Dr Z.A.Pelczynski

School for Leaders Association, Warsaw and Oxford University (retired)


Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play a vital role in all developed democratic countries and in particular in the countries which form the European Union. They are recognised in the EU Constitution and many EU documents and procedures as important for social progress, democratic government and the functioning of EU. Given Turkey’s determination to complete internal democracy-building and to become an EU member as soon as possible there is an obvious case for examining the experience of Poland and other post-communist states which in a historically brief period – less than 15 years – succeeded in a transition to both democracy and EU membership.

My paper is in two parts, theoretical and historical. Part One deals with some definitions, the nature of NGOs and the “third sector” to which they belong, and the relation of NGOs to a wider public sphere called “civil society” which forms a necessary part of the modern liberal-democratic state. Part Two deals with the NGOs in contemporary, post-communist Poland, and briefly examines their growth, functioning and some current problems.


It is useful, before dealing with Poland, to make some theoretical points about the NGOs and the political context in which they operate since the subject is complex and not always correctly understood. So I begin with a short general section, dealing with the concepts of a NGO, “the third sector”, “civil society” and the modern liberal-democratic state and their mutual relations.

(i) The liberal-democratic state.

By this term I mean a state which comprises a developed market economy based on private ownership and a heterogeneous, pluralist society. It consists of a multiplicity of groups, organisations, communities, interests, traditions and ideologies, and has, despite inevitable conflicts and tensions, worked out a way of reconciling the differences in a civilised, non-violent and reasonably harmonious. All this happens within the framework and with the help of the the state which has the monopoly of legitimate coercion, but whose public authorities (ministers, officials, policemen and soldiers) behave in a certain way. They respect the constitution and the rule of law, recognise various human, civil and political rights and are responsive and responsible to the citizens of the country through free, regular elections, group interest representation and free media.

The roots of such a state are in 18th century Britain and her rebellious North American colonies, which formed the USA. NGOs (under other names) have been part of the liberal tradition from the beginning. They appeared in Continental Europe when it followed the Anglo-American lead and contributed much to the tradition. But `much of Europe also rejected liberal democracy between the two World Wars and threw up countless military or ideological dictatorships – corporatism, fascism, national-socialism and communism – where NGOs had little or no chance to function.

(ii) The Non-Governmental Organisations.

What are NGOs and what is their role in the liberal-democratic state? By a non-governmental organisation

(in Britain and the USA also called a “voluntary organisation” or “voluntary association” one normally means a body of people working for some joint public end but not on the order of public authorities and without monetary gain as their main motive. (They are sometimes called non-profit organisations.)

A NGO is born when a group of citizens of a country , without governmental command or other kind of compulsion, forms an organisation to promote a certain common end or to perform a public service. For one reason or another they agree to initiate it themselves and to keep the organisation going through their own effort, themselves contributing or acquiring from other people the necessary resources: ideas, knowledge, time, money, goods or equipment. The alternatives are: (1) realising the goal through the government or some state agency or (2) setting up a commercial, profit-oriented, market organisation, a firm or a company.

Provided that no law is broken there is in principle no limit in a democratic state to the number and character of such civic initiatives. NGOs can produce goods or supply services such as education, healthcare or sport; they can propagate new ideas and values or defend traditional ones; they can advocate causes or policies; and they can do it for the good of their members or the local community or some group of individuals (economic, social, ethnic or religious) or the general public or the whole nation or a foreign nation or all underdeveloped countries or something so global as world peace.

NGOs are sometimes thought to be “non-political”. This is true in the sense that they must not openly or secretly work for a political group which aims to govern the country or force a change of governmental policies through political means. Otherwise they may lose their legal status and the privileges that go with (e.g. not paying taxes). But in a wider sense of “political” NGOs cannot escape politics since virtually everything we do can give rise to a political controversy, e.g. an argument whether the law should allow it.

The question whether a true NGO must be non-profit is also unclear. Some NGOs charge for their services, events they organise, publications they issue. This is normally legal as long as it only covers their costs or if the profit made is used to support its aims and running costs, and does not end up in the pockets of its managers or employees. Many people work for NGOs for nothing. But some, e.g. office workers, are paid regular and quite handsome salaries so they at least profit from NGOs existence and activity.

(iii) NGOs as “The Third Sector”.

NGOs taken together form what is called ‘the third sector” and in the USA an “independent sector”. The first (or public) sector consists of the institutions of the state and the second (or private) sector of privately owned commercial organisations working primarily for profit. The third sector, although separate, in not wholly independent. It gets legal privileges, facilities and sometimes financial help from the state. The private sector regularly makes contributions to NGOs and in some countries is an important source of funds for many NGOs.

