For Slovakia, Lessons in Effective Activism
By Fedor Blaščák
The Open Society Initiative for Europe supports activists to build strong constituencies in their communities and defend open society values in new ways. Fedor Blaščák, a scholar and activist from Bratislava, Slovakia, is among the first fellows of the Open Society Effective Activism Project. As part of his fellowship, he is working to restore and transform a synagogue in Žilina, Slovakia, into a community space for visual art and culture.
For years, NGOs in Slovakia struggled to secure regular funding, leading to disruptions in services such as education, drug rehabilitation, and support for vulnerable communities. But an unprecedented agreement in April between the Ministry of Finance and the nonprofit sector paved the way for civil society organizations in Slovakia to secure regular financing through adjustments to the taxation system.
I was part of a group of Slovak activists who negotiated this change with the government. Through yearlong, intensive negotiations and collaborative work, not only did we get a mutually beneficial compromise, we also learned new ways to use our activism to influence policymakers.
In 2003, Slovakia adopted an innovative system of taxation unlike any other in the world, where corporations could opt to divert a portion of their income tax to civil society organizations. This pioneering system grew to provide the nongovernmental sector with more than 30 million euros per year. To the detriment of many organizations, however, the model underwent changes during the financial crisis, diverting some of that funding toward other, broader uses, vaguely dubbed “public finances.”
By being strategic and collaborative, we worked with the Ministry of Finance to change this. Early on, we brought to the attention of specific parliamentarians individual stories of NGOs that struggled to deliver essential services. Public campaigns like We Help Together [Slovak site] were crucial in supporting the position of our team in the final phases of negotiations. We learned that building alliances from within and working through official channels can pay off.
The agreement we achieved reverses the harmful changes made during the financial crisis and puts forward a model that motivates corporations to donate even more. According to the calculations from the Institute of Financial Policy, which serves as a policy arm of the Ministry of Finance, the new arrangements will bring an additional seven to eight million euros to Slovakia’s NGOs every year.
Financial stability for NGOs is not the only win—the change in policy also forces civil society organizations to be more transparent and accountable. NGOs are now required to publicly share more information about how they spend their funds, as well as the identities of the corporations that support them.
Through this journey we found new ways to defend our interests and develop activism in Slovakia. A direct negotiation with government officials still remains a rare experience for activists in Slovakia. I have been engaged in the negotiations with the Ministry of Finance for nearly six years. As the finance minister himself put it when introducing the agreement to the media: “The process had its ups and downs.”
Moving forward, the main challenge for activists in Slovakia is to step out of the NGO bubble, question our impact, and spearhead more meaningful actions and partnerships. In the past we preached to the converted and, as a result, failed to shape majority public opinion and reach the grassroots. The way we handled the issue of financial stability for the NGO sector sets a good precedent.
Activists must be willing to build alliances with government officials regardless of their political affiliation in order to deliver real outcomes. The effective activists of tomorrow must be able to form broad strategic and ad hoc coalitions with all kinds of actors in the field. Activists must become, in a sense, lobbyists and public relations experts.
Taking active part in shaping public policy should not be regarded as a sort of moral enterprise. Being an activist provides no special moral status—it is just work. What makes an activist efficient is delivery of outcomes; thus, it should not differ substantially from, say, being a plumber.
Activism’s driving force in transforming countries like Slovakia will soon become collective effort that employs the basic democratic principles of checks and balances. This is a departure from the decades-old practice of relying on the respect and authority of a single, strong individual.
The era of revolutionaries and spiritual leaders is coming to an end. Instead of karate fighters, we will need more volleyball players in the future.
Fedor Blaščák is a fellow with the Open Society Effective Activism Project.