at once.252 After the support scheme came to an end, they used their gained expertise and continued to work for the provision of funding to local NGOs. The establishment of domestic foundations (partially with the help of foreign donors) and community foundations that finance local initiatives were the result.
Main recipients, however, did not restrict themselves to improving the structural conditions for NGOs. Besides the provision of services and the struggle for a better legal environment and funding possibilities, they sought to raise civic participation, develop ties and networks among NGOs and to act as a watch-dog of government. This has been especially the case in Slovakia. In contrast to Poland, non-governmental organizations, associations and foundations developed in Slovakia in face of an increasingly repressive government. In response to the repressive nature of the nationalist-populist coalition under Vladimir Mečiar elected in 1994, the NGO sector in Slovakia took up a political role and evolved as a major oppositional force. In 1997 oppositional NGOs that largely received funding from abroad launched the pre-election campaign “OK 98” with the aim of informing citizens about democratic procedures, increasing voter turnout, and ensuring the fairness of the 1998 elections. The campaign, which was fully financed from abroad, included almost 60 different NGOs and initiatives such as monitoring projects, video and television spots, rock concerts or a relay march. The campaign can be labeled a success: At 84% the voter turnout was high, especially among first voters (80% in comparison to 20% in 1994). Moreover, the campaign mobilized the public as manifested by the raise in volunteerism that supported several initiatives of the campaign. For all these reasons, the campaign largely contributed to the electoral defeat of Vladimir Mečiar in 1998. We can thus conclude that main recipients in both countries act as carriers of civil society.
Despite everything said above, one may still doubt that external civil society assistance made a difference. Question arises with regard to the extent to which external assistance enabled main recipients to carry out the various activities summarized above. Did donors simply support organizations in doing what they had done anyway? In other words, was the apparent success of civil society assistance a success by accident or skill? The Slovak case raises a further suspicion. Critics may point out that the massive inflow of international funds shortly before the elections of 1998 aimed less to trigger civic activities than to bring about a change in government widely desired by Western actors. The objective was thus not so much to transplant long-term structures of civic and associational life, rather to “buy” political decisions. An analysis of the ways recipients benefited from external assistance quickly reveals that civil society assistance made a difference: Firstly, the provision of funds contributed to the rise of NGOs. More importantly, international assistance empowered democratically oriented NGOs that contrast with the strong organizations that already existed during communism. Secondly, civil society assistance transported ideas about the importance of civil society and the role of NGOs and triggered not only recipient but also donor learning.
Without the massive inflow of Western funds, the rapid rise of non-governmental organizations would hardly have been feasible. Domestic funds were rare in the face of economic repression following economic transition. There was neither a philanthropic culture in existence, nor was the state willing to and capable of supporting citizens’ initiatives. After transition, state authorities and political elites largely lacked an understanding for the importance of civil society. Non-governmental organizations have been regarded as unwelcome and unnecessary competitors. The political will on behalf of the political elites to stimulate civil society development was widely lacking. In Poland state policy toward NGOs was ambiguous and often contraproductive for civil society development. In Slovakia, the government suppressed the self-organization of society if it stood in opposition to the state. With the provision of financial means civil society assistance thus enabled NGOs to run their various activities. In the Slovak case, external support additionally protected oppositional NGOs and guaranteed their existence. External assistance thus stabilized new democracies by supporting the burgeoning rise of NGOs. The provision of funds is even more important if one focuses upon the peculiarities of post-communist countries. Alexander Smolnar (1996) pinpoints the fact that “the most extensive, strongest organizations, associations, cooperatives, political parties and trade unions come from the ancient regime” as one major obstacle of civil society development in post-communist countries. Also in Poland and Slovakia non-governmental organizations that already existed during communism are strong in the sense that they still have financial resources as well as contacts to authorities. The case studies revealed that these “old features” of self-organized social activity have been supplemented by “new features”. On the one hand, we have a rather limited number of financially powerful organizations, namely sports clubs, trade unions and other non-state organizations that were already active during communism and fall back on the assets accumulated during communist times. On the other hand, we observe a large number of newly created organizations whose objectives lie in areas such as environmental protection, human and minority rights, development or women issues as well as social services or education. These organizations who count themselves as belonging to the “Third Sector” or “the movement of non-governmental organizations” (Gliński 1998: 31) are influenced by ideas and concepts previously developed in the “new social movements” of the West, involve mainly young people (Gliński 1998: 31), largely rely on volunteers, and are financially supported by Western sources. Whereas the “old” features of the NGO sector have money and informal networks to administrative personnel, the “new” strand has the youth, volunteers and Western support. With the help of external assistance, the continuing existence of old structures is thus countered by the development of a variety and exceeding number of new organization established after the changes of 1989/1990. Furthermore, external support and international contacts empowered these new organizations. In consequence, NGOs gained political influence. This is demonstrated e.g. by the example of the legislative process in Poland leading to the new law on NGOs. In their attemts at creating a clear legal situation for NGOs, NGO activists had international allies and could e.g. draw on gratis expertise ordered by several donor organizations such as USAID or the EU-funded Phare Civic Dialogue Program. The Polish government that desired EU membership found it difficult to ignore the expertise financed by EU money. In equal measure, it could not deny negotiations with NGO representatives on a new law that was initiated by a US-American NGO. This example demonstrates how international support increased the visibility and political bargaining power of NGOs.
