Civil society and civic participation are among the main priorities of Open Society Institute – Sofia. The Institute has a long tradition of building the capacity of NGO as a legitimate representative of civil society with a clear social position and recognized expertise in the equal participation in the decision-making process, as well as in encouraging public policies of civic dialogue and participation. The activities carried out throughout the years have been oriented towards strengthening the civil society institutions and creating a favorable and tolerant environment in Bulgaria based on human rights.
In 2003 OSI-Sofia launched a separate Civil Society Programme, the resources in this sector having been focused on the institutional establishment and development of civil organizations in Bulgaria until 1996. In the following years the Programme provided resources on a competitive basis in support of new civil initiatives and at the same time implemented its own initiatives, in both cases keeping its proactive role. Since 2001 the Civil Society Programme has been part of Public Sphere and Civic Engagement sector of the organization. The Programme focuses on developing NGOs in Bulgaria, the problems of minority and marginalized groups, human rights protection. At the end of 2003 the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum (BDF) was founded on the initiative of Open Society Institute – Sofia.
After 2004 the Strategy for Strengthening the Sustainability of the Non-governmental Sector in Bulgaria, funded by the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, has been a key element of the Institute’s activities oriented towards civil society. It includes piloting NGO consolidation models by topics (the so-called families – social policies, regional and local development, media, ecology). In this period OSI-Sofia played a central role in developing a Code of Ethics and Communication Strategy of the Civil Sector. The Civil Society Programme has a valuable contribution to the creation of a favorable and tolerant social environment and the improvement of the communication between the donors and the civil organizations working to solve the problems of minorities, including by maintaining the information portal of the ethnic minorities in Bulgaria www.ethnos.bg.
In 2007 the programmes European Integration and Regional Stability and Civil Society were united in European Policies and Civic Participation Programme which built on the experience and results achieved by these two programme lines. The change of focus and approach in the activity reflect the new context related to Bulgaria’s full membership of the EU and the necessity to develop civil capacity to effectively influence the process of formulating policies at a European level through the prism of the Bulgarian public interest. In the period 2007-2012 in the civic engagement sphere OSI-Sofia carried out activities oriented towards raising the awareness of the NGO sector and Bulgarian citizens of the available institutional and informal mechanisms of participation in the decision-making process at a European level; using the resources of civil society to continue the reforms in the spheres of national competence; approbation of civic participation mechanisms with the purpose of exerting influence on the formulation of European policies which are important for Bulgaria and forming and formulating informed Bulgarian positions on issues of importance to the EU. The Programme combines research and analytical approaches with advocacy activities and monitoring in terms of the relevant institutions.
Some of the important Civil Society initiatives in the period 2008-2012 include:
- Holding a series of public discussions on European topics of importance to Bulgaria, oriented towards rediscovering and contributing to the solidarity in united Europe within Plan D of the European Commission for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate.
- Stimulating the informed participation of the Bulgarian NGO sector in the decision-making process at a European level.
- Undertaking a wide consultation process on adopting the audiovisual media services directive in the Bulgarian legislation.
- Funding projects of disadvantaged groups and the NGO families within the Empowerment of the Powerless project, financed by Trust for Civil Society in CEE, to facilitate the social and economic integration of marginalized groups (minorities; single parents; the elderly; the disabled; children in risk; people living in isolated and remote regions, etc.)
- Assessment of civil society in Bulgaria (the so-called Civil Society Index) according to an international methodology and as a local partner of CIVICUS and in cooperation with UNDP at a national level.
- European Citizens’ Panel – New Democratic Toolbox for New Institutions project in cooperation with ECAS and partners from Hungary, Latvia and Germany with the support of the European Commission, Education and Culture DG. Four national citizen’s panels were carried out within the project in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Latvia on the topic: Which are the best methods for interaction between EU and civil society.
- Support for the programme and organizational development of Citizen Participation Forum (CPF). After the six regional forums that took place in 2011 in the planning regions to prepare civil organizations for effective inclusion in the process of EU funds programming and of regional planning for the period 2014-2020, the members of CPF almost doubled and at the moment there are over 100 organizations from the whole country.
- National discussion with over 100 citizens and representatives of NGOs from all over the country on the mechanisms by means of which Bulgarian citizens may participate in the decision-making process on a European level and/or assert their rights of European citizens – part of the Carrousel project under the Europe for the Citizens Programme of the European Commission.
- In 2012 OSI-Sofia was elected Operator of NGO Programme in Bulgaria under the EEA Financial Mechanism 2009-2014. The Programme was carried out by the Institute based on an agreement signed with the Financial Mechanism Office in Brussels in partnership with Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation in the period 2012-2017. Its total value was nearly EUR 11.8 million provided by the donor countries – Island, Lichtenstein and Norway and used to fund over 454 initiatives of NGOs aiming to promote the development of the civil sector and its contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development of the country.
- Participation of the Bulgarian citizens in the process of EU funds programming and regional planning for the period 2014-2020 and civil contribution the formation of European policies. The main purpose of the initiative was to support the participation of the Bulgarian citizens in the process of EU funds programming and regional planning for the period 2014-2020.
- Pluralism vs. Populism during Crisis with the financial support of the Crisis Fund of the network of Open Society foundations. The main purpose was to facilitate the formulation of sustainable, fair, open and evidence-based public policies during crisis by providing support for professional and objective media created for public benefit and reflecting various viewpoints.
In 2017 Open Society Institute – Sofia – in partnership with Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation and Trust for Social Achievement Foundation was elected Operator of Active Citizens Fund under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area 2014-2012. The Active Citizens Fund in Bulgaria amounts to EUR 15 500 000, provided entirely by the donor countries – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The programme will operate until 2024 and will contribute to achieving the general objectives of EEA FM and the Norwegian FM to decrease the economic and social differences and strengthen the bilateral relations between the beneficiary countries and the donor countries.