The Ukrainian Weekly #35, August 31, 1997
Copyright (c) 1997, The Ukrainian Weekly

Will NGOs save Ukraine?

by Myron B. Kuropas

In the minds of many U.S. government officials, the future of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) depends on the ability of the people to organize themselves into non-governmental organizations or NGOs.

NGOs are private associations, federations, unions, societies, and groups not founded or funded by the government. When it comes to servicing the poor, providing low cost services, building grass-roots organizations, and adapting or creating innovative programs to meet local needs, it is clear that in many instances, NGOs can often accomplish more than government agencies.

Old-line NGOs in our community are the Ukrainian National Association and the Selfreliance Federal Credit Unions.

Voluntarism is as American as apple pie. It is a unique American way of getting things done, an integral part of our civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this as early as 1832 and wrote about it in Democracy in America, his classic critique of life in the United States. "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations," he wrote. "They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books to send missionaries to the antipodes; they found in this manner hospitals, prisons, or schools. If it be proposed to inculcate some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society."

The aristocratic de Tocqueville was aware of the difficulties individuals living in a democracy faced in attaining power. All citizens are independent and feeble, he wrote. "They all, therefore, become powerless, if they do not learn voluntarily to help each other...If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy; but they might long preserve their wealth and cultivation: whereas, if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered."

Believing that civic development is an essential element in economic stability and the preservation of democratic institutions, the U.S. government, various research and think tanks, and numerous foundations have poured billions of dollars into the creation of NGOs in CEE, all since 1989. To keep track of all this funding there is even a newsletter titled NGO News which strives to keep everyone informed of what is going on.

One organization involved in the development of NGOs in Ukraine is the Counterpart Service Center (CSC), headquartered in Washington, and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

More familiar to Ukrainian Americans is the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation which was recently awarded a grant of 6.9 million dollars for a three year program titled "U.S.-Ukraine Community Partnerships for Training and Education." The goal of the program, according to Infolink," is to provide efficient, cost-effective and sustainable technical assistance, training and education to Ukrainian communities so that they may advance their role as constructive players in a democratic society." I'm not sure I understand what that means, but it sure sounds wonderful.

There is no doubt that NGOs are a viable part of a country like the United States where the government is constituted to protect our rights under the law. How effective can NGOs be, however, in a nation where there exists, as one commentator has described it, "an incoherent state tenuously connected to a demoralized society?" How can NGOs be expected to function when the government is fragmented, barely solvent, and apparently unaccountable to the citizenry?

Another question: Can there be a strong civil society in a nation that has no middle-class, where the rich have no sense of noblesse oblige (focusing only on themselves), the poor are too tired, disillusioned and powerless to act, and where the civilization is endangered because Ukrainians have not "acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life?"

Even if a civil society is created, it is not necessarily a guarantee of a strong democratic government. In an article titled "Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic," (cited in the Wilson Quarterly, Summer, 1997), Sheri Berman argues that civil society flourished in 19th century Germany and grew even stronger during the 1920s under the democratic Weimar Republic. "As middle-class Germans became frustrated with the failures of the national government ... they threw themselves into their clubs, voluntary associations, and professional organizations," she writes. This "not only deflected the citizen's energies from the politics and government, further weakening the republic's democratic institutions, but also provided the Nazis with a golden opportunity."

The Nazis infiltrated various voluntary organizations and used the talents of the people there as channels for spreading their message. Ms. Berman concludes that without strong and responsive political institutions, a vigorous civil society of the type championed by latter-day Tocquevilleans, can actually undermine liberal democracy.

Since Ukraine has no large middle-class as yet, and few viable, self-sustaining, and independent NGOs, there is little danger of a takeover by anybody. But what happens down the line when powerful NGOs do appear? What's to prevent the Communists from infiltrating them? They've done it before. Since most of the NGOs depend on terminal grants, what happens once grant money runs out? Will NGOs be able to maintain an independent existence?

The basic premise underlying NGOs is a sound one. They provide a significant first step towards the creation of a civil society. "Civil associations ... facilitate political association," wrote de Tocqueville, "but on the other hand, political association singularly strengthens and improves associations for civil purposes." In other words, there can be no meaningful civil society without political involvement by the citizenry.

Today Ukraine's citizenry remains politically lethargic. They need a jump-start to get them off their bottoms. Let's hope the people associated with U.S.-Ukraine Foundation can provide it. The emergence of a civil society in Ukraine depends on it.

Printed with permission from The Ukrainian Weekly. Vol. LXV, No. 35. August 31, 1997. Faces and Places column. Page 7. Myron Kuropas' e-mail address is:

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