Civil society assistance additionally transported new ideas and an understanding of the functions and merits of NGOs and a vibrant civil society. The point has been made that NGOs in CEE face an identity crisis (Kuti 1999: 53). NGOs lack an understanding of their interests and needs, and for their position vis-à-vis the state and vis-à-vis other civil society organizations. They are often not willing to join forces or cooperate even if they have the same interests. Instead distrust and conflict between the various organizations is still deep (ibid: 54). The cases of Poland and Slovakia demonstrate that external assistance helped to overcome this identity crisis. In particular single individuals, continuing exchange and debate and what has been called “local donors” have been decisive in this regard. The Slovak NGO SAIA profited in its early years highly from American and Canadian volunteers that were “mentor and supplier of ideas and inspiration” for its founding members, as the Executive Director of SAIA Katarína Koštálova, puts it. This example demonstrates that especially in the early years international actors functioned as bridgeheads of foreign concepts and ideas and as role models and trainers. Regular debate and exchange of ideas was also important. This took place in long-term partnerships between donors and recipients but also at annual gatherings of NGOs such as the Slovak Stupava Conferences. Each year the conference addresses a different major issue of concern for NGOs.253 Having domestic as well as foreign participants, the conferences function as platform of debate and exchange between Slovak and foreign like-minded civil society activists. The Stupava Conferences play an important role for the development of the identity and self-image of Slovak NGOs. For example, the idea for the pre-electoral campaign “OK 98” was born at the Stupava Conference in 1997. The Slovak and international NGOs intensively debated whether Slovak NGOs should take on a political role and play an active part in the elections. Domestic organizations with local staff that implement donor projects also triggered the circulation of ideas and the development of NGO identity. Starting in the middle of the 1990s donors decentralized assistance and increasingly relied on local expertise and local staff. What evolved were “local donors” which implement donor programs.254 The local administration of the programs ensured close cooperation with domestic NGOs and their needs. This is even more so the case, as the NGO support programs and main recipients cultivated close personal links, which is demonstrated by the fact that staff of the former are often board members (or even founding members) of the latter or vice versa. Instead of strictly divided “donors” and “recipients” we thus observe a group of domestic and international activists that work together in order to advance civil society. Such transnational “activist networks”, or in the words of Kathryn Sikking (1993) “principled-issue networks” were a source of impetus and inspiration. Like that, donors impacted upon recipients’ orientations, and triggered learning process. It must be noted, however, that not only recipients benefited from the experience of donors and adopted Western concepts and ideas. Likewise, recipients impacted upon grant schemes and strategies of donors. This is demonstrated for example by the difference in strategies applied in the Polish and the Slovak case. The early period of civil society assistance to Poland was marked by a lack of strategy and a tremendous ignorance towards domestic contexts. Only in the middle of the 1990s did donors change their approach to civil society assistance in Poland and applied a more fine-tuned strategy. They became aware of the shortcomings of selecting a few recipients and increasingly provided small grants to a wider spectrum of NGOs active in a variety of thematic areas. Additionally, donors placed greater emphasis on “capacity building” with a focus on training, network building and a favorable regulatory environment for NGOs. Most importantly, donors learned that local knowledge and initiative was important to ensure success. In Slovakia, where civil society assistance started at a later point in time than in Poland, donors applied a more fine-tuned approach from the beginning. Civil society assistance in Slovakia thus benefited from the lessons-learned in other cases as e.g. Poland. The discussion preceding the “OK 98” campaign in Slovakia further points to the learning processes of donors. Donors hesitated