Civil society in post-Soviet Europe: seven rules for donors

The west's contribution to building more democratic and open societies in the post-Soviet region leaves much scope for improvement. Orysia Lutsevych draws lessons and offers recommendations to both public and private donors.

Orysia Lutsevych
15 March 2013

The encouragement of a healthy civil society in post-communist Europe has been foremost among the objectives of many western donors since the early 1990s. The process was aided by the prospect of European Union membership, which became a reality for ten states in east-central Europe in the enlargements of 2004 and 2007. But several other newly independent countries in the region - among them Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine - have found it much harder to establish either a firm timetable for EU accession or a functioning civil society.

The limitations of civil society in these countries are many-sided. The proportion of citizens participating in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is small, the segment of the population involved marginal, and the impact of these groups on public policy limited. They can be said to form a sort of "NGO-cracy", where professional leaders of local NGOs use their access to domestic policy-makers and western donors to try to influence public policies, yet fail in these efforts because they are disconnected from the public at large.

The cost of marginality and disconnection is a pervasive lack of influence. NGOs remain largely unknown to the wider community of citizens, which contributes to a situation where public space for collective independent action is either shrinking or under stress. NGOs receive few donations from local businesses or individuals, while governments increasingly seek to manipulate the field of civil society by promoting and financing parallel structures around "phantom" NGOs and loyal groups. The result in that in many countries (especially Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan) democracy itself has deteriorated with at best only sporadic opposition from citizens, and often none at all.

The remedy for such conditions is bound to be gradual, and will require careful analysis. A recent paper from Chatham House - How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine (January 2013) -  makes some proposals regarding western support to civil society in these three post-Soviet states. It argues that a new policy thrust is needed, whose heart is a stronger focus on society itself. If western encouragement of civil society is to be effective, the key aim should  be to back moderate forces and expand the democratic responsibility of citizens.

The pillars of change

In practice, this translates into seven pillars of a new approach.

First, make citizens "actors for change" not "consumers of democracy assistance". This would require making greater citizen participation in organisations a priority, and encouraging social trust, tolerance, openness and self-expression along the way. In order to expand the public space, donors should facilitate debate among citizens, helping to strengthen public opinion that could influence the state. By identifying true associations of citizens and supporting the independent action of these groups, donors could widen the spectrum of civil-society actors. They should verify that western-funded NGOs are  genuinely rooted in society, and not simply "owned" by small groups of experts. In turn this means co-funding of projects from membership fees, and further practical steps such as open community meetings in public places, media outreach, and a share of volunteer work as a community contribution.

Second, support grassroots and informal activism. Today, citizens across the region are more susceptible to informal engagement than to formal membership in NGOs. These trends make it important to adopt a bottom-up approach and to reach out to activists on the ground. Donors could also consider supporting non-conventional actors beyond existing NGOs, such as youth groups, students’ associations and universities, grassroots citizens’ initiative groups, intellectual circles, schools and religious organisations that pursue charitable and community goals. It is time to invest in a new generation of leadership.

Third, encourage a collaborative mindset and fund coalitions around real issues that matter to these societies. Donors should  link teams of activists, creating more national and international networks, and create projects to stimulate new patterns of social behaviour and provide a clear vision of an alternative future. Too often, an over-reliance on foreign funding has created an over-competitive environment for NGOs, which soon become busy "selling" individual projects to donors rather than jointly advancing an outward-looking agenda of change. This would also entail donors widening the outlook beyond issues of human rights (as in the Helsinki agreement of 1975) to  encompasses economic justice, access to public services and consumer protection. Donors should conduct a reality-check to ensure that the work of civil society is not just "donor-driven" but resonates in the wider society. Experiments with local participatory budgeting, education reform, social enterprise, economic justice, neighbourhood associations and social enterprise could also lead to more sustainable social change.

Fourth, finance models that can be scaled up and replicated. Most NGOs today, particularly in social-service groups, redistribute western material aid rather than themselves create new products and innovative practices in the public space, which could have potential to influence the political space. Only a very few groups both conduct advocacy and deliver services, a combination that could yield a higher impact. Experimenting at a local level with new models of social transformation and scaling them up could be more effective than tackling root causes of an issue at the national level. 

Fifth, move from capacity building to high-impact NGOs. From the donors' side, most efforts are at present centred on building the internal capacity of local NGO groups, as this is considered a key indicator of the strength of civil society. There is no doubt that good NGO work is crucial, but in itself it is insufficient for high impact. This organisation-centred approach omits other crucial, external ingredients of an organisation's intelligence, such as the use of market forces, creating a broad network for change, sharing leadership, and changing actors around to become forces for change.

Sixth, embrace social media tools for outreach and mobilisation. Donors should employ the innovations of digital mobilising, crowdsourcing and online activism in the region. Despite growing home Internet use and fast expansion of social networks, many well-established local NGOs fail to use powerful means of communication such as Facebook to reach out to new, younger, active audiences. Thus, they fail to become either opinion-makers or pathways through which information, pressure and accountability travel between citizens and the state.

Seventh, civil-society and democracy assistance requires long-term commitment from donors. It takes time for new behaviour to take root. Donors should avoid either over-extending themselves or becoming too narrow. They would do better to invest more long-term resources into just one or two priorities and gradualy expand the range of civic actors behind an agenda aimed at enabling active citizenship. This is the most promising route to the empowerment of civil society.

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