How the conception for an Estonian civic society developed
Over the last few years, many influential international organizations have dealt with how to get citizens to take part in the political process: the UNDP, World Bank, OECD and the Open Society Institute.
All of their work points to the importance of civic participation, and the question is not one of whether and why, but how. The OECD’s handbook advises citizens not to wait until the government is forced to deal with the problem, but to be proactive and seize the initiative before crisis. It is not easy to say how one should take part, of course. The type of representative democracy now in use does not exactly favor civic participation. Both sides are alienated from each other and do not have a history of working together. Still, an increasing number of people are expressing through civic associations their desire to take part in the political process. Many of the larger foreign financiers of civic initiatives dropped out of Estonia in the latter half of the 1990s, leaving Estonians to fend for themselves, and we are not at the center of the world’s attention as we were right after independence.
Thanks to our numerous foreign partners and training programs, the idea that sustainability is only viable through the efforts of communities and civic organizations has become widely accepted. Communities can only be strong when they are driven internally by civic associations. The government has prepared the necessary legislative groundwork. Today there are around 18,000 non-profit organizations. On this basis we can assume that cooperation and partnership between citizens and government has a solid foundation on the state and community level.
In actuality, the situation is more complicated, and a long road remains before citizens are truly part of decision-making on the local level. We often encounter the problem that local leaders are not eager to have citizens involved because that would require coordination, teamwork, discussion and dialogue, and much else that seems inconvenient and requires leadership of a different sort in local government. The same unwillingness has been seen on the state level.
Thus we see that the people and their representatives have often remained separate, and citizens’ associations have not found their final expression in cooperating with the state officials; decision-making is not yet a shared process.