When did NGOs start being active in Norway? How many such organizations are there today in this country? What are their areas of expertise? What problems in the relation with authorities do they experience? What would Romanian civil society have to do to be more successful in their relation with the authorities? Harald Koht, university professor of political science and administration at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Science, an expert in good governance and former president of the Neighbourhood Organizations Federation in Norway explained many of these topics from a „grassroots” perspective in a debate put together by the Alliance for a Clean Romania, an event that also saw a presentation of the ARC Transparency Ranking. Koht is a partner in the project “Developing the monitoring capacity of good governance through the Alliance for a Clean Romania”.
8000 such neighbourhood organizations in a country of 5 million inhabitants.
The first neighbourhood clubs were founded in the late 19th century, between 1870 and 1880, mostly in suburbs of bigger cities, with set objectives such as repairing roads, improving the sewage systems and water distribution, public electricity and so forth. The number of similar associations has increased over the past 30 years. We don’t have any clear evidence of the total number of such neighbourhood associations, so we rely mostly on municipality reports. In 1982 there were 4000 such associations, and in 2012 this number doubled (in a country with a population of approximately 5,000,000 inhabitants). On average there are about 150 people in an organization, while in some the numbers can reach 300 members, generally with at least one member from each household. The organizations yield most of their influence in the suburban areas, as well as in the areas that have recently been urbanized. „Rural areas and city centers have the least number of such organizations”, explained Prof. Harald Koht during his “Good governance in Norway seen from the grassroots level” presentation. The Federation of Neighbourhood Organizations in Norway reunites all of these neighbourhood groups, with each individual group acting in its own interest. “The Federation of Neighbourhood Organizations can be identified as traditional. Anyone that lives in a particular area can become a member of the neighbourhood organization from that area. The members themselves decide what activities are going to take place. There is no national authority defining duties and objectives. With regard to this aspect they are different from religious organizations and organizations defending the rights of women, both of which have a national strategy” stated Koht.
What do neighbourhood organizations in Norway do exactly?
As the name clearly states, these little organizations participate in trying to motivate local authorities in solving the neighbourhood-related problems such as keeping the roads clean, public lighting, special areas for children, etc. “We do not have a similar organization such as yours, that makes it its job to monitor public institutions. This should be the Ombudsman’s business. With your organization I discussed very much the idea of a Clean Romania (free of corruption). Our neighbourhood clubs have a variety of activities. In Norway we speak of effective cleaning campaigns that entail physical work, taking place once or twice every year (such as cleaning the neighbourhood common spaces), an activity in which 87%of the clubs were fully involved in. Around two thirds of these organizations try to solve frequent day to day problems that the municipality does not properly manage, such as proper maintenance of play areas and common spaces, public lighting, sport activity parks, spaces for swimming, bench spaces, etc. 63% of the neighbourhood associations that I spoke with have collaborated with the municipality in managing these play areas, and 60% got involved in road cleanliness activities. Aside from all the work these groups do, recreational activities are as much part of their schedule, with more than half of these organizations putting together Christmas parties and such, social events that the whole community can benefit from”, stated Koht.
Another domain that these organizations are active in is traffic safety, this being done through lobbying the authorities for sidewalks extensions (for the general public and students that walk to school), and mounting of new traffic signs wherever necessary, thus limiting traffic speed in particular areas. According to Koht, approximately 58% of these associations are actively trying to solve similar problems.
When it comes to urban development, approximately 29% are involved in afferent activities. Koht gave us an example from his own neighbourhood, how citizens can go about defending their rights and negotiating their own interests when it comes to new urban-development projects. ”In between where I live and the place where they wanted to build a new residential neighbourhood there is an urban highway and a rail road. There is in fact much traffic concentrated in this area, the municipality wishing to concentrate a greater number of the population in areas with greater commuting options. My neighbourhood is situated on the other side of the highway, and when we heard of this plan, we most definitely had a few reasons to be worried. First of all the buildings are too tall, this being a problem because tall buildings will propagate the noise made by the rail roads and the noise coming from the highway and the subway. Secondly, there will be a greater density of buildings in the area. So what did we do? We sent a petition to the people responsible for urban planning, and also to the representatives in charge of this project, where we explained our protest against the height of the buildings and their size. At the same time we tried to publicize the petition in the local media. As you all see we did not succeed to stop the construction of the buildings in question; we did however succeed with regard to two issues. The buildings were reduced by two floors, and the company was obligated to measure the level of noise and to take necessary measures to reduce the noise. Although this was a moderate success at best, especially taking in consideration that there will be and extra 2-3 thousand people, our neighbourhood organization is made of only 150 members. Sometimes in a democracy we have to accept these types of results as well” mentioned Koht.
