A 2018 survey by Open Society Institute - Sofia found that Bulgarians had an overwhelmingly low level of trust and participation in civil society organisations. Civitates has funded projects of support for organisations uniting the fragmented non-profit sector to address the shrinking space for civil society and respond to anti-democratic and anti-human rights trends in the country.
“Step by step we are facing more and more restrictions, and we don’t know how long this will last, or where it will end,” says Svetlana Mihaylova, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW). BFW coordinates Ravni BG, a coalition of 29 organisations which was built with Civitates support.
The idea for the coalition was born out of increased attacks on civil society organisations in Bulgaria in the wake of the failed ratification of the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence in late 2018. “The need for a coalition responding to all these threats came naturally because the people were reaching out to each other saying we need to do something, we need to stand united,” says Mihaylova. The coalition aims to strengthen civil society in Bulgaria by providing resources, building capacity and carrying out joint communication campaigns to build a positive image of the civil sector.
Uniting around common values
Coalition members work on a wide range of issues, from children’s rights to climate change, with no priority of topics. “It shows us that nothing stays fragmented, that everything is related. At the end of the day everything comes down to democracy and human rights,” says Mihaylova. The word Ravni means “equal” in Bulgarian. The coalition aims to operate in full transparency and openness with an informal, horizontal structure and a strong emphasis on freedom and initiative.
Coalition members range from organisations based in Sofia to those based in small villages. For organisations from remote areas, joining the coalition has opened up new horizons and given them the opportunity “to feel that they’re not alone, to feel that they have the freedom to communicate and to travel to experts and to know what other organisations are doing right now, organisations they’ve never heard of before,” says Mihaylova.
For Sofia-based organisations the collaboration has also been an eye-opener, giving them a deeper understanding of how things work on the ground. “They found out that there are also civic organisations that are working elsewhere with a lot of effort and fewer resources,” says Mihaylova.
It depends on us
The coalition has been preparing to launch a national communication campaign this spring to highlight why civil society organisations are a valuable part of society. Together the members came up with the slogan, “ot nas zavisi” which means “it depends on us”, underlining the positive influence of citizen initiatives in communities and society. Every organisation will adapt the message to their work and local environment. “We do not give them action plans or tell them what they have to do, because nobody knows the context better than these organisations,” says Mihaylova.
A change of mindset
Although Mihaylova initially did much of the heavy lifting to coordinate and unify coalition members, she has found that the coalition has now taken on a life of its own. “Right now, the coalition has a sense of community,” she says. “The first time I saw a partner communicating directly with the others instead of going through me, it was enlightening. The members have started thinking of the coalition as their platform, as a safe space for cooperation.”
Members have also adopted a more flexible and responsive mindset, rather than depending on rigid schedules and indicators. “What makes Civitates and our project different is that it is flexible and it gives us the chance to react to the current moment,” says Mihaylova.
Adapting to the time of corona
That flexibility and responsiveness is proving very necessary these days, as coronavirus has Europe in its grip. Plans for the spring campaign are being thwarted by containment measures causing the cancellation of public events. However, the corona crisis has shown coalition members just how far they’ve come in adopting a proactive mindset. “This freedom and responsibility is very visible right now because nobody is saying ‘we can’t do this’,” says Mihaylova. “Instead they are thinking about how to adapt and how to make this happen.”
Concerns about human rights restrictions in a state of emergency has only renewed the coalition’s determination to strengthen civil participation, she emphasises: “We will carry out the campaign, and maybe now it is more necessary than ever, because the information flow and human rights are being restricted even more.”
Civitates is a joint Philanthropic Initiative for Democracy and Solidarity in Europe, by a network of foundations, including the King Baudouin Foundation. It provides funding for civil society actors to come together, revitalise public discourse, and ensure that all voices are heard. One of Civitates’ activities is strengthening the capacity of civil society actors, collectively and more effectively. Open Society Institute Sofia