Cooperation between advocacy groups and local governments
Romanian civil society started its journey after the fall of Communism and its importance began to increase mainly in the process of EU accession (1993-2004). During the communist regime, the concept of civil society had different connotations and signified autonomous and pluralist strongholds designed to counter the effects of the regime. These took many forms, including individual and private resistance, intellectuals building informal networks (Şcoala de la Păltiniş, for example), strikes, protests and similar actions (Valea Jiului in 1977, Motru in 1981, Braşov in 1987) and openly denouncing the reality of life in Romania abroad (inspired by Charter ‘77, Paul Goma wrote about respect for human rights and was labeled a traitor and arrested). Under the monopoly of the state and the all-seeing Securitate, which allowed only for certain modes of participation in society, a civil society by today’s standards was not an option. The fear of resistance was so strong that it took decades for the communist regime to permit the establishment of tenant associations – which were harmless and only dealt with administrative issues. Indicative of the attitude of the Communist Party towards people joining a cause was the immediate cancellation of the Workers’ Free Syndicate in 1979. Thus, unlike in Czechoslovakia or Poland, public criticism and alternative formal groups were not the norm and opposition manifested itself through informal networks of intellectuals.
In its current understanding, the term civil society is linked to the profound changes that society underwent during its transition towards democratic rule, for which it is considered a prerequisite. Nonetheless, given that the concept of civil society was a new one and that Romanian society as a whole struggled to understand the different actors’ roles in this new democratic architecture, some argue that the foundation for the Romanian civil society did not take place under the most auspicious circumstances. One of the issues linked to this situation was the poor correlation between CSO and government initiatives, which actively limited the potential of civil society. In the early years, external influence, be it through established Western CSOs or the European Commission directly, fostered the growth of the civil society scene, a move that was seen throughout the former Eastern Bloc states.
When it comes to the legal framework, the first CSOs established after 1989 operated under the provisions of Law 21/1924, which was replaced, in 2000, by Ordinance 26/2000. This, in turn, was approved through Law 246/2005, which is still in force. Currently, most civil society organizations are registered as associations or foundations. According to the NGO Registry maintained by the Ministry of Justice, there are 97,926 associations (including mutual aid associations) and 20,017 foundations in Romania.
As CSOs were becoming more and more common, their activity required a better legislative framework. The early 2000s were marked by the adoption of two important pieces of legislation that allowed civil society to become even more relevant. These are Law 52/2003 on decisional transparency in public administration and Law 544/2001 on the freedom of access to information. Both came about as a result of external pressure from large international assistance programs such as USAID, which requested the enactment of sunshine laws (regu- lations requiring openness in government or business), and the European Commission, which strongly recommended the development of social and civil dialog. Alongside this external pressure, NGOs themselves contributed to the public policy changes through their actions.
These two pieces of legislation marked a big step for organizations dedicated to good governance, fighting corruption, greater transparen- cy and the promotion of responsibility and integrity of public officials. These newly adopted laws provided CSOs with a useful framework in their quest to serve as thriving promoters of good governance.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the promotion of European integration exerted a continuous influence on the public agenda of CSOs. Con- sequently, the collaboration between civil society and the government started to improve, not least thanks to the creation of new institu- tionalized channels for collaboration – within the Prime Minister’s Chancellery, the College for Consultation with Associations and Founda- tions was established, with the purpose of ensuring the participation of civil society in the elaboration of public policies and in debates on important topics for Romanian society.
In the past years, civil society appears to have been activated by unfortunate events that led to vocal civic reactions. Public support and CSO interventions in important events are not only linked to increased visibility for CSOs, together with a better understanding of their role, but also helped to expose more citizens to the idea of civil society and increased their civic engagement. Apart from continuous ad- vocacy efforts, CSOs have been more visible during critical events, notably those that resulted in public demonstrations, which is why a timeline of these protests facilitates a better understanding of the broader societal climate in which Romanian civil society operates.
After the 1989 Revolution and the subsequent years of turmoil and constant protests, society did not take to the streets to express its op- position to the manner in which the country was run for many years, with certain exceptions in the case of state workers and labor unions protesting against low wages.
The first major wave of protests in recent years took place in 2012, when the then-ruling PDL party announced reforms of the healthcare sector that would allow more private entities to operate in the insurance sector and even in the provision of emergency care. The protestors declared their support for Raed Arafat, a medic credited with reforming the emergency response units, which opposed said changes. With the PSD party, then in opposition, supporting the protests, the PDL government fell.
