Aiding civil society in postcommunist societies: future challenges

Thomas Carothers

Ten years ago, most observers thought of civil society aid to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as quick-acting doses of support to expand the envelope of freedom in the initial hump of transition away from communism. Yet a decade later civil society aid is still very much on donors’ agendas. With economic and political transitions advancing slowly in most countries, new hopes are being pinned on civil society aid, hopes that it can be the key to unblocking stagnant or failing transitions over the long term.

In the political domain, civil society development is now deemed crucial to stimulating the public pressure and participation necessary to force poorly functioning state institutions to become more responsive and accountable. In the social and economic domains, a more diverse, active civil society is now held out as necessary to cushion the effects of restructuring, to ensure public understanding and support for market reforms, to ensure that privatization does not lapse into cronyism, and to connect newly empowered local governments to citizens.

As donors deepen and broaden their objectives in promoting civil society they would do well to assess carefully what the past ten years of such activity have produced and to take a sober look at the challenges ahead.

Transitions in the postcommunist region

The experience of transition in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has been so varied that the very concept of postcommunism is now almost useless. To say that Poland and Turkmenistan are both postcommunist countries is to say very little. It may be well be time to bury the concept.

In the excitement of the early 1990s many people both outside and inside the region assumed that, once launched, economic and political reforms would naturally move forward. People imagined that transition would be akin to placing a boat in a rapidly moving river and then simply steering it along. It turns out that reforms can and often do get captured or blocked at every step of the way.

A small number of countries, mostly with relatively small populations, have made substantial progress with both democratic and economic transitions: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania) and Slovenia. But these are very much in the minority.

A larger group of countries are doing badly on both fronts and have authoritarian or semi-authoritarian governments and statist economies. These include all the Central Asian countries except Kyrgyzstan, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and two countries in former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia.

But the largest category of countries, with 11 members, are those hovering uneasily in between success and failure. Some are stuck in a halfway state between democracy and dictatorship and between statism and market economics, others are drifting backwards, and a few are creeping ahead. This is a broad category that spans more positive countries such as Bulgaria, Slovakia, Macedonia and Romania, and more negative ones like Ukraine and Albania, as well as Russia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Bosnia.

Simplistic though they are, these categories help us see that 20 of the 27 countries in the region are either in a transitional grey zone or really not doing well at all. For many people in these 20 countries the basic conditions of life have worsened significantly in the past ten years. In the former Soviet Union, for example, GDP per capita has declined on average more than 40 per cent since 1991. GDP per capita in Russia, one of the richer countries of the former Soviet Union, is now well below that of Mexico, a country we associate with classic Third World poverty.

The role of Western aid

The West generally has been a tremendously important influence in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in defining the basic endpoints to which transitions are pointed, but of only moderate importance in most of the former Soviet Union. The fact that it is generally a positive influence does not, however, remove a real sense of disappointment about the Western role. After the bubble of excitement around the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West never really seized the historical moment. Western societies were quick to move on with their own preoccupations, expecting former communist countries essentially to either get into line or go away.

Nor has Western aid to the region been on the grand scale that many suppose. Aid to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was somewhere between $50 billion and $100 billion in the 1990s, depending on what one counts as aid and how one measures it. This amounts to $100–$200 per person over the decade, or $10–$20 per person per year. This is similar to Western aid to many parts of the developing world and is not an especially intensive effort when compared, for example, to the surge of US aid to Central America in the 1980s, when in the cause of combating the spread of leftist governments the Reagan administration committed aid of over $100 per person per year in some countries.
The beginning of Western aid

The first phase of Western aid to promote civil society development in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was the short, heady, idealistic time of the early 1990s. This was when Western private foundations, and the few official aid agencies that have been involved in civil society aid, made their first contacts with new independent civic groups and civic activists in the region. Time seemed to be of the essence and small amounts of support to the right groups promised to make a great difference. Providers of civil society aid focused on the newly emergent groups devoted to public interest advocacy – human rights groups, environmental organizations, election monitoring groups and civic education associations – as well as the new independent media, especially newspapers and journals. The idea was to help nurture those people and groups fighting to assert the new freedoms, to support a core of nonpartisan but politically committed civil society that would serve as an incubator of democracy.

Emergent best practices

The second phase, from the mid-1990s onwards, involved a broadening of civil society aid. Aid providers still interpreted promoting the development of civil society in terms of supporting NGOs, but the range of NGOs and of NGO aid was expanded considerably. Aid began to go to a wider circle of groups than in the initial wave, beyond the politically oriented advocacy groups to service delivery NGOs working in children’s welfare, public health, tenants’ rights, and many other fields. Aid providers began to support centres for NGO training and development as NGO sectors grew rapidly to consist of thousands of organizations of all sizes.

