Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 11
20 March 2000

Stefan Batory Foundation P O L A N D:
Partners without Partnerships

Jacek Wojnarowski and Nev Jefferies

Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was an exponential increase in the number of contacts between Western organizations, both donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While early contacts were often marked by mutual ignorance, valuable partnerships did emerge. But it is surprising how long it took for what seem like obvious lessons to be learned.

One well-publicized example of early contact can be found in Romania, which attracted massive attention in the Western media and saw an armada of Western organizations set off for the Balkans to rescue the Romanian orphans.

But there were also other, less paternalistic, encouraging examples of international solidarity. A group of West European foundations created the European Foundation Center. The Fondation de France helped to set up and financially support its daughter organization - Fondation de Pologne. Lester Salamon of the Johns Hopkins University brought its Philanthropy Fellows to Poland in 1990 and along with major US funders launched a number of training programs for the third sector. A number of Dutch foundations organized a consortium for assistance to CEE, and this was mirrored by the establishment of Charity Know How in the UK. Independent foundations were followed by a number of multilateral agencies and individual government-funded schemes.

Early ignorance

These early contacts were often marked by mutual ignorance. Goodwill often overcame the difficulties, but relationships, even between NGOs, tended to be primarily donor-recipient in nature, with the Eastern "partner" simply implementing activities designed and funded by the Westerners. Later, the financial or material donations made by Western organizations were accompanied by "technical assistance" - mostly training, typically in Western management techniques.

But large-scale technical assistance programs were not always appropriately designed and did not consider the actual absorptive capacity in the region. Some multilateral donors - the EU Phare Programme is a good example - have often stimulated donor-driven projects or programs that were not relevant to local needs. "Technical assistance" funds often went to expatriate experts. In Poland these tended to stay in the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw, the country's most luxurious at the time. The scale of the phenomenon led Polish NGOs to coin the term "Marriott Brigade Syndrome."

A dawning understanding

As the 1990s unfolded, Western organizations and their Eastern counterparts gradually came to understand that while the differences between East and West have blurred and shifted, they have not disappeared. The legacy of the Cold War divide is more subtle and complex than any of us had thought.

In particular, there was a need for Westerners to better understand that Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS had a history which included a charitable sector, semi-formal organizations, clubs and networks that had existed before the Communist period, and to some extent during it, in manifold legal and illegal forms. This rich tradition of individual and community action and the values which support it have too often been ignored by Westerners, who behaved as it they were introducing these ideas for the first time.

Second, the simple export of models based on different legal, cultural, social and political conditions was gradually understood by both Easterners and Westerners to be seldom possible. In the field of fundraising, for example, Western approaches are often embedded in certain traditions and assumptions about market behavior which do not necessarily exist in the region.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this story is just how long it took before these rather triumphalist approaches were dropped and better practices introduced.

Culture of cooperation

In some countries with richer charitable traditions indigenous NGOs partnered with Western organizations were able to reduce the asymmetry in their relationships. NGOs with stronger project design skills and more management know-how could take a more proactive position vis-a-vis Western aid. They were able to reject some proposals brought from the West and in some cases were equal partners in project development. For weaker organizations, relationship remained more of a patron-client type, with difficult topics censored lest assistance be withdrawn.

The Stefan Batory Foundation - one of the largest private non-endowed foundations in Poland - aimed from the very beginning at fostering partnerships between NGOs, both within the country and abroad. Initially, these efforts were focused within the region. The priority was to overcome the legacy of the totalitarian past and to build new relations between nations and individuals. The foundation also made efforts to guide Western partners - the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Ford, King Baudouin and C S Mott Foundations, Charity Know How, and the Fondation de France, among others - into the world of Polish non-profits.

The relatively stable financial situation of the Batory Foundation (it is supported by George Soros) and the fact that the Western partners knew that there was a genuine will to work together enabled it to become an equal partner. Soros-funded organizations and others that enjoy long-term strategic support are thus in a unique position to develop this "culture of cooperation."

While many so-called partnerships were very unequal, it would be wrong to lose sight of the very valuable impact that many of the relationships forged across Europe have had. Relationships between individuals and organizations have sometimes had a significant ripple effect, as ideas and inspiration have spread. The best partnerships have been based on common purposes and common values. Diplomacy, empathy, cultural sensitivity, a willingness to compromise - all of these "softer skills" are even more necessary than hard cash for successful partnerships across borders.

Filling the vacuum

What is the future role for such partnerships? Over the next ten years, the process of building a Europe based on diversity and mutuality will depend heavily on relationships between not only states but citizens. While NGOs in CEE and the CIS need to build relationships with private and public sectors within their own countries, Western and Eastern NGOs have much to gain by working together on pan-European issues such as the impact of the EU accession process, globalization, environmental issues, human rights and not least the challenge of establishing a lasting peace for the entire continent.

One particular challenge confronting NGOs in CEE and the CIS is the scale of social need. The creation of welfare states in Western Europe after the Second World War has not been matched by post-1989 governments in either CEE or the CIS; indeed, governments simply withdrew from supporting many social services. NGOs will need to be dynamic, effective and professionally managed if they are to make any real contribution to filling this vacuum. Cross-border partnerships can help here if they are based on an equitable balance; allow for the two-way transfer of know-how; and encourage creativity, efficiency, professionalism and financial sustainability.

It will take decades or generations to increase wealth in CEE and the CIS. What could be done relatively quickly, however, is to transfer the very precious tradition of a "culture of giving," which people in the region have largely lost. This could be an important focus for future partnerships between Western organizations and those in CEE and the CIS.

Jacek Wojnarowski and Nev Jefferies

Jacek Wojnarowski is executive director of the Stefan Batory Foundation.

Nev Jefferies is director of Charity Know How.

First published in Alliance, vol 5, no 1 in March 2000.



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