The Roles of Civil Society in Today’s Estonia
A discussion on the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been initiated in Estonia.
On the one hand, they are expected to bring solutions to the problems of mass society and alienation from institutional democracy. On the other hand, it has been proposed that some of the services offered by public institutions be delegated to NGOs. This idea has dominated the Estonian discussion. Several different Estonian-language terms for Civil Society have been used. These terms are reflective of different expectations towards the sphere.
In offering services to the public, NGOs benefit from organizational flexibility and from the fact that their objectives are defined from the bottom up. Under ideal conditions, this makes them capable of more efficient and flexible use of resources than the public sector. For the same reason, however, the whole population does not benefit equally from their activities. If public sector hands service functions over to the NGOs, the objectives of the latter no more emerge from the grassroots. This rips the NGOs of the most important advantages that they have in comparison to public and for-profit sectors. NGOs and private enterprises may raise the quality of educational, social and health services through offering new alternatives, but are unable to substitute for public policies based on universalistic principles.
The principal role of NGOs in a society building up democracy is related to the creation of new channels for dialogue and political participation. In order to advance the legitimacy of the political system, more transparency in decision-making processes and support for the grassroots initiative is needed.
Mikko Lagerspetz, born 1963, 1981-89 sociology, psychology and musical science at the University of Turku and Åbo Academi. Master of political science in sociology 1989, Doctor 1996 University of Turku. Apprenticeship at the Estonian Academy of Music in the speciality of composition 1989-92. Work: lecturer at the Estonian Institute of Humanities 1990-, professor of sociology 1997-, Rector 1998; visiting co-professor at the University of Turku 1997-; visiting lecturer at the universities of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Tartu and Uppsala and Tallinn Pedagogical University. Affiliation: Estonian Sociologists Association, president 1998-; the Westermark Society; Elias Lönnrott Society; Venäjan ja Itä-Euroopan tutkimuksen seura.