One year later, environmental NGOs, activist groups and the wider public responded to the controversial Roșia Montană mining project. Spanning over five months and taking place in dozens of cities in Romania and abroad, the protests opposed the open-pit mining of gold and other metals using cyanide by highlighting the consequences: an ecological disaster, resettlement of the local population, the de- struction of ancient historical artefacts and, last but not least, a very small profit margin for the Romanian state. As a result of this public outcry, the government, initially a supporter of the mining project, changed its stance and refused to grant further permits to Gabriel Re- sources, the Canadian company pushing for the project. In response, the company filed a lawsuit against Romania seeking $4.4 billion in alleged losses through the World Bank’s court of arbitration.
Two years later, in 2015, a deadly fire in the Colectiv club fueled massive demonstrations against corruption (the club did not have a fire safety permit), which led to the fall of the government. People were not only angry about the incident itself, but also about the manner in which the authorities handled the aftermath of the fire, for instance by claiming that optimal care for all the wounded could be provided in Romania, only to later admit that this was not the case; unfortunately, this was too late for many of the victims.
Perhaps the best-known protests internationally are those that took place in 2017. At the time, massive civic protests against corruption broke out in many cities throughout the country, after the government passed an emergency ordinance pardoning certain acts of corrup- tion. In this particular case, not only did the procedure lack transparency and real public consultations, but it was widely perceived as designed to absolve the leader of the ruling PSD party, Liviu Dragnea, of his legal issues.
While civil society was very visible during this period and more and more people became civically engaged as a result of the overall socie- tal climate, viral anti-CSO propaganda started to be spread at a nationwide level. The main talking point was similar to the anti-NGO rhet- oric in other European countries: civil society activists were portrayed as anti-national agents serving foreign interests, especially those of George Soros. In addition, this was accompanied by anti-EU propaganda, since the EU and representatives of various EU countries had condemned the actions of the Romanian government, and by attempts to demonize Romanian citizens working abroad. After countless initiatives aimed at weakening the rule of law, a massive protest of Romanians working and living abroad was scheduled for August 10, 2018. In response to a small group of violent protestors, the authorities used disproportionate force to clear the protest venue, injuring both protesters and journalists. The politicians targeted by the angry crowds claimed that the protest was nothing short of an attempted coup d’état.
After years of civic involvement and voting not being perceived as cool on a societal level, protests – and the results they achieved – acted as a catalyst, which many people described as a “civil awakening.” This translated into the establishment of new political parties, greater citizen involvement in how the state is run, the creation of both formal and informal groups dedicated to addressing local or national is- sues, and a different perspective on the role and scope of CSOs overall.
The situation today
Official recordsby the Ministry of Justice provide data on the total number of CSOs, their founders and boards, status, location, address and identification number, but nothing about their area of activity. Moreover, this list only includes registered NGOs, while data on active organizations can be obtained from the Statistical Registry of the Ministry of Public Finance.
The main regulatory framework for CSOs are Governmental Ordinance (GO) 26/2000 and the corresponding Law no. 246/2005. Generally speaking, the regulations linked to the functioning of the NGO sector have been subject to numerous controversial changes over the years. One of these changes was made by Law no. 129/2019, aimed at preventing and combating money laundering and terrorist financing, which included amendments and supplementary legislation, including Government Ordinance no. 26/2000. Even though the main pur- pose of the law was to transpose the EU Directive on the prevention of the use of the financial system for the purpose of money laundering or terrorist financing, the Romanian law added some additional provisions regarding NGOs. One of the major issues, which caused a lot of confusion and indignation among CSOs, was the newly established obligation to declare the actual beneficiaries of their activities, which was seen as a bureaucratic burden and another way to hinder CSO activities. On account of the late transposition of the directive, the Court of Justice of the European Union also ordered Romania to pay a fine of EUR 3,000,000.
NGO activities contributed to many positive changes in Romanian society, by promoting democracy and, more specifically, by monitoring government activities, lobbying for greater transparency and accountability and expanding the scope for civic participation. Since Roma- nia’s accession to the European Union, the CSO landscape has become more dynamic and diverse. Sadly, the internal political context, together with recent international developments, are now putting brakes on the development of the civil society sector. The political actors do not fully recognize the contributions made by CSOs and even try, through legal changes and a hostile public discourse, to paint civil society entities, especially the more vocal and critical ones, as enemies. Nonetheless, the public’s level of trust in associations and foundations has risen steadily throughout the last two decades – from 19% in 1998 and 26% in 2004 (Soros Barometer 1997-2010) to 32% in 2010 (Omnibus research, CSDF 2010) and 31% in 2018 (APAPR study, 2018).
