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Artur Kacprzak

Polish NGOs in The European Union – The Art of Survival

‘There could be no justice, but everything in its right place must be!’ a certain Goral woman of my acquaintance used to say. It is something one would like to shout out to Brussels while witnessing how the European Union allocates grants to non-governmental organizations.

How many worldwide East European NGOs do you know? Author: AK


On 4 June 1989, the first partly free election was held. The USSR collapsed. The Red Army left Poland. Democracy made its comeback to the Vistula country and from the very beginning was facing two banes of the previous system. First came the legacy of nearly 50 years: atomized and divided society unable to work in team, distrustful and lost, surrounded by suddenly emerging free market reality. Second was country’s backwardness. While, during 45 years after the war, Western democracies were prospering unconcerned under the American protection system and generously backed by the Marshall Plan, on the other side of the Iron Curtain the civilization achievements were being destroyed tenaciously and effectively. Even though more than 20 years of coping with the unwanted legacy passed, there is still much to do.

Standards of political culture together with levels of prosperity and development are still falling short of those maintained in Western Europe. There is nothing strange with it, and, well, there could never even be. At the time of Eastern Europe being exploited without any chance for resistance, Western Europe was establishing its superiority in all fields. Paradoxically, the biggest achievement of the transformation process is the transformation itself, which, after all, Western Europe did not have to undergo. The advantage of the old European Union gained during those years is not, and will not be for a long time, possible to get by the new Union members such as Poland.

1944: The end of the upraising in Paris and Warsaw. Right - author Jack Downey, source: / Left - movie frame from The City of Ruins, source: YouTube

Polish non-governmental organizations

The introduction above gives an answer why the East is backward in comparison to the Western countries regarding culture, technology and research, economy, well, everything. The third sector is not an exception. It is hard to wonder that the development of Polish non-governmental organizations has not reached the West-European standards, since it has been developing only for 20 years. It is scarcely anything comparing with British or French organizations which have been operating two or three times longer.

Experience is only one of the factors determining who gains the advantage. Wealth is another one. Again, there is a chasm. If we assume that the NGOs are strong in the strength of their countries’ business sector, then how powerful are the Polish organizations? They are weak because both of them are the same age. Naturally Polish sector cannot provide comparable backing to the one the Western NGOs are receiving from their regional companies. Besides, it is worth to emphasize that operating methods in the non-governmental realm and business world differ. Term known in the third sector as ‘cooperation’ is called ‘competition’ in business, and a partner becomes a rival who fights unscrupulously for the place in the market. Therefore, instead of supporting non-governmental organizations at home, business sector fights for its own survival first.

What shall we say about an average citizen? This potential donor’s net wages are 600 EUR on average. Besides, every 10th citizen is unemployed or an economic migrant. The only positive act is that organizations of public good allowed to receive 1 percent of income tax from individuals, but it remains a drop in the bucket.

To sum up, one can safely say that country’s conditions for operating NGOs create no earthly paradise. The Polish business sector’s standing and financial situation of an average citizen are a cause of NGOs’ limited operational capacity. In such situation the state support and help from wealthy U.S., German, Swiss and Scandinavian organizations save the day. Poland’s accession into the European Union was supposed to be the end of NGOs’ financial worry.

Why not the EU?

When Poland acceded into the European Union – the biggest grant provider in the world – in 2004, it seemed that any financial problems of the non-governmental organizations would disappear for good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elżbieta Kaca in her report for the Institute of the Public Affairs uncovered a vast disparity. The facts speak for themselves – please, compare numbers of grants given by the European Committee for development aid to organizations, institutions and companies in member states, which are: France – 331, Great Britain – 309, Italy – 256, Poland (highest position of a new member in the list) – 18 (!), Czech Republic – 11 (!), Estonia – 9 (!).

These data present allocation of 7.64 billion EUR, which is 20 percent of total amount for EU development aid. What is the cause of such asymmetry? Two issues are: supplementing own financial contribution and, not less important, language of an application. The own financial contribution – modest 20 to 25 percent which we encounter most frequently among requirements – is an insurmountable barrier. You can count on one hand how many organizations in Poland are able to put 20 000 EUR, let alone bigger amounts, of the own financial contribution. The amounts, which Brussels might regard as too low, are still too high here in Warsaw. Criteria regarding grant providing process are adjusted according to the big Western organizations’ needs. Being well fed with grants for decades, they increased in size and number, and are able to enforce policy of subsidizing. This policy is blocking a way for their colleges from the East to the same source of money. Of course it is befitting to mention there was a small concession granted: lowering the amount of own contribution to 10 percent. However, considering the duration of preferential treatment, it could only be deemed a trivial courtesy. How could anybody reach the Champions League’s level in 3 years, while others had 60 years for it?

Language is another key issue in the battle for resources. There is a reason why the highest number of grants comes to the Great Britain and France. British and French are the only languages which the applications are accepted in. Is it fair to the societies of the countries where even the youngest generations managed to brush with learning Russian in a public and obligatory system?After all, there are 23 official languages of the Union. Why the applications must be filed only in English or French? Expertise in writing such application in a foreign language itself maters as well as the language correctness, and, moreover, access to information regarding a grant. Statistics show that Polish organizations are not the only ones who suffer from this requirement.

Sin of oblivion

Photos of cars produced in Communist Germany and Poland in the '50s; citizens of the Western countries lack understanding what life reality and its consequences on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain were. Authors: Stahlkocher and Herranderssvensson, source:

I do not want to think that the presented situation is a sign of a conspiracy plot hatched by the old Union countries which had arranged how to separate new members’ NGOs from the water hole. I set above the historical context not without a reason, for the real roots of injustice regarding grant providing process lie deep. It is something I would call ‘a sin of oblivion’ – there is a loss of understanding the factors which caused separation of routes to development on both sides of the continent several generations back.

When one side flourished, the other barely existed. A geographical split between regions with big numerous organizations, and small sparse ones has its reasons. Not for a first time I notice my neighbours from Western Europe forgetting, or not realizing, that conditions they could grow up in are not their contribution, and the lack of such condition on the other side cannot be blamed on local citizens. More empathy and understanding after 70 years which passed from the end of the second war would bring actual and not fictitious justice on the European continent, also in concern to the Union grants distribution.

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Łodzianin, rocznik 1983, dziennikarz, bloger, manager. Współzałożyciel Fundacji Wspólna Europa wydawcy - Portalu o Partnerstwie Wschodnim. Wychowanek XXVI LO w Łodzi. Absolwent Wydziału Stosunków Międzynarodowych i Politologicznych Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego. Student Studium Europy Wschodniej Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego na specjalizacji: Rosja. Obszar zainteresowań: polska i unijna polityką wschodnia, Rosja. tel. +48 694 473 288; e-mail: [email protected]

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