to support political actions of Slovak NGOs. Donors were eager to appear as neutral and unpartisan, and feared that the fact that the campaign was financed from abroad might undermine its credibility and effect. This has not been the case. Attempts by the Mečiar government to discredit Slovak NGOs as externally-driven traitors failed. Additionally, the close cooperation between donors and recipients ensured that the massive funding did not end after the electoral defeat of the Mečiar government. On the contrary, donors prolonged their assistance in order to stabilize the NGO sector. The continuing existence and activities of Slovak NGOs and main recipients demonstrates that the massive inflow of funds shortly before the elections did not target at a single event, but also stabilized the structures and rules of civil society.
We can thus conclude that civil society assistance empowered and shaped Polish and Slovak NGOs and subsequently contributed to civil society development. However one must state a further point in conclusion. In both case studies facilitating factors were at work without which external assistance may not have contributed to an advancement of civil society. The following conditions were crucial:
First, the domestic context, and especially the existence of a “domestic pull” played a role. In both cases international assistance was highly welcome and eagerly sought. In the Slovak case, civil society assistance was successful not despite the repressive nature of the Mečiar regime, but thanks to the regime’s character. The establishment of NGOs as a major oppositional force was largely a response to the repressive nature of the Mečiar regime. The oppositional role of NGOs explains the openness and eagerness with which Slovak NGOs sought Western partners. Not only where Slovak NGOs in need of allies against their government, they also quickly learned the importance of international contacts as an effective way to apply pressure on the government. Slovak NGOs thus highly demanded civil society assistance. In Poland foreign support was largely perceived as legitimate and acceptable assistance. Based on the strong belief that Poland would have been a democratic and wealthy country similar to its Western neighbors if it had not been for the Soviet occupation, Western assistance was demanded by the Polish people as a way to re-install normality. Aid was not regarded as a pittance but as assistance to which Poland is entitled.
Second, in both cases the international environment has been favorable to democratization processes. Multilateral or bilateral pressures did not counteract, rather supported civil society assistance. Civil society assistance benefited in particular from the prospect of EU membership. In Poland, the desired EU membership was an important leverage of NGO activists who were not tired of reminding their government of the importance of a vibrant civil society for EU entry. Thanks to European enlargement, the adoption of a new NGO law came in the range of appropriate policy options to governmental representatives. In the Slovak case, the prospect of EU membership had little influence on the Mečiar government. Diplomatic pressure remained largely without effect (Samson 2001). Although the attempt to stabilize democracy from the top down failed to influence Mečiar’s policies, it did reach the population. If it had not been for the prospect of European integration, NGOs and the opposition movement in Slovakia would have been deprived of a major comparative advantage against the Mečiar administration. NGOs convincingly presented themselves as partners accepted by international and European actors, and the oppositional parties were widely accepted as the guarantors of European integration. Without a basic consensus among the Slovak public about the desirability of Western integration, this strategy would have failed. The public desire to “re-join Europe” ensured that the various expressions of international solidarity with Slovak NGOs and their international contacts established Slovak NGOs as reputable domestic actors. As a result, the strategy of the Mečiar regime to unveil Slovak NGOs as internationally directed intruders failed. Moreover, the interest of external actors in political change in Slovakia and in Slovakia’s integration into EU and NATO resulted in a massive level of civil society assistance. In other words, in both cases civil society assistance was carried by an interest of donors and recipients alike. The domestic pull was supplemented by an international push.
