Non-Governmental Organisations

How to enhance civil dialogue?
The contribution of the Conference of INGOs to an enabling environment for NGOs in Eastern Europe

Debate organised by the Conference of INGOs
Wednesday 25 June 2014

Report

The debate’s speakers were civil society representatives from countries of the Eastern Partnership, representatives of the Council of Europe bodies and international non-governmental organisations, as well as the President of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe. (The programme of the debate can be found in the annex of this report.)

The debate focused on the current situation of civil society organisations’ engagement in public decision-making in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, the challenges faced by civil society in these states, the efforts to support civil society involvement in public life and the possibilities for further enhancing civil dialogue via instruments and programmes of the Council of Europe.

Since its publication in 2008, the countries of the EaP region have started to apply the Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-Making Process developed by the Conference of INGOs, albeit to varying degrees. The Council of Europe has been active in this area, as demonstrated by a November 2013 conference in Ukraine aimed at understanding the state of legislative frameworks in the concerned countries, as well as by the most recent strategic planning meeting in Chisinau in June 2014. The latter served to identify common challenges shared by all countries of the region, but also highlighted the different state of affairs in individual cases, in particular in the levels of respect of fundamental freedoms, quality of legislative frameworks or the EU integration. While repressive or, at least, non-supportive norms constitute a serious hindrance to the development of civil society as a full-blown actor on the public affairs scene, the lack of representativeness of civil society organisations leads to low levels of trust from the general society. The sources of the distrust are twofold. Firstly, the lack of tradition of civil society engagement has contributed to the development of a political culture in which civil society is not yet perceived as a facilitator of societal demands, and where citizens’ expectations are to be addressed by the public authorities rather than by society’s own involvement and activism. Secondly, funding of civil society organisations, which is mostly of foreign origin, further reduces trust in these organisations.

Whereas activities up until now centred around the promotion of principles of the Code of Good Practice, it now appears essential to develop projects which identify already existing good practices in the EaP countries and establish new educational agenda alongside training programmes based on the national examples. Existing networks should be used to this end, such as the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership countries or the Civil Society Leadership Network. In addition to building networks via the internet, people-to-people contacts should be nurtured through meetings, conferences and experience sharing. The possibility of including the Schools of Political Studies into such initiatives was alluded to, as well as the potential use of the media to promote ideas of consultation and dialogue. The strategic planning meeting in Chisinau also raised the idea of developing an index of civil society participation in the region in order to enable the Council to compare state of practices, legislation and institutions. In addition to its gradual democratising effects, promotion of participation in decision-making processes garners potential for unifying the region marked by territorial conflicts.

The meeting of the Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership which will take place in Tbilisi, Georgia in November 2014 will be a venue for a more concrete discussion on civil society participation, practices, and institutional frameworks. During the Chisinau meeting, it was proposed that the Council of Europe and its INGO Conference organise a side event dedicated to issues of citizen participation at the local level.

The debate further raised the question of education and its impact on civic participation. While several initiatives of the past few years were mentioned, such as special courses for teachers on the workings of state institutions and possibilities for influencing their actions or special table games and civic education classes, it was concluded that given the inherent state character of education governance, political will remains a sine qua non condition for such initiatives to be successful. The usefulness of cross-border education projects, e.g. between Slovakia and Ukraine, was brought to the attention of the participants as a useful way for learning the principles of democracy. Even though on a relatively small scale, the Council of Europe has supported this type of civic/democratic education, e.g. via the Visegrad School of Political Studies.

Challenges to civil dialogue

Challenges to civil society participation in public decision-making are manifold.

In Azerbaijan, freedom of assembly and association is curtailed by the government. Civil society organisations, in particular those working on issues of human rights, face obstacles to legal registration from public authorities, thus making close to impossible their operation within the country. In addition to repressive legislation towards civil society organisations, national media have been leading a campaign against NGOs, identifying foreign organisations (among which Oxfam and National Democratic Institute) with ‘traitors’, ‘spies’ and ‘international elements’ and claiming their destabilising effects on the country’s statehood. Human rights defenders have been subjected to incarceration and hostile rhetoric. The NGO representative from Azerbaijan proposed a launch of fact-finding/monitoring missions of the INGO Conference to the EaP countries with the aim of preparing reports on the current state of affairs and their subsequent debating on the Council of Europe premises.

