If that was a movie, the annotations on the poster would have read “Memorable”, “Extraordinary”, “Two thumbs up”, “Freedom of Expression Award”, “Audience Award”… Between 16 – 18 September an abandoned textile factory in Bratislava hosted a broad debate on the future of civic activism and non-government organizations in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The Civil Society Forum was organized by CEE Trust – an independent public charity launched in January 2001 which so far has granted USD 26 million in the CEE countries.
Bright minds (political scientists, sociologists, non-profiteers, journalists, business people) - from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia discussed the state of post-communist societies 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall and suggested ways for waking up philanthropy and more viable civic engagement in the region.
There are signs of fatigue in our societies. Are NGOs still the right mechanism? – asked the executive director of the CEE Trust Rayna Gavrilova in the only speech made at the forum.
Six round tables set in the former workshops of Cvernovka worked hard to come up with important answers related to “Inspiring active citizens”, “Citizens and politics”, “NGOs and the state”, “Keeping up with the changing world”, “Civil society, old media and cyberspace”, “Business and civil society”.
The creative atmosphere in the factory was facilitated by 600 liters of soft drinks, over 2000 coffees, 3 km cables, 200 computers, 300 foldable chairs and a countless number of post-its.
However, the highest concentration of ideas per sq. m. was measured in the domain of the first ever international Social Innovation Camp, which ran alongside the forum.
“We use online stuff to change the offline world”, as Dan McQuillan, the SIC CEE’s guru, put it. Young developers, designers and social innovators divided in six groups had 48 hours to build web-based tools for social impact. Each team took an early-stage idea that tackles a social problem and turned it into a social start-up complete with working software, a community platform and a business model. The winners? “My doctor” (audience prize) – an active online database helping people find a trusted physician in their neighbourhood and "Roadar" (jury prize) – a project to assist better road safety.
The two-day CSF brainstorming confirmed it – citizenship is about taking responsibility for your own life, to get involved. As to democracy, the new common canvas of the CEE countries, Ivan Krastev, one of the 100 Foreign Policy/Prospect list of top public intellectuals in the world, summarized: Some goals have already been achieved - transformation, EU integration. But democracy should remain an aspiration, something that can motivate people’s minds. Democracy is a process that goes through different stages. It is a choice, not something that comes by default.
By Iva Stefanova
22 September 2009