At the end of 2015 there were 45,500 NGOs in Romania. According to the national institute of statistics, 21% of them were active in the social/charitable sector, 19% in the sports field, 13% in education and about 6% in the health sector (1). NGOs in the social/charitable sector were the most numerous and also had the highest income level and the highest number of employees compared to the other sectors. Indeed, between 2010-2016, data shows that Romanian citizens became increasingly aware of the existence and activity of the non-governmental sector and more people started to trust the work of NGOs.
Furthermore, according to the USAID Index on Sustainability of Civil Society Organizations the years 2014 and 2015 marked a slight increase of financial sustainability for the non-governmental sector in Romania. This increase is primarily due to the income received from private sources (companies and individual donors) and international funding (cooperation programs). Indeed, despite the fact that NGOs are increasingly showing a greater tendency to diversify their funding sources, the primary source of funding is still that of individual, private donation. One of the best mechanisms to gather these donations is the “redirect 2%” process, where citizens can donate 2% of their income taxes to any registered non-profit organization (including political party) or faith organization, if they request to do so (2).
At the same time, however, recent years have shown a remarkable decrease in the level of international private funding received by NGOs in Romania. Only 6% of NGOs had foreign or international foundations as their main source of funding in 2016, representing a decline of over 50% compared to 2010 (3). Working in a small, local NGO myself, I have experienced firsthand many of the daily challenges related to a lack of funding. One such example is the limited number of staff left with the task of running the organization and its projects, while simultaneously attempting to fundraise and mobilize resources.
Fundraising is particularly challenging in a small organization, especially if the organisation’s focus is taboo, as is the case for NGOs working on issues such as sexuality education, abortion, LGBTQI rights or sexual and reproductive rights. While organisations working on these ‘controversial’ issues can, at times, rely on progressive legislation and state support to continue their work, this is not always the case in Romania. In 2015, only 6,5% of NGOs had a local or central budget (money provided by the government) as their main financing source and this figure had hardly improved since 2010. Financing from external public sources such as the EU or other foreign or international governmental structures represented the most important source of funding for 34% of NGOs, with a notable increase from 2010, especially due to the structural funds mechanisms being unblocked after a long pause in their functioning. Since February 2013, four European Commission funded operational programs have been blocked due to poor implementation of the previous cycle 2009-2011 (4).
But why is it that Romanian NGOs feel the need to rely upon foreign funding and why are they not receiving ample financial support from the government?
According to the data, over 70% of NGO representatives think that those who criticize the government expose themselves to the risk of losing their public financing (5). The same percentage thinks that Romanian politicians don’t encourage public debate and thus, given their mistrust in public authorities, 30% of NGOs never use them as partners or beneficiaries in their work (6). This point is crucial when one considers the great need for partnership between the government and civil society in public policy development, especially when civil society has played such an important role in criticizing the government and resisting corruption in Romania.
Indeed, one of the primary purposes of NGOs is to participate in public policy development, by representing the needs of various groups and individual. In the years before Romania joined the EU (2007) two important laws were adopted: one on free access to information of public interest and another one regarding the transparency of decision making processes in public administration. The latter is especially important since it gives NGOs the legal framework to ask for public debates on upcoming laws. However, research shows that this law has been largely ignored. Similarly, the law on access to information of public interest has been largely ineffective, since authorities have shown a tendency to take their time in granting the requested information and in some cases, they have pointblank refused to grant any information at all. In the case of the latter, the organization requesting information has no choice but to appeal to the justice system, and this process is is time-consuming and expensive.
The involvement of Romanian civil society in the development of public policies is therefore paradoxical. On the one hand, NGOs and civic groups have made great progress in their bid to influence governmental decision. On the other hand, however, the context of public decision making processes is so unpredictable, that these successes are often nullified by newly adopted laws and procedures. Some of the most common non-transparent practices include the adoption of public budgets without consultations and the abuse of the emergency ordinances system (which allows the parliament at its own initiative or at the government’s request to adopt laws or legislative projects using the respective chamber’s emergency procedure), by using it in cases when the reasons behind remain a mystery to the public. In the beginning of 2017, the adoption by the government of such an ordinance is exactly what sparked the biggest protest since 1989 (the fall of communism). This ordinance would have modified significantly some offences in the penal code which would have decriminalised official misconduct in cases where the financial damage is less than 200,000 lei (€40,000).
Another recent challenge to NGOs involvement in public policy development is the accusation that NGOs are foreign agents (usually under George Soros), working against Romanian interests. These accusations were initially launched by electoral competitors and but are now continually brought up in discussions by high-ranking officials for the state.
Such widespread mistrust of NGOs, combined with the critical financial situation of many has led to an increasingly restrictive space for the work of civil society actors. The number of organizations using advocacy instruments derived from Romanian laws regarding say, the transparency of decision making processes or the access to information of public interest has been steadily decreasing since 2010. Although there is cooperation between NGOs and the public sector, there are also significant doubts regarding the authorities’ interest in the objectives of the nongovernmental sector and growing suspicion of authorities’ motivation for acting in one way or another, where cases of corruption have often been recorded. All of these factors combine to produce a difficult environment for the work of NGOs, and a space that is increasingly defined by its limitations. Opportunities also arise and the increased partnership between civil society organizations shows signs of resistance and contributes to finding innovative ways of continuing their work, despite the challenging context.
(1) Romania 2017. Sectrorul Neguvernamental: profil, tendinte, provocari, Fundatia pentru Dezvoltarea Societatii Civile, Bucuresti, available here http://www.ies.org.ro/library/files/romania-2017.pdf
(2) Idem, p.80
(5) Romania 2017. Sectrorul Neguvernamental: profil, tendinte, provocari, Fundatia pentru Dezvoltarea Societatii Civile, Bucuresti, available here http://www.ies.org.ro/library/files/romania-2017.pdf