Countering Shrinking Space in Poland

Shrinking space for civil society organisations in Poland has been a subject of debate since late 2015. Despite or because of the shrinking space, the collaboration among civil society organisations has been unprecedented

Shrinking space for civil society organisations in Poland has been a subject of debate since late 2015. Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice Party, won Parliamentary elections in October that year. Prior to that, in August 2015, Poles elected Andrzej Duda, an unknown Law and Justice politician, whose victory came as a surprise to political analysts, journalists and also parts of Polish society. How has this contributed to the ‘shrinking space’ for civil society and what does it mean for civil society organisations and philanthropy in Poland – what are the symptoms and consequences?

A new civil society

Let me start from scratch. The Law and Justice Party has its own vision for civil society in Poland. A vision that is also driven by Piotr Glinski, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, an academic and sociologist with an interest in civil society.

In the 2015 parliamentarian campaign, the Law and Justice Party manifesto was the only one which included a chapter on civil society. The importance of civil society might appear quite surprising. In the “illiberal democracy”, which the Polish government seeks to implement, there is very little room for civil society organisations that stand for values like human rights, minorities’ rights, or the rule of law. However, there is room for a “new civil society” that stands for traditional, patriotic values, shared by the governing majority. In 2016 the new Civil Society Department was established in the Chancellery of the Prime Minister which drafts laws on supporting civil society. Unfortunately, supporting civil society organisations does not include the introduction of tax incentives, as in Germany or France, or simplifying regulations (what is postulated by CSOs for a long time), but rather implies targeted streaming of public funding.

Restrictions on public funding

The first significant piece of legislation drafted by the Civil Society Department was an Act on the National Institute of Freedom. In 2017 the Polish government created a new administrative body intending to distribute public funds to civil society organisations. The Institute operates the Fund for Social Initiatives (formerly operated by The Ministry of Family, Labour, and Social Policy), and a number of new programmes, among them the Programme for the Development of Civic Organisations (core support grants, intervention grants, grants for building endowment strategies) and Solidarity Corpus (national volunteering programme).

Although bylaws of these new programmes and other important documents were subjects of public consultations (currently public consultations are rather an exception), the majority of opinions submitted during the consultation process have not been accepted. The Polish Donors Forum proposed amendments regarding good grant-making practice. However, this proposal was rejected.

How do these new programmes work in practice? It’s still a bit early to judge, since the calls for proposals haven’t been resolved yet. The first actions showed the lack of transparency: the list of organisations that were qualified to submit the full proposal was published in early June, while the assessment sheets of those who were unsuccessful will be available only in 60 days. The majority of grant recipients of the Fund for Social Initiatives were small organisations operating in villages and small towns. Since most vocal support for the Law and Justice party comes from rural areas, allocation of funds to rural communities seems to be an expression of the government’s strategy. What is more – among the grant recipients, not even one organisation was engaged in issues such as migration, women’s or LGBTQ rights.

“The Repository”, a report of the National Federation of Polish NGOs (OFOP), which presents violations of the principle of subsidiarity and partnership by the Polish government over the course of cooperation with civil society organisations in the period from November 2015 to November 2018, documents 25 cases of violations of good practices or rules of calls in the field of commissioning public tasks. Documented cases also show examples of violations of the competition rules – funding was received by organisations that did not have the required experience or in the most extreme cases, were registered shortly before the contest itself. It shows how you can both exclude specific organisations from competitions for the implementation of commissioned tasks and support only those selected.

Why is it that important? Philanthropy is still in the early stage of development in Poland, with the state being the major donor of civil society organisations. 22 % of the civil society income comes from the central administration and 17% from local governments.

Besides the obvious negative financial consequences for civil society organisations, restricted to public funding, the situation created enormous pressure on these few domestic donors, who support “unpopular topics”. That’s why a new EU mechanism to support civil society organisations that stand for European values and human rights is very important.

Is there any positive outcome? Again, too early to say, but it might result in the growth of individual philanthropy – CSOs are more determined to ask society for support and some citizens are more open to express their liberal values by donating money.

Limiting operational space

Funding is not the only problem. CSOs which work on topics like migrants, woman rights, domestic violence, LGBTQ rights, rule of law, etc. experience restrictions in their everyday work. A good example of bad practice is limiting access to schools for these organisations. Very often they are not allowed to run workshops for children and youth on topics like human rights, rule of low, tolerance, sexual education. Very loud cases occurred during “The Rainbow Friday”. Several schools have cancelled planned activities to promote LGBT+ acceptance after the education minister warned ahead of the event that school principals who allowed activities to take place would face consequences. She also encouraged parents to report the activities to authorities. In a statement to the Polish Press Agency, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said that they would investigate schools that proceeded with plans for Rainbow Friday, to determine whether or not they had violated the Education Act. It is not known how many schools cancelled their plans to take part in Rainbow Friday, or how many ended up going ahead despite government pressure.

Another example – The Great Orchestra for Christmas Charity, which runs the biggest charity campaign in Poland, after 23 years of getting support (free time) from public television, in 2016 was rejected access to public media. Their main goal is to support health issues (they bought medical equipment to several public hospitals, paid for refurbishment, etc.), but they also fight against hate speech and criticise politicians for using it. Due to the extreme popularity of the campaign, the Foundation immediately got the partnership of TVN, one of the two leading private television channels, and donors expressed their support by donating more than they did a year ago. 

