Ukrainian civil society – ineffective or does it have impact?

June 21, 2013

A few days ago I mentioned the Freedom House 2013 “Nations in Transit” report in relation to democracy consolidation and economics with the aid of Przeworski’s work, putting a US$ figure in relation to economics when democracy becomes invincible as the method of governance.

Today, despite all the prose within the “Nations in Transit” report relating to Ukraine, I am again going to pick on a number – that number relating to civil society and an awful lot of claims from within civil society of late that they have effectively prevented the rolling back of democracy in Ukraine – which is in fact self-aggrandising  piffle.

As somebody that monitors Ukrainian civil society and its achievements on an almost daily basis via theire websites, twitter, Facebook, VK and LinkedIn pages and feeds, there are few such organisations that can claim to have made a real difference when it comes to changing government policy.

After all, when civil society makes too many demands of the State at the same time – together with fighting amongst itself as to who will sit at the government table and opine in a very uncivil manner – can you expect to be heard rather than just listened to?

That said, without commenting on effectiveness, I will doff my cap to some of the good governance/democracy NGOs when it comes to actual mobilisation and monitoring of elections in Ukraine.  Their effectiveness is subjective and probably best as the subject of a different blog entry.

Some NGOs are indeed effective – UNICEF and UNDP for example – but they are UN organisations and Ukraine does generally try whenever the UN is involved – domestically or abroad – regardless of the cause.

Nevertheless, these are exceptions – to one degree or another – to the rule.

Returning to the aforementioned Freedom House report, it scores Ukrainian civil society at 2.75 for 2013.

However, that score of 2.75 in 2013 is exactly the same score as that of 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In 2004 and 2005 the civil society score was a not so promising 3.75 and 3.00 respectively.

Thus between 2004 and 2006 there was a marked improvement in the Freedom House civil society score – but then it plateaued – and to be quite frank shows absolutely no sign of scoring any better in the years ahead, and more importantly shows no sign of being any more effective at a national level when it comes to government policy.

Of the thousands of civil society organisations registered in Ukraine – 60% are dormant – as in completely inactive!

Ukrainian participation in civil society has also flat-lined in parallel to the Freedom House score.  It remains the case today that only 5% of Ukrainians are involved in civil society – the same percentage as a decade ago.

The first question is why has this state of stagnation within civil society occurred?

The answer relates to the amount of space that any government allows civil society to operate within.  The Freedom House figures would suggest that under Kuchma in 2004, that space was fairly restricted.  It opened up under the first year of Yushenko in 2005 but then had limits placed back on it in 2006.  That civil society space has hence remained constant and neither expanded or contracted thereafter.

In short, civil society is allowed to exist – but has been ignored/controlled/managed to the same degree by successive governments since 2006 – none of which have a particularly impressive track record when it comes to civil society input.

The vast majority of Ukrainian civil society that aims to influence national government and national policy making, sits in a bubble completely divorced from the society it purports to represent – more often than not with absolutely no presence outside of Kyiv.

Of note to those within civil society basing themselves in Kyiv in an attempt to influence government as representatives of the peoples causes – there is an awful lot more of the society they purport to represent living outside of Kyiv (approximately 42 million) than in it (approximately 3 million) – and a lot of that society living without considers Kyiv unrepresentative of Ukraine, just as many in the UK do not consider London as representative of the UK or those in Russia consider Moscow as representative of Russia etc.

Perhaps regional offices for regional traction?  Or at least get out more?

Thus even in the unlikely event civil society in Kyiv managed to get traction with the average resident over national issues, they are unlikely to get traction in the provinces where the rest  – and vast majority – of Ukraine live.

Quite simply, sitting in Kyiv maybe convenient – but it is not going to get you any traction within Ukrainian society – particularly when traction cannot even be gained within the residents of Kyiv by most civil society actors!

I appreciate that it doesn’t really matter if you are a foreign or foreign funded NGO.  You have your cause and plan to fight the good fight on behalf of Ukrainian society – even if society doesn’t particularly agree with your plan, or know you are fighting the good fight in order to support you.  Society is not important as long as your funding comes through and you can cite some movement in your cause – no matter how glacially – to your sponsors.  It truly seems that many foreign funded NGOs aimed at national issues have a policy of excluding the society it purports to represent – bizarre!

Grass roots, hands-on, coal-face NGOs working at a local level in the local community and with local government is a more successful story – at least compared to its national counterparts.  Having more effect, naturally local NGOs lack the funding that could make a real difference – particularly if the cause is one that requires durability and thus sustainability – local governance NGOs for example.

However, with local success comes more faith in civil society – and more faith brings more participants.

As top-down influence is proving ineffective for Ukrainian civil society when concentrating on the RADA – how about trying bottom-up by going out into the provinces and building a solid foundation on regional projects instead?  Take on the regional governments of half a dozen oblasts simultaneously instead of the RADA and see if you get any better results.  Even if you fail, some people may actually remember the name of your NGO at the end of it – whereas the average Ukrainian probably couldn’t name 5 NGOs active in Ukraine right now.


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