Over the past few months, Ukraine has seen the emergence of thousands of civil society organisations. While many of them are highly active, motivated to deliver change and are strongly emotionally charged, they remain largely disconnected. With the Special Law on Civil Formations, the general environment for the operation of NGOs has eased, and the Reanimation Package of Reforms of January 2014 has attempted to create an avenue for communication and cooperation between the civil society and the Ukrainian government, and the civil society and the parliament. Views of civil society experts are now delivered to the government though no formalised mechanism exists for choosing the organisations involved in such consultations. As the key success factors for involving civil society organisations into public decision-making, the speaker emphasised the presence of political will of the government and enthusiasm of the civil society. Furthermore, proactive attitude of civil society organisations, consolidation of the civil society and its ability to put forward common proposals, and proper level of expertise were also noted as important success ingredients. On the other hand, short term euphoria, enthusiasm not matched by expertise and possible tensions between the civil society and the government were said to be the main challenges to an effective involvement of the civil society in decision-making.

Based on its evaluations, the EaP Civil Society Forum has concluded that the lack of political will has been the greatest obstacle to improving the involvement of civil society in public matters. The governments of the Eastern Partnership countries have been found reticent to a more open communication with their civil societies and to improve the latter’s public engagement.

The role of the Council of Europe in enhancing the civil dialogue in the discussed countries was commended. In particular, the value of the Council’s contribution in this field resides in creating pressure on governments of the CoE member states, which are brought to approximate their practices to the standards set by the Council.

Conclusion

Civil societies in Eastern Partnership countries have faced numerous challenges which have limited their ability to effectively contribute to public decision-making. While these challenges differ in nature and degrees from country to country, the general lack of political will to create conditions favourable to civic participation appears to be the central and decisive obstacle for civil society organisations to gain access to public decision-making.

Recommendations

    - develop projects which identify existing good practices in the EaP countries and establish new educational agenda alongside training programmes based on the national examples;
    - support people-to-people contacts through meetings, conferences and experience sharing; with possible inclusion of the Schools of Political Studies;
    - consider use of the media to promote ideas of consultation and dialogue;
    - launch of fact-finding/monitoring missions of the INGO Conference to the EaP countries with the aim of preparing reports on the current state of affairs and their subsequent debating in the Council of Europe.

Appendix - Programme of the debate

How to enhance civil dialogue?

The contribution of the Conference of INGOs to an enabling environment for NGOs in Eastern Europe

One of the major concerns of European democracies is the alienation of citizens from the democratic processes. How can civil society provide citizens with an alternative way, alongside elections, of making their voice heard?

How do civil society and public authorities interact in the political decision-making process?

What works?

What are the obstacles?

How can the Conference of INGOs contribute to enhancing civil participation in the decision-making?

Debate organised by the Conference of INGOs

Wednesday 25 June 2014
2pm – 4pm

Agora, room G 03

Opening
Jean-Marie Heydt, President of the Conference of INGOs

What is the situation?
Outcome of a Council of Europe meeting on “Civil society participation in decision-making: dreams, reality and challenges” in Chisinau
Rapporteur of the meeting: Igor Kogut, Director of the School of Political Studies

What are the challenges?

    Gulnara Akhundova, International Media Support
    Yulia Osmolovska, Co-chair, Reforms' Support Center, Ukraine
    Yaryna Zhurba, Center for Political and Legal Reforms, Ukraine

Who does what to support civil society in Eastern Europe?

    Natalia Yerashevich, Director of the Secretariat of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum


What can the Conference of INGOs do to enhance civil dialogue?

    Cyril Ritchie, President of the Expert Council on NGO Law
    Biljana Zasova, Association of Local Democracy Agencies (ALDA) on behalf of the expert group for the promotion of the Code of Good Practice for Civil Particition in the Decision-Making Process