Western donors need to rethink their policies for supporting social change in former communist states of Eastern Europe in order to support vulnerable democracies, especially by enabling local civil society to create demand for alternative models of development among its citizens.

Today most of the countries of the former Soviet Union face the challenge of consolidating democratic structures, which remain at the mercy of ruling elites. Civil society organisations, where they have not been co-opted by still centralist states, have also, too often remained weak and ineffectual.

That is why a new policy thrust from donors is required, one which I outline below. It would call on donors to make longer term, conditional commitments to build civil society actors from the bottom up, targeting its efforts on increased citizen engagement in public life.

There are, I believe three missing pieces in the social change puzzle. The first and the most important piece is a weak link between Western assistance and wider society. Millions of foreign aid is invested in policy-relevant organisations such as watchdog groups, think tanks, and advocacy groups. By channelling most of its assistance through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) donors have assumed too readily that these groups are anchored in the society and effectively represent certain stakeholders. The reality on the ground is different.

In Georgia and Moldova NGOs are the least understood public institutions. In Ukraine only about 5 per cent of citizens report any kind of organisational membership. Significantly, citizens in all three countries rarely give donations or volunteer for these groups. As a result, the circle of citizens participating in organized civil society is very narrow.

Citizens not at the heart of NGOs, become passive consumers of democracy and development focused financial aid instead of the driving force behind democratic change.  Local civil society actors become actors without society.

The second missing piece is donors’ belief that a few well-managed and pro-reform minded groups can influence national policies on the ground. This has resulted in the emergence of an ‘NGO-cracy’, where professional NGO leaders use access to domestic policy-makers and Western donors to influence public policies, yet are themselves disconnected from the public at large.

They tend to be too focused on themselves trying to influence government policy rather than trying to mobilise change-minded citizens. As a result the NGOs have a poor track record in changing the rules of the game. A new report on policy-relevant research in Ukraine points to NGOs’ having little or no influence on the policy making process, despite the adoption of a progressive law on civil society organization and the existence of numerous public councils.

A detailed examination of available records reveals that Western assistance does not filter down to informal grassroots citizen initiatives such as cultural or educational bodies, faith-based groups, business associations, and especially not to independent smaller and regional groups and informal community activists.  These groups could exert more policy influence, especially on the local level due to wider membership base, power of citizen mobilization and issue-based advocacy.

Thirdly, Westerns donors often fail to see the need for a wider approach to civil society. The strength of civil society is often equated with the professional management and capacities of locally registered groups.  Much of capacity-building effort is invested in building the hardware of these organisations (internal management, compliance with the USAID funding procedures, etc) at the expense of the software (developing constituency, shaping public opinion, or creating social demand for social change).

This organization-centred approach misses key issues. Post-Soviet societies, exhausted by tiresome and incomplete democratic transition, suffer from modern “incivilities” such as dramatic wealth disparities, corruption and extensive citizen reliance on informal clientelist networks designed to find their ways around the dysfunctional system.  As the result, society itself does not demand open and democratic rules of the game.

These corrosive social trends are particularly visible in Ukraine and Moldova, where around 30 per cent of citizens report offering bribes in 2010. Public space is narrow and most crucial policy decisions are regularly taken ‘behind closed doors’.

To support local agents of change means to create demand for new patterns of behaviour and to raise the expectations of local societies for more accountability and transparency. Rather than a top-down approach, whereby local NGOs are forced to work with the government, a bottom up policy is needed. It would entail, for example, bringing Western European grassroots organizations into programme design and decision-making. Groups that have experience in community organizing, digital mobilisation, civic movement building, membership development, nationwide consolations, and development of local philanthropy could inspire a new generation of civic leadership in the region.

Non-conventional actors such as youth groups, students’ associations and universities, citizens’ initiative groups, intellectual circles, parents associations, cultural festivals, schools and religious organizations that pursue charitable and community goals should be included in the game.

Crucially donors need to consider incorporating conditionality into their support for NGOs, partly based on criteria including connections with citizens, connectivity with other civic groups, buy-in from local communities, or co-funding for projects from local sources.

This, of course, would clearly require another, far reaching innovation from donors, namely long-term commitment, rather than merely project-based approach, which recognises that neither democracy nor civil society is an instant coffee.

This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.