Civil society needs to ready itself for a bumpy ride in Central Europe in the next couple of years. The slow but steady retreat of democracy makes it more difficult for organisations to fulfil their role as watchdogs. While economic growth has made the region wealthier, it has not improved the financial sustainability of a sector that delivers indispensable services to the community. The COVID-19 crisis exacerbates an already gloomy situation within civil society.
Civil Society Futures: Scenarios for Central Europe
Part of this is the result of wider transformations, political and social changes – which have created a shrinking operational space for civil society. Much of the potential and opportunities since 1989 have been difficult to realise, not only because of exceedingly high expectations but also because of politicisation, polarisation and external pressures.
Before the pandemic crisis took its toll, democratic backsliding was occurring in most countries of Central Europe. Civil liberties were under pressure in Hungary and Poland, while Czechia and Slovakia were stagnating at best. In economic terms, little was done to diversify revenues and no capacity was built to deal with an unexpected, severe shock.
At the same time, the current predicament can be taken as an opportunity to do things differently. Central Europe has the chance to make the best of digital innovation, clear the path for a new generation of leaders who can change the means and appearance of civil society, for instance, by taking a daring and creative approach to donation campaigns and activities, but also in the sense of striking the right balance between independence and cooperation with either public authorities or private actors.
While there are several civil society futures, neither of them are mutually exclusive or to be taken as a given outcome. Much depends on how the sector responds to the current crisis and to what extent it can overcome the general declining trend with regard to civil society sustainability.
There are four scenarios, based on current patterns and shifting variables related to the operational space, financial outlook, generational gap, spatial dynamics and embrace of technology in the civil society sector in Central Europe. They highlight crucial decisions ahead and help to inform policy-makers in choosing the optimal outcomes.
In Stifled Civic Space, democracies in Central Europe run at half speed, because the insecurity about the COVID-19 crisis perpetuates a number of restrictions on civil liberties and fundamental freedoms. Although the state of exceptions is formally lifted, civil society is restrained in how it can function in ordinary situations and perform its watchdog function. Inspired by Budapest, emboldened governments are seizing the opportunity to marginalise independent voices and support loyalist organisations.
Civil society strikes a fragile balance in preserving its independence while pursuing closer state-cooperation after the pandemic. In Independent Cooperatives, authorities and NGOs work together to map structural problems and agree on a set of measures to create a more supportive legal and financial environment. However, fragmentation becomes a real challenge in the next years, because the needs of well-established institutions are prioritised over newer and more peripheral initiatives.
In Embracing the Crowd, organisations reduce dependence on the state and look for potential in the spheres of technology and digital innovation to remake civil society. Driven by a generation of tech-savvy leaders, the sector embraces crowdfunding platforms, hackathons and the digital office as the new standard for civil society. However, there is a gap between successful urban-based organisations and smaller civil society actors working in the countryside, struggling to turn around their organisations.
Unlike the previous scenario, in Corporate Proxies, civil society in Central Europe steers clear of the digital pathway but is forced to accept closer partnerships with the private sector to secure its financial survival. With professionalisation and cost-efficiency comes a personal and social cost to the sector, and reputational damage because of association with superficial agendas of corporate social responsibility.
- Measure the health of civil society and the size of civic space not on the basis of formal characteristics (e.g. number of organisations) but by looking at operational aspects to identify what limitations to independence are present and which forms of pressure are exerted on the sector
- Frame challenges to civil society not only as local or national in nature but also as regional phenomena to bring greater attention and structural funds from international donors back to Central Europe. The decline of civil society sustainability in one country has an impact on all neighbouring countries
- Do not leave crowdfunding to conventional ‘charitable’ causes but embrace the platform as an all-year-round strategy for civil society organisations to campaign for societal causes and all forms of injustice. The sector should adequately explain its need for financial resources and the purpose they serve as well as build up their social constituency
- In countries that rely on a state endowment for the civil society sector, consider diversification of revenue through the introduction of a tax-donation scheme
- Clear rules and agreements are needed when it comes to partnerships between civil society and the private sector, to guarantee all non-profit organisations their independence of action and to avoid reputational damage in the long run
- Draw lessons from hackathons and other digital innovation initiatives in the wider region and replicate these for the purposes of civil society organisations. Set up events aimed at finding technological solutions to common sectoral problems
- Barriers to entry should be kept as low as possible for a new generation and network of digital leaders who are able to help the sector in embracing technology and innovation and rethink activities online
- In exceptional circumstances, such as COVID-19, continued advocacy in public life and online are necessary to limit governments from overreaching. Particularly, civil society organisations should advocate against the transposition of exceptional measures into ordinary legal provisions. Basic freedoms should not be permanently limited for the sake of security
- In response to the pandemic crisis, official and more informal channels between state officials and civil society organisations are key in coming up with a coordinated response. A more formalised model of independent cooperation would allow a regular mapping exercise and work on a strategic plan for the future of civil society, whereby no part of the sector is left behind
- A practical approach to civic education to counteract limited voluntary participation in community life and civil society organisations in the region. While school classes have limited effects, a more direct form of contact and engagement with youth should be encouraged, to build a more lasting relationship with the community
Dr Quincy Cloet is Managing Editor of Visegrad Insight and a Researcher with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Aberystwyth (Wales) and has published on international history and European affairs.
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