As NGO sectors mushroomed in the recipient countries, a number of issues and problems related to civil society aid began to emerge. Out of the numerous studies, reports and conferences about NGO assistance a set of lessons, now commonly held out as a set of ‘best practices’ for aid donors, began to accumulate (see box on p20).

These lessons now have the feel of well-worn conventional wisdom, at least among habitués of the many conferences on civil society aid in recent years. Five years ago they did not have this quality; they had to be identified one by one, in response to shortcomings on the ground and the desire to do better. The fact that they have attained the status of conventional wisdom does not mean that they are consistently followed in practice by most aid providers. Like most ‘best practices’ in the aid world, they remain aspirations for many donors.

A new phase?

The second phase of civil society aid has peaked and a third phase may now be starting. The backdrop to this is the failure or faltering of the political and economic transitions in so many countries, a plateauing of the initial surge of interest and enthusiasm for NGOs within the region, plus the fact that Western aid for civil society is shrinking as USAID, the European Union, the Soros foundations and other major sources of aid in the 1990s are pulling out of some countries or shifting priorities. The possible shape that this third phase of civil society assistance may take is as yet unclear. The task now is to identify the core challenges that lie ahead.

Connecting to political parties

One critical challenge for providers of civil society aid is that of relating civil society promotion to political party development. Throughout most of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and for that matter in most politically transitional countries, political parties are a disaster. They are personalistic vehicles that are poorly organized and run. They attract mediocre people and have especially weak appeal to young people. Their funding bases are often narrow and corrupt. They have no stable constituency and poor constituency relations.

For years, providers of civil society aid have encouraged their NGO recipients to steer clear of political parties and to cultivate the ideal and the practice of nonpartisan civic engagement. There have been good reasons for this approach but it is no longer a viable one. Simply stated, parties are being left behind by NGOs. In many countries of the region there are quite a few NGOs that are are well-run, relatively well-financed organizations with highly capable staff working next to parties that are badly run, badly financed and badly staffed. This is an unhealthy situation; for democracy to work these countries need a talented, dynamic political class as well as a talented, dynamic civic sector.

This does not mean that providers of civil society aid should directly aid political parties or push for direct ties between civil society groups and political parties. But it does mean not ignoring the political party domain. One example of an area for possible programme development is party funding. Providers of civil society aid have given extensive attention to the question of funding for civil society organizations. They could expand their conferences, legal studies, training exercises and other efforts to take on the critical issue of how parties should be funded, in order to interest civil society in this issue (rather than leaving it in the hands of political parties) and to see if insights from the civil society sector could be relevant.

From NGOs to civil society

A second challenge, which is related to the first, is how to go beyond promoting NGOs to promoting civil society. Providers of civil society aid have been focused on helping NGOs, for various reasons, including their appeal as ‘clean’ technocratic groups full of Westernized young staff members who are willing to operate according to the rules and practices that fit the bureaucratic demands of Western funders. But aid providers have gone from favouring NGOs as recipients of aid to equating NGOs with civil society itself and assuming that the growth curve of NGO proliferation is a good measure of civil society development. A fully developed civil society in an established democracy has many more types of organization than just advocacy NGOs and service NGOs. Civil society includes professional associations, religious organizations, unions, educational institutions, cultural organizations, sports groups, hobby clubs, ethnic associations, community groups, farmers associations, business associations and many others. It is time for donors to rethink the privileged place that NGOs have had in their civil society portfolios.

Confronting strongman rule

Providers of civil society aid also need to come to terms with the challenge of trying to foster civil society development in semi-authoritarian countries, where the regimes have adopted the institutional forms of democracy, including regular elections, yet manipulate the political process and the amount of political liberty enough to ensure that their basic hold on power is not threatened. These regimes are trying to carry out a political balancing act: allowing enough democracy to gain international legitimacy and to relieve domestic political pressure while keeping hold of the levers of political power. They typically permit some space for civil society to organize and operate, and permit foreign donors to provide support. Donors hope that the gradual development of civic ideas and practices will build the long-term base for democracy but this is more a matter of hope than experience. Providers of civil society aid need to develop their thinking about what kinds of civil society development are most likely to be productive in such semi-authoritarian contexts.