Apart from the anti-NGO sentiment that is also present at the European and international level – discrediting CSOs as elements of disrup- tion on the payroll of controversial figures (mainly George Soros) that seek to destabilize and take over countries (which was especially prevalent in the political discourse in Romania between 2016 and 2018) – other antagonizing narratives have also been circulated. Among these, the most common was linked to sources of funding – NGOs, it was argued, were receiving large amounts of money from the state, be it the national or local authorities, and to do little in return, even “biting the hand that feeds them” through their constant criticism. This is not only problematic, but also false, since the majority of CSO financial resources come either from external grants from private sources, including private donations, or from citizens redirecting a small percentage (2% and more recently 3.5%) of their income taxes. Furthermore, talking points that are often overlooked are job creation – in 2015, the NGO sector employed almost 100,000 people – and the social impact of CSOs. For example, one of their most representative, professionalized and appraised fields of activity are social ser- vices, where approximately 40% of the providers are NGOs that run nearly half of all licensed services.
Predictably, the constant repetition of this negative narrative has impacted the perception of CSOs. While the situation is better than in other CEE countries, such as Hungary and Poland, polls from 2018 show that one third of Romanians agree that George Soros has a nega- tive impact on Romania, even if no evidence supports this claim. On the other hand, more than 60% of respondents agree that NGOs play a vital role in defending and protecting democracy. While these actions have affected the sustainability of the CSO sector over the last few years, its infrastructure remains its main asset. This has not been harmed by the public discourse or by any legislation and has benefited from the influx of people newly interested in the activities of CSOs.
While CSOs are seen as synonymous with NGOs in most situations, there are different actors operating within civil society. Apart from foundations and federations, informal groups began gaining ground in recent years; their growth is linked not only to the growing engagement of citizens with issues affecting their everyday lives, but also to constant support from NGOs. While these groups often lack legal personality, they compensate with a high degree of legitimacy, as they are centered around tangible issues, target a small group of people and are established by ordinary citizens eager to solve their community’s problems. A lack of tradition in this regard causes some skepticism towards their activities and sometimes prompts the authorities to dismiss them. Simply put, public servants and elected officials have little experience in open collaboration with their citizens and often consider it peculiar at the beginning, as representatives of local NGOs point out in their interviews. Fortunately, the same representatives emphasize that constant dialog and focused talks can bridge the gap and lead to successful collaborations, as is the case in Iaşi and Făgăraş. For an informal group to be successful, it needs to have dedicated members willing to invest time and resources and to provide solutions to the issues it has identified, thereby demonstrating its capabilities.
While larger cities have a more diverse and better represented civil society, there is a noticeable trend of CSOs being established in smaller communities. Sometimes, these are individual initiatives, stemming from the particular needs and the specific social landscape of one community, while in other cases they are founded as chapters of a larger entity operating at the national level. The latter describes the situation of the community foundations, now present in 19 cities across Romania, which support the development of smaller local initiatives. While the local authorities are usually skeptical, it seems that constant communication and result-oriented projects are able to win them over. In some cases, talks about budgetary transparency are a good starting point, since there is a legal framework covering this topic.
Collaborations between civil society and local authorities
In the absence of a strong tradition in this field, collaboration between civil society organizations and local authorities faces a number of challenges.
First of all, there is a lack of strategy both on the part of local authorities and of NGOs regarding collaboration, which tends to happen as a result of subjective circumstances. One of the most frequently mentioned situation that leads to collaboration, according to our interview- ees, is the attitude of the local authorities, in many cases strongly influenced by the personality / interests / openness of the mayor.
For example, the Țara Făgărașului Community Foundation managed to collaborate with the local authorities on many projects due to the openness of both the mayor and the bureaucratic apparatus. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Bucharest municipality has become less and less open to dialog with citizens and CSOs during the mandate of the current mayor.
Similarly, without formalized channels to facilitate dialog, it comes down to the individual attributes of both CSOs and state workers to address this issue. In certain cases, it is the CSOs, including the community foundations, that identify and tackle the need for dialog, for example in Sibiu, Odorheiul Secuiesc and other municipalities. Subjective circumstances can also mean that changes in political rule and fluctuations in the attitude of the local authorities can have an impact on a particular subject or NGO. In order not to be affected by polit- ical battles and fluctuations and to assure the sustainability of the collaboration, it is important to maintain a good working relationship, based on successful projects. Such is the case in Cluj-Napoca and Sibiu, where maintaining regular dialog and collaboration with CSOs has started to become the modus operandi, thus making it difficult for an incoming administration to fully disband these processes.
Our interviews highlight another formal obstacle that hinders collaboration among CSOs and also between CSOs and the local authorities, namely the lack of a regularly updated and complete database of CSOs. At the moment, when looking for potential partners, CSOs rely on the lists of NGOs put together by the county councils plus hearsay; they lack an official list to help them in this regard. The registry maintained by the Ministry of Justice does not provide any information as to whether a CSO is still active or not, and there are no filters and search criteria based on area of interest. Such a database would be the first step towards helping both local CSOs and the local authorities to get to know each other.
