194. A Closer Look at the Slovak NGO Community

By
Sabina Crisen

The unexpected and impressive growth and development of the Slovak non-governmental organization (NGO) community, which has simply mushroomed over the past few years, stems from a rather unique situation. Paradoxically, it was the very policies of the former Vladimir Meciar-led government, ousted from power through democratic elections in 1998 and dubbed by the West as isolationist, nationalist and, in general, domestically repressive, that are responsible for the breadth and strength of the NGO community . And this has happened in a place which until recently, with the exception of Yugoslavia, was the least likely to promote such healthy civic democratic growth.

During the Meciar government, as a direct consequence of its restrictive policies, most if not all critical elements in the government ministries were ousted, taking refuge in the then few existing non-governmental umbrella coalitions, like the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) based in Bratislava and founded shortly after Slovakia's split with the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Academic Information Agency, Service Center for the Third Sector (SAIA-SCTS). These and other similar entities were unified in their belief against the Meciar government's policies, which oriented Slovakia's political and economic development away from the West. With the 1998 victory of the opposition and the election of a democratic, pro- Western government, many of these former political dissidents have returned to their positions in government ministries but, unlike their counterparts in the rest of Eastern Europe, they have resisted the temptation to transform these entities into political parties. Instead, in their various ministerial posts, they have continued to support and involve the civic associations, think tanks and foundations in which they previously took refuge as viable partners in the decision-making process. Consequently, Meciar's government can be credited with inadvertedly being responsible for bolstering relations between a thriving third sector and the current ruling government, thereby generating a healthy amount of criticism, dialogue and general support for democratic principles.

Despite natural differences among Slovak NGOs, the overall third sector community seems to have bypassed the rest of the region's traditional obstacle - a lack of involvement and participation of civic society in the decision-making process. This particular asset of well- developed, sophisticated NGOs can be partially attributed to the sharing of a common base of beliefs and due to the extensive network of cooperation established when the Slovak NGO community came together to help topple the Meciar government in the "OK98" campaign as well as to the current ruling leadership and its determination to respect and advocate democratic principles. Consequently, think tanks and research institutes such as the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) founded in 1997 by Slovakia's current Ambassador to the U.S., Martin Butora, then a prominent political dissident, SFPA, the Slovak Political Science Association, the Center for European Policy, the Center for Economic Development, and the Slovak Institute for International Studies, which focus on the study and promotion of foreign policy issues, seem to dominate the scene. There are also entities that examine cross-boundary issues such as minority rights, corruption and humanitarian concerns like the Berlin-led Transparency International, with chapters in the rest of Europe and Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, US and Canada, and Africa, the Children of Slovakia Foundation, and the Citizen and Democracy Foundation - Minority Rights Group-Slovakia.

Some of these entities, particularly those research institutes and think tanks focusing on foreign policy and democracy-building issues, have established either informal or direct links with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In light of the positive image Slovakia currently enjoys with the West, this linkage is looked upon as beneficial and indicative of the healthy relations between the third sector and the ruling government. The issue of non-partisanship, however, does emerge. While attempting to address all aspects of a given issue, thereby engaging in some criticism of governmental policies, most of these NGOs are hard pressed to be too critical. The danger is the possibility of becoming too centralized, thereby unknowingly turning into apologists for a government they all innately credit and support for its overall democratic stance and Slovakia's improved image with the West .

A telling indication is the overall number of Slovak NGOs based and operating solely in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava. Out of the 14,227 nation-wide NGOs registered with the Slovak Commercial Register in 1999, the overwhelming majority where based in Bratislava. Out of the "most active" 2,045 NGOs polled in June 1999, the local SAIA-SCTS identified 740 institutions as native to Bratislava, with the rest scattered unevenly throughout Slovakia's provinces. Of Bratislava's most prominent NGOs interviewed for this article, to date, besides SAIA , which is a resource information center with nine offices nation-wide, only SFPA has demonstrated a real effort to decentralize , with branch offices in Presov and Banska Bystrica and 15 discussion clubs throughout Slovakia.

This centralization is also indicative of the nature of funding for these NGOs. There is a dangerous tendency to depend almost completely on foreign funding - which usually targets already prominent organizations in Slovakia's capital - for both administrative as well as project activity costs. This is a result of the absence of a tradition for fund-raising as well as a lack of a national basis for local grant foundations in Slovakia. Encouragingly, some limited efforts to tap local sources for sustainability and endowment costs are beginning, led by entities with considerable network ties to the global NGO community like Children for Slovakia Foundation, SFPA and the PHARE-sponsored Civil Society Development Foundation (NPOA).

In light of the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) recent decision to label Slovakia as "graduated" from economic assistance [roundly criticized as premature by the Slovak NGO community] and the impending loss of additional resources previously channeled to Slovakia through foreign foundations, a more concerted effort to develop a national source of funding needs to emerge over the next few years, weaning the Slovak NGO community from its dependency on foreign funds. Initiatives like the Donor's Forum, an informal group of grant-making organizations that distribute financial resources to Slovak NGOs and which seeks to improve financial support for the third sector, and the G3S Gremium coalition, composed of elected representatives of Slovak NGOs and which seeks to develop cooperation and solidarity within the third sector by establishing relations with representatives of the state and local governments, the business sector and unions as well as with international NGOs, are steps in the right direction. One aspect which should be encouraged is more direct regional network ties with similar grant-making forums in other countries, emphasizing methods of cooperation which work simultaneously on two levels - the national and the supranational.

As this study demonstrates, to date, there are few formal partnerships connecting the prominent Slovak NGO community to counterparts in the rest of Eastern Europe and Europe. Curiously, it is not the expected research institutes and think tanks focusing on foreign policy and democracy-building - issues relevant to the entire region's security and stability - who are developing these larger, regional NGO networks and collaborative efforts but the non-profit, humanitarian and cross-border entities, like Children for Slovakia Foundation, the G3S Gremium, and Transparency International, or umbrella European grant foundations like the PHARE-funded NPOA.

The expansion of traditional think tank and research institute activities to the rest of Slovakia and further out into the region should be encouraged, precisely given their focus on democracy-building issues and recent interest in developing training programs for newly emerging NGOs. The Slovak NGO experience in raising civic education awareness, creating a viable civic society and providing a non-partisan approach to the policy decision-making process, as well as their superior organizational structure and mature relations with both the government and the business sectors, can serve as a model for Eastern Europe's less civic- minded developed areas such as the Balkans. The Slovak experience and its success is particularly noteworthy and useful in that it provides a regional rather than a foreign model which can be adapted to the specific needs of countries currently undergoing similar transitional democracy experiences and should be encouraged to expand both to the east as well as the south.

The material for this piece was collected during a recent trip to Slovakia and is not meant to represent the entire array and spectrum of Slovakia's NGO community. The opinions and findings presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant