Does civil society need a reputation?
Without building a civil society, Ukraine isn’t likely to become a free European democracy. Euromaidan would seem to have laid the foundations for it as one of its few achievements. With time, however, our civic organizations have started showing symptoms of the same disease that afflicts other [public] institutions, and their development is not always along the civilized lines. This caused Iryna LOIUK, head of the civic organization Prostir mozhlyvostei (Space of Opportunity), to take a closer look at the experience of developed countries. She began her civic activities in mid-2014 after cutting short a career in the financial sector and becoming a volunteer, like many others. She did free legal counseling for ATO combatants and families of KIAs. At the beginning of 2015, she was a co-founder of Project Legal Hundred, but quit toward the end of 2016. Over the period of civic activities she has been the author and co-author of bills on foreigners serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, protection of the state against corruptionists, and on rehabilitation. At present, together with partners from the civic network Svoyi, Ms. Loiuk is working to introduce into the civic sector adapted NGO models practiced in the West.
THREE NGO PILLARS
What is the purpose of your civic organization?
“We want to introduce ethics into the activities of non-governmental organizations. In a civilized society, these activities are most often described as resting on three pillars: openness, transparency, and accountability. Openness means keeping the organization’s books, structure, management, trends, and partners open for the public. Transparency means that this organization makes no secret of its relations with the state, society, sponsors, partners, beneficiaries, and other interested persons. Accountability means that what is being actually done is in conformity with the stated purpose. This organization is responsible for the trust placed in it by people, donors, and partners. Its decisions and actions affect the reputation of the entire civil society. Taking advantage of this trust or using resources for one’s own purposes is inadmissible.”
How close are these principles to Ukrainian society?
“In a number of cases the leaders of non-profit organizations, after declaring their purpose as champions of the poor, have proceeded to carry out secret plans of their own, getting in a position of power. [For them] helping people is not an end in itself but a tool, and people’s interests are taken into account only when this helps them reach their personal ends. I call this abuse of people’s trust, of those who donate money to help people.
“It’s not bad when public activists are elected to office. It’s bad when getting elected is that activist’s end in itself. In this case his road to power will be strewn with the bodies of deceived partners and beneficiaries. One’s intentions must be transparent. What makes a developed society different is the fact that being elected, getting a position in power implies being a member of a political movement.
“Another problem is effective partnership. Over 60 percent of [civic] organizations polled by Svoyi say they see other such organizations as rivals, rather than partners. A civilized approach rules out competition. If the purpose of an organization is to help others instead of winning preferences, there can be no competition. Organizations can work together if their leaders act according to the stated purpose and are not driven by ambition or greed.”
ORGANIZATIONS SEEK HIGH STANDARD IN A DEVELOPED SOCIETY
How can you make one abide by ethics?
“Not legislatively, anyway. We know what happened when the anticorruption activists tabled their bill on declarations of income, in order to settle the issue of transparency legislatively. They were accused of trying to enforce control. A civil society is free of state control. This freedom is important, especially in our post-Soviet reality. There are lots of organizations in the West that help their civil society’s progress and uphold NGO standards. One of them is the Partnering Initiative (http://thepartneringinitiative.org) and its purpose is to facilitate partnership. There is also the Foundation Center (https://foundationcenter.org) and its activities include securing the philanthropists’ transparency.
“It is interesting to note the system of NGO self-regulation. It envisages regulation from within, self-audits, verification, and self-improvement. NGOs unite into groups and adopt the rules of openness, transparency, and accountability. That way each such group keeps itself in check.
“This system was developed for good reasons. In the late 1990s, some NGOs in France, including the Red Cross, were found to be corrupt and mismanaged. At the time, there were no means of control and prevention. In the early 1990s, two initiatives appeared, aimed at solving this problem. One came from the NGOs that had decided to establish a system of self-regulation and the second one had to do with legislative changes. I don’t think that we should wait for corruption scandals to erupt in the civic sector to initiate a system of self-control.”
Who would control this system?
“A group of [civic] organization that would adopt the standards of openness, transparency, and accountability. It would receive a confirmation certificate after an audit and performance assessment report.
“In the civilized world, this system works as follows: there are certifying associations that confirm and guarantee that a given organization, after being checked, will not use any funds in its possession to meet the leadership’s personal interests. It has long been known in the West that building a reputation is harder than ruining it, and that any organization that doesn’t adhere to certain principles is doomed.”
