NGOs - Committed to Democracy?
Intervention by the CBSS Commissioner on Democratic Development
H.E. Degn
at the
Baltic Sea States NGO Forum
St. Petersburg, Russia, 19.4.2002
 

Mr Chairperson, Honourable Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be able to address this Forum today.

I am pleased to see so many of you here in this hall today were also attending the NGO Baltic Sea conference in Copenhagen and the CBSS NGO Forum in Lübeck last year. During the next days you will have the opportunity to continue the debate on the strengthening of NGO co-operation in the Baltic Sea region - a process which I would like to welcome and support.

As I have got the impression, that my work is not so well known by all the NGOs present here today, I will start by saying a few words about my own institution.

The 11 governments of the Baltic Sea States have appointed me as their Commissioner for three years. They have entrusted me with a mandate to support and strengthen the democratic development of the 11 countries.

A special feature of my mandate, which deserves to be mentioned here, is the Commissioner's right to receive communications - or complaints - from individuals, groups and organisations in the Baltic Sea States. I am functioning as a regional ombudsman institution and any citizen or organisation can file a complaint, in case the person believes, that basic rights are being violated by one of the CBSS Member States. The States have undertaken not to prevent persons or organisations on their territory from communicating with the Commissioner, and not to persecute individuals and/or organisations for providing information to the Commissioner. If necessary, I can issue recommendations to authorities of a Member State to remedy the situation or suggest, how to avoid similar situations in the future. I can also recommend a complainant to forward the complaint to an international court institution.

To follow my activities -1 invite you to visit my website.

One of my areas of interests is to foster a closer co-operation between NGOs and the democratic state authorities. I can refer to a long lasting practise with a strong tradition for involving NGOs in the pre-decision-making process in some countries of the region, whereas co-operation with NGOs is still a new challenge in other countries of the region. The last mentioned countries might find it interesting and useful to study the first mentioned countries' experience and accordingly find their ways to use NGO's entire potential. The governments should not fight the NGOs and regard them as opponents, but instead learn how to use the enormous potential of the NGOs in order to develop a modern civil society.

Besides this, a closer co-operation should take place among the NGOs themselves. Sometimes NGOs within the same or related field of work tend to compete rather than cooperate with each other, although they are striving for the same objectives. Instead, cooperation and co-ordination should be facilitated. In this regard, the formation of umbrella organisations of NGOs is a desirable step forward. Besides, the formation of such umbrella institutions would also strengthen the NGOs.

In my capacity as the Commissioner on Democratic Development I have the ambition to strengthen and support the development of a strong NGO environment and to inspire for a close co-operation with many NGOs in the Baltic Sea region. The expertise and knowledge of NGOs is an important source of information also for my work.

An active, strong and participatory civil society is an essential component of any democracy. The call for more participatory democratic structures is obvious. In Seattle, Prague, Quebec and Gothenburg we all witnessed this cry for transparency and involvement. A call for transparency, accountability and open doors contrary to those closed doors we have witnessed during the privatisation processes and its consequences.

To give a hand of support to the development of the civil sector and the NGO environment, the Commissioner's office has produced several surveys to explore the state of affairs in the CBSS countries. One of these surveys is focusing on the working conditions of NGOs. From these examinations a number of recommendations have been forwarded to the governments of the member states where appropriate.

I had been planning for a considerable time to present an updated survey on the working conditions of NGOs at this Forum. But due to delayed replies from both governments and NGOs to my requests for information, this will be presented during a month's time, and will be available on my website.

I can, however, withdraw the veil from some of my findings collected so far:

The right to freedom of association is guaranteed and protected in all Member States of the Council of the Baltic Sea States.

But although the legislation, as mentioned, basically is in place, a number of important matters remain to be addressed as regards the practical implementation of this right.

Registration upon creation of new NGOs is still unnecessarily costly and / or bureaucratic in some countries.

Perhaps funding for activities remains the largest single problem. Whereas some countries have set up favorable support mechanisms, the situation in other countries leaves much to be desired. Without stable sources of funding, it is very difficult for the NGOs to gain the effectiveness required to be a reliable co-operation partner in a democratic society.

