Reprinted courtesy of the East European Constitutional Review
I have been asked to offer some reflections on Western aid for civil-society development in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, to look back on the past ten years, to consider the challenges of the next decade, and also to place the aid in the context of developments in the region.
I do this as someone who is in-between the categories of donor and recipient. I have worked on some democracy-related aid projects in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But my main involvement with the subject has been in studying the burgeoning world of aid for the promotion of democracy, of which civil-society assistance is a critical part. I have sought to take an independent look at this field in an effort to understand its strengths and weaknesses, how it is evolving, and how it might be improved.
Any anniversary occasion, but especially the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, presents the temptation to make rather grand statements and indulge in deep but probably not very lasting philosophizing. I have already heard various speeches and read articles occasioned by this especially important anniversary and have taken note of the serious dangers in such efforts?the danger of self-congratulation, the reverse danger of excessive gloom, and, above all, the danger of restating a stock set of platitudes and clichés.
I will attempt to avoid those temptations and dangers and will address the topic at hand in fairly plain terms. I begin with a bit of context, in a straightforward, almost clinical fashion, about the experience in the region during the past ten years and the Western role in this experience.
War and Conflict
Assessing the state of the postcommunist world, as it is often still known, is an enormous topic, one that could and, in fact, has consumed huge amounts of attention and inquiry. Here, I outline a few facts and trends, focusing initially on two essential issues?first, war and conflict and, second, the health of the many attempted transitions to democracy and capitalism.
Concerning war and conflict, we should remember that expectations about the possibility of armed conflict in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were very uncertain when the Berlin Wall fell and, two years later, when the Soviet Union broke up. There were some alarming predictions of a wave of wars and ethnic-related violence. But the truth is, most of us had little idea what to expect.
Six major armed conflicts occurred in the 1990s. Two of these were in the former Yugoslavia?the war in and over Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s, with the related fighting between Serbia and Croatia, in which approximately 200,000 people died, and the war in Kosovo in 1999, where perhaps 10,000 died. In the former Soviet Union, there was the first Chechen war of the mid-1990s, with somewhere around 70,000 deaths; the ongoing second Chechen war, with as-yet-uncounted thousands of deaths; the civil war in Tajikistan in the first half of the 1990s, where 50,000 people died; and the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh of the same years, where approximately 20,000 died. In addition, several smaller conflicts occurred?the Albanian civil war of 1997, the fighting involving Georgia and South Ossetia, the Moldovan conflict of 1992, and the fighting in Kyrgyzstan in 1990.
Alongside this sobering list is some good news, some "dogs that did not bark." Several relationships between different nationalities or ethnicities that appeared to have the potential for conflict remained within reasonable bounds, such as the Romanian-Hungarian conflict in Transylvania, the Czechs and Slovaks, the Kazakhs and Russians, the Latvians and Russians, and others.
The wars that did occur were primarily about borders and territory and about flawed politicians? use of war as a means of self-aggrandizement or self-promotion. Issues of ethnicity and nationality were often present, and ethnic tactics of the most vivid and horrible type were exploited. But the wars have not been a wave of ethnic conflict but rather a settling of borders and of territorial prerogatives. War is undoubtedly not at an end in the region. Given the problematic conditions of political life in many countries and the continuation of these conditions in what are still new states and new borders in Central Asia, southern Russia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, more armed conflicts will probably erupt in the years ahead.
The State of Transitions
The state of the many attempted transitions to democracy and capitalism is also a vast subject. Here, I can note only some of the basic trends, leaving untouched deeper questions about the texture of life and the complex cultural, moral, and personal experiences of transition. These are subjects for writers, artists, and philosophers.The many transitions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union fall into three general groups. Seven countries, mostly with relatively small populations, have made substantial progress on both democratization and economic transitions. These are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, and Slovenia. Nine are doing badly on both fronts and have authoritarian or semiauthoritarian governments and statist economies. These include all of the Central Asian countries (except Kyrgyzstan), Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and two countries in the former Yugoslavia?Serbia and Croatia. The largest category of countries, with 11 members, are those hovering uneasily between success and failure. Some are stuck in a halfway state between democracy and dictatorship and between statism and market economics; others are drifting backward, while a few are creeping ahead. This is a broad category that spans more-positive cases, such as Bulgaria, Slovakia, Macedonia, and Romania, and more-negative ones, like Ukraine and Albania, as well as Russia, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Bosnia.
