Article written by the European Civic Forum and originally published on Civicus Monitor, 13 February 2020 – accessible here
In March 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded the rating of Latvia’s civic space from open to ‘narrowed’ after civil society reported a significant deterioration of relations with the government and a “deliberate weakening” of the sector. Nevertheless, since the new government took power in early 2019, associations have reported an improvement in conditions and an increase in recognition in the last year. For example, Inese Vaivare from the Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation (LAPAS) recorded that civil servants were showing an interest towards NGOs. There is an increased participation by members of parliament towards civil society’s events and activities. The government also showed more political will to include CSOs in policy-making, although the understanding of the sector and sensitivity towards civil society’s issues depend on the Ministry in question.
Navigating relations with the Ministry of Finance
As reported previously by the Monitor, civil society organisations alleged that there was negative rhetoric and a lack of cooperation from the Ministry of Finance, including during the discussion on the reform of the public benefit status and charity law, which is key forregulation in the sector. However, according to conversations with local organisations, over the last few months the ministry seems to have changed its approach and put forward innovative ways to consult civil society representatives and civil servants, choosing to move past previous misunderstandings. Organisations feel more confident about the open process which will continue in 2020.
Nevertheless, the sector is also pushing for new funding mechanisms – beyond public funding and beyond project calls – to improve the capacity of the sector. On this particular issue, the Minister seems more reluctant to engage.
Low capacity of the sector, but increased budget – a step forward
Liene Gatere from DELNA – Transparency International Latvia – highlighted that while the government showed openness towards finding innovative ways to strengthen citizen participation in discussions of the new action plan for Open Government Partnership 2022-2025, civil society organisations have been less involved than before. According to Gatere, the sector is struggling with low capacity and therefore has limited involvement in participatory processes.
“Organisations lack resources, thus they choose where to allocate their resources more carefully.” – Liene Gatere from DELNA – Transparency International Latvia
Similarly, Kristine Zonberga from Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), the national platform, expressed hesitation on the part of some representatives of civil society to run for election to the Memorandum Council, a consultative body to discuss issues in the sector. Organisations represented by CAL have been advocating for years for the provision of financial support to those organisations participating in the Memorandum Council.
As reported in a previous Monitor update, the low capacity of the sector has been exacerbated by the 2017 tax reforms which led to a downscale in donations. However, a positive step towards strengthening their capacity was the approval at the end of 2019 of a 1,2 million Euro budget for 2020 – three times more than before. There has also been a positive change in the rules regarding the call for proposals. The maximum funding threshold for macro projects was raised from 17,000 Euros to 40,000 Euros. The standards for reporting were simplified and a sizable portion of the budget will be devoted to smaller organisations. More importantly, calls for proposals will also include funding for advocacy projects.
Transparency register under discussion
Liene Gatere from DELNA – Transparency International Latvia, noted that discussions over introducing a new transparency register for NGOs are currently ongoing. She regards this as an important measure, although the organisation is aware of how transparency laws have been used to hamper civic space in other countries – either by squeezing associations through reporting requirements or by creating confusion in the sector. However, she reported that parliament has a good understanding of the sector and that she feels confident about the process.
Strong Relationships with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Minister of Foreign Affairs continues to be very open towards CSOs and has asked parliament to increase funding for NGOs in the fields of cooperation, migration and refugees. In addition, the National Development Plan 2021-2027 is under development. There was a national consultation process on the plan which lasted a month. This process demonstrated good transparency because of the openness with which proposals were received and were taken into account.