Featured Commitment – Latvia
In the recent OGP Summit in Paris, “civic space” was one of the hot buzzwords. Yet, when we look at OGP action plans, we might be a little surprised to see that not as many countries are dealing head-on with the practical issues of sustainability, independence, and safety that the non-profit sector needs. This month, we focus on Latvia, one of the OGP countries that has been focusing on civic space since well before OGP, but whose commitments are mileposts on the road to better civic space. Latvia’s case shows us that there are concrete steps a government can take, but that the road to success is not always straightforward. Let’s start with a little background.
If you were born in the Soviet Union, you may not have been familiar with the concept of a non-governmental organization. The centralized state took care of everything – nothing was “non-governmental.” That all changed when the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. Countries without a legacy of free association now had to create a government and a bureaucracy – as well as space for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
Latvia declared independence from the rapidly-collapsing Soviet Union in 1990. Economic liberalization and democratic transition moved faster in the Baltics than elsewhere in the former Soviet space. Latvia expressed interest in joining the European Union early on in its post-Soviet independence, was invited to start negotiations in 1999, and formally entered in 2004.
Accessing to the European Union was a massive step for the tiny country. While Latvia’s economic system had largely adjusted to the free market with a successful economic services sector and developing entrepreneurship framework, the democratic norms associated with Europe and the West were slower in coming. NGOs hadn’t existed in the Soviet Union – indeed, there was no such thing as “civil society.” A centralized government meant citizens wouldn’t and couldn’t be accountable for the state of their government. Adjusting to the idea that citizens could – and should – have a role in governance was hard to digest.
Indeed, civil society faced–and still faces–a number of problems:
- Centralization: Civil society found its base in the capital, Riga, but experienced a struggle outside of urban areas.
- Sustainability of funding: In the absence of large-scale philanthropy, government funds most NGOs. Consequently, some argue that this means that most NGOs act as cheap labor carrying state functions. The funding model may be related to the next issue.
- Lack of advocacy and watchdog organizations: Many NGOs focus on “softer” topics, such as sports and recreation, rather than stickier issues like corruption, human rights, and the environment.
- Linguistic divides: Latvia’s Soviet occupation also meant that NGOs were linguistically divided along Russian and Latvian lines.
- Reduction of European Economic Zone funds: Because there are fewer funding sources coming from the European accession process, NGOs and government sought to develop a more permanent system of finance.
Given the array of issues, as part of both of its OGP action plans, Latvia has worked to make the NGO funding system more sustainable, independent and transparent. The logic follows that this should in turn increase the autonomy and diversity of the non-profit sector.
The action plan commitments grow out a few years of trial-and-error with other funds. Just prior to the first OGP action plan, civil society and government committed to creating a “national fund” for NGOs, while enhancing the work for the organizations receiving the funding. The fund was substantially completed under the first National Action Plan, and was carried over into Latvia’s second NAP.
Under the second NAP, the commitment has been substantially completed. The government has set up the fund for NGOs, but implementation has been uneven according to a forthcoming IRM report:
- A portion of the fund, the “Society Integration Fund,” is currently being used to diversify the projects that NGOs are working on.
- The budget remains up in the air and has been lower than expected, creating uncertainty around the sustainability of the funding.
- Organizations have begun to participate, but have done so at a lower rate than expected. An overly bureaucratic process has been blamed for low participation.
Despite these challenges, the work on the fund still represents forward momentum. In a world where civic space is under increased threat, the existence of the fund itself, and the ongoing collaboration and implementation between government and NGOs, are a cause for hope. Latvia provides a compelling case study for OGP countries looking to create a more sustainable and independent civil society.