The development of civil society has reached a turning point

The operators of the EEA/Norwegian NGO Programme in Hungary, Okotars, Autonomia, DemNet and Carpathian Foundations, hosted their sister organizations from 12 European countries between 25-26 June 2015. The purpose of the meeting was to gather experiences from similar NGO programmes, but the operator organizations compiled together principles for effective and user-friendly support to civil society as well.

As it is known, through the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway Grants, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway contribute to reducing economic and social disparities and strengthen cooperation with 16 EU countries, under agreement with the EU. The donors made development and support to civil society a priority in all beneficiary countries in the form of programs similar to the Hungarian NGO Progamme. Most of these are operated by independent organizations free from state interference, the way it is in Hungary.

Most of the NGO-programs running under the current financing period are more than halfway through their implementation phase. Open calls have been completed, the funds have been dispersed and project implementation is underway. This served as a good occasion for the administrating organizations from Portugal, through Poland and Estonia to Bulgaria to meet and think about the future of NGOs and European civil society together, based on experience gained.

Many of us feel that the development of civil society has reached a turning point, not just in Hungary. We face a series of socieo-economic problems all over Europe, starting with fading trust in democratic values through strengthening extremist movements, all the way to rising tensions among social groups. Given the circumstances, the need for civil society to back freedom, solidarity and fundamental rights is greater than ever. Often the voices from civil society are the only ones in their countries calling attention to these basic values. But support from society and its institutions is necessary for NGOs and civil movements to fulfil their mission and perform their duties.

We often hear that NGOs should increasingly rely on the communities from which they emerge, using the resources of their constituencies. At the same time, there’s no healthy civil society in Europe without state support and recognition. The participants at the Budapest conference agreed that there is a great need to establish and operate smaller financing programs that are closer to the needs and circumstances of NGOs. The experience and knowledge of those independent organizations currently working as operators of NGO financial support programs could serve as an excellent basis for developing such programs. Additionally, they could themselves effectively contribute to operating flexible, user-friendly and transparent programs similar to that of the EEA Financial Mechanism. At the same time, the large funding systems, first and foremost those operated by the EU, only reach a limited circle of organizations and pose virtually insurmountable administrative and bureaucratic obstacles even for those eligible.

The twelve operator organizations have therefore summarized the arguments in favor of small NGO-programs in a common statement, including best practices. The participants agreed that creativity, innovation and trailblazing must be given room in any tailor-made financing mechanism aiming to develop civil society. But this would require greater risk tolerance on the part of the donors, as there will inevitably be some ideas that prove unsustainable in the long run when attempting to find new solutions to old problems. But the ideas that prove successful can be useful on a large scale for society as well as its institutions. The operators of the EEA’s NGO Programmes have therefore decided to continue their joint work across Europe, in the hope that the large financing systems will incorporate these concerns into their practice in the future.

For more information: Veronika Mora,