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President of the Republic at the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Conference

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


Dear representatives of civil society, dear government reps who care about the co-operation between civil society and government.

You are all welcome to Tallinn, to Estonia, where we hope to make our society seamless, with public, non-governmental and social entrepreneurial sector working together to the benefit of our people.

We have recognised here that even if looking from behind the iron curtain or looking with freshman eyes on developed western societies, the system of citizens simply paying taxes and governments taking all the responsibility for all the processes, all the people and all the communities – it looks attractive. But in real life, in mid-term, not to even mention long-term, this is not sustainable.

Sustainable is co-operation. Working together, binding the actors of civil society together with the government actors. It serves our people better – civil society will not make an effort unless there is a real need in the society so it is a perfect signal for the government to act if civil society is interested. Civil society will not continue providing the same service for 30 years, if it is not any more necessary. Civil society reacts in a timely manner, and to the exact problems we are encountering.

Thus, supporting civil society by governmental actors simply serves our people best. It helps to provide services just on time and just the right type of services. And by services I mean very wide spectrum of actions which civil society is willing to undertake.

Allowing people to think for themselves, provide for themselves, also develops resilience in the society. It provides the capacity to notice and act, and react. It grows societal self-assurance, which is difficult to keep alive if you are dealing with a state, a state who accepts all the responsibility and tries to provide all the solutions. Being a participant makes you fearless abou the future. Being allways among the decision-makers, being with the decision-makers makes you to understand how society can withstand the uncertanties of the life we all face.

We here, those who have had a lot of catching up to do in the last quarter of the century, have the chance to recognise this earlier, and to avoid growing fluffy, unsustainable public sectors and communities who are not able to accept responsibility for their own future.

To have a truly 21st century seamless society, where all the actors work together, we need to realise that our people are ready to contribute, in order to have a society, community, village, town or city, even a state, which they can design and develop by themselves.

Are civil society and government partners or rivals? It is indeed a question that never gets old. Heated discussions continue both among scholars and practitioners. There will be many today as well.

For those, who favour the rivalry approach, the government is by its nature imperfect – to some even ill-intentioned – and the role of the civil society is to better its mistakes and keep it on the right track. According to this approach, if we were to have an ideal government one day, there wouldn't be a need for the civil society at all. But until that day, cooperation or even any friendly encounter with the government is seen as easily corrupting for civil society, as if it's not a 'real' civil society any more.

Partnership approach finds both the government and the civil society imperfect, both having unique strengths and shortcomings. Cooperation allows combining the former and overcoming the latter. Of course, it does not mean some sort of without any conflicts. Conflicts are indeed natural part of life, very often needed for a progress – just like in any partnership.

Estonia has chosen a partnership approach as its model for civil society and government relations. I like to use the metaphor 'seamless society' by which I mean flexible cooperation between the public sector, non-profits and businesses in making decisions about our public life, and also implementing these decisions together. I believe that this is the most effective, affordable, and also the most interesting way for all the stakeholders of organizing our life.

Sadly, it is far from the reality that most of people around the globe experience. Civicus, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, recently published their latest Monitor for the Civic Space, which they interpret as a combination of three fundamental rights: freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression. Out of 185 countries, only 12% are regarded as having an open civic space, Estonia amongst them. However, 98% of world's population live 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 2 countries while worsened in 8.

Maybe it is worthwhile to look at Estonian experience. How did we start our journey, which has lead us not only to an open civic space, but also to the most sustainable NGO community amongst more than 20 Eastern European or former Soviet Union countries, according to the USAID annual index?

As with other reforms here, it grew out from necessity. By the second half of 1990s, our economy was still poor, but already developed enough so that international aid organizations withdrew their funds and we had to manage on our own with our own scarce resources.

But perhaps even more important was a widespread confusion about the role of civil society in a modern democratic country. During the independence movement the task was obvious – to change the regime, to regain the independence. But what about now, when we have elected our own parliament and government through the democratic elections?

Our then small NGO community accepted the responsibility and clearly took the leadership here. While the most pressing issue for most of them was obviously the funding (how to continue providing their services in the forthcoming months), they didn't limit their focus on it only. Instead a much wider picture was discussed for what is needed for a vibrant civil society: the legal environment, infrastructure, capacity building, and public image.

What can be done by the NGO community itself, and what is needed from the government? The process of writing and re-writing a strategy that later became Estonian Civil Society Development Concept, took more than 3 years, before it was first adopted by the NGO Assembly and then by the Parliament.

This concept still provides a framework for the partnership between civil society and government; there are action plans put together and evaluated, in every 2 years the parliament holds a public hearing on civil society development, etc. However, the most important outcome was the change of the mindset, crucial elements being here:

o seeing civil society and government as equal partners who need each other to get things done in the best way;

o understanding the complexity of change: it's never just one thing that needs to be done (such as more funding to NGOs), but a number of inter-connected activities; it's never just presenting one's demands to your partner, but seeing the whole picture, different interests and positions;

o taking the lead: complaining over your partners and wishing they could be different hardly leads to anything. It's rather constantly asking oneself, what can we do more from our behalf so that our partner could work better with us towards our common goal;

o valuing the diversity. Civil society can be difficult to understand from public sector's perspective and vice versa, there are differences in the resources, organizational cultures, procedures etc. (not to mention the differences within the sectors). We shouldn't try to change our partner to be more like us, because then it would be just us at the end of the day. We should acknowledge that we need each other and see the diversity as an enabler that helps to bring different ideas and actors to the public sphere;

May this case study help you on your way of finding the models which best suit your people, your societies!

Every state is a culture, every civil society is unique and all the solutions work best where they are first dreamt up. But maybe it is encouraging that it can be done, and it can be done at different levels of GDP per capita. Money is less important than the will to work together. Lots of financially sustainable solutions to 21st century societies lie in the partnership between all the actors who care.

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