However, it is hardly realistic to expect the taxpayers to fund all kinds of NGO activities. To contribute to ensure a vibrant civic society is an obligation for all parts of society. Also business life must contribute. The taxation laws are important tools to advance sponsorships, but for the time being the legislation in some countries do not promote co-operation and sponsorship sufficiently.

Good relations with the media are essential for many NGOs to obtain publicity and to recruit new members. Besides, both the NGOs and the media fulfill a watchdog function by watching the authorities. However, the NGOs in almost all countries of the region unanimously cry to attract more attention by the media. In some countries, NGOs find it difficult to obtain the attention of the media, if they do not have the money to buy advertisement.

Also the contacts and dialogue with the state authorities leaves much to be desired. In relations between the state and the NGOs, too little trust and readiness for cooperation can be found NOT only on the side of the state, but often on both sides. Furthermore, in co-operation with the state, NGOs often feel that their work is not valued as much ad the comparative work of the public and business sectors. A balance must be developed.

Some countries are actively facilitating NGO participation in pre-decision making and in official delegations to international forums. This is, however, not a custom in all countries. Especially from the younger democracies in the region NGOs are not invited by the state to be included in delegations, unless the foreign side particularly invites or request NGO representatives.

Allow me to say a few words about Russia, as the Forum is kindly hosted by the Russian CBSS Chairmanship and maybe it has attracted a greater Russian audience. NGOs in this huge federation share the majority of problems mentioned already with the other countries of the region, but are also faced with some specific challenges:

Possibilities for co-operation with officials still largely depend on personal contacts.

Contacts with the authorities are almost only possible with elected politicians, whereas access to civil servants in the executive bodies by many NGOs is considered far more difficult to obtain.

In connection with public hearings, NGOs are only invited if they are registered on the particular geographical spot in question, although the projects for hearing often affect larger regions. According to some NGO reports, examples of falsified protocols of public hearings have also been observed.

These are some of my main findings from a number of questions, which was sent to NGO representatives as well as state representatives of the CBSS Member States in January.

I would, however, like to thank you for your efforts in replying to my office on these sometimes very complicated matters. To the few of you who have not answered yet, I am still looking forward to receiving your inputs.

A main conclusion thus is, that whereas in the 1990s the contents of the legislation was a main issue to ensure the right to freedom of association, today the emphasis rather should be on how the states are actually implementing the legislation.

Transforming the intention of the legislation into actual change of behaviour of the state is an enormous task. A democratic and participatory culture is not built overnight, but takes time to take roots. In Finland and Estonia, very interesting "Listen to your citizens" projects are being prepared. I would like to welcome these open-minded initiatives to reduce the democratic deficit and to encourage other states to look at these two countries for inspiration.

This leads me to talk about the responsibility of the NGOs as well as the state. One should not forget, that in the older democracies of this region, NGOs has fought for their recognition and position for decades. NGOs in the young democracies complain that they do not enjoy the same standing as their Western colleagues, but tend to forget, that recognition requires tough fights and not least a stable and reliable work.

To those NGOs I would like to point out, that recognition does not come automatically, but is achieved through sustained efforts. It is not an easy job, but it is worth fighting for. I thus would like to encourage you to continue the fight to gain recognition and influence.

To the states, which are somewhat reluctant to actively involve or let the NGOs gain insight into their work, I will underline the need for public participation to ensure a stable, well-balanced and democratic development of our region. The input from the citizens is important and should not be ignored. It should also be kept in mind that sometimes the work of NGOs could be more efficient than that of the state and reach out to areas or persons, where the authorities cannot reach.

NGOs can provide valuable expert knowledge on the issues discussed and also help fostering public understanding for the course taken by the government. Drawing on the expertise of the NGOs also ensures that the decision when it is taken is less likely to be questioned.

NGOs could help construct solutions, which would satisfy various interests. NGOs are able to react timely on the citizen's interests or opinions and to act as an intermediary, which delivers the relevant message to the various audiences. NGOs have the potential to act as intermediates between the society and decision-makers.

