Civil society development in Poland on the crossroads of political game

26 May 2017 | Civic Space

Filip Pazderski, Policy Analyst of the Democracy and Civil Society Programme in the Institute of Public Affairs (PL) and representing his organisation in the Board of the European Civic Forum, gave an interview to Visegrad Insight, an opinion journal led by accomplished editors from the Visegrad Group countries. In his interview Filip notably explains the controversial move of the Polish government to take control over foreign funds aimed at supporting civil society organisations in the country, especially the EEA-Norway grants. The complete interview can be found below or on the original webpage.


Poland – after the last Parliamentary election – has joined the group of countries that build their self-esteem by promoting national sovereignty, a chosen set of national values and in opposition to any foreign influence. In order to gain political capital, the ruling party’s politicians have started claiming that they are the sole authority when it comes to deciding which course the country should take. Apparently, this could also have a negative influence on civil society, especially so for organizations that obtain some financial support from abroad. Surprisingly to some, the government’s position has finally reached loggerheads with an unlikely diplomatic opponent, Norway.

The Polish-Norwegian chess game

During negotiations over the roughly €809 million from the European Economic Area and Norway Grants that was to be accorded to Poland, the discussion took an abrupt turn leaving the possibility that all the funds could be withheld. What was the cause of the dispute? The proposed €40 million which would be dedicated to supporting the development of civil society in Poland.

The disagreement started when the Law and Justice party (PiS), the conservative government currently in power, suggested that the operator for these funds should be a central agency responsible directly to the prime minister and composed, in large part, by representatives of the government. One could expect such course of events after reading a proposal of a new law announced in December 2016 that proposed establishing such a new entity which would provide centralised administration over the civil society sector (see its latest version) – called The National Centre for Civil Society Development.

After some rumours had been exchanged between civil-society sector experts, this idea was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister of Poland, Piotr Gliński, at the end of March, 2017. Since then, we now officially know that the Polish government wants this entity to become the operator for the NGO component of the EEA and Norway Grants.

However, at same time and from different sources, it was learned that the Norwegian government is standing firm on its position that such an operator can in no way be associated with the government if it is to support the development of a strong, independent civil society. This position was officially reinforced by the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, in an interview on the 7th of May, after she had discussed the issue in Brussels with the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

As a result, we find ourselves in a potential stalemate, where the solution could be that one of the players (or both) will overturn the table. The real goal in this game is not which of the players is going to win, but what outcomes it will bring to the Polish civil society as a whole.

Why the Norwegian Funds are so important for the Polish government...

The stakes in this game are quite high if we put the whole situation in a context of the conditions of Polish civic sector functioning . Within the last edition of the Norwegian Funds (2014-2017), around 130 million PLN were spent supporting NGOs. It was an amount comparable to the funds dedicated to supporting NGOs’ operations by the main Polish government’s funding programme dedicated to the same purpose – a Citizens Initiative Fund, FIO (with an annual budget of 60 million PLN). Since PiS went into the last elections with a promise of supporting civil society development, the government needs the Norwegian funds to be able to show the result to their own supporters.

In the previous years, these funds were used to support (according to the guidelines developed with the Norwegians) such aims as increasing citizens’ participation in public life, promoting democratic values and human rights, encouraging advocacy and civic control and supporting vulnerable/minority groups (including anti-discrimination education and counteracting hate-speech). To say the least, none of these initiatives are on the top of current government’s political agenda.

In this context, being able to transfer Norwegian funds to realising one’s own political agenda and supporting the NGOs that are perceived as friendlier to the government’s platform (sometimes even directly related to the ruling party) must sound tempting for PiS. Unfortunately, the government’s fight to take control over how the Norwegian grants are distributed come at a time when there are growing divisions within the non-government sector. This might also be one of the effects of the defamation campaign that was started, with participation from the government’s representatives, against the Batory Foundation – the Polish operator of the last edition of Norwegian Funds. In this campaign, a coalition of conservative (government-friendly) NGOs was involved that was created ad hoc in February 2017. As a result, NGOs that are originally meant to build social bonds and foster dialogue within the society are being put in middle of a political fight and are finding themselves divided on ideological terms.

…and how these Funds can support civic sector, instead…

We have to also consider how important the issue of gaining financial support is for the Polish NGOs’ sector. From research conducted for the “Report on the State of Civil Society in the EU and Russia” (recently issued by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum), we know that several of the most important factors deteriorating the condition for civil society organisations’ (CSOs) operations are the poor level of private donations, weak state support and financing conditions in general. The latter aspect appeared to be especially crucial when considering the main challenges and problems that were indicated by the CSOs’ representatives in the survey. More specifically, the research pointed out problems with financial stability (and diversity) as well as public funding (especially from EU funds) and the lack of awareness to sector needs within the society and authorities.

After being asked about their own organisations, the same CSOs’ representatives highlighted the reduction of funds for activity and the need to search for them from diversified sources as the most significant challenge. In addition, organisational problems, such as a lack of human resources, work overload, a lack of knowledgeable employees and even threats to their future existence appeared. The CSOs working on human rights, especially with different minority groups, are in the worst position as they operate within the public discourse, which has become more discriminatory and based on hate speech and which generally does not garner any reaction from those in power (for more – see: Polish case study in the “Report on the State of Civil Society in the EU and Russia”).

What can happen next?

When the future of the Norwegian funds is concerned, it seems that we have two main possible scenarios. The negotiations between the Polish and Norwegian governments can stay frozen, which means that Poland wouldn’t get any of the funds from the whole €809 million until a solution is found. A similar situation has already happened in Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s government in 2014 also wanted to take over control of the Norwegian founds for local CSOs and which ended with the Norwegians stopping the transfer of all their funds to Hungary for more than one year. It might be hard to imagine that the Polish government will resign from getting such an amount of money, but recently we have heard about other economically irrational ideas (i.e. related to the EU refugee relocation mechanism). And this decision can always be rationalised to the public as a form of protection of Polish interests from outside influence. However, the negotiations will probably be continued in order to reach an agreement.

If they fail, another possibility is that the funds dedicated to civil society will be separated from the whole sum dedicated to Poland. In such a case, the EEA and Norway Financial Mechanisms Office in Brussels will choose independently an operating entity in Poland. The Norwegian Prime Minister has already suggested that this is a possible outcome, and it would mean that the table has not been overturned for the Polish NGOs.

And what about the Polish civic sector? Well, its life without the Norwegian funds would not be strewn with roses; however, it already has gone through difficult times. This situation has also motivated CSOs to act; the sector has started to organise itself by establishing several thematic coalitions. Some CSOs started changing the mode of their operation and have opened themselves up more to the people, building or enlarging circles of their followers and supporters. All of these facts have created some potential for counteracting the main problems of the Polish civic sector that have been pointed out for years – the CSOs are too dependent on public support and separate from the society. Once they will overcome these issues due to adopting new internal arrangements and innovative methods for CSOs’ operations, the civil society in Poland may still benefit from its current struggles. It can come out stronger than before by learning and prevailing over the situation it faces now.