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Filling in the Gaps of Democracy

September 22, 2013 - Adam Reichardt - Interviews



ADAM REICHARDT: The European Endowment for Democracy has emerged as an initiative credited to the Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski. How would you describe the origins and aims of this organisation?

JERZY POMIANOWSKI: The initiative as we see it now and as it has developed during the last two years was brought to the attention of the European Union and its members states by Minister Sikorski just after the collapse of the democratic process in Belarus on December 19th 2010. But it is important to admit that this was just the right moment to bring back an idea that had been floated several times in the past. Politicians, scholars and experts at think tanks had been calling on Europe to create a mechanism that is similar to the National Endowment for Democracy (in the United States) for quite some time. This mechanism needed to be somewhat independent and flexible, but at the same represent the general European approach to democracy support as a moral concept.

Among the original supporters even before 2010, I would mention Markus Meckel from Germany, who on several occasions brought up such an idea. Some of this energy is probably what stimulated the European Union to create the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) – which is still a relatively new instrument, adopted formally in 2006. The creation of the EIDHR shows that the European approach to the ideas of democracy support, especially during the last ten years, has been developing and becoming more and more present in European debate. Having said that, we can now better understand how the political impetus of Minister Sikorski reached a certain audience that was already rather receptive to the idea. Plus, it was a key moment in time to do so: the collapse of the democratic process in Belarus and just two weeks before the revolution in Tunisia.

What was the reaction to the call for creating a European Endowment for Democracy?

Obviously, the political energy and political context gave a lot of support to the idea. It became part of one of the priorities of the Polish Presidency of the EU in 2011. This gave us an additionally strong position to pursue this idea, using formal instruments of the EU which are in the hands of every rotating presidency.

But let’s not forget that at the same time there was a significant degree of criticism vis-à-vis EU funding for democracy support as over-bureaucratic, slow and not able to address the complexity of the needs of people in a rapidly changing political environment. This criticism was also present during this initial process of setting up the Endowment. In the beginning we did not have initial overwhelming support. On the contrary, there was a lot of reluctance and debate. Many asked “do we need this?” or “is there any specific reason to create one more institution that duplicates already existing institutions?” All of these arguments were on the table. We addressed them and at the same time we had to modify our concept in order to address the criticism, much of which was justifiable.

How will people differentiate between the EED and other EU instruments? Technically, how does it work?

Once we achieved political support for the project, we had to figure out what form this new institution would take. One suggestion was the form of an international organisation, such as the OECD or OSCE. The second proposition was that it be established as a private foundation which would make it less dependent on governments and political pressure. This second option ended up being chosen and the Endowment became an independent NGO. At the same time the governing structure is very much like an international organisation. All member states represented by their appointed representatives.

So they can change over time?

In fact, they already have been changing, which means that this governing structure is very much based on the particular foreign policy concepts and influence of the member states. Some might see this as a weakness to the governing structure, but on the other hand it can also be seen as a strength. With representatives of the foreign ministry, we can imagine that the discussions within the Endowment could provide a political validation to its actions. Nevertheless, the discussion on issues within the governing body provides a flavour of political consensus. These ideas and debates which may start within the Endowment’s governing council can then be transferred to more formal political bodies such as the EU foreign affairs council, where the very same actors (ministers of foreign affairs) are debating key EU policies vis-à-vis the very same partners.

Basically, the Endowment could become a mechanism to “pre-cook” positions or motions, but limited to specific areas of support for beneficiaries and priorities of the Endowment.

It sounds as if the Endowment is a politically governed organisation, not particularly independent from EU politics…

In order to make this governance less political, we have additional elements on the governing board. This includes Euro-parliamentarians who represent themselves by name, as well as three representatives from EU-based NGOs who are elected to join. Yes, it is true that the majority of the governing board is made up of the member states, but we do have a strong group from the EU parliament, a group of representatives of NGOs, as well as EU institutional representatives from the EU commission and the EU external action service. This is a huge a 42-person body, which will debate and decide on the priorities of the Endowment.

The funding decisions, however, are made in the executive committee, which is made up of only seven people. Here each element is represented: NGO, parliament, and member states. These seven people are the core decision-makers that issue decisions on specific grants. The big coordination takes place in the governing board which decides on priorities; the smaller executive committee decides on specific grants and finally the executive director and the secretariat, based in Brussels, decide on the procedures and applications and basically carry out the day-to-day work of the Endowment.

What are the first priorities of the Endowment?

Geographically, we are clear. This is the European Neighbourhood. The 15 states, or rather societies, as they do not deal directly with the governments, that live around the EU – six from the Eastern Partnership and nine from the Middle East and North Africa. The thematic priorities are basically where we see a specific niche or need for the Endowment. It’s important to remember that the Endowment is not going to replace any existing instruments, so the whole concept of the Endowment is to identify and to fill the gaps where other formal funders cannot reach. So we assign ourselves the role of “gap-filler” or “bridging funders”.

Of course, the Endowment is political. So we focus ourselves on the groups and projects that are very connected to political activism. For example, groups, leaders or media that are politically active in the struggle for power, in the struggle to decide and declare strategies for their nations. Of course the focus must be on building a pluralistic democracy in their societies. And we are definitely interested in supporting everyone who will pursue this aim non-violently.

Having this role of gap filler means that we can be flexible and even a little risky with our funding choices. For example, if there is a group that an EU financial instrument cannot provide funding for, such as an unregistered group, the Endowment will find a way to provide such support. Most major funders have a general approach of project-based financing; while we can provide core funding or institutional funding to help build capacity. If there is an organisation which is too weak to produce a specific project, we will provide funding for them to strengthen their capacity to allow them to exist, to consolidate and then be ready to start bidding for big project money from project-based funders such as the EU.