Finally, the type of relationship between donor and recipient has been decisive. Both case studies depict that long-term partnerships based on trust, ongoing communication, and a “core consensus” are more promising than ready-made short-term measures. “Local donors”, as well as single individuals that enterred in long-term partnerships with recipient organizations, proved to be of special importance. Moreover, the credibility and esteem of the donor was significant. In both cases, donors were widely regarded as trustworthy and credible partners. In Slovakia, recipients widely perceived their donors as “partners that strive for the same goals” (80% of respondents to the DPP survey agree to this point). In Poland, in particular American donors were highly appreciated thanks to the massive support they granted already during the 1980s.
In sum, civil society assistance is a valuable tool if it comes to promote or protect democracy from below. In both cases external assistance contributed to the development of civil society. Without external financial assistance the rise of non-state activity taking place in both countries after 1989/1990 would hardly have been feasible. Civil society assistance thus fostered “new” features of organized civil activity in post-communist countries that supplemented the various organizations already in existence in the previous regime. Part of these newly established organizations, namely what has been called “main recipients” acted as intermediaries that ensured that a wider range of NGOs benefited from Western support in the form of finances, training and a favorable environment. In the Slovak case, civil society assistance additionally supported and strengthened a counter-elite that opposed the populist-nationalist government, and acted as a watchdog for democratic procedures. International assistance and solidarity increased the political bargaining power of these actors. Furthermore, transnational networks between donors and recipients resulted in cognitive convergence and learning processes on both sides. In other words, external assistance contributed to the development of civil society via the mechanisms empowerment and learning.
This is not to say that the cultural legacies of communist rule such as a passive citizenry, a deep state-society divide, and prevailing distrust leave no marks. In Poland distrust between NGO activists on the one side and politicians on the other is still visible. NGO activists often regard politics as something dirty; politicians see NGOs as superfluous and a waste of money. In Slovakia civic participation that rose enormously in 1997/98 quickly dwindled afterwards. The optimistic expectations of the population evident in 1998/99 turned into dissatisfaction and disappointment among citizens with politics in the face of political struggles inside the ruling coalition and a growing unemployment rate. Furthermore, the social gap between a pro-democratic urban population and a conservative rural population and the socio-economic disparities between Western and Eastern Slovakia continue to exist. Having said this, though in both countries a group of highly motivated and active NGOs still are in existence and continue to strive for the social and political development of the countries. These organizations critically watch the continuation of democratic reforms and the compliance with newly established democratic rules. They strive for the expansion of citizens’ rights, and the inclusion of marginalized groups into politics. Additionally they trigger public debate. Finally, they raise political awareness and activism especially among young people. For all these reasons, these NGOs that flourished with the assistance from abroad contribute to the consolidation of democracy in Poland and Slovakia.
What lessons can be drawn from the conclusions above? First and foremost, this study suggests that civil society assistance is not a waste of money, rather a valuable and important contribution to democratization. Nonetheless, donors still should keep certain factors in mind while devising programs of civil society assistance.
First, donors will need to restrain from selecting recipients. Instead, donors should support a broad spectrum of thematically oriented organizations, no matter how convinced they are that certain organizations are better suited to advance civil society than others. Civil society consists of more than public policy-oriented advocacy groups. Civil society relies on active citizens that learn how to organize and represent their interests. This point is especially salient in post-communist states where the omnipresence of the state and the homogenization of societal interests suppressed citizens’ activity. Democracy is not the main issue of concern of ordinary people, at least not in the long run. The daily little problems are often of greater importance, be it a new schoolyard, better working conditions, adequate public transport. Active citizens cannot only be found in human right groups or environmental organizations, but also in parent organizations, trade unions or sport clubs. Moreover, in different domestic contexts and circumstances different NGOs assume an oppositional role. Likewise, no society is confronted with the same given needs and interests. Depending on the domestic context, different issues are of importance. For example in Poland, the majority of newly founded NGOs are active in the area of social service provision. In Slovakia, organizations dedicated to the promotion of science and education play a leading role. In Hungary, environmental organizations directed public dissatisfaction with the ruling elite in 1989/1990. For all these reasons, donors should not restrict their support to certain groups but assist existing organizations. More often than not, these are the ones that are triggered by domestic concerns.
