NGOs fear state control from Poland’s new civil society department

By on 30/11/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło

Poland has announced plans to create a department of civil society, raising fears among democracy and human rights campaigners that the government may wish to extend its control and influence over non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Poland’s prime minister Beata Szydło has drafted a bill to introduce a National Centre for Civil Society. This would centralise state funding for non-governmental organisations and “bring order to the whole sphere of NGOs”, she announced to the media this month.

The NGO sector is heavily dependent on public funding in Poland, and critics warn that the new system will enable the government to put financial pressure on organisations that embarrass or oppose the governing party.

The new centre will act as an arm’s-length government agency. Grzegorz Makowski, director of the Public Integrity Program at NGO the Stefan Batory Foundation and researcher at Warsaw university Collegium Civitas, told Global Government Forum that in Poland many such bodies lack oversight and become politicised. “Almost all of them get very quickly corrupt,” he said.

The socially conservative Law and Justice party, which won Poland’s parliamentary elections in October 2015, has had a particularly strained relationship with the third sector. It has painted the changes to NGO funding as an opportunity to redress inequalities: conservative pro-government NGOs, such as anti-abortion advocacy group Ordo Iuris, have complained that their issues are neglected while more liberal organisations receive the lion’s share of funding.

“I think [the government] might use this centre simply to feed their [more conservative] NGOs,” Makowski told Global Government Forum. But it remains unclear exactly what the new law entails, he added.

The government has indicated that the centre will also have a role in evaluating the civil society sector. This has led critics, such as Krzysztof Śmiszek of the Polish Society of Anti-Discrimination Law and journalist Michał Szułdrzyński, to draw comparisons with Hungary and Russia, which make life difficult for NGOs, fearing the growth of oppositional power. Since 2012, Russia has required all NGOs that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in political activity to register as “foreign agents”.

“The previous government neglected us, but this one is openly hostile to the human rights agenda,” Śmiszek told the Guardian.

A spokesperson from the European Economic and Social Committee, an EU body that liaises with organised civil society, said that the EESC is concerned about any public authority that appears to undermine the neutrality, independence and transparency of civil society.

He told Global Government Forum that there is increasing evidence of the challenging circumstances in which NGOs find themselves operating in Europe. “We are worried about the clear perception that in some EU countries the civic space is shrinking,” he said. “Legal and extra-legal measures, such as changing the policy and financial environment, endanger civil society organisations in their existence and free action.”

Poland has made a number of controversial changes to the machinery of government in recent months, including merging the human rights protection team into a larger department that deals with European migration. It also abolished the state council for combating racism, stopped funding for Poland’s women’s rights centres, and has been accused of politicising the civil service.

Earlier this month, 13 civil society experts resigned from a body that oversees NGO funding in Poland, stating that democratic procedures had been disregarded when grants were issued.

Szydło met UK prime minister Theresa May in Downing Street this week, where they discussed plans for a new UK-Poland Civil Society Forum bringing together government and NGO figures from both countries.

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See also:

EU issues Poland with official warning over constitutional court changes

European Parliament orders Poland’s government to reverse changes to country’s top court

OECD calls on Poland to introduce ‘cooling-off’ periods for senior officials


About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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