The former Soviet Union

A fourth challenge is the former Soviet Union. One major lost opportunity of the early 1990s was the failure of the United States and the major European powers to seize the moment of the break-up of the Soviet Union and commit a dramatic quantity of resources to help Russia with its transition and to set Western–Russian relations on a genuinely new footing

To a great extent, Western providers of civil society assistance have treated their work in the former Soviet Union as an extension of their efforts in Central and Eastern Europe. It has become clear, however, that the challenges of political and economic development are qualitatively different, and harder, in most of the former Soviet Union that in most of Central and Eastern Europe. The reasons for this are fairly evident – the fact that most of the former Soviet republics face the challenge of forming national states for the first time, the deeper, harsher legacy of communism in the former Soviet Union, the greater distance from Western traditions and influences, and so forth – but in the first half of the 1990s the dominant idea of ‘postcommunist transitions’ tended to blur these differences.

Western supporters of civil society must commit the energy and resources to match the daunting challenge of bolstering civil society in the former Soviet Union. They should view the trend towards reducing civil society aid to Central and Eastern Europe as an opportunity to increase it proportionally to the former Soviet Union, rather than assuming that this downward trend will extend further east. It is obviously hard to make a second big push for aid after the initial push of the early 1990s but this is much needed for the former Soviet Union, a region in serious trouble.

Former Yugoslavia

Finally, there is the challenge of the former Yugoslavia. The settlements of the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo are tentative at best and will require extensive Western involvement if they are to hold. The recently introduced idea of a Western-funded Stability Pact for south-eastern Europe is an appealing one but will require a high degree of effort and commitment by many Western governments and private organizations if it is to take on some weight. Renewed civil society development will have to be one element of a long-term path towards stability in former Yugoslavia. And extensive, innovative aid for civil society will need to be an integral part of the Stability Pact package.
Staying to learn

When Western aid providers rushed out to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the former Soviet Union, they were infused with the idea that they were going to teach. Yet when they arrived they discovered not only how little they knew about the transformations under war but also that the learning was going to be more mutual than they had anticipated. My summation of ten years of Western civil society aid to the region thus boils down to a rather modest conclusion: they went to teach; they stayed to learn; they’re learning still.

This article is based on a speech given at the Grantmakers East annual meeting in Berlin on 5 November 1999 (published in full in East European Constitutional Review, Fall 1999).

Thomas Carothers’ new book, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The learning curve, will be reviewed in the next issue of Alliance.


Best practices for aid donors

During the second half of the 1990s, providers of civil society aid were increasingly urged to:

  • go beyond providing aid to the same circle of familiar faces in the capital cities of recipient countries and get aid to smaller, less Westernized groups in smaller cities and rural areas;
  • help establish mechanisms and incentives through which the well-established NGOs that donors have initially favoured will provide the training to the less well-established groups;
  • help NGOs develop their core organizational capacities, especially financial management and human resources management, rather than just providing support for project activities;
  • focus on sustainability, by helping NGOs diversify their donor support, develop local sources of funding, and build local habits of corporate philanthropy;
  • support work to improve the enabling environment for NGOs, such as the basic legal framework for NGOs and the understanding of government officials of the nature and purpose of NGOs;
  • encourage advocacy NGOs to develop more direct ties to the citizens on whose behalf they act – one cannot assume that public interest advocacy groups have a real social base or are inevitably representative just because of the nature of the issues they pursue;
  • encourage NGOs to develop productive partnerships when possible with central and local governments, moving away from the idea that advocacy NGOs must naturally take a completely independent, or even antagonistic, stance towards their governments;
  • foster greater donor coordination to avoid duplicative funding and contradictory strategies, and to promote greater funding synergies.


Foundation awards promote fight against racism in Europe
Founded in 1990 by Polish businessman George Evens, who settled in Antwerp, Belgium, a few years after the Second World War and regarded Belgium as a ‘land of hospitality’, the Evens Foundation supports and develops projects likely to have a long-lasting influence on European integration, specifically in the sphere of inter-cultural education. Its mission could be defined as ‘increasing respect for differences in Europe’.

One way the Foundation encourages excellence in this field is by the annual awarding of the Evens Prize. In 1999 the first prize of 30,000 euros went to Country Boxes, coordinated by the Brussels Integration Centre Foyer. This project aims to reflect memories and experiences of migration and refuge. The second and third prizes both went to projects developing tools for anti-racism education. The book Europe Mocks Racism contains cartoons ridiculing any manifestation of racism, xenophobia or sexism.

For further information, contact Christine Castille.
Tel +32 3 231 3970

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