Simplistic though they are, these categories show that 20 of the 27 countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are either in a transitional gray zone or are not doing well at all. For many people in these 20 countries, the basic conditions of life have worsened significantly in the past ten years. In the former Soviet Union, for example, the GDP per capita has declined more than 40 percent since 1991. The GDP per capita in Russia proper, one of the richer countries of the former Soviet Union, is now well below that of Mexico, a country commonly associated with classic Third
I will not attempt, here, to advance any explanations for the troubling state of these transitions but will set forth several conclusions about the process of transition. First, we have learned that economic and political reforms stand or fall together. At the start of the 1990s, some observers harbored the view that only strongman rule would succeed in making painful market reforms work. Others postulated that economic reforms would have to lead political reforms or vice versa. The experience on the ground has been clear?economic and political reforms reinforce each other and rarely proceed separately. This does not mean that every aspect of democratization and market reforms are complementary or that tensions of the dual transitions do not frequently arise. Yet, on the whole, countries move forward on both fronts or stay behind on both fronts.
Second, both economic and political reforms are not naturally forward-moving processes. In the excitement of the early 1990s, many people both outside and inside Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union thought that once launched, transition processes would unfold naturally, with their own internal logic and momentum. People imagined that transition would be akin to placing a boat in a rapidly moving river and then simply steering it along. It turns out that reforms can and often do get captured or blocked at every step of the way. And the capture or blockage is not only the work of the losers in the transition processes but, just as often, of the winners. Those who gain from one phase of reforms frequently seek to freeze the process in place so they can milk the benefits of whatever position they have attained. The occurrence of this phenomenon in the economic sphere has been ably identified by Joel Hellman in his influential article "Winners Take All: The Politics of Partial Reform in Postcommunist Transitions" (World Politics 50 [January 1998]).
Third, no alternative political or economic ideology has arisen to challenge democracy or market capitalism. Although democratization and market reforms are failing in many former communist countries, they are not being trumped by some other positive alternative vision. There has not emerged, for example, a coherent model of a go-slow, protected, partial-transition approach. As transitions fade or fail, they produce no new alternatives but rather end up in banal dictatorships and the bleakest of corrupted statist economies.
Fourth, elections are very limited as tools to break up concentrated power. Basically, those countries where the old power structures were genuinely overturned in 1989 or 1991 are advancing democratically, and their elections are largely meaningful. Where power structures stayed in place and only changed their labels or public faces, elections, though regularly held, are not proving very meaningful. They are manipulated by the power holders and are merely exercises relegitimizing entrenched political forces rather than allowing citizens to choose their government. In short, elections are good for distributing power that has been broken up previously; they are not good for breaking up existing power structures.
Fifth, the experience of transition has been so varied and the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have had such disparate experiences that the very concept of postcommunism is now almost useless. To say that Poland and Turkmenistan are both postcommunist states says very little. It is time to bury the concept of postcommunism. There is no postcommunist region or world; there is Central Europe, southeastern Europe, the Baltic region, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia, and a few other subregions, all better understood for their particularities rather than their commonalties.