The third or NGO sector is thought to be superior to the other two for many social and political reasons which are good for democracy. The main benefits claimed for the NGOs are the following:

(1) they step in where the other sectors’ organisations refuse to go;

(2) they often do things more cheaply and efficiently than other organisations; they know e.g. social needs better and have more sympathy for people needing help;

(3) even if less efficient they are more flexible and responsive to problems than (especially) large, complex, bureaucratic organisations in the public or private sector;

(4) they promote cultural, social, political and even economic progress by generating or advocating new ideas and practices;

(5) they help to develop citizenship by providing opportunities for knowledge and skills (entrepreneurship, management, cooperation) which are useful in both the public and the private sphere;

(6) they are generally self-governing and democratically structured (which e.g. business seldom is) and are so-to-speak schools of democracy;

(7) they create pluralism and group solidarity which counteracts often excessive national and state loyalty and collectivism;

(8) they compensate minorities for their weakness vi-a-vies the state, particularly when public authorities are dominated by unsympathetic social, economic, ethnic or religious majorities or cannot be bothered to cater for the needs of small, local or distant populations.

(iv) NGOs and “Civil Society”.

Those are strong arguments and one could add to them. The trouble is that it is not just the NGOs, in the strict sense of the term, which perform them. There are hosts of other organisations in contemporary societies which are also good for society, democracy and modernisation. There are public bodies with citizens’ participation (e.g. so-called QUANGOs or “quasi-autonomous governmental organisations” in Britain); there are business firms with trade union or employee representation on their boards, as e.g. in Germany under the so-called “Mitbestimmungsrecht”; there are political parties or associations, organised interest groups or lobbies, social movements, trade unions and other professional associations, business organisations, churches, charitable, educational and cultural trusts or foundations, non-state universities or schools, “think-tanks” and citizens’ forums, public and private media, and so on, and so on.

They have some or full autonomy, are often self-governing and voluntary, and perform many of the same services as the NGOs. They provide similar opportunities for innovative ideas or actions, they criticise and challenge the status quo, they propagate and advocate. They compete and cooperate, form coalitions with the NGOs, support them with money, knowledge or training. The NGOs sometimes evolve into one of the other organisations; e.g. an association preaching the importance of unspoilt environment may change into a foundation (when a rich donor has endowed it with capital) or become a political pressure group (so-called public interest lobby) or turn itself into a political party such as the Greens in Germany.

The NGOs possess advantages over the other “socio-political actors”, but hey have also handicaps They are simple and easy to form. They do not need elaborate organisations or big funds to operate as long as their members and supporters are willing to make small. regular donations or organise street collections or give a lot of time without payment. They on the whole have more freedom and autonomy to work, are less oligarchic and closer to the “common man”. The use of the internet makes their work cheap, quick and far-reaching. But they often lack advantages of the other organisations and institutions: well-equipped offices, instruments of publicity, plentiful money to spend on advocacy and services, etc. It is better for liberal democracy that the NGOs do not stand alone and form a separate sector but are part of a larger, more heterogeneous network with which they interact.

All those groups, organisations and institutions – small and big, poor or rich, amateur or professional, elite or mass in character, local, national or global – together with the NGOs – form an area or arena of “public discourse”. It is “public” in 3 senses of the word:

(1) because the different bodies normally act openly, not in private or secretly, as families, groups of friends, colleagues and acquaintances or as illegal, criminal, terrorist or mafia-type groups operate;

(2) because they communicate with each other – and also cooperate – through contacts, consultations, debates, the press and other media, publications, and so on;

(3) because, directly or not, they deal with or raise issues of wide, general concern.

The governmental process in developed, modern, mass democracies takes place with reference to this public sphere, receives help from and is exposed to it. It is now an essential part of the functioning of the democratic state. The traditional name for this sphere – going back to late 18th and early 19th century – is “civil society” or “civic society” or “citizens’ society” (“societe civile”, “buergerliche Gesellschaft”). It implies that society is not just a collection of people subject to the state, dependent on the state, the state’s clients or beneficiaries. Society, through its members who are citizens, controls and influences the government not through periodic elections and party competition. It solves its problems and satisfies its needs only partially through the state but partially outside it, through all the institutions and organisations of civil society, and of course the market sphere of privately owned and profit-driven commercial enterprises.

