A return to Ukrainian NGOs againAugust 27, 2011
Once again, my attention is turned to NGO’s, albeit today with a recovery from a somewhat thumping head following on rather neatly and as predicted from Independence Day’s exuberance.
NGOs were indeed a topic of conversation whilst those present still retained the ability to speak coherently.
Readers of this blog are certainly aware of my “issues” with NGOs in Ukraine. That is not to say I am anti or pro NGO. I question their motives, effectiveness, ineffectiveness and occasionally counter-productivity in their pursuit of agenda and policy.
Whilst my interest in politics is obviously clear to you dear readers, it does not come in the form of a particular party in Ukraine but comes in the way of policy, implementation and casual results being effective, ineffective or counterproductive.
The same can be said for NGOs in Ukraine, who for the most part, superficially at least, seem to be ineffective if domestic and largely ignored if foreign. That is not to point the finger singularly at the current government, every Ukrainian government has been the same in the years I have been here.
Firstly I will quickly write about the foreign NGOs who being foreign have far less weight and influence than foreign ambassadors and embassies by default. These are either sponsored by foreign governments directly, such as the British Council or indirectly via organisations like the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (also FCO sponsored) .
There are also privately foreign sponsored NGOs such as those financed by Mr Soros directly or through rather opaque (at times) chains of funding groups.
Needless to say, that no NGO is free from the politics of its paymaster anymore than the ratings agencies are independent of influence from their paymasters who happen to be the very banks they issue ratings upon. In many cases, foreign NGOs are nothing more than a deniable interface between foreign sovereign government and perceived vested interest in a nation which would be “sensitive” if there was an obvious direct line between parties involved.
Aside from overt activities the covert activities are often more important. For instance, do we honestly think the British Council sit in their offices with hardly any visitors doing nothing? Is it not more likely they will be trawling local language forums for “people of interest” or “interesting people” (not the same thing) who may further or undermine the UK cause? Who better to reach out and test the water in a deniable way than a NGO?
Of course any hosting government knows what is going on as they do it themselves via their NGOs in other nations.
However, foreign financed NGOs are not really what I am going to write about although there is much to say. There is the self and foreign other to consider also. I intend to write about the domestic NGOs, be they financed by foreign or domestic money.
Why are domestic NGOs so ineffective, at least prima facie?
The answer seems to be multifaceted depending on the NGO. Many try to take an A-political stance and are therefore quite hesitant to become “political”. It is therefore very difficult to make any impression on any Ukrainian government that has thus far held the reigns of power. Even more so in a society that has obvious fractures over language, history, heroes and villains, patronage and political leaning. It is hard to identify any NGO in Ukraine that has any sizable support from civil society in the guise of voting public.
An awful lot are not even known to the Ukrainian public. There is a human rights NGO in Odessa allegedly headed by a fairly influential chap that doesn’t even have a physical postal address and yet appears on the list of NGOs. With the change of local governance in 2010, this chap also has extremely strong ties to the current administration and thus there could well be a conflict of interest should issues arise in Odessa today in the realm of human rights.
The next issue and continuing along a patronage theme (which runs throughout Ukrainian society) is one of inclusiveness or exclusion. It is far easier to get access to the right people if you, as a NGO, are not politically confronting the government of the day. This again is not solely an issue with the current government. Previous governments were the same.
Whilst of course all NGOs can expect the same amount of coercion they use upon governments of the day to be reciprocal, many NGOs seem to try to become part of the patronage regime themselves, thus making themselves a permanent part of the structure and failing to remain the agency they are supposed to be. Causal purity sacrificed at the alter of longevity via patronage and not making big ripples in the political pond without consent. Not really what a NGO should be doing as it risk both almost Borg-like assimilation by the structure and a perception of muddied principles.
Inclusion, rather than exclusion from the structure, even if NGOs do not completely agree with an agenda of current government, does through the patronage system, grant access to the spoils however they manifest themselves.
Exclusion on the other hand, particularly if domestically financed, could make life almost unlivable quiet literally. The local term would be “isportit jizn” which is in effect an unofficially communicated word from above to make life exceptionally miserable through fair means and foul, for all subjected to such a “decree”.
A possible net result of this is those NGOs inclusive will turn against and ridicule those that remain exclusive and divide and conquer once again becomes an effective structural weapon. In effect, as long as a NGO does not directly threaten the ability of a current Ukrainian government to do as it wanted at the time, it has always been either tolerated or encouraged.
The realities are that to advance an agenda means a compromising of those ideals to a greater or lesser degree.
It is also important to consider what (theoretically) NGOs actually are and how, at least domestically, they form. Of course many Ukrainian NGOs were parachuted in based on concepts and requirements in other nations. Some fit with Ukraine and others do not. Inherently though, NGOs are formed as a group to bring the attention of the structure to the issues society would like them to address. Very much similar in fact to a role held by the church in recent centuries in many countries. Unions would also have some parallels. Church and unions are far more cemented in the Ukrainian civil society psyche than NGOs of course (particularly foreign NGOs). Neither church nor unions these days are always as detached from politics as they could or maybe should be in many nations
If those compromises are consistently greater rather than lesser, many will become disillusioned. Those compromises may well be with the “imported professional management” or “qualified younger element” hijacking the original management. Now one imagines that people become involved in NGOs on principle and a passion for a particular cause, rather than any other motivator but over the past decade it has become a “profession”. What were once grass roots bodies of a coalition of the willing have become professional at the decrees of the paymasters. Thus you have pause for thought about the true passion of some of the “management”.
In other cases, such as one of Ukraine’s leading human rights advocates, they are plucked from the world of NGOs and given a structural position. (In this case to sit on a committee dealing with human rights with the government of Ukraine as his new paymaster and has been conspicuous by his absence in public commentary ever since).
The question then, as far as domestically grown NGOs are concerned, is how to remain A-political but be effective, principled but not excluded and retain longevity with relevance to Ukrainian civil society?