The Western Role
The other part of the context of Western aid for civil society in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union is the overall Western role of which this aid is but one part. As with the transitions in these regions, this is a broad-ranging subject. I will be even briefer than in my treatment of the above issues, limiting myself to noting the many dimensions of the Western role. These dimensions include the following:
? The diplomatic role?the high level of government-to-government interaction between the American and West European governments, on the one hand, and the governments of the countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, on the other, on virtually every major economic, political, security, and social issue of concern;
? The military role?which includes the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, the involvement of US and West European military forces in the former Yugoslavia, and the continuing US military stance and security relationship vis-à-vis Russia;? The economic role?an increasing amount of Western trade with and investment in, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, as well as the uneven but significant spread of Western economic principles and practices;? The institutional role?above all, the prospect of accession into the European Union for some East European and Baltic states but also the increased presence of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and various other multilateral institutions;? The cultural role?from Western television, movies, music, and consumerism to scholarly exchanges and educational links;? The symbolic role?the often intangible but nonetheless extremely important influence of the West by way of example; the West as the state of "normalcy" to which many Eastern European and some former Soviet republics aspire;? And finally, the role of aid?the influence of the economic, political, social, and humanitarian aid that flowed into Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. I list aid last, not because it is the least important but to emphasize that it is just one element of a tremendously complex overall relationship.
Western aid to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was on the order of $50 billion to $100 billion in the 1990s, depending on what one counts as aid and how one measures it. This is obviously a large amount of money but in per capita terms amounts to roughly $100 to $200 per person over the decade, or $10 to $20 per person per year. This is similar to Western aid to many parts of the developing world and is not an especially intensive effort when compared, for example, to the surge of US aid to Central America in the 1980s, when, in the cause of combating the spread of leftist governments, the Reagan administration committed more than $100 per person per year in some countries.
I do not have space, here, to characterize the West?s overall post-1989 role in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in any searching or detailed way. The West generally has been a tremendously important influence in Eastern Europe, particularly in defining the basic endpoints to which transitions are directed but of only moderate importance in most of the former Soviet Union. The fact that it is generally a positive influence does not, however, remove a sense of flatness or disappointment about the Western role among many in the two regions. After the bubble of excitement around the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West never really seized the historical moment. Western societies were quick to move on with their own preoccupations and pastimes and to expect former communist countries to either get into line or go away. This was felt as a chilly reception, at least among some East Europeans. For them, it was akin to a person, who after trudging through a cold, dark forest for years, finally makes it to the grand, safe house they have been seeking as refuge. They knock at the door and are met by a blasé host who greets them perfunctorily then turns immediately back to working on a computer in another room, leaving the exhausted guest wondering whether they can come in and whether they are really welcome at all.
I cannot leave the issue of the West?s role without noting that there have been at least two major failures. One was the failure of the United States and the major European powers, in the early 1990s, to seize the moment of the breakup of the Soviet Union and make a grand gesture toward Russia?to commit a dramatic quantity of resources to help Russia with its transition, and to set Western-Russian relations on a genuinely new footing. This failure may eventually be seen as one of the greatest lost opportunities of the second half of the twentieth century. The second failure was the entire unfortunate story of Western policy toward the former Yugoslavia, and in particular Bosnia, in the first half of the 1990s.
With a decade of aid to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union under the bridge, we now take the fact of Western aid to these regions for granted. It is difficult to remember how strange and even exotic the mere idea of Western aid to these regions was, just a decade ago. During the 1980s, there had been Western aid to Solidarity in Poland and to dissident groups in some of the other communist countries. These were generally limited, specialized initiatives. Suddenly, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the ground shifted rapidly, and Western aid agencies were opening offices in Moscow and Kyiv and undertaking other previously unimaginable ventures.
The Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe had not only been sealed politically from the West, they had been aid providers themselves. Aid programs sponsored by Romania, East Germany, the former Soviet Union, and other communist countries were common in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The sudden status of these societies in the 1990s as recipients of Western aid was thus a profound reversal of their self-image as aid givers.
As Western aid providers rushed into the unfamiliar territory of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s?I am referring, here, primarily to the major public providers of Western aid rather than to private Western foundations?they tended to follow one of two approaches, neither of which proved to be an effective strategy over time.
One approach was to view the provision of aid as a continuation of the ideological battles of the Cold War period. It entailed using aid to try to promote anticommunist groups and anticommunist individuals, as well as to exclude anyone with a politically tainted past, in pursuit of the idea that transition was equivalent to a process in which the "good guys" would push the "bad guys" completely off the political stage.