Second, donors need to understand civil society assistance as a political undertaking. This involves acknowledging power relations and domestic actor constellations. Civil society assistance is always political as it empowers certain domestic actors and thus alters domestic actor constellations. This point seems obvious, if the paramount goal of civil society assistance is to stabilize a certain (namely democratic) political system. One must note, however, that donors often seem unaware of this fact or at least behave as if civil society assistance were politically neutral.
“Traditionally, democracy aid has operated ignoring the realities of power and the intricacies of politics. It has relied on technical solutions to address political problems, adopting somehow a “therapeutic approach” and “benign idealism”” (Santiso 2001: 11).
Non-governmental donors, in particular, are often eager to appear non-partisan and apolitical. McMahon (2004: 260) points out that non-governmental American donors even discourage their recipients from getting involved in politics. The reason lies in US tax regulations that prohibit charity organizations and philanthropic foundations from assisting political organizations. Similarly, the German political foundations are prohibited from (financially) supporting political parties. More important for explaining the neutral facade of donors is, however, the fear of donors that political action and partisanship will be rejected as external manipulation and illegitimate intrusion. For this reason, donors prefer to support organizations or actions that serve the public good or strive for mutually accepted and ethical objectives. Subsequently, donors either support the provision of services especially for the underprivileged, or they target advocacy groups or watchdogs of democratic procedures. More often than not, donors restrain from assisting political interest representation though. And if donors get involved in ‘dirty politics’, they avoid publicity. The German political foundations, for example, prefer not to publicize all their activities exactly for this reason. Despite the risk of rejection, donors need to adapt a transparent and open approach to this issue. They lose credibility if they demand transparency from recipients but fail to comply with the same standards. Moreover, donors need to be aware of the importance of politics. The case studies above made clear that the outcome of civil society assistance depends among other things on domestic actors and actor constellations. Donors thus can neither neglect the importance of domestic power struggles, interests and strategic options of political decision-makers, nor can they distinguish between NGOs that are public-policy oriented and monitor the compliance with democratic procedures and other NGOs that exclusively provide services. If they do so, the former might have political influence but no constituency whose view they advocate, whereas the latter will have the constituency but no power. In this way, recipient organizations will fail to act as an effective means of civic participation.
Third, donors will need to decentralize their assistance and rely on local know-how and expertise. Local management of NGO support programs ensures a greater flexibility and responsiveness to local needs. Moreover, local administration results in local ownership. As a result, the effects of civil society assistance are not regarded as externally imposed but as domestic achievements. The theoretical chapter of this dissertation referred to the problem of re-designing institutions (chap. 4.3.). Institutions are man-made, but they derive the support and loyalty of their members and their legitimacy from tradition, habits, and convention. Deliberate design raises the suspicion of individual interest, manipulation, enrichment or imperfection. This even more so if the designers are foreign, and thus not connected to the domestic society by bonds of solidarity or trust. External assistance thus always risks being perceived as illegitimate intrusion, no matter how skillful and thought-through civil society assistance might be and how genuine the motives of donors are. People doubt that external donors are altruistically motivated, and fear external manipulation. Consequently, they may refuse external assistance and advice. For this reason the involvement of local actors in the implementation of civil society assistance is not only important because local know-how will increase the appropriateness of external assistance and ensures responsiveness to local needs. New structures and ideas are also more easily accepted and adopted if they are put forward and carried by domestic actors.
