Civil Society in Central Europe: Threats and Ways Forward
In recent years, the sustainability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Central Europe has been negatively affected by a number of factors. One is the decrease of funding and the overly complex rules for access to the majority of the available streams. Another possibly more impactful challenge is the rise of populist governments that question democratic pluralism and persecute NGOs whose opinions do not correspond with the views of mainstream politicians.
These governments are attempting to constrain the operation of civil society, defining which activities are acceptable and which are not. This is done in several ways: through media campaigns and legal regulations denying NGOs the right to work on particular topics such as migration or reproductive health; through cutting off funding for types of NGO work that do not fit government policy; through conducting checks and raids on offices of NGOs that are perceived as disloyal; or simply by supporting organisations that do not challenge the policies of the government and/or have corrupt links with decisionmakers.
As a result of these challenges, many NGOs were forced to discontinue their operations or to close down previously important field of work. However, after the initial shock, NGOs started adjusting and regrouping, introducing innovative approaches to their work and reconsidering their operational models. Many of the vulnerabilities of NGOs derive from their alienation from wider social groups and from operating in silos. It often happened that many groups pursued their advocacy agendas developing stronger ties with diplomats and international organizations, rather than with the own society, which made it easier for their critics to challenge the reason d’être of the NGOs. The responses NGOs have come up with are centred on professional communication and outreach to explain their work to wider audiences in their countries; building stronger ties with their constituencies through volunteering, donations, and other forms of engagement; and developing horizontal solidarity networks inside the NGO community to maximize available resources through coordinated activity.
These new approaches are still far from mainstream. Many organizations in the region are so constrained in their resources that they hardly have the capacity to innovate. Many are proficient in donor relations, but do not know how to build relations with wide sections of society, be it for raising funds or for engaging in the common work to reach particular social goals. For successful transformation, NGOs need strong leadership and resources including human capital and some financial reserves.
The donor community can support NGOs’ transition to new models of operation by providing resources and assistance to help them build up knowledge. The governments of EU countries should also contribute to the enforcement of the rule of law and democratic principles in the countries of Central Europe, which will create a more conducive environment for NGO activity.