In my view it is more useful to talk of four ”spheres” rather than three “sectors” of society, as does a contemporary American sociologist called Thomas Janoski in his recent book entitled CITIZENSHIP AND CIVIL SOCIETY. (Cambridge University Press, 1998). He has provided a very useful diagram to illustrate the nature and relations of the four spheres, which is enclosed as an appendix to this paper. It should be noted that the spheres intersect and overlap. Their relative sizes differ from country to country and from period to period in the same country. One major difference between “the old democracies” of Britain, France and Germany and “the new democracies” of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland is the much larger size of the public sphere (civil society) in the former countries.


In this part of my paper I shall examine the place of the NGOs in the Polish transition to democracy and to the EU between 1989 -2004, and the problems of “the third sector” today, when Poland is a EU member.

(i) The early origins of NGOs in Poland.

Between 1944 and 1989 Poland was a communist state although only for 10 years, during the “Stalinist period”, could it be called truly “totalitarian”. From 1956 onwards, ignoring Soviet pressure and claiming partial autonomy within socialism, the communist leaders began to make various concessions to the population. The most important was granting complete internal autonomy and some economic freedom to the Roman Catholic Church and allowing a limited amount of independent Catholic associations and publications to exist. They formed a small but important independent sector which was so-to-speak a standing criticism of the rest of the party-regimented state and society. Later on the visits of the Polish Pope John Paul II, organised by the Church and attended by millions, made the whole nation aware that their primary loyalty was not to communism.

The real development of the third sector (and civil society) became possible in Poland only after the replacement of the communist regime by a liberal-democratic system, which occurred in 1989 – earlier than elsewhere in East-Central Europe. Its ground was prepared some years earlier. From 1968 onwards the Polish people became more and more restless under communist rule, which was mismanaging the centralised, bureaucratic, state and party-controlled economy, causing crises and depressing the standard of living. More people travelled to the West and could compare life there and in Poland. The workers began to strike and to form illegal strike and trade union committees. The intellectuals also became increasingly critical of communism, began publishing “samizdat” newspapers and books, and formed an illegal association called KOR – Committee for the Defence of Workers. In 1980 a strike in Gdansk shipyard led by Lech Walesa, which spread to other cities, forced the government to legalise an independent self-governing trade union “Solidarity” – the first such organisation under communism since the Bolshevik Revolution. Millions of Poles joined it and under its umbrella began setting up hundreds of independent democratic organisations in town and country – the forerunners of later NGOs.

Although the original aim of the anti-communists was just to create a limited free “civil society” within the communist economy and state, Solidarity quickly evolved into a militant political movement, which was suppressed by a military coup. Nevertheless, for over 7 years, Solidarity lived an illegal, underground existence until eventually, in 1989, after long negotiations, the government agreed to legalise it again and to allow it to participate in a parliamentary election. The Solidarity-sponsored “Citizens’ Committees” did so well in the election that the Communist Party gave up power to a non-communist government and dissolved itself. In a few months the 45 years’ old communist political structure, the collective economy and the party-controlled system of official “social” organisations was dismantled and (not without turmoil) Poland acquired a liberal-democratic state structure, a market profit-driven economy and a society of independent, autonomous social entities – a true civil society.

Some of the old communist “social” organisations (e.g. trade unions, teachers union, the scout union) survived but in a re-organised, democratic form. Rival bodies, inspired by people once active in the Solidarity movement, sprang up beside them. But a whole host of new independent bodies. responding to new civic problems and social, often local needs, and very similar to western NGOs, also appeared on the scene to form a large third sector.

(ii) The Polish NGOs today.

It is estimated that today Poland has over 20,000 NGOs and about 3 million people working in them – about 8% of the population. The organisations are not evenly distributed; they tend to be concentrated in large or medium-size towns; there are rather thin on the ground in small towns and even more in villages. In general the less well developed districts and provinces (e.g. in north-eastern and south-eastern Poland) have few NGOs. There, the main – sometimes only – centres of civic and social activity are the democratically elected low-level (“gmina” or communal) local-government councils. The reform of local government, soon after the fall of communism, was the work of Solidarity activists and is one of the greatest achievements of Polish transition to democracy. Elderly and middle-age people – brought up in communist times, living on retirement pensions or working hard to maintain their families – are much less involved in NGO activities than younger people. In the last few years the level of involvement throughout the country, even among the young, has noticeably gone down in comparison with the first post-communist years. Women, especially younger ones, are prominent in the third sector, especially the social welfare NGOs.

