Civil Dialogue in Bulgaria: two versions of the same story

This week I was invited to join the Council of Europe’s Conference of International NGOs in Sofia to learn about how civil society participate in decision-making. While were met with hospitality and delicious food, I found myself leaving with very different versions of the same story. One from the government and another from NGOs. Such a discrepancy can partly be observed everywhere, as we have different roles and views. However, part of this is specific to post-Soviet countries, and fairly new members of the EU; where laws sometimes are put in place before attitudes and mindsets have changed, making implementation and enforcement difficult.

The government’s version

‘We always use the capacity of civil society in drafting of laws, in an early stage of preparation … All NGOs are free to express and share their opinion’ – Mr Lazar Lazarov, Deputy Minister of Labour & Social Policy

Mr Lazarov explained that Bulgaria has has an Economic and Social Council since 2003, following the example of the European Economic and Social Committee, composed of equal number of representatives from the employers associations, trade unions and civil society. According to law, Bulgaria has tripart Councils in all sectorial areas, including on employment, disability, women and men, and social inclusion. For the last five years they have taken a non-legislative approach for coordination with civil society, on deinstitutionalization of child care and on child protection. There are also draft laws on gender equality, and one on social services, both including the involvement of NGOs.

Funding for services providing NGOs is decentralised and under the responsibility of municipalities. Mr Lazarov praised civil society for providing services in an innovative way, which in the long-term may make it into national policy making. Future funding of NGOs relying on limited European Social Fund, will depend on their quality of service, the Minister explained.

Mr Petko Petkov, Deputy Minister of Justice, considered that the involvement of NGOs have improved the last years; There is a draft law proposing registration of NGOs should be an administrative process, instead of dealt by the courts. Public NGOs are listed on the Ministry’s website, although due to technical problems all information is not accessible. This may change with a proposal to move it to the state agency that register companies. Information about private NGOs are not available via the Ministry.

The government is obliged to answer all questions from NGOs and citizens, providing that the information is public. Mr Petkov further explained that a government working group consist of academic, NGOs and experts from the Ministry, which presents draft amendments to a law. A public consultation is made available on the government’s website, and announced in the media. Sometimes a roundtable is also organised. The consultation period can last between two weeks and three months. The working group present to the Council of Ministers a revised draft amendments, motivating which proposals of the consultation it has taken on board or not. NGOs have another opportunity when the amendment reach the Parliament.

Read also the ‘Comments of the Bulgarian Government to the report of the Commissioner for Human Rights following his visit to Bulgaria on 9-11 February 2015′.

Civil society’s version

We meet with NGOs working in the field of social rights, gender equality and public participation (their names remains anonymous).

Some NGOs praised the government for having its statutory instruments in place since several years and that they consult with NGOs. The ‘door is always open’ and the meetings are minuted and recorded. A good practice was shared of a coalition of NGOs that collaboration with politicians, lawyers, and external experts, which led to the adoption of a legal framework against gender based violence. A key factor was the opportunity of working with newly elected MPs.

‘Bulgaria has brilliant laws on disability, but the country is still not accessible.’

Many were critical to strategies and plans not being implemented and consultations being ad-hoc and not transparent. Consultation is on urgent micro-matters, and do not change the the status quo. Some viewed their own involvement as a way to legitimate the decisions by the state, disconnected from NGOs own agenda. Public consultations are online, although there is no notification, and it is difficult to find the information. Responses are sent directly to the expert groups, deciding themselves what they take into account. The government does not publicly communicate their motivation, nor do they inform which NGOs that have responded.

Since 2012 the government has an Strategy for Support to Civil Society Organisations Development, although not a single action point has been implemented. NGOs lobbied the Parliament to revise the Strategy to be obligatory, but the only amendment considered regards reducing administrative burden.

NGOs have an uncertain existence, due to lack of sustainable funding. The state provides funding only for a few established NGOs, others are depending on private or local funding. There is a lack of transparency in terms of who receives funding and for what purpose. In some cases NGOs misuse the system and access funding for other interest than that of people in need.

Bulgaria has an impressive number of 65 national consultative bodies, but disappointing lack of common standards to guarantee a meaningful dialogue. The government’s Advisory Councils are regulated by law and the opinion of the Council is therefore taken into account, for the Administrative and Public Council this is not the case. Further, there is no mechanism in place for selection of NGOs. While the government put very high requirement for NGOs to be members, only junior civil servants attend.

The NGO School of Politics studied governmental advisory bodies in ten European countries; Bulgaria lack a contact point to NGOs, which other countries have, and it does not have a regulation on how to elect NGOs to these bodies.

NGOs calls for transparency and fair competition for funding. They also wished to exchange good practices from other countries on how to influence policy making. Some expressed that even careful diplomatic approaches is meet with resistance. The resistance is twofolded; Decision makers do not want to give up their power and is therefore reluctant to involve civil society. Secondly, post-Soviet countries share the challenge of citizens not knowing their rights and mistrusting NGOs intention to receive funding. Work therefore has to be done in terms of awareness raising and changing attitudes of the role of civil society.

Council of Europe Conference of INGOs will prepare a report following the visit with recommendations in support of public participation of NGOs in Bulgaria.

Additional, we also had the opportunity to meet the national and local ombudswoman of Sofia, who shared with us their role in supporting civil society. Read my blog about our meeting.

Read also about the Legal Framework for Not-for-Profit Organizations in Central and Eastern Europe

Thanks to Anna Rurka (President of the Conference of INGOs) for the invitation, and to School of Politics for hosting us!