Fourth, donors need to invest in trust-building measures and long-term partnerships without expecting immediate results. Civil society assistance is an endeavor with an uncertain outcome. There is no guarantee that the support to non-state actors will translate into stable democracy. Whether civil society assistance will contribute to democratization depends first and foremost on recipient organizations. If donors fail to find trustworthy and reliable domestic partners who are driven by domestic concerns, civil society assistance will have little impact. And even if such partners have been found, the outcome of assistance is still not certain. Domestic actor constellations as well as the strategic options and interests of other actors in the political game decide whether major recipients and their orientations find their way into the decision-making arena. Donors might support NGOs in an authoritarian state for years without any liberalization tendencies in sight. Nonetheless, civil society assistance is not a waste of money, rather an investment whose return comes at an indefinite point in time. As made clear by the case of Slovakia, civil society assistance protects, strengthens and empowers a democratically oriented counter-elite. Moreover, it prevents the emigration of dissidents. If democracy takes root in a country, this is of utmost importance. The availability of educated and skilled people that are willing to assume political responsibility may decide whether newly established democracies will actually consolidate. For this reason civil society assistance is a rewarding long-term investment. Fifth, national donors will need to resort to NGOs of the donor country as implementers of assistance. Civil society assistance granted by non-state actors and NGOs is more effective than assistance implemented by state agencies. For this reason, NGOs of the donor country should carry out civil society assistance measures and not specialized “democracy promoters” or developmental agencies. The analysis revealed that the type of relationship between donors and recipients decides upon the effectiveness of civil society assistance. A long-term partnership that is based on a core consensus and a common understanding ensures that learning can take place. In this way, ideas about the importance and the role of NGOs and civil society in a democratic system shape recipient organizations. Additionally, the assistance itself improves. The ones best suited to evaluate civil society assistance are recipients. The constant dialogue between donors and recipients ensures permanent feedback about the relevance, significance and appropriateness of strategies, programs, projects and instruments of civil society assistance. In this way, donors improve their instruments at hand. Moreover, close cooperation between donor and recipient ensures that civil society assistance meets local demands. For all these reasons, like-minded organizations that are active in the same issue area are best suited to assist their counterparts abroad. Organizations that share professional backgrounds or principles generally also share a system of beliefs and the above cited “core consensus” which facilitates communication as well as the transfer of values and ideas. State agencies should therefore rely on NGOs as civil society promoters.
Sixth, donors will need to appreciate that their own credibility is decisive. This entails sensitivity for the common history of the donor and recipient country and the history of assistance. More often than not, donors are not aware that their credibility and reputation in the recipient country shape the way in which assistance is perceived and accepted by recipients and the population alike. What recipients expect from donors and from external assistance is dependent on past experiences with donors and former donor activities. Both case studies demonstrate that external assistance is largely accepted by the population and also highly welcomed and eagerly sought. International contacts even raised the esteem of recipients rather than undermining their credibility. In both countries these perceptions have been shaped by the feeling of belonging to Europe and thus to the Western world. In Poland, American donors in particular enjoy an excellent reputation. This is largely due to the massive support the Solidarity movement received from the USA in the 1980s. Furthermore, one has to keep in mind that the Polish people predominantly regarded communism as the result of Soviet occupation. The USA as the main opponent to the Soviet Union was thus seen as an ally. In both cases, previous experiences with donors and major donor countries were thus favorable to civil society assistance. In other countries the history with donors might not be seen in such a positive light. If donors are regarded as former aggressors or previous enemies, civil society assistance will not be taken as genuine assistance but rather as subtle form of manipulation and intervention. This is not to say that civil society assistance in countries that had negative experiences with donors is bound to fail. However, donors need to recognize the importance of previous experiences and past contacts and need to plan the assistance accordingly. In such cases it might be decisive to be especially sensitive to national feelings, extend the time-horizon of assistance and place greater emphasis on trust-building measures.
