EU-13 NGOs want to raise awareness, but struggle with Brussels financing

European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica. Photo by: European Union

Development organizations in the European Union’s newest member states know they have some catching up to do with their counterparts in “old” Europe — a fact that’s made more difficult by the cumbersome procedures to gain access to awareness-raising funds from the European Commission.

Further, such procedures make these nongovernmental organizations feel they are somehow being penalized.

In a letter to European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica seen by Devex, development NGO platforms from all 28 EU member states have complained about the “indirectly discriminating principles” that affect funding for organizations in the newest 13 member states — the so-called EU-13 — that acceded to the bloc in 2004, 2007 and 2013. The message was delivered by the European development NGO confederation Concord and Trialog, a network of development NGOs from the new member states.

The debate revolves around activities to create better understanding on development cooperation among European citizens. The commission co-funds these projects under its Development Education and Awareness-Raising program — known as DEAR — that aims to promote the active engagement of citizens in development efforts as a means to contribute to greater policy coherence for development.

No one-size-fits-all approach

DEAR funds are managed by EuropeAid — the commission’s department for development cooperation — under its thematic program for civil society organizations and local authorities.

The commission however applies common rules for all applicants. But does a one-size-fits-all approach work within the context of a union of 28 countries?

Not according to national NGO development platforms in the EU member states. Using the same DEAR guidebook for all civil society organizations across the bloc, NGOs complain, will result in a series of administrative and capacity barriers for the majority of CSOs in terms of their ability to apply and gain access to grants — especially within the EU-13.

Smaller and less experienced CSOs lack the resources or the capacity to compete for DEAR calls for proposals or to apply for grants, according to a recent Trialog study.

The commission has informed Devex that it is aware of the NGOs’ concerns, and that a personal reply from Mimica was on its way.

THE EU-13

Joined in 2004
Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia

Joined in 2007
Bulgaria and Romania

Joined in 2013
Croatia

The discussion reflects the differences that remain between the EU’s 15 “old” member states and those that acceded during the past decade, the culmination of a process launched following the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe.

Most of the EU-13 countries emerged from the Soviet bloc that collapsed in 1989-1991. As their societies had been stifled under communist rule, the NGO sector had to develop from scratch. Moreover, development cooperation had never previously been at the forefront as a public issue.

Some differentiation, but not enough

The commission’s rules for DEAR projects do allow for some differentiation, for example in the level of co-funding. EuropeAid provides 95 percent of the funding for EU-13 NGOs, against 85 percent for organizations in the EU-15.

More problematic has been EuropeAid’s decision to raise the minimum grant size from 100,000 euros ($113,500) to 1 million euros for NGOs in the EU-13 — 3 million euros for NGOs in the EU-15 — as a means to stimulate larger, multicountry initiatives based around a specific theme. EuropeAid’s insistence on bigger projects, which is also visible for NGOs that are implementing projects in the field, is meant to encourage NGOs to work together on projects in consortiums.

But the NGO community says the increased grant threshold is a prohibitive obstacle for EU-13 NGOs that find it difficult to find the required matching 5 percent co-funding.

Under present DEAR rules, a 1 million euros project would require an NGO or CSO to bring in 50,000 euros of its own funding. This is close to impossible in a country such as Latvia, where the average NGO has an annual turnover of about 30,000 euros per year, Inese Vaivare, director of the Latvian development NGO platform Lapas, told Devex.

“Our average turnover is 60,000 euros, but we never had more than one or two staff members. As a director of the platform, I usually don’t receive a salary. I get paid as a project manager, if we have a project,” she explained.

Government subsidies offer little solace, as the Latvian foreign ministry provides Lapas a mere 25,000 euros for all its projects. This year is an exception, however. The platform was able to receive extra funding under the European Year for Development, which kicked off in January as Latvia takes over the EU presidency for six months.

The European Year of Development

With each month of the European Year for Development set to focus on a specific subtopic, Devex takes a closer look at the 12 development themes that are slated to be at the heart of European debate and decision-making in 2015.

Working on joint projects as part of a consortium may not offer the solution either.

“We’ve seen in several DEAR calls for proposals that the bigger NGOs and networks from the EU-15 countries invite their existing partner organizations or branches in the EU-13 to join in the projects,” the Lapas director noted. “By not working with a multitude of low-capacity partners, they can avoid an excessive administrative burden. But it means that organizations like ours hardly have a chance to get into the game.”

Not just about funding

Vaivare fears that without appropriate access to funds, NGOs in the newer EU member states will not be able to develop their capacity to develop and to crank up their funding, condemning them to marginality and staying stuck in a vicious circle.

If the NGOs remain small and marginal, so will the general public’s awareness and understanding of the need for development aid.

“The government would then see no reason to finance projects. Our ODA is already one of the lowest in the EU,” she stressed.

DEAR grants amount to about 30 million euros per year. In the period 2004-2013, the EU-13 was awarded 31.3 million euros, or about 14 percent of all grant sums.

Some of the new member states have been more successful than others in tapping DEAR funds. Czech CSOs obtained 30 percent of the funding for the EU-13, followed by Poland (18 percent) and Hungary (12 percent). Latvia (3 percent) meanwhile had the second-lowest rate after Slovakia (1 percent).

In their letter, the NGO platforms point to another threat: There will be no DEAR call for proposals in 2015. Instead, the commission recently issued a call pooling the DEAR funds for 2013 and 2014 together for projects under the ongoing European Year for Development.

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This might cause a significant funding gap for development NGOs.

“I’ve talked to many NGOs, and they are very pessimistic. It may force smaller organizations to close down,” Vaivare disclosed.

This is not only about access to funding, she clarified, but also about recognizing the value a diverse Europe’s different perspectives can bring to development.

“I don’t want them to see us as the poor brothers of the family. We have our own specific characteristics in the development of our civil society development, and we would like the commission to respect them,” she concluded.

What solutions should EU-13 NGOs put in place to overcome barriers in access to EU funds? Is EU reform key, or are partnerships with actors in other sectors or in “old” EU member states other possible solutions? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Diederik kramers

    Diederik Kramers

    Diederik Kramers is a freelance correspondent in Brussels covering EU and NATO affairs. A former spokesperson and communications officer for UNICEF and UNHCR, he previously worked as foreign desk and Eastern Europe editor for the Dutch press agency ANP and as editor-in-chief of the Dutch quarterly Ukraine Magazine.