From the ideal Norwegian model to the Romanian particular set of needs. What is your take on grassroots democracy?
Have you had the opportunity to see what prof. Dr. Harald Koht presented on the topic of good governance in Norway, as seen from the grassroots level. If neighbourhood organizations have been around in Norway since 1870 and have experienced major developments in the previous 30 years, Romania is only now witnessing its first similar civic group coagulation. Next we will be presenting the conference through the participants’ eyes – what concerns they had, which themes emerged as most crucial, diverging opinions, and how the Norwegian expert responded to all of the above concerns.
The discussion revolved around three themes: the qualities that must be shared within a team that aims to influence a particular public decision, the necessary requirements for a productive collaboration between citizen groups and representatives of the authorities, and lastly the ideal place to conduct all afferent discussions on the topics concerned.
How do we support each other and interact when there are shared interests at play?
A highly debated topic was that of trust between regular citizens and between citizens’ groups and policy makers. The GoFar representative, who joined us from Craiova, warned that in the case of his city trust and solidarity between people was created by changes related to the city’s architecture rather than civic involvement. More specifically, since during the communist period there was no common meeting place for people to gather and speak to each other, they would rarely unite around causes, especially civic causes. Once such places started emerging, the degree of solidarity and trust between and within the people themselves increased, as they observed they were not the only ones noticing the ongoing problem, and as some of the issues were related to the public administration and/or political environment, this gave them the courage needed to get involved in civic activities.
If a high degree of hope was manifested among participants in the possibility of building trust between citizens, the relationship between citizens and decision makers evoked less positive predictions. „How can you make an agora in Sector 4 when the mayor gave the park to a private person for construction? How can you create a working link with the municipality when the Mayor is public enemy number one?!” asked a participant in a rather rhetorical manner. Professor Harald Koht warned that one of the problems may come as a result of organizational issues, as well as the degree of influence civic leaders and active citizens are perceived as having over their neighbourhood populations by elected officials. Neighbourhood associations in Norway must offer proof that they have members, and these members are charged a standard fee. Thus, even if it is not mandatory for everyone in the neighbourhood to join the association, this process ensures a high level of representativeness, also acknowledged by authorities.
Venues for meetings also generated debates. The main discussions were related to a location’s neutrality – should meetings take place in the street, at the headquarters of associations and/or civic groups, on municipal premises or neutral grounds such as universities? Opinions were split, but very few considered municipal spaces as suitable locations, perhaps an expression of the lack of trust in authorities. Another issue touched on to the use of online media. Although some participants were highly vocal about praising the opportunities this channel of communication offered, others pointed out that many citizens still do not have access to the Internet, and will potentially be marginalized in the consultation and decision-making process. In the end, everyone agreed that the online environment cannot be the only channel of communication. The Norwegian expert pointed out that even in his country’s case, very few associations relied on this communication channel type.
How to convince local authorities to do the right thing?
Representatives of civic groups active in solving different problems in Bucharest shared with other participants how they were already getting involved at the local level. Regular citizens from the different sectors, and representatives of civic groups such as „Salvati Parcul Tineretului” or „Initiativa Favorit” shared their experience battling with city authorities on behalf of the local communities. They explained how they are also supported by CeRe (Resource Center for Public Participation), receiving advice from them when writing petitions, preparing interventions in local council meetings, or when issuing open letters to the authorities. They insisted on the fact that Romania has just started with local civic activism, especially at the neighbourhood level, this due to the fact that neighbourhoods in Bucharest can sometimes have up to 300,000 inhabitants.
The meeting was attended by representatives of the ” Alfa Cartel” National Trade Union Confederation, the National Association for Consumer Protection (ANPCPPSR), leaders of student associations (LSRS, ASCIG, ASPS, AEC) accompanied by fellow students, members of various civic organizations (SAR, Pro.Do.Mo, ICJ, „Uniti Salvam” civic movement, Ivan Patzaichin Association – Mila 23, Gheorghe Ursu Foundation, Union of Architects – Urban Observatory Bucharest), journalists, lawyers, and a member of the General Council of Bucharest, the only local authority representative invited who had the courage to join the citizens during this event. Many of them have exchanged contact information with Prof. Koht, and will continue soliciting his expertise in trying to develop their own capacity to produce relevant changes within their communities.
With time and tenacity, remarkable progress can be made
Harald Koht, expert on good governance, university professor of political science and public administration of Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences and former chairperson of the Norwegian Federation of Neighbourhood Organisations concluded with a positive tone, saying that the neighbourhood movement has grown a lot in Norway during the last 10 – 15 years, this being a sign that remarkable progress can be made when there is interest from the citizens’ side.