Civil society in post-Soviet space: legitimacy, linkage and learning


“Partly free” countries in the post-Soviet space must fight even harder now to protect growing civil societies, argues Orysia Lutsevych, the manager of the Ukraine Forum in London-based think tank Chatham House, where she focuses on social change and the role of civil society in democratic transitions in the post-Soviet region.

Among the four countries of this group, Ukraine has one of the strongest CSO advocacy capacities, followed by Armenia, Moldova and Georgia. There are many external obstacles in all four countries, but two specific challenges are impairing the sector’s effectiveness, she writes for Open Democracy:

  • The first challenge is a gap between formal CSOs and citizens. Levels of participation in CSOs in the region are low and membership is in the single digits. Downward accountability to constituencies is practically non-existent. Even in Ukraine, an annual surveys of CSOsand charities shows that only around 50% prepare annual reports, much less report to the state, and public dissemination of annual reports is negligible. The sector could be defined as an “NGO-cracy”, where influence on public policy comes from expertise and connection to policy-makers and Western donors, rather than collective pressure of citizens united by common public interest…
  • The second major challenge is an over-reliance on foreign donors for funding, especially for advocacy work. Accountability is mostly upwards—to donors and not to society. None of the countries in the last five years have substantially improved its financial sustainability score, remaining much lower compared to Baltic states. In addition, private sector or local charities in the region rarely support democracy-related work. …

If CSOs in this region would like to have a transformative power, they need to reinforce capacities that increase their competitive advantage, Lutsevych adds. By reinforcing the “Three Ls”:  legitimacy, linkage and learning, CSOs could be better equipped to serve their constituency and be more effective in advancing social change:

  • First, legitimacy is a basis for a credible and powerful voice. It is achieved by strong connection to stakeholders, truly independent governance systems and adherence to the mission. If CSOs demand more democratic practices from the state, their own organizations must comply with the transparent governance norms in order to put pressure on political elites. When CSOs engage in advocacy and try to push political society, it is crucial that they represent not a position of several independent experts but an identifiable constituency. Legitimacy also requires adherence to a mission-driven agenda rather than a partisan position. ….
  • Second, linkages to other change-makers, domestic and international civil society networks could create a safety net and help accumulate “people power”. It is common practice for CSOs to form coalitions with other CSOs in the region, but the sector often exists as a parallel reality to state and business. Building connections to market forces and the private sector, which is now mostly seen as a potential source of funding, could reinforce pressure for reforms. …
  • Finally, learning about successes and failures of the sector in promoting change could provide inspiration. There are not enough practical case studies in this region about CSO impact, yet the 25 years of post-Soviet transition provide rich material for reflection. It is important to understand where the leverage of the sector is coming from: expertise, media pressure, funding, high quality services, innovation, links with the West, feedback from beneficiaries or all of the above.

The key question should be: what does it take to be a high-impact CSO? Lutsevych concludes.


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