NGO-Fund: 4 years, 448 projects

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The closing conference of the NGO Programme of the EEA Grants in Hungary took place 6-7 April. Ambassador Olav Berstad delivered a welcome speech as follows.

I congratulate you (i.e. Ökotárs, Demnet, Kárpátok Alapítvány, Autonómia Alapítvány) on a very well performed and executed programme in Hungary. 448 individual projects, involving hundreds of Hungarian voluntary organizations, and tens of thousands of actors, with important outreach, advocacy and policy recommendation output, that is important in itself.

I think I can say that the donors are satisfied, especially since we know that rough seas were mastered under way. These challenges were basically overcome. I will not dwell on history. The NGO programme and fund performed well, reached its goals, in time and on budget.

Civil society support is an important aspect of Norwegian foreign and development policy. Norway spends approximately 20 % of its overall international aid on support to and through civil society. This equals almost 800 mill EUR.

We have ourselves a successful history in nation building, defense and advancement of democratic values etc. in Norway. Our voluntary organizations, grass-rot movements, dynamic and diverse political landscape have played an important part. The Norwegian government does not always agree with the NGOs, but we basically regard their activity as legitimate elements of political and social process.

Internationally, we emphasize that civil society reaches the poorest peoples, people often forgotten by governments. Civil society often provides necessary additional services. Civil society holds governments accountable, they are useful watchdogs for the nation. We can observe that political space of civil society is restricted in many countries, this is a serious challenge both to development, justice and global security. Local leaders are important agents of change. In our view, more power must be transferred to civil society in low and middle-income countries in order to promote good governance, fair and equitable development. Both professional and grass root actors are needed. Government agencies and NGOs must learn to cooperate better.

The Norwegian success story builds in much on good multi-stakeholder cooperation. Working together, building bridges, recognizing the driving factors behind your political opponent, seeking reasonable compromise and not demonizing opponents. We do not send out national questionnaires.

Civil society for us is in the first line of defense of peace and progress. International law, independent national courts, freedom of expression, freedom of press and assembly are similarly in the first line of defense.

Dear audience, I have noticed that billboards are now coming up: Let us stop Brussels.

I am old enough to interpret this as: Let us stop progress. Let us stop cooperation and integration which has led to an unprecedented 70 years of fundamental peace in Europe. Let us stop history, Let us go alone, Let us stop Brussels, Let us return to the horrors of the glorious past!

For the non-Hungarians present I will quote one of the six questions which the Hungarian population is now asked to answer in the “national consultation”:

“More and more foreign-supported organizations operate in Hungary with the aim of interfering in the internal affairs of our country in an opaque manner. These organizations could jeopardize our independence. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Require them to register, revealing the objectives of their activities and the sources of their finances. Or (b) Allow them to continue their risky activities without any supervision”

We expect that a new NGO-law requiring a form of additional, burdensome registration will be launched. Perhaps this will effectively prevent the use of EEA and Norway grants to and through civil society, unless they register as foreign agents - which will be unacceptable to our side. It may be that EEA money will receive equal treatment with EU money, but this remains to be seen.

There may be a tricky legal issue here, namely that if we cannot have a new NGO-fund in Hungary, the whole financial mechanism programme in here may be in jeopardy. At least that is my amateur interpretation or speculation at the moment.

To conclude:

Hungary is the 10th country I have lived in or served in since 1980. I have never seen anything quite similar in my career.

I was in Pécs yesterday for an international roundtable, on the occasion of the university’s 650th anniversary. Founded in 1367, - 444 years before Norway got its first university! The event was held a day after the adoption of the CEU-law. I quoted German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Two-three days ago in the European parliament, he was talking about Europe and said:

“If we want to be a lighthouse in the world for the rule of law and for human rights, then we cannot ignore, when these foundations are shaken in the midst of Europe. Europe, then, must not be silent, when civil society, even academia - as now at Central European University, Budapest - are deprived of the air to breathe”.

It seems: You are, we are all needed more than ever.

The broader picture will be dealt with tomorrow during the International day of the conference. Today it is Hungary and the successes and achievements of the NGO fund.

I wish you success with the conference, and the future!

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You can find the program of the closing conference here.