Attacks on civil society leaders and organisations

Since 2016 the rhetoric used against CSOs has changed. Attacks on certain civil society organisations and their leaders became a tool to delegitimise their work and credibility. Targeted smear campaigns were conducted by politicians, government representatives, public and private media. The victims were a number of civil society organisations, protecting the rule of law, human and minority rights. The unprecedented campaign was run on public television’s main news programme “Wiadomosci” in Autumn 2016 for a couple of weeks. Although based on publicly available reports, it was framed as “investigative journalism” and suggested that a CSO run by the daughter of former President of Poland got the grant from local government in Warsaw due to her connections (which was not true, the call for proposals was transparent). Another TV report “investigated” cooperation of CSO run by the daughter of former President with a CSO lead by the daughter of former President of Constitutional Court. The reaction of the civil society leaders was immediate. Protesting letters signed by civil society leaders were sent to Vice-Prime Minister Piotr Glinski and a group of people including me stood down from a working group under the Prime Minister Chancellery (the group aimed to support building the programme for the development of civil society, but the work was illusionary anyway). Finally, Vice-Prime Minister publicly criticised the attacks and the campaign was over.

Several similar attacks were experienced by activists from human rights organisations (ex. Amnesty International), woman and children rights, migrants and those who protect the rule of law (ex. Akcja Demokracja).

Not only activist organisations but also the grantmaking foundation has been attacked by government and right-wing media. The Stefan Batory Foundation, a human rights and democracy funder, has been under the constant attack. The recurring anti foundation campaign was conducted extensively during the period of choosing the operator of Norwegian funds to Poland. The Batory Foundation, which was the operator in the previous edition, was competing with National Institute for Freedom, according to the government, the ideal candidate to become an operator. Fortunately, The Batory Foundation became the operator for the second time, which even doubled the number of attacks.

Besides individual attacks, the general narrative changed. Even in official government documents, the rhetoric about big, successful foundations and civil society organisations is very negative, they are called “oligarchs” and “monopolists”.

Limiting the space for dialogue

Another negative symptom of shrinking space is limiting space for dialogue. The system of public consultation became a facade. The majority of the important legislative changes were adopted without public consultation. As documented in above mentioned “Repository”, the consultations were either incorrectly announced or they presupposed a short, difficult or impossible schedule. In some cases organised consultations did not lead to constructive results. The best example in this respect is the adoption of the Act on the National Institute of Freedom – Centre for Civil Society Development – despite numerous appeals and opinions pointing to the lack of a basis for adopting this regulation, the Sejm has passed a law establishing the Institute.

Besides that, there were many changes in the structures and activities of the so-called bodies of dialogue – bodies composed of representatives of the administration and civil society, whose task is to develop strategies for the implementation of public policy.

Solidarity and collaboration

Thanks to the campaign “Civil organisatinos. It works”, civil society organisations became more visible and their work more understandable by citizens.

Collaboration – a key condition for success – is even more important in times of shrinking space. The collaboration among civil society organisations for the last couple of years has been unprecedented. And it brought very positive outcomes. Just to mention two examples. In early 2018 The Ministry of Internal Affairs drafted an amended law on public collection. The law on public collection in Poland is favourable and liberal, dated in 2014, and was adopted after 6 years advocacy campaign lead by Polish Donors Forum together with the biggest fundraising CSOs. The proposed amendment was giving a right to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to refuse registering a public collection campaign, if it doesn’t agree with the purpose (currently it can refuse only if the purpose is illegal or the organisation hasn’t submitted the report from previous public collection) and also to change the purpose of the original collection. We ran a protesting campaign together with dozen of CSOs. In one week a protesting letter to the Ministry was signed by 600 CSOs. Even more important – a similar letter was signed by more than 110,000 citizens. It was the first time in history when so many citizens supported the protest against changes in the law regarding CSOs.

Another wonderful example is a joint campaign “Civic organisations. It works”. It’s the first social campaign funded and run together by several dozens of donors and civil society organisations, intending to present the work of civil society, the outcomes of it and people behind it, to citizens.  It’s a long-term initiative, but we already see that in less than one year, thanks to the campaign, civil society organisations became more visible and their work more understandable by citizens.

Together with local governments

Collaboration with local governments also reached the next step.  On June 3rd, 2019, during the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first democratic election in Poland civil society organisations and local government representatives signed a declaration “Self-governing Republic of Poland”. This declaration aims to create conditions for both nationwide dialogues on the future of municipalities and cities, and more broadly, for joint testing of participatory models of local democracy. Both, CSOs and local authorities, declare actions to increase the subjectivity of each of them and to develop cooperation based on the principles of solidarity, independence, and partnership. The conditions of the public debate are: “a culture of dialogue, mutual trust, and cooperation, openness to new formulas of co-management and shared responsibility as well as self-limitation of public authorities in favour of freeing the social energy of the civic sector.”

Progressive mayors already try to enlarge the space for civil society and express their values like solidarity and equality. This June, for the very first time, Rafal Trzaskowski, Mayor of Warsaw took part in the Warsaw Pride. The same happened in a few other cities. But in some, the Pride was rejected by municipalities and they were only possible after the court decision.

All of these actions, both at central and local authority levels, led to the polarisation of civil society. The biggest challenge and task for civil society leaders now is to try to fight against this polarisation and speak to each other and develop civil society above divisions.

Magdalena Pekacka, Polish Donors Forum

Magdalena Pekacka is Executive Director of Polish Donors Forum and Board Member of DAFNE. Her main areas of expertise are foundation management, data and research as well as legal and fiscal environment.