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At the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Conference

Idapartnerluse kodanikuühiskonna konverentsil Tallinnas
Eastern Partnership Civil Society Conference
© Terje Lepp


Honourable representatives of civil society! Dear government representatives who care about co-operation between civil society and the government!

I welcome you all to Tallinn, to Estonia, where we hope to make our society seamless so that the public, non-governmental, and social entrepreneurial sectors work together for the benefit of our people.

Even if peering from behind the Iron Curtain or observing developed Western societies with freshmen eyes, a system in which citizens simply pay taxes and governments take all responsibility for all processes, all people, and all communities does seem attractive. However, we have realized here that this is not sustainable in real life in a mid-term perspective, and is far from being so in a long-term perspective.

What is sustainable is co-operation: joint activity between civil society and the government. It serves our people better – civil society will not start to act unless there is a real societal need, so it is a perfect signal for the government to take its own steps if civil society is interested. Civil society will not continue providing the same service for 30 years if it is no longer necessary. Civil society reacts at just the right time and to the very problems that have arisen.

Thus, governmental support of civil society simply serves our people best. It helps to provide the exact services that are necessary at the exact time they are needed. And by services, I mean a very wide spectrum of activities that civil society is willing to undertake.

Allowing people to think for themselves, to provide for themselves, also raises society’s resilience. It provides the capacity to notice, act, and react. It boosts societal self-assurance, which is difficult to keep alive if you are dealing with a state that accepts all responsibility and endeavours to provide all solutions. Being a participant makes you fearless of the future. Perpetually being counted among the decision-makers helps one to understand how society can handle the periods of uncertainty we all face.

Over the last quarter of a century, we have had to make a great effort to catch up to others. As a result, we have an opportunity for earlier realisation and to avoid the development of wide-spilling and unsustainable public sectors and communities that are unable to take responsibility for their own future.

To achieve a truly seamless 21st-century society in which all actors work together, we need to realise that our people are ready to contribute towards having a society, community, village, town, city, or even state that they can design and develop on their own.

Are civil society and government partners or rivals? It is a question that is always topical. Heated discussions on the topic take place between scholars and practitioners from time to time, and the same stands true today.

For those who favour the rivalry approach, the government is, by nature, imperfect (even ill-willed for some), and the role of civil society is to correct the government’s mistakes and keep it on the right track. According to this approach, if we were to one day have an ideal government, then there wouldn't be a need for civil society at all. But until that day, cooperation or any other friendly encounter with the government are seen as damaging to civil society, as if it isn’t a ‘real’ civil society anymore afterwards.

Those who support a partnership-based approach believe that both the government and civil society are imperfect: both have unique strengths, but also shortcomings. Co-operation allows for their strengths to be joined and their shortcomings to be overcome. Naturally, this cannot be achieved without disagreements, which are, in fact, a natural part of life. Just as in any partnership, differing opinions are often needed to make progress possible.

Estonia has chosen the partnership-based approach for its model of relations between the government and civil society. I like to use the term ‘seamless society’, by which I mean flexible co-operation between the public sector, non-profit organisations, and businesses when making decisions and implementing them jointly. I am absolutely confident that this is the most effective, affordable, and also the most interesting way for all stakeholders in organizing our life.

Unfortunately, this is far from the reality most people around the world experience. CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, recently published its latest Monitor of the Civic Space, which the organisation interprets as a combination of three fundamental rights: the freedom of association, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the freedom of expression. Out of 185 countries, only 12% are regarded as having an open civic space, Estonia amongst them. At the same time, 98% of world’s population lives in countries where civic space is considered narrowed (16%), obstructed (37%), repressed (18%), or even closed (27%). Since April, the ratings have improved in only two countries, and have worsened in eight.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to take a look at Estonia’s experience. How did we begin our journey, which has led not only to an open civic space, but also to the most sustainable NGO community among more than 20 Eastern European or former Soviet countries, according to the annual USAID index?

As with other reforms we have carried out, it sprung from necessity. By the second half of the 1990s, our economy was still weak, but it had already developed enough that international aid organisations withdrew their funds and we had to get by with our own scarce resources.

But perhaps even more important was the widespread confusion over the role of civil society in a modern democratic country. During the independence movement, the task was obvious: to change the regime and regain independence. But what was to be done after the parliament and the government had been democratically elected?

Our NGO community, which was small at the time, accepted the responsibility and took a clear leadership position. Although funding was obviously the most pressing issue for most of them (i.e. how to continue providing their services in the months ahead), they didn’t limit their focus to funding alone. Instead, discussions were held on a significantly wider range of topics that matter from the standpoint of a vibrant civil society, including the legal environment, infrastructure, expanding capabilities, and public image.

What can be done by the NGO community itself, and what is needed from the government? The process of drafting and re-drafting the strategy that later became the ‘Estonian Civil Society Development Concept’ took more than three years before it was first adopted by the Estonian NGO Assembly and then by the Estonian Riigikogu.

This concept still provides a framework for partnership between civil society and government; it is used as a basis for drafting and evaluating action plans, the Estonian Riigikogu holds a public discussion on the development of civil society every other year, etc. However, the most important outcome was the change of mindset that took place. Here are the most significant elements:

· Civil society and the government are seen as equal partners that need one another to get things done in the best way possible.

· We have an understanding that change is complex: there is never only just one thing to do (take greater NGO funding, for example), but rather a number of interconnected activities are always necessary. Instead of simply presenting demands to a partner, the bigger picture must be seen and the various interests and positions understood.

· We must take the lead: complaining about one’s partners and wishing they were different will never lead to anything. Rather, we must always ask ourselves what more we could do on our own behalf for our partners to collaborate better with us in the interests of a common goal.

· Diversity must be valued. Civil society can be difficult to understand from the perspective of the public sector, and vice-versa. Resources, organisational culture, methods of action, etc. are different (not to mention the differences within particular sectors). We shouldn’t try to make a partner more like ourselves: in the end, there’d be no difference between us at all. Rather, we should acknowledge a mutual need for one another and see diversity as an opportunity that helps bring a range of ideas and participants into the public sphere.

I hope our story helps you to find models suitable for your own people and society.

Every state is a culture in and of itself, every civil society is unique, and all solutions work best precisely where they are first devised. Perhaps it is encouraging for you that this can be done, and it can be done at different levels of GDP per capita. What matters more than money is the will to work together. There are many fiscally-sustainable solutions for the success of a 21st-century society that lie in a partnership between those, who care.

I know that you care, and I wish you every success in serving the people of your countries!