Many more results and general trust could be achieved if government and NGOs would co-operate, not fight, with each other. The elected representatives, the public, the grassroots and certainly the society as such would earn so much if both government and NGOs could exercise the art of democracy including the masterpiece - the compromise.

In these years a lot of lessons have to be learned. Governments need not feel offended by NGO's and should stop blame them for critics. And in their turn, NGOs should not limit themselves only to criticizing government, as they are not representing the opposition in Parliament, but the general public and should act accordingly. NGOs must be careful not automatically to go into opposition and regard the state as a threat, but rather as a potential partner in a participatory democracy.

Regional co-operation

Mr Chairperson, Honourable Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me assure you, that regional co-operation obviously becomes more and more important in the increasingly globalised world, which affects us more and more. This was also the motivation for the 11 governments who established the Council of the Baltic Sea States 10 years ago.

In the context of regional co-operation the CBSS can obviously be taken as a role model. The challenges we see in the 11 Baltic Sea countries differ, but they also unite us. And it looks like that this part of Europe can be offered the chance to develop peacefully contrary to the South Eastern part of Europe. Also countries outside the region recognize this - the CBSS have now welcomed 7 observer states to the Council.

Across the entire Baltic Sea region, people are eager to obtain and maintain strong pluralistic democracies with sustainable economic growth and decent social welfare.

The CBSS can promote and strengthen a close co-operation among the governments with the aim to strengthen democracy in the region.

The CBSS can promote and strengthen the law enforcement institutions.

The CBSS can promote and strengthen the institutions, which are the guarantees of democracy in the region.

The CBSS can assist to diminish the technological gap between the younger and the older democracies of the region, so that all inhabitants can take advantage of the new IT technology, which is a excellent tool for getting access to information.

In my opinion - strengthening the structure of co-operation of civil society within the region, would certainly contribute to the democratic development, as an active and participatory civil society is an essential fundament of democracy. Passive citizens can become a threat to democracy and even to the independence of your country.

Let me emphasize this threat from passive citizens. Lack of skills or democratic culture of constructive participation, political and social dialog and community thinking should not be a barrier, but should be stimulated and not taken for granted, but as very necessary tools in the tool-box to restore and ensure democracy.

It is very harmful to the whole concept of democracy when we witness corruption, fraud or politicising or misconduct in the institutions or political parties, which should facilitate a democratic society. It is important, that citizens can feel trust in the democratic institutions.

The issue of NGOs own accountability and responsibility enjoys great attention. When addressing this issue, questions like these comes to ones mind:

However, it is not my intention to criticize the work of NGOs, but to underline that the elected governments are not the only ones to make politics. They are not the only actors. They have to deal also with the public opinion of NGOs, the political parties, other interest groups, and sometimes even compete with them in the tough media game.

These lessons have to be learned. NGOs act as they have to, as an interest group. And as most interest groups, they are only accountable to themselves and their audience, or to their sponsors. Sometimes we also have to realise that they are even less transparent than some political parties are. Sometimes they have more significant resources and media attention than the government representatives.

Thus, I am convinced that while discussing the undoubtedly increasing role of NGOs, we must not forget transparency, accountability, and responsibility of the NGOs as well. Political parties speak for the public and are accountable to the voters. If they fail, they risk losing next elections. But if NGOs fail it is unlikely that they will be penalized. Of course they risk losing their credibility and trust and that is crucial for the members of a specific interest group.

The main task of NGOs is to do their utmost to fill the gap between the governments and the very grassroots. Nevertheless sometimes we hear officials claiming that instead of filling the gap, NGOs supported by the media are increasing the gap by using rather populist slogans to criticize the government, sometimes over-estimating the reality.

Democracy is about to balance power among the common interests of people. The compromise is not very often reflected in the press. Confrontation apparently is better for entertainment and profit!

NGOs are often trusted very much by the public, sometimes even more than elected politicians are. It gives a great burden of responsibility for the NGOs that should not be forgotten.

