free zone / NGO zone

Actors of Social Change - Interview with Tsveta Andreeva and Oleksandr Butsenko

Anna Malinowska talks to Tsveta Andreeva from the the European Cultural Foundation and Oleksandr Butsenko, director of the Development Centre – Democracy through Culture in Kiev, about the prospects for networking between Polish and Ukrainian organizations and the role of culture in the lives of local communities.

How would an NGO go about starting a collaboration with a Ukrainian partner?
Oleksandr Butsenko: First of all, you need to have an idea of what you want to do. It helps to know some active players in Ukraine who can help you get in touch with an interesting organization that you can start a project with. You can also look in a database of potential parters. Desire, enthusiasm, and good luck are also important.

Our NGOs certainly don’t lack enthusiasm. So what is the problem? Why are there so few trans-border projects?
OB: Lack of information is the main problem. I’m thinking of such basic tools as websites with information about third sector organizations in Ukraine and Poland and presentations of what they do. These are the basics of networking. With good will on both sides, such tools would go a long way towards making collaboration more effective. Meanwhile, we don’t know the people and their ideas, their plans, and even their language and culture. It is a common and ubiquitous problem at both the national and international level. In Ukraine, even in large cities such as Kiev, we don’t know what projects are currently being conducted by different organizations.

How can we find anything out about the other side? Do we need to go on vacation to Ukraine?
Tsveta Andreeva: If you really intend to work with any of these countries, you need to take serious steps – not just one trip, one visit, or one good idea. It needs long term investments. We can always find an NGO from Ukraine for a short term project, like a year or two. The problem is that Eastern Partnership countries require the long term investment of time and effort from European Union organizations. I’ve heard of many cases where Ukrainian activists and an EU organization collaborated for a short time, and after the project ended, people were often disappointed and didn’t see the point of investing in such partnerships. That is why we recommend that after having found a parter, youdo a pilot project with them, or you look for a big network. When you multiply parters, you can also multiply your results.

But small NGOs rarely plan “long term investments,” which are more the domain of government policy.
OB: There is a bilateral agreement between Poland and Ukraine, but it now needs to be filled in with new content, and this is the role of independent organizations. Higher level changes regarding financing and the visa regime are also necessary, of course, but the rest is up to bottom-up initiatives.

TA: The initiative is always bottom up – it’s driven by civil society, it’s not a matter of governmental framework. Such frameworks, if they exist, can be helpful. They actually work quite well, as long as the right people know about them — which takes us back to the issue of the lack of information...

Polish NGOs still look more to the West in the belief that they have more to learn more from Western parters. How can we encourage them to look to the East?
TA: It is easer to cooperate with the West. Grants, local authorities, private sponsors: all of these are more common in the West. But I think there are greater advantages and more interesting experiences to be found in the East.

How can Poland take advantage of its role as the bridge between the East and the West?
OB: Poland could take some of its western experience and even western funds and apply them to the enormous creative potential of the East. New ideas come from the West, but they are best conveyed to Ukrainians by Poles rather than Englishmen, for instance. Ukrainians feel comfortable and at home in Poland.

TA: I consider Poland to be an excellent transmitter of culture between the East and the West. And while governments see that opportunity, NGOs aren’t as involved in that collaboration. For me, the bottom-up approach, while still rare, is an absolute necessity.

Perhaps what’s missing is one strong, common goal, like Euro 2012 for sports operators from Poland and Ukraine, something that could motivate culture organizations at every level?
TA: Ideally yes, but the cultural sector is hard to consolidate. And it’s a problem everywhere you go – getting people to speak in one independent yet unified voice. The most difficult part is to articulate that one request, that one particular common goal. That is why part of this workshop is devoted to advocacy. We want to show the participants that cultural projects cannot be extracted from policy, they cannot focus solely on results and the artistic process, but should have their own position vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Keep the political and economic situation in mind, but pay attention to what a cultural project can do to change the situation. We want cultural sector activists to become to “actors of social change” in their local communities.

What is culture-based local community development? Does it work?
OB: It does work, especially in these times of crisis, because every local community has the potential for culture. It is an opportunity to develop creativity, new visions, and to use historical contexts. It is one of the pillars of sustainable development, especially at the local level. When it comes to the activities and the future of local communities, we should first focus on history, heritage, and cultural operators, and treat the economy as a secondary issue, because culture is really is an instrument to make our lives better. Culture is not just about singing and dancing — it is part of life.

In these times of crisis, culture is one of the first things to be cut from the budget.
OB: Some people think that culture does not bring economic benefits, but they are wrong. Culture is economically important: it attracts tourists, investors, and new citizens.

Many NGO are seen more as hobby clubs, not as places where actors of change are born. Do NGOs need to become more professional?
TA: Every NGO fills a niche in society. The third sector shows up wherever the public or private sector fails. It doesn’t matter whether it is a small, amateur NGO, or a professional organization. They are created whenever something needs to be done. If you consider professionalization to be the capacity of an organization to run a project, to multiply the sustainable results of their project and its impact, then yes, every organization could use some professionalization. But who’s going to do it? Some organizations don’t even realize that they lack the necessary skills.. They need a small push to help them understand.

There are many people who would like to be active, but don’t want to be stuck in grant applications and papers, in a bureaucratic world.
OB: Setting goals is a necessary part of every project, just like the final report – there’s nothing bureaucratic about it. NGOs are in the creative sector, but it could also be described as the illusion sector, because every organization thinks it has the best know-how. Every organization should be open to development. On the other hand, state and local structures need to understand that NGOs are civil society organizations, but consists of real people. As the Irish prime minister once said: “We don't live in an economy, we live in a society,” so the structures need to be flexible.