Seventh, the credibility of donors is not only dependent on past experiences but also on the current bilateral relations between the donor and the recipient country. For this reason, donors may need to lobby for a respective foreign policy of their own governments in order to bring top-down pressures on recipient countries in line with bottom-up measures of civil society assistance. Although the dissertation focused on transnational relations and bottom-up measures aiming to support civil society, this does not imply that multilateral and bilateral relations and top-down measures are without any effect. On the contrary, both case studies revealed that a favorable international environment and especially the prospect of EU membership were salient factors that facilitated civil society assistance. One thus has to note that state to state relations and transnational relations are mutually dependent and may reinforce or counteract each other. Top-down measures to democratization such as conditionality or sanctions impact upon the orientations of domestic actors. As a result, recipients may be more willing to take part in civil society support programs. Along with that, recipient governments may be more open to the demands of non-state actors, as has been the case in the process leading to a new NGO law in Poland. This example demonstrates that domestic decision-makers are more open to the advice of external experts if they already decided to adapt to international standards, in this case, the standards put forward by the European Union. Furthermore, the integration into international institutions and regimes stimulates the establishment of transnational partnerships and networks and thus leads to a rise of transnational forms of civil society assistance. Bearing this interdependence in mind, one has to conclude that bottom-up approaches to civil society assistance are more likely to be fruitful if they are escorted by respective top-down measures. Along the same lines, state-to-state relations may hamper transnational activities to foster civil society. For example, economic sanctions that put pressure not only on the governing elite but also on the population may counteract efforts to strengthen a domestic opposition. Bottom-up efforts to assist civil society are thus highly affected and often facilitated but also nullified by state-to-state relations and the foreign policy of the donor state. We can thus conclude that transnational relations are most effective if they are embedded in a coherent multilateral framework. Donors need to be aware of this fact and lobby their governments for respective foreign policies toward recipient states if they do not want to lose credibility. 255
Finally, donors should not lose sight of other forms of democracy assistance. A stable democracy consists of more than a vibrant civil society. Political parties, an effective executive branch, a parliamentary system and state of law are other important features. As donors are under pressure to present immediate results, they often lack the patience needed for democracy assistance to be effective, As a consequence, democracy assistance tends to be subject to trends and fashions. In the early 1990s donors placed major emphasis on institution building and the assistance to parliaments, administration, political parties or courts. The disillusionment with these measures led to a shift to non-state actors as the main recipients of assistance and to the rise of civil society assistance. This is even more so the case when compared to institution building; civil society assistance seems to yield more immediate results. Finding a group of young people, convincing them to establish a NGO, and filling them with enthusiasm for moral issues such as human rights, democracy or the environment is a more easy undertaking, than reforming existing institutions and administrations that have been shaped by communist practices for a long time. Replacing an initial emphasis on institutions with an exclusive focus on civil society actors is, however, the wrong approach. A mix of different forms of assistance that supports the various features of democracy is better suited to promote and protect democracy in a given country.
Civil society can be nurtured and strengthened from abroad through the direct, deliberate and explicit involvement of external actors. This is the main result of this analysis.
Past experiences shape the orientations of actors. For this reason the development of civil society is constrained in countries that suffer from the legacies of communism. Communism might have failed to build a “new socialist man”. However, it was surprisingly successful in bringing about passive citizens who retreat to private life, have little hope for change and who regard “those above” as the ones responsible for everything, and the scapegoat for all evil. Nonetheless the cases of Poland and Slovakia demonstrate that civil society took root in post-communist settings. This is most surprising in the case of Slovakia, where historical pre-conditions for civil society development were highly unfavorable. Factors such as a late national awakening and independence, a belated modernization, and a repressive communist regime that left little room for free spheres of civic activity largely hampered the upspring of civil society. Nonetheless, this study revealed that self-organized forms of civic activity play a decisive role in present Slovakia, as the elections of 1998 and the pre-election campaign of Slovak NGOs for free and fair elections demonstrated in particular. More importantly for this study is the insight that external actors assisted and contributed to the rise of civil society in both countries. In contrast to assumptions of critics inspired by a sociological understanding of institutions who assume that external involvement and intentionally driven transfer cannot effect domestic transformation processes or even expect outright rejection and nationalistic backlashes, external actors thus can make a difference.
However, one may critically question to what extent Poland and Slovakia have been lucky cases whose favorable circumstances enabled civil society assistance to work. Is it not so that the prospect of EU membership, in particular, enormously facilitated transnational efforts to strengthen civil society? And here, the author has no other option than to answer “further research is needed”. As made clear in chapter five, the research design chosen for this study limits the comparability of its findings. In order to hold the influence of top-down pressures on democratization constant, a most similar systems design has been chosen. In other words, since both cases under investigation face similar international adaptation and integration pressures, the findings are only valid in cases that depict multilateral and bilateral pressures impacting on the domestic system in a way similar to the EU integration process. If we want to test to what extent the findings are valid beyond the range of countries facing such a favorable international environment, additional research in countries where international pressures to democratize are more ambiguous, e.g. in the former Soviet Union, is necessary. The recent events and the so-called orange revolution in Ukraine give hope that civil society assistance can also contribute to democratization in countries without the prospect of EU membership. Such cases need to be carefully evaluated and assessed.