However, the governments can benefit from this public trust to NGOs. Governments must find ways for co-operation with the NGOs and to involve NGOs in their work.

I am, however, not suggesting that governments offer NGOs a seat at the "decision-making" table. One shall bear in mind that NGOs can do a lot to strengthen democracy, but not everything - democratic authorities have to assume their own responsibility. There is a thin line as to how far NGOs can be involved in the decision-making process in a representative democracy.

Towards a permanent CBSS NGO Forum

We have to realize that NGOs, as a vital element of civil society, can assist citizens overcoming ethnical, social and ideological differences, thus creating united, democratic and tolerant democratic society. This is what could be expected of our generation.

Already now my office is trying to establish a dialogue between NGOs and governments at regional level. When organizing seminars, conferences on particular subjects I am trying to involve both NGOs and government representatives thus contributing to the dialogue between them. I suggest the governments of this region to learn how to use the great potential, which the NGOs do represent.

In my opinion, the CBSS have not exploited its potential fully until now role as regards cooperation with and among NGOs in the region. Of course, co-operation among NGOs themselves in the region exists. But all of us know that lack of financial resources and the language barriers are difficult problems to overcome.

It is essential for NGOs being the voice of people to have their own forum at the regional level, taking into account that governments occasionally fail to explain the rationale behind their decisions or citizens disapprove the decisions actually taken by international forums such as the CBSS.

I am of the opinion that a greater co-operation can be achieved by creating the Baltic Sea region NGO network connected to the Council activities. Such a network would also have the advantage of unifying different NGOs of the region in their common activities and aspirations.

Already at the Baltic Sea NGO Conference in Copenhagen the idea of establishing more formal NGO co-operation in the region was discussed and I guess that this issue will also be considered at this Forum. I hope the issue will be maintained on the agenda and it will retain the same energy after this Forum and we will witness a strengthened co-operation among NGOs in the Baltic Sea region.

But it takes an enlightened and determined political leadership to ensure the right environment. The governmental side among other things has to demonstrate commitment to good governance, transparency and openness.

I am therefore very happy to congratulate Russia for contributing to the creation of the Baltic Sea NGO Forum, by hosting this Forum. I also welcome, that Finland as incoming chair of the CBSS have proclaimed their readiness to host a third Forum during their chairmanship.

A year ago I said that the holding of the NGO Forum in Lübeck itself indicates the readiness among the CBSS governments to further the co-operation with NGOs.

I am still committed to this statement. However, time has shown that a more active assistance from the CBSS is desirable, if the NGO Forums should be able to develop into a representative and stable co-operation partner to the Council of the Baltic Sea States.

As you are probably aware, Danish NGOs last year took the initiative to call for the first Baltic Sea NGO meeting. But regrettably, only a handful of Danish NGO representatives could make the journey to come here. This is not due to lack of interest among the Danish NGOs, but is due to problems in obtaining the funding to go here. Even for the relatively rich Danish NGOs, the few hundred EURO required to buy a plane ticket to St. Petersburg is a problem.

I have also noticed, that contributions from several sponsors other than the CBSS have been necessary to realize this Forum. I would particularly like to thank these sponsors for their generosity.

Let me therefore call for the Council of the Baltic Sea States and the Head of States of the Baltic Sea States, which will gather for a Summit here in St. Petersburg in June this year, to consider ensuring a stable source of funding for the NGO Forums.

NGOs co-operation is crucial not only at a national level, but also at a regional level. Let me finish like I started - this region can be a good example to other regions in Europe, and globally.

I expect from this CBSS NGO Forum, that a more institutionalised network of NGOs under the umbrella of the CBSS will be discussed. I would like to invite you to think about it when discussing institutional and structural preconditions for dealing with the problems in the region and identifying relevant actors. The CBSS has a great potential and possibilities, which has not yet been utilized entirely.

Conclusion

I wish all of you success in your work to ensure a closer co-operation among NGOs and hopefully also between state authorities and NGOs in the Baltic Sea region.

Thank you very much for your attention.

 

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