Although they are fewer of them, Polish NGOs have very similar aims to those in the EU member states in the West (‘the old democracies”) : self-help; philanthropy (social protection); gender equality; minority representation; art, culture and leisure; education; children and youth interests. Those concerned with general public issues (e.g. “watch-dogs” against corruption, inefficiency, environmental pollution) are less popular despite frequent and heavy criticism of the ways central and local governments work – in the press and private conversations. Exceptionally, there was a lot of well-organised NGO activity to popularise entry into the EU and particularly during the accession referendum late last year, which was won by a 2/3 majority of the voters.

There are two kinds of voluntary established by law: associations and foundations, and they are both considered to be NGOs. The former were only instituted by the new democratic government; the latter were legally created in the late communist period. Proposals for both must be examined and approved by the courts, and annual income and outlay reports have to be made to the tax authorities and (in case of foundations) to a specified ministry. The formation of an association must be supported by at least 15 members. Their policy-making and executive bodies (boards and offices) are theoretically controlled by an annual general meeting of all members. but this does not always happen. The setting up of a foundation requires one or more founders who must pay a sum of money into a bank account (not necessarily a large one) and who may close down or reorganise the foundation. Executive staff are responsible to boards and boards to supervisory “councils”, normally filled by prominent men and women for long terms. Accounts of both types of organisation are generally kept by professional accountants, but so far seldom published.

Unlike associations, foundations suffer from many difficulties and are often criticised, but none of the governments in power since 1989 has fundamentally reformed the law on foundations. Virtually none have a permanent capital (endowment). the income from which could finance their activities, like e.g. most British and American “charitable trusts”. Like all the associations they live off grants which they have to apply for frequently in order to survive. The richest ones are financed by foreign benefactors, charitable trusts or foundations (e.g. Stefan Batory Foundation or the Polish-American Freedom Foundation). There is a group of foundations, set up by banks or commercial companies, which act just like their private sponsorship agencies. Some foreign governments’ or EU’s programmes are also administered by foundations (e.g. Polish-German Cooperation Foundation).

Even more oddly, Polish government ministries and agencies (e.g. in the health service) have been setting up foundations so that they can receive “voluntary contributions” rather than charge money for their services. Some ministries used to set up nominal foundations to avoid administering their budgets through the normal civil service channels, but this has now changed. Local authorities, universities and other public bodies set up foundations to raise money for special projects. The badly drafted Communist foundation law and lax registration methods allowed, during the first years of market economy, many commercial enterprises to disguise themselves as foundations in order to escape taxes. This has now stopped, but new foundations are still set up more for private rather than public reasons. As a result the three sectors – public, private and independent non-profit – are hopelessly mixed up and the civic and democratic benefits of the third sector mostly disappear. In fact the foundation sector should probably not be regarded as a NGO sector at all, but called something else. It has some characteristics of civil society – a mixed sector of all kinds of public, semi-public and hybrid institutions – except that the public interest aspect of true civil society is so often ignored in practice.

(iii) Weaknesses of the third sector in Poland.

It is my view, shared by many Polish observers that, despite its growth and achievements since Poland became a democracy, the third sector is not as strong as it should be. Why is this the case and what could have been done – or can be done in the future – to improve the situation? Several factors can be mentioned.

(1) The desire for NGO activity, despite the Solidarity experience, has been weak, except during and just after the dismantling of communism. 45 years of communism, with its collectivist economy, large social welfare programmes and an all-pervasive party-state has accustomed people to having things done for them by politicians and officials. They have now largely accepted private enterprise an the market on the economy and have learned to live with it. But in the public sector things are different. They see democracy – parties, elections and government responsible to parliament – and state institutions as a better way to get things done for them than to try and do more things for themselves and to become more independent of the state.

(2) Polish society has changed dramatically as a result of the last war and post-war frontier changes. It is now probably the most homogeneous in Europe; around 95 % are both Polish and Roman Catholic. Before the war only 2/3 of the population was Polish and there were thousands of other ethnic and religious organisations. Now there is very little need for them.

(3) Poland still has a large agrarian sector compared with western countries. At least 1/4 of the population live in the villages; a large number also in small country towns.

(4) The impulse to develop the NGO sector after 1989 came largely from outside – chiefly the “old democracies” of the EU, the USA and Canada. They supplied ideas and programmes, produced literature, organised training and foreign exchanges, and above all supplied money – a lot of it.

For over 10 years the Soros Foundation of New York was giving the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw 3 – 4 million dollars per year and still more money went to Polish NGOs through other Soros-source channels such as the Open Society Institute. Government-funded American programmes (National Endowment for Democracy and the Democratic and Republican international committees) and the powerful government-funded German party foundations (Adenauer, Ebert and Naumann), and big private foundations like the Bosch, have also contributed millions, as well as advice and know-how. Most of the EU money for Poland so far has gone into public sector reform, regional development and pre-accession programmes, but the third sector has also benefited a bit. Although this has been vital to the development of the voluntary sector, it has produced an unhealthy dependence of NGOs and foundations on foreign help.