WHY INTERNAL CONTROL IS IMPORTANT
In Ukraine, reputation means practically nothing. The man in the street is used to comparing bad with worse and trying to choose the lesser evil. Isn’t this true?
“I don’t think that we should wait for big fund abuse scandals. Otherwise our civil society will lose everything. We’ll lose trust in the first place. It would be a shame if other organizations had to stop functioning because of several corrupt ones. We have to establish an internal system of regulation of civil society – not because we’re under pressure to do so, but because we want this. NGOs must be the harbingers and come up with ethical standards. With time [non-profit] organizations will realize that certification is to their advantage. Let me stress that this is a working model for the Western civil society.”
Could you cite examples of unethical and irresponsible conduct on the part of civic organizations?
“There are many. And this considering that our NGOs should try to change for the better, even if from the self-preservation point of view. Cases of irresponsible conduct are seldom made public knowledge and this is largely explained by the donors’ attitude. They are actually ashamed to let the beneficiaries know that the money meant for them has been stolen. Now and then there are unpleasant media reports, like the one about the European Union demanding return of the grant allocated for the renovation of dorms for war victims in April 2015, referring to the EU press attache in Ukraine (https://ru.tsn.ua/video/video-novini/es-trebuet-ot-ukrainy-vernut-dengi-kotorye-vydelyali-na-vosstanovlenie-obschezhitiy-dlya-pereselencev.html). Here is another one. Politicians who kindled the fire of war in Donbas and made every effort to weaken Ukraine’s positions there proceeded to launch a showcase campaign aimed at extinguishing that fire. They set up a number of organizations that are actually helping refugees, resettlers, people living on occupied territories. The rhetoric question is whether these activities are really charitable and won’t be used for political purposes. Defending human rights, while actually serving one’s self-interest or capitalizing on efforts to eliminate the consequences of one’s destructive activities, looks quite cynical.”
UKRAINIAN NGO CODE OF ETHICS
How do you propose to solve this problem?
“When studying movements within a civil society, we conceived an idea. Its inner development could be helped by introducing principles based on ethical standards. As a result, we had a systemic image of what our civil society should be like. A society supported not only by foreign donors (whose interest in Ukraine is on a downward curve, by the way), but also by domestic ones. Our country has a huge charitable potential. We saw this during the Maidans and at the start of the war when ordinary people and private businesses supported the volunteers, making donations for national defense. As the threat abated, so did the charitable effort.
What will happen when Ukrainians believe in the strength and fairness of the civic sector, its ability to control and regulate those ‘upstairs,’ and in its accountability? That was how the civic initiative Space of Opportunity came to be (http://pm.net.ua/uk/glavnaya/) and an ambitious objective was formulated: Impact on the mentality of public figures. Also, enlighten society on the importance of institutional reputation and implement it in Ukraine. This objective was met with approval by dedicated activists and became the main guideline for the civic network Svoyi which united ATO volunteers, philanthropists, and other activists across Ukraine. A code of ethics started being introduced within the network. Today, each of more than 40 member organizations has committed to abide by the ethics and principles of openness, transparency, and accountability.
“Working on the NGO Code of Ethics (https://svoyi.org/etyka), we borrowed from the best international sources like WANGO. Among the network founders and participants are people with a reputation won during the Maidans and ATO battles. Without waiting for better times and positive changes, these people have decided to live, work, and move forward in accordance with the European standards. We have begun our way down that road. Svoyi is a declarative I-sign-your-Code entity and this is just the first step. We’re working on a complex of performance assessment criteria, so we can determine whether a given organization can be trusted and vouched for. Books and accounting reports, projects implemented, and accountability to donors and beneficiaries are studied. Records and current activities of persons that have a formal and informal influence on a given organization are analyzed. We provide manuals, memorandums, and self-assessment instruments for organizations wishing to work using high standards.”
Are the certifying associations or founders of such networks that vouch for partners immune to corruption?
“It’s a matter of principle. If an association proves unworthy of trust placed in it, no one will trust its certificate. The whole idea is to make international and domestic structures take seriously each such association and network. This requires crystal clear bona fide performance.”
“Like any other vision. As it is, a new model of the civic sector based on Svoyi experience is being put together. We’ll have to travel all the way from this crazy world, where aid to victims is converted into political dividends, to the world and society of tomorrow where reputation will be among the highest values. There is a quote from Warren Buffett I like: ‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.’ Here is another good one. Alfred Nobel said, ‘A good reputation is more important than a clean shirt. Unlike reputation, the shirt can be washed.’”