This ideological approach was appealing at first; it gave aid providers a compass in societies where they had seldom traveled. Although it led aid providers to support a number of worthwhile groups and initiatives, it did not, on the whole, wear well over time as an aid strategy. The idea of a clean line between the good guys and the bad guys often proved illusory or highly subjective. Although some people stood as clear examples of each category, many individuals did not fall so easily into either category and were not especially interested in having outsiders make moralistic judgments about their pasts. In a number of states, former communists reintegrated themselves into the new pluralistic political life, gaining public support and playing by the rules. In these countries, the transition process turned out to be about not pushing certain persons off the political stage, and those outsiders who insisted on continuing to act in that fashion were seen as divisive intruders. More generally, the populations of many former communist countries quickly lost interest in ideological positioning or posturing by politicians. They looked for competency and performance in the economic and political domains and were apathetic toward, or even suspicious of, those who continued to insist on a right of place based on intrinsic ideological virtue.
The other approach or set of instincts that aid providers, especially official aid providers, applied initially to their work was the entire methodology of aid they had evolved from decades of development cooperation in the Third World?the bureaucratic structures, the strategies, the attitudes, and even the actual personnel of traditional foreign-aid programs. This was understandable, given that Western aid agencies were suddenly asked to set up programs in countries where they had never worked before and were asked to do so in a great rush. Inevitably, they drew on the methods they already knew. The essence of this approach is the external project method. This is the traditional foreign-aid approach in which an external donor organization runs all aspects of the work, largely using its own staff or expatriate consultants?from assessing the needs of the recipient country and designing the aid projects to meet those needs, to implementing the projects (with a subsidiary role for local "partners"), and later evaluating the outcome of the aid. It is a method derived from decades of working in very poor, underdeveloped countries, in which the available local human resources are thin, where the aid itself has established well-worn (largely unhealthy) patterns of dependency, and where donors have accumulated considerable expertise about the countries in which they are working.
These Third World aid patterns, themselves already subject to considerable criticism in aid circles, translated poorly to former Second World countries. Educational levels were often as high as in First World donor countries, radically altering the human-resources issue; recipient cultures were not habituated to the ways of aid donors who were accustomed to trampling, fairly unimpeded, over the sovereignty of their local partners; and donors had little if any on-the-ground experience in the countries in question.
Over time, most aid providers improved on these two initial, problematic strategies. They deemphasized ideological litmus tests and instead began to concentrate on rewarding good performance and pragmatism. They slowly began to recognize the differences between Third World and Second World patterns of underdevelopment and to develop more-genuine partnerships with local counterparts and to eschew the simplistic importation of Western models. In the economic, social, and political realms, Western aid has come to play a useful, though rarely determinative, role. Although official aid has frequently sought to produce large-scale institutional effects, its most important achievements have been the opportunities for education and growth it has offered to thousands of individuals throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Although Western aid generally plays a positive role, official aid is, after ten years, at something of an impasse: where it works, that is, where governments and major institutions make good use of it, it is not essential; where it is really needed, in the many countries failing in their economic and political transitions, it does not work well because the main recipients are rarely committed to genuine reform. In this context, aid to promote civil society is of critical importance. In the early years of the decade, most observers regarded civil-society aid as a quick-acting dose of support to expand the envelope of freedom in the initial hump of the transition from communism. The assumption was that as the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union "normalized," the more traditional forms of top-down aid would take over in importance and help move them toward the institutional consolidation of democracy and market economics. But with transitions moving slowly in most countries and running into many obstacles, civil-society aid is now seen as something much more than just an initial boost. Many aid providers have come to see civil-society development as the key to unblocking stagnant or failing transitions over the long term.