In doing so, scholars and donors alike can draw on furthers insight from this study. A respective evaluation and assessment of civil society assistance needs to focus on recipients. Did donors choose the right partners? To what extent did recipient organizations change during the partnership? Is a change in behavior and orientation observable? To what extent did recipients benefit from external assistance? Did external assistance meet domestic demand? These are questions that donors and scholars interested in the outcome of assistance need to raise. An assessment of civil society assistance needs to grasp the peculiarities of domestic settings just as much as the peculiarities of external involvement. For this reason, evaluations of civil society assistance need to investigate the impact of assistance without looking too closely at differences in donor strategies and techniques. Even more important than this are recipient responses. The outcome of assistance is always the result of a magnitude of different projects conducted by various donor organizations. Additionally, the outcome of assistance is often only visible after a certain time period has passed. What is thus needed are evaluations and case studies on civil society assistance that focus on the combined efforts of international actors in certain issue areas some time after donor activities came to end.
A further point can be stated regarding the validity of the findings summarized above. Although the empirical findings of this study are not valid for cases that lack an international environment favorable to democratization, this conclusion does not hold for the further likely influence on civil society development: the necessity of respective cultural and historical reconditions of civil society. As pointed out in the methodology of this study, a most different systems design helps to reject systemic explanations if similar processes of change can be identified in dissimilar cases. In other words, since the cultural and historical preconditions of civil society differ in Poland and Slovakia, this factor cannot be responsible for the rise of self-organized forms of civil activity in both cases. This is not to say that institutional legacies, informal rules and culturally defined cognitive scripts do not play a role. However, such factors do not determine the fate of a country in transition. History matters but it does not determine our future. Agency and even externally driven agency can trigger change if certain conditions apply. The answer to transforming societies asking for advice is thus not “get a history” but “get fruitful partnerships”.
247 Examples of such thematically-oriented “main recipients” are the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights (HFHR); The Foundation in Support for Local Democracy (FSLD) but also various think tanks such as the Institute for Public Affairs (ISP, Instytut Spraw Publicznych) or the Institute for International Relations (CIM).
248 Such is the case e.g. with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights but also with several environmental organizations or the Foundation in Support of Local Democracy that was founded by a couple of Solidarity members who applied the concept of the “self-administrated republic” to local democracy.
249 For example: BORIS, SPLOT, WROSZ.
250 For example SAIA-SCTS, the main organization working for a favorable environment for NGO activity is also active in the field of international scholar exchange. ETP Slovakia, as second main infrastructural NGO works additionally for a sustainable environment.
251 The new law regulates the cooperation between public administration and NGOs and makes it possible for the state administration to contract out the provision of public services. Additionally, it increases the possibility for NGOs to engage in economic activities that are still tax-free and allows for the possibility of transfering 1% of the personal income tax to public benefit organizations. The law thus increases the chances of NGOs receiving funding, a further pressing problem that has been addressed by main recipients.
252 Examples are the “Academy for Philanthrophy” in Poland, and ETP Slovakia in Slovakia.
253 Conference topics were for example: “Present and Future Perspectives of the Third Sector in Slovakia” (1994); “The Third Sector and Civil Society” (1995); “The Third Sector – We Serve the Citizens” (1996); “The Third Sector – Actively Working for Democracy” (1997); “Third Sector for Decentralization and Transparency” (1999).
254 Examples include the Polish “Cooperation Fund” and the Slovak NGO “NPOA” that managed the Phare NGO support programs of the European Union; or the Foundation for Civil Society and ETP Slovakia who managed USAID NGO support programs. The Batory Foundation and the Open Society Foundation are a special case. Although financed from abroad by the billionaire George Soros, both foundations are domestic and run with local staff.
255 The fact that actors are influenced by activities taking place on supra-national, national and sub-national levels and that state-to-state relations and transnational relations are mutually dependent has been described in the international relations literature as “two-level games” (Evans et al 1993) or – in the context of the European Union – “multi-level games” (Jachtenfuchs / Kohler-Koch 1996).
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