(4) While large foreign corporations working in Poland are sponsoring NGO projects more and more, the big Polish firms are far behind. The large sector of small and medium Polish enterprises so far contributes almost nothing. The tack of tradition of “corporate responsibility” is one reason; another is that most Polish firms are young, need resources for investment and are plagued by high taxes and social security burdens imposed by the government.

(5) The standard of living of most ordinary Polish citizens is still very low, there is unsatisfied hunger for consumer goods and high unemployment. So there is little money for the activities of NGOs and little time for voluntary work. Majority of married women feel the their main duty is to their home and family.

(6) The sense of community, even on the lowest level, is week as a result of communism, which sought to destroy it; there is a lot of suspicion towards others and group egoism which makes social cooperation difficult. Many NGOs are small and weak because they don’t like uniting into bigger organisations or federations. This may be a serious handicap to Poland as a EU member because the EU Commission favours big organisations and is not organised to give small grants.

(7) Finally, the country’s “educational agencies” – the family, the Church, schools and universities – are very traditional and have not yet taken on board the new requirements of liberal democracy and civil society. Polish family educates children to be good family members, not citizens. The Church teaches them to be good Catholics and good men, but again not so much good citizens. In schools and universities education is very academic, concerned with knowledge rather than social skills, as happens in Britain and North America. Extra-curricular activities such as sport, music, theatre, debating or community voluntary work are neglected. The need to prepare young people for active civic, political or social life is so far hardly recognised.

(8) At their head NGOs don’t need “bosses”, bureaucrats or even managers (unless they are big) – they need leaders. Without leaders they are weak and ineffective. Leaders are people who have vision and are able to communicate it, can attract followers and win sympathy of a wider public , know how to form and direct voluntary teams and how to reach goals by persuasion, not coercion and money rewards.

These are partly inborn qualities but mainly skills which can and must be developed through practice and training.

Given the figure of 20,00 NGOs here has been very little systematic leadership training in Poland. Recognising this, and inspired by British examples, I have set up within the framework of a NGO a school for (mainly) young civic, community and voluntary association leaders, once financed by western foundations and government programmes, but recently largely by big business corporations working in Poland. Through its long and short intensive courses it has successfully trained thousands of men and women over the last 10 years, but this is a tiny proportion of the third sector leaders which Poland requires. (See appendix for an overview of the School for Leaders Association.)

(iv) Conclusions and a possible lesson for Turkey.

The growth of the NGO sector in Poland has been fairly impressive and has become an important element of the country’s civil society and liberal democracy. But the development has been piece-meal, uneven and rather slow . The many objective historical, economic and social obstacles have been mentioned. In my view much more could have been achieved if there had been a clear and consistently followed strategy of third sector development. Is such a strategy possible? So far no politicians have come up with it, especially no centre-left or centre-right party leaders where a vision of and commitment to civil society might have been expected. The role of the state in creating “social” organisations has been compromised by communism (and earlier corporatism and fascism). A civil society and the third-sector part of it would be something feeble, artificial and false if they were created from above, even by a benevolent liberal-democratic state. But the state can and should help their development, more than just by creating a legal framework. In Poland it has, but only just, started doing it. A law on “public utility organisations” was passed last year, reforming the third sector to some extent. It permits contributions to NGOs and foundations being made from pre-tax income or profit, provided they publish annual reports on their budgets and activities. Another law regulates the status of volunteers and removes various obstacles. More use is to be made of the law which allows public bodies to sub-contract their work to NGOs and treat them as partners rather than just clients of the state. But there is a long way to go before the third sector status receives the support and recognition which it has in Western Europe or North America.

Very recently a Polish strategy has emerged as a result of the work of two foreign-supported foundations – the Stefan Batory Foundation and the Civil Society Trust for Central Europe – both located in Warsaw. The Civil Society Trust is a consortium of leading American Foundations (Soros, Ford, Mott and Rockefeller) which has agreed to provide long-term funding for a SBF-prepared programme of comprehensive development of civil society and the NGO sector in Poland. It makes detailed suggestions and sets out objectives for the social partners of the programme. What is required now is a new political will in the governing elite or strong pressure on it by a large section of the electorate. Let us hope this will happen in the near future.

10 November 2004.