On 7 June, 2018 in Sofia, the Open Society Institute – Sofia Foundation (OSI-S) and its partners – the Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation (WCIF) and the Trust for Social Achievement Foundation (TSA) hosted the official launch of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria. The Active Citizen Fund Bulgaria, amounting 15 500 000 EUR, is part of the EEA Grants for the period 2014-2021, funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The objective of the Active Citizens Fund is: “Civil society and active citizenship strengthened and vulnerable groups empowered”. The launch event was attended by more than 300 representatives of civil society organizations.
“The civil sector in Bulgaria is experiencing hard times but the Active Citizens Fund is a great opportunity for development of common civic activities”, Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev said in his welcome address to the participants in the event. He also mentioned that the state had a duty to support the third sector without making the latter dependent on this support. “However, the ultimate goal we have to pursue is for the society to support its civil society organizations”, Donchev said.
Mr Sjur Larsen, Director for Central Europe and EEA Grants in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed the Bulgarian audience. “We see civil societies in many countries in Central Europe still weak and we see that many individual organizations are small. This is a challenge both to the sustainability of these organizations and for their ability to voice their views. Strengthening and supporting civil society all across Europe is an indispensable element in Norwegian policy to defend and promote democratic values in Europe”, he said.
According to Mr. Larsen, “NGOs that are an independent force are in a unique position to promote ideas, values and also accountability from the government. When we as Norway, through the EEA Grants promote civil society all across Europe, we are building on our own experience. The role of civil society in Norway as a watchdog, as a consultative body and in engaging citizens has been and continues to be of great importance for our society. NGO involvement and engagement help us reach good compromise, find good solutions and focus on the common good for everybody.’’
At the end of his speech Mr. Larsen talked about the expectations of the Donors: “In few years we hope to see the rights for vulnerable groups further secured and improved. We hope to see more people, especially youth, to have greater knowledge and experience with democratic processes. We hope to see more advocacy work in practice, and we hope to see also Roma people benefiting from the exchange for health professionals. But most importantly and overarching is the fact that we would like to see more people engaged.”
“The majority of Bulgarian citizens are not convinced that democracy is the best form of governance. The majority feel underrepresented in the democratic institutions. A large number of Bulgarians, approximately 80%, shy away from any organized form of association. They are not members of any organization. The Active Citizens Fund aims at addressing this civic passivity.” This is what Georgi Stoytchev, Executive Director of Open Society Institute – Sofia (OSI-S), said at the official launching of the Active Citizens Fund in Bulgaria. The main focus of the Fund in the next seven years will be to strengthen democratic society and respect for human rights and build the capacity of the civil sector, Stoytchev pointed out.
During the first panel of the launch event data was presented about public attitudes to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental human rights in Bulgaria. The data presented by Ivanka Ivanova, Law Program Director, Open Society Institute – Sofia, was from the nationally representative opinion polls carried out by OSI-Sofia in April 2018. Mrs. Ivanova underlined that the majority of Bulgarian citizens did not feel represented in the democratic institutions. They also believe that the laws in the country do not apply equally to everyone and they stay alienated from public life. “Participation is the other big gap between Bulgaria and the EU Member States, participation remains particularly low in Bulgaria: 80% of the citizens are not members of any organizations”, Ivanova said.
People who express their trust in NGOs have formed their opinion from first-hand impressions or the media. Lack of awareness about the work of NGOs is the main reason people give about their lack of trust or opinion about NGOs (47% of the respondents who mistrust NGOs and 53% of respondents without opinion)”. This is what Boyan Zahariev, Public Policies Program Director of Open Society Institute – Sofia, said, presenting data from national opinion polls carried out by Open Society Institute – Sofia about the state of civil society organizations in Bulgaria.
Robert-Jan Uhl from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) addressed the challenges facing civil society organizations in the EU working in the area of human rights protection. In the run-up to the official launching of the Active Citizens Fund in Bulgaria, Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, said: “EEA and Norway grants contribute to improving the quality of life of people across Europe. The EEA and the Donor States are also important strategic partners of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, insofar as we work together to raise awareness about fundamental rights across the EU. Today’s launching of the Active Citizens Fund in Bulgaria is one more step in this process and the Fund will help the Bulgarian civil society to better promote social cohesion and development as well as respect for human rights of all communities in the country.
The main programme priorities and financial instruments of the Fund were presented at the event. Elitsa Markova, Programme Manager of the Fund for Bulgaria, announced the main priorities: improving democratic and civic culture and awareness, enhancing support for human rights, empowerment of vulnerable groups, boosting the contribution of civil society organizations to gender equality and prevention of gender-based violence, boosting the involvement of citizens with environment protection with regard to climate change, building the capacity and sustainability of the civil sector, including civil society organizations.
Elitsa Markova also addressed the budget distribution by priorities, eligible applicants and partners and the support mechanisms including calls for strategic initiatives, the ongoing small initiative scheme, the Bilateral Fund, etc. Iliyana Nikolova, Executive Director of Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation, and Sarah Perrine, Chief Executive Officer of the Trust for Social Achievement, took part in the presentation of the goals and priorities of the Fund.
Czilla Czimbalmos, Senior adviser, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, also took part in the event and presented the opportunities for development of partnership projects between NGOs from Bulgaria and the Donor States.
Open Society Institute – Sofia is the Fund Operator of the Active Citizens Fund in Bulgaria in partnership with Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation and Trust for Social Achievement Foundation.