Where did the West fail in transforming Eastern Europe?

By Barry Gaberman, Merrill Sovner and William Moody | New York

The 1990s ushered in an era of widespread governmental support for liberal democracy and an opportunity to build civil society in countries where there had long been a dearth of public space separate from government control. There was optimism bordering on euphoria and a general belief that liberal democracy was the model of the future. This was an environment in which outside funders saw an opportunity to have an impact and were willing to seize that opportunity, even though their expertise in the region might have been modest in the beginning.

US and European private foundations, sometimes working with multilateral and bilateral development agencies, established five Partnerships and Trusts to pool funding to support civil society in the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Black Sea. These pooled funds aimed to build, support, and nurture the long-term sustainability of civil society and non-governmental organisations.

The establishment of these funds—the Environmental Partnership for Central Europe, the Baltic-American Partnership Fund, the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation—reflected a spirit of optimism about the prospects for civil society as an intrinsic part of democracy. In practice, the pooled funds were able to help establish the policies and institutions of an enabling environment for civil society, in addition to funding the organisations themselves.

Since then, the political environment has changed dramatically. Thirty years on, we are faced with alternative governmental models, often at odds with the liberal democratic model we naively assumed would become and remain permanent. We can no longer take for granted this support for civil society and liberal democracy across the region. Across Central and Eastern Europe, political rhetoric and, in some places, legislation, seeks to stigmatise civil society organisations that receive funding from abroad. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, what might have been done differently to support civil society?

As three US foundation practitioners involved in some of these pooled funds, we sought to understand the legacy of those past investments, now that the political climate has become more antagonistic to civil society organisations. We undertook an intensive research project, consisting of desk research, travel through 15 countries, and interviews with more than 250 people. We spoke with representatives of the donor foundations to the Partnerships and Trusts, their staff and board members, their grantee organisations, and independent experts and observers of civil society in each country.

Drawing on our own experience and backgrounds as well, we compiled the legacy and impact of these investments and lessons for grantmakers who seek to sustain civil society to support democratic transitions. The resulting report, Sustaining Civil Society: Lessons from Five Pooled Funds in Eastern Europe, was published in September 2019. We came away with a few messages of overriding importance, which are shared here.

EU accession as an exit strategy

There was one criticism of the pooled funds’ efforts that we heard repeatedly and almost without exception: the initiatives ended too soon. Many US foundations had exited their grantmaking programs in the region on the assumption that once these countries joined the European Union their funding would not be needed. In fact, the funders’ strongly held belief in the promise of EU accession as an exit strategy was not shared by many on the boards and staffs of the pooled funds, the grantees of the funds, or even some of the programme officers tasked with implementing the decision to exit.

The promise of EU accession for the sustainability of civil society organisations proved to be a miscalculation.

Some grantees feared that raising this criticism might affect the commitment of the key initial funders. The promise of EU accession for the sustainability of civil society organisations proved to be a miscalculation, for two reasons. One, US donors assumed that funding from European public and private sources would replace their funding. Two, it was believed that upon EU accession, the economic and political conditions for the sustainability of civil society would be present. These two reasons are unpacked below.

The first underlying assumption was a pragmatic one; US foundations involved in building civil society in the early 1990s believed that funding from European private and public donors would replace the kind of funding provided by these pooled funds, and their funding would no longer be needed.

On the contrary, we repeatedly heard from the former grantee organisations that they were not able to secure the same flexible support to advocacy organisations – support that is responsive to organisational needs – that the Partnerships and Trusts provided. This is not to say there is no funding available.

A fair number of the civil society organisations that we met are able to get a basic amount of project funding for their work from the few international donors still present in the CEE region, such as the Open Society Foundations, the EEA/Norway Grants NGO Programme, the Swiss Contribution NGO Programme, the USAID Legacy Foundations, and the Mott Foundation’s support for community foundations and philanthropy infrastructure organisations.

A number of European foundations are also still actively collaborating with civil society organisations on shared projects. Then there is the huge presence of European Union funding to civil society to member states in the pre-accession phase, to candidate states, and to other countries as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

However, this funding has a different aim; a few commented to us that European public funding aimed to create implementers of EU policy, rather than investing in a healthy landscape of civil society organisations. For the most part, however, the available financial support to civil society organisations in Eastern Europe today is project-based. Project support can be offered in a flexible way that is guided by the needs of the grantee organisation and delivered quickly in response to those needs. Project funding also focuses the organisation’s efforts on specific deliverable goals, but it thus leaves little space for ongoing advocacy, responding to proposed legislation, creating new initiatives, or any kind of organisational development.

Project support from public donors also tends to require that grant money be spent exactly as outlined in the initial proposal, with every penny accounted for, and they have burdensome reporting requirements that require administrative and accounting capacity that may be beyond smaller organisations. Without the institutional support that the Partnerships and Trusts used to provide, many of the grantee organisations we heard from struggled to respond to often quickly changing political dynamics.