Do you fear that by providing core institutional funding you could create dependencies?

It is true that institutional funding was abolished some time ago from the international donor system and not without reason. Organisations and think tanks can become dependent on this type of funding, especially if they are unable or unwilling to raise funds for their core functions on their own. Having this in mind, funding from the Endowment is for capacity building and only temporary: one year or two years. Either an organisation can build its capacity and fly on its own, or it becomes dependent. If the latter is the case, then we have taken too much risk in this process. The word “risk” is very important. Again, in the initial political declaration of the Endowment, it was clearly stated that this will be a less risk-averse organisation. If there is a weak organisation with good promise, we can take the risk that other EU institutions cannot, and provide them the necessary seed money. But we have to bear in mind, taking risks means sometimes we may fail.

How do you plan to react to political reactions from governments which might not appreciate the Endowment’s support of independent organisations in their countries?

I have a very clear statement that I am already using and communicating, and hopefully through this interview will reach even further: if there is a government that has a problem with the democracy support that the Endowment is providing, that means that the Endowment is very needed. If there is a government that has no problem with us, that means we are welcome.

One country that specifically sticks out, which as you mentioned was the impetus for the Endowment, is Belarus. Do you have any specific plans on how to deal with Belarus, considering how difficult it is for NGOs to receive foreign-based funding?

Belarus will definitely remain a central focus of EED actions. I have been in close contact with many different Belarusian activists and organisations fighting for the protection of human rights for a long time. For obvious reasons, I am not keen to provide more details here. In general we will help them become better organised and consolidated, providing the necessary assistance to those non-registered groups.

Your appointment as executive director has been a positive signal of Poland’s leadership in the Endowment. How has your personal background led you to this point in your career?

Just like 10 million other Poles, I was a young activist in 1980 and 1981 fighting against Communism. At that time, I was a university student in Warsaw. We formed the first independent student association chapter at Warsaw University and I was a founding member of the board. Within this association, I was tasked with setting up publishing activities. And for a short period of time I ran an independent publishing house. But then Marshall Law in 1981 stopped the whole process and we became illegal; Solidarity became illegal and there were many arrests. We tried to continue our publishing activity for a few years, but then resources dried up. We received some help from Sweden and Denmark, but it wasn’t enough to maintain our activities. So we decided to pool together our resources with other publishers and jointly began distributing their publications.

During martial law this was all underground. In 1980-1981, it was semi-underground as we “unofficially” used Warsaw University’s facilities. We were able to circumvent rules such as stamping each publication with the impression “For Internal Use Only”, but of course we distributed these underground publications widely. In 1984 and 1985 I became involved in building what I call “small pockets of freedom”. If we could have an activity that wasn’t necessarily political, organised around our interests and ideas and governed by ourselves – we were able to maintain it relatively free. In essence, we were building enclaves of civil society. We understood then, that if we weren’t going to get full freedom, we might as well create our own space, our own islands of freedom.

As my studies and academic interests were in oriental cultures and civilisation, I created an academic research association which organised meetings and travel abroad on topics of Aikido, Indian philosophy and music. This was “our” space – we were doing it by ourselves and no one was able to control or even access us. In fact, I did try to officially register our organisation, but it was denied by the Ministry of the Interior, explaining that we had no social value. I have this official letter even today as a reminder of what we were doing back then.

How did you find yourself in the Polish civil service after the fall of Communism?

At the beginning of the transformation process I joined the Ministry of Education and later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Basically, it was a call to young people, for them to come to the civil service and take ownership of the transformation processes. So I responded to the call and joined the Ministry of Education to help build local parent associations and independent, association-based schools. This worked very well. In a single year we stimulated the creation of more than 100 schools to be established, which became a very important mechanism in the Polish education system, stimulating competition with the public school system – in essence forcing them to reform and compete.

I was then transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, basically because of my Asian interests. The whole process of creating a new Polish foreign policy was extremely exciting. We became members of NATO and later of the EU. Our focus was to re-establish Poland’s position in the world. I have also worked for the OECD advising governments of countries after military conflict or natural disaster, such as Haiti after the earthquake. We focused on providing the government extra support in key public service delivery. Thus, making democracy work and making people believe in democracy – but from the government’s point of view. And that is how the Endowment is different. It will support the belief in democracy from the people’s point of view. What can we do to make democracy work? In the OECD I was advising governments to help show their people that democracy works. It was an interesting experience within an international organisation. This experience has come with me to the Endowment, especially since the governing structure is so similar to that of an international organisation.

How will you measure the Endowment’s success?

The first success will be a lot of good applications from partners and institutions that are not necessarily present in other grant making mechanisms. This will mean that there is a demand for the Endowment. Second, if after some time some of our beneficiaries would then successfully apply for long-term financing of big projects from other financing instruments of the EU or from bilateral donors such as Sweden, Denmark or Germany, then we can say: “These were our babies and they are now able to fly on their own.” This would also be a good measure of success for the Endowment. We are modest enough to say that we will not measure our impact by seeing if democracy in Belarus will be implemented within two years of the creation of the Endowment, because we are not that naive to believe that one organisation with a 25 million euro budget can change the course of history in only two or three years.

We need to be active and constantly consider what we can do better, and how democracy support can be performed more efficiently. Definitely, we believe that some of our evaluations and ideas would then feed and contribute to EU policy. As the executive director of the Endowment, I am tasked with presenting an annual report to the European Parliament and also to the EU foreign affairs council. We have a formal way to communicate our lessons-learnt, our ideas and recommendations for the EU. And that is definitely the key mechanism on how the Endowment can bring about real change.

Jerzy Pomianowski is the Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy. He was previously the Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2011 and 2013. During the period 2008-2011, he worked at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as the Director of the Partnership for Democratic Governance.

Adam Reichardt is the editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.

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