Koht went on to say that anyone who is affected by a decision belonging to the authorities can send a petition and that about 62% of the neighbourhood organizations opt for this method. “Another technique is participating at public gatherings, and soliciting an audience for discussions with authority representatives. The entrepreneurs that want to build in certain neighbourhoods must present the plan to the citizens from the neighbourhoods in question. We have a few examples of alternative methods of consulting as well, where citizens can themselves participate in the decision-making process. They are not legally necessary, yet the municipalities could choose to use them. Councils and executive offices of the councils generally have a half hour (and maybe more!) to hear counter-arguments or different positions relating to decisions and actions that are being discussed/will be implemented. In some cases, municipalities have decentralized certain decisions towards the local committees (which most likely include afferent neighbourhood associations), where they can organize conferences where citizens and the neighbourhood associations are invited to take part in the varying committees. All the municipalities must have a website, however only 7% of neighbourhood associations use any kind of electronic communication with local authorities, therefore making it a less popular method. Neighbourhood associations are given serious consideration by the local authorities, since the leaders of the associations were elected in a democratic manner, becoming representatives of their communities. Members of the associations are also voters, which can more explicitly clarify the influence they have”, says Koht.
Issues in NGO – authority relations
Although a country far more advanced from this point of view than Romania, Koht says that problems exist in Norway as well. “In Norway, the main reasons for non-responses to citizen requests are either a minister office’s position that the information is confidential, that it has to do with protecting personal data, or is part of a business strategy. Between 1991 and 2013 the percentage of organizations that were very satisfied with their relations with local authorities had fallen from 17% to 13%, whilst the percentage of associations that happy with their relations with local authorities fell from 61% to 48%. At the same time associations that declared a weak relationship with public authorities increased from 15% to 27%, and the rate of associations that stated a very low quality relationship has also gone up from a 4% to 12%. This is therefore an alarming situation regarding the perceived decreasing quality of relations with local authorities. There is no clear determining factor, though decreasing municipality budgets could be one of the reasons, as well an increase of the association representatives’ expectations from local authorities. The third explanation can be associated with any existing conflicts of interest, especially with regard to urban planning”, says Koht.
Pointers for the Romanian civil society
“There are numerous methods through which citizens can gain influence at the local level. In the Norwegian model, co-production works very well, as well civil society-authority collaborations. The second method is assuring visibility for the different objectives that the citizens have in rapport with the authorities at the local level. In general, when discussing with representatives of the local authorities, they have shown openness to receiving feedback and taking into account citizen opinions, with the minimal request that this must come at the beginning of the planning stages, and not when work is already at an advanced level or near the final stages. This could create problems though, as discussions with neighbourhood organizations indicated that many of them did not know when to specifically intervene in the process, mostly because they were not aware of what was taking place, making a timely intervention difficult. This meant that citizens had to be paying attention to the mass-media announcements, when a specific project starts, and when planning for a specific project begins in order to be able to intervene from the beginning. Another suggestion revolves around a “small steps” approach or “gradualism”, when the desired outcome is to influence the final decision. We will not be successful every time in completely opposing a project. For example, as was discussed above, the new residential neighbourhood could not have been stopped even if the neighbourhood organization had opposed the project from its infancy stages. However, negotiations have yielded shorter buildings and noise-lowering measures in the area”, stated Koht during his closing remarks.
We have now learned about the Norwegian example. In Romania these so-called neighbourhood groups and small local action groups are just starting up, but they are developing at a quick pace and have small, but important victories that arise from the involvement of citizens for a civic cause of local interest. We invite you to offer below, in the comments section, examples of local battles won, and to tell us what your opinion is about the importance of civic actions aimed at resolving some particular problems surrounding the elementary rights of citizens.