The funding practices of US foundations, as well as these Partnerships and Trusts, tended to reflect a degree of trust that organisations with shared values would work towards the desired outcomes, without worrying too much about the details of the process. Some interviewees with whom we spoke longed wistfully for the days when US foundation funding was more prevalent. This lack of institutional support was also found in the countries we visited where more donors are still present, such as the Balkans and Ukraine.

Many groups there reported having to choose between applying for project funding in response to a call on a specific topic, or forgoing an opportunity for funding to focus on only those activities that are squarely in line with their missions. Some organisation leaders told us they were selective about the grant calls to which they responded; a few told us proudly that they did not apply to grant calls, but rather developed a relationship with a donor organisation based on shared interests, and then wrote a proposal to them after such discussions.

Others spoke of the difficulty of taking on new work that is important or innovative but is not budgeted for in their project grants; instead, staff end up doing such work on their own time, putting in long hours and risking burnout. In short, the project support currently available does not allow organisations to develop or respond quickly to the needs they perceive in quickly changing political dynamics.

Synchronising the endgame with the exit strategy

While there was no immediate replacement for the kind of flexible, institutional funding guided by the shared values that the Partnerships and Trusts provided, there was also an assumption that, once inside the European Union, the political and economic conditions to sustain civil society would be in place. The donors to the pooled funds had a shared vision of European democracies with vibrant civil societies that can endure over the long run, are embedded in the culture of the society, and are supported from within that society.

This is the endgame they believed their funding would achieve, and they believed it had been achieved upon accession to the European Union. When foundations decide to carry out an exit strategy for their grantmaking programs, it should not be confused with having achieved an endgame; one does not necessarily ensure the other. Funders’ exit strategies are often driven by internal considerations, such as changes in foundation leadership, board-initiated changes in strategy, changes in the financial conditions of the funding institution, and the proclivity of funders to self-impose time limits on their involvement in any particular strategy.

These realities notwithstanding, our former colleagues in the donor and foundation world and their grantees should insist on evaluating and re-evaluating all decisions about their involvement in civil society building (whether to enter the field, how to work within it, when to leave it, whether to return to it) in the light of their shared endgame.

One powerful example of the effective alignment of engagement with endgame is that in almost every country covered by the pooled funds, the legal underpinning of an enabling environment was put in place. From freedom of association, through regulations on registration that empower civil society organisations rather than shackle them, to tax regimes that provide incentives rather than penalties, the record is quite impressive.

It will probably take sixty years to create a civil society. Autonomous institutions are the hardest things to bring about.

The fact that these legal underpinnings to an enabling environment exist does not ensure that they will be implemented or immune from future attacks, but it is an example of endgame and exit strategies being in sync. Activities were undertaken that could be evaluated against an endgame of vibrant civil societies that can endure over the long run, are embedded in the culture of the society, and are supported from within that society. However, even in the case of this example, past achievements are now under attack from government actors who are less convinced of the importance of an independent civil society.

Amendments and policy changes that would weaken the enabling environment are being proposed by governments across the region, and those elements of civil society tasked with protecting the enabling environment are forced to respond quickly, often without adequate organisational capacity or the resources to do so. Exit strategy and endgame no longer seem to be in such good alignment.

Civil society as a multi-generational effort

Important as the legal underpinnings of the enabling environment are, they missed the wider societal context in which those organisations were operating. In order for civil society organisations to be embedded in the culture and sustained from local sources of funding, more work on addressing the larger issue of trust in civil society organisations would have been called for.

A key positive example is a newspaper insert about civil society in one of the mainstream daily papers in Estonia, funded by the Baltic-American Partnership Fund, which brought stories of civil society projects to a wider audience. Many of those with whom we spoke identified a need for civic education, whether in schools or in other venues, and lamented its absence. More funding for efforts to build a culture of giving and promote charitable donations by individuals, as championed by community philanthropy, would also have been warranted.

The German-British philosopher and social scientist Ralf Dahrendorf made the point 30 years ago that building civil society is not a short-term endeavour, but rather a multi-generational effort. His quote was stated often at the time, but it is worth re-stating here for the lesson that needs to be re-learned: “It takes six months to create new political institutions, to write a constitution and electoral laws. It may take six years to create a half-way viable economy. It will probably take sixty years to create a civil society.

Autonomous institutions are the hardest things to bring about.”1 With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this quote was not taken to heart by the donors and foundations involved in the supporting of civil society through these five pooled funds. In a changing political climate, it is crucial to support those civil society actors that keep the government in check and nurture democratic practices and values.

This has turned out to be a longer-term project than the funders imagined, extending well beyond accession to the European Union. It has also turned out to require forms of support that were not fully foreseen by the funders, including support for the cultural and attitudinal changes needed to help people understand, support, and protect civil society organisations as being representative of their interests.

In our interviews, we heard firsthand from committed individuals in civil society who are determined to pursue activities that might expand democratic space and challenge illiberal governments. Rather than leave the field, many of them have continued this work, with deep determination but with fewer resources. The challenge is to find adequate resources to keep these civil society leaders and their organisations in place to protect the enabling environment, uphold democratic norms, and nurture new generations of activists and future generations of active citizens.

The article summarises a more comprehensive study that was conducted under the auspices of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.