Bureaucracy inside the public administration also stands in the way of fruitful collaboration between the two parties. One of our interviewees notes that this has sometimes been one of the most challenging aspects of collaborating with the local authority, due to the tortuous reporting and documentation requirements and other bureaucratic hurdles.
Apart from a lack of strategy that makes the collaboration very subjective, the capabilities of local CSOs are also often underdeveloped, as the complaints of the local authorities illustrate – NGOs may lack expertise, especially in highly specialized topics, including local budgets, as well as the resources to keep up with the bureaucratic challenges involved in collaborating with the authorities; or the local civil society may simply not cover certain fields and topics, making it impossible for the local authorities to gather any input from them (as mentioned by representatives of the local authorities in Alba Iulia and Sinaia).
In other communities, even if the situation is somewhat better, there are still elements that are missing: some fields may not be covered by civil society, such as the environment and the cultural sector. In Alba Iulia, the city manager noticed this in particular when he tried to create partnerships in these fields but could not find any NGOs from which to gather input.
This underdevelopment is seen by the local authorities as an obstacle in creating partnerships, as mentioned by the city managers of Sinaia and Alba Iulia. As a result, activities that could have been outsourced to NGOs (needs assessments, finding solutions) are instead assigned to independent experts.
Some local authorities have found other ways to build and maintain a culture of collaboration with CSOs, for example the municipal authorities in Sinaia: they started to expand their network and connections, and their solution is to groom small local organizations for a leadership role or help them to become local subsidiaries of bigger NGOs.
Other issues that CSOs face include the resistance of local bureaucracies, as civil servants are often reluctant to change their established ways and the bureaucratic procedures involved. Our interviewees also pointed out that all of them are to some extent familiar with
a certain conservatism on the part of the public administration. Regarding city managers, who can act as promoters and initiators of collaborations with civil society, they noted that overcoming barriers of perception between the city managers and other, more reluctant public servants requires proper communication, presenting the pros and cons of a decision, the drive to implement collaborations and, last but not the least, a good working relationship with the mayor.
Finally, perhaps the most pressing obstacle to collaboration between CSOs and local authorities is the lack of real dialog. Both parties have misconceptions about the other: CSOs see local authorities as bureaucratic, opaque, resistant to change, skeptical about any proposal and prone to hiding behind legislation, while the authorities tend not to trust CSOs, suspect ulterior motives and become
irritated by their insufficient knowledge of legal procedures. This translates into reluctance to collaborate and into a failure to understand the other side’s stance, needs and values. Fortunately, in most cases, once an initial dialog has been established, direct and personal contact helps to clear up such misconceptions and paves the way for future collaboration.
Our interviewees, both from civil society and the local authorities, offer solutions for improving the dialog between them. City managers believe that the dialog and thus the collaboration with CSOs could be improved by regular meetings that would create a relationship based on trust; by accepting CSOs as informed critics of local authorities’ activities and failures to act, and finally, through honesty on both sides.
On the other hand, CSOs’ suggestions for improving dialog and the collaboration include the professionalization of NGOs in order to present an attractive portfolio of past projects; greater NGO awareness and understanding of the various procedure that govern public administration; efficient communication (and communication channels), as well as transparency on the part of both parties.
List of respondents
Case study 1: The role of city managers
Nicolae Moldovan | Former City Manager of Alba Iulia
Ioana Leca | City Manager of Sibiu
Marian Panaite | City Manager of Sinaia
Bogdan Moșescu | Former City Manager of Medgidia
Case study 2:Community Foundations
Mihai Tudorică | Association for Community Relations
Doris Cojocariu | Iași Community Foundation
Marian Dobre | Cluj Community Foundation
Rozália Csáki | Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation
Ciprian Ciocan | Sibiu Community Foundation
Cristiana Metea | Țara Făgărașului Community Foundation
Gabriela Solomon | Vâlcea Community Foundation
Case study 3: Participatory budgeting
Alexandrina Dringa | CIVICA Iaşi
Dan Postolea | Iaşi municipal government
Cristiana Metea | Fundaţia Comunitară Ţara Făgăraşului
Liviu Ardelean | Făgăraş municipal government
Ana Ciceală | General Council of Bucharest
Ilinca Macarie | Bucharest 1st District Council
Liviu Mălureanu | Bucharest 3rd District Council
Daniela Popa | Deputy Mayor of Bucharest’s 1st District
Diana Culescu | Asociaţia Peisagiştilor din România
Ovidiu Cîmpean | Cluj-Napoca municipal government
Marian Dobre | Cluj Community Foundation
Case study 4: Bucharest
Ana Ciceală | Bucharest Municipal Council
Daniela Popa | Deputy Mayor of Bucharest’s 1st District
Irina Zamfirescu | Active Watch
Diana Culescu | Asociaţia Peisagiştilor din România
Carmen Nemeș | Asociaţia ANAIS
Raluca Fişer | Green Revolution