In the political domain, civil-society development is deemed crucial to stimulating the public pressure and participation necessary to force poorly functioning state institutions to become more responsive and accountable. In the social and economic domains, a more diverse and active civil society is now held out as necessary to cushion the effects of restructuring, to ensure public understanding and support for market reforms, to prevent privatization from lapsing into cronyism, to connect newly empowered local governments to citizens, and to create many of the other components necessary to the transition to market economics. In short, Western aid for civil-society development in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was originally conceived and portrayed as the key to an initial democratic breakthrough. It has assumed a much wider, more lasting role, as a critical tool in overcoming the many entrenched obstacles to the consolidation of democracy and the achievement of economic success.
Stages of Growth
Looking at civil-society aid in practice, we can see that it passed through two stages in the 1990s and now is at the threshold of a third phase. The first phase was the short, heady, idealistic time of the early 1990s. Western private foundations and the few official aid agencies that had been involved in civil-society aid made their initial contacts with new, independent civic groups and civic activists in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Time seemed to be of the essence, and small amounts of support to the right groups promised to make a great difference. During this period, the providers of civil-society aid focused on the newly emergent groups devoted to public-interest advocacy?such as human-rights groups, environmental organizations, election-monitoring groups, and civic-education associations?as well as to new, independent media, especially independent newspapers and journals. The idea was to help nurture those persons and groups fighting to assert the new freedoms, to support a core of nonpartisan but politically committed proponents of a civil society that would, in turn, serve as an incubator of democracy.
The second phase, which unfolded in the mid-1990s and continued through the rest of the decade, involved a broadening of civil-society aid. Aid providers still interpreted promoting the development of civil society in terms of supporting NGOs, but the range of NGOs and of NGO aid was expanded considerably. Aid began to go to a wider circle of groups than those in the initial wave?beyond the politically oriented advocacy groups to service-delivery NGOs, working in children?s welfare, public health, tenants? rights, and many other fields. Aid providers began to support centers for NGO training and development as NGO sectors grew rapidly, comprising thousands of organizations of all sizes.
As NGO sectors mushroomed in the recipient countries, providers of civil-society aid began to confront a number of issues and problems with civil-society aid and to accumulate a set of lessons that emerged from studies, reports, and conferences about NGO assistance. These lessons are now commonly held out as a set of "best practices" for aid donors and have rapidly taken on the quality of conventional wisdom. In this view, providers of civil-society aid are urged to: (1) go beyond providing aid to the same circle of familiar faces in the capital cities and to disseminate aid to smaller, less Westernized groups in smaller cities and rural areas; (2) help establish mechanisms and incentives inducing the well-established NGOs (which donors initially favored) to provide training to the less well established groups; (3) help NGOs develop their core organizational capacities, especially financial management and human-resources management, rather than just providing support for project activities; (4) focus on sustainability by helping NGOs diversify their donor support, develop local sources of funding, and build local habits of corporate philanthropy; (5) support work to ameliorate the enabling environment for NGOs, such as the basic legal framework for NGOs and government officials? understanding of the nature and purpose of NGOs; (6) encourage advocacy NGOs to develop more-direct ties to the citizens on whose behalf they act; (7) not assume that public-interest advocacy groups have a real social base or are inevitably representative just because of the nature of the issues they pursue; (8) encourage NGOs to develop productive partnerships, when possible, with central and local governments, moving away from the idea that advocacy NGOs must naturally take a completely independent, or even antagonistic, stance toward their governments; and (9) foster greater donor coordination to avoid duplicate funding and contradictory strategies and to promote greater funding synergies.
These lessons now have the feel of well-worn conventional wisdom, at least among habitués of the many conferences on civil-society aid in recent years. They did not have this quality five years ago; they had to be identified one by one, in response to shortcomings on the ground and the desire to do better. The fact that they have attained the status of conventional wisdom does not mean they are consistently followed in practice by most aid providers. Like most so-called best practices in the aid world, they remain aspirations for many donors.
This second phase of civil-society aid--the expansion of NGO assistance--has peaked, and a third phase may now be starting. The context of this third phase has several features: that most of the postcommunist transitions launched in the early 1990s are in a gray zone or are clearly failing; that Western aid for civil society