I don’t think that it’s bad to have five ministers. On the contrary. Otherwise we would risk having the Society Intergration Foundation stricken from the state’s general understanding. If there is a suspicion that a representative of a certain sector is lobbying in favor of his own direction, then he does not take part in the relevant vote.
Black cats do not appear in the bushes
Zanda Berzina of Radio Free Europe interviews Nils Sakss, Director of
Society Integration Foundation
On 5 July of this year, the Saeima accepted a law on the Society Intergration Foundation. What exactly is this organization? Lots of people have had their say about it, but how do you define it?
The Society Intergration Foundation represents money that is distributed to projects which are aimed at – if we interpret the matter a bit – promoting ethnic, social and regional integration in society.
When members of the Saeima debated about the need for the fund, there were some suggestions that it would be better to provide support for existing organizations instead of setting up another mechanism that would suck up the state’s money.
You see, that is a question about funds in general. There is quite a bit of skepticism about them in Latvia, as far as I know. When I worked at the Ministry of Education, for example, we had quite a bit of difficulty with the Foundation for Educational Innovations.
The basic idea here is that the Foundation receives money from the national budget. There is a system in Latvia whereby money is divided up among ministries, and they then work in line with the duties that have been entrusted to them. That’s why the money is granted.
Recently we have heard a lot of talk about public participation, about things that government institutions must do and in the context of which results are insufficient if the public doesn’t take part. If we want each member of the public to feel equally responsible for the processes that the state is handling, then we have to find ways for government and non-governmental institutions to take part in those processes. Society has the desire, but it does not have the money.
As far as I know, organizations in Latvia and society as such are fairly idle.
We cannot expect that to change unless we create a favorable environment in which the ideas which emerge from society turn into projects that receive financial support. That’s why the Society Intergration Foundation is unique and very necessary for Latvia – we are creating such opportunities.
Each institution can submit a proposal on public integration, and if the idea is good and in line with the national program for public integration, then it receives support. Sometimes these are small and humble proposals, of course, but once the system gets going, it will develop. We will get society involved in integration processes without forcing anyone to participate. There are quite a few institutions right now that have ideas and a desire to do things, but they do not have financing.
Why is the state so extensively represented at the Foundation's board, while there are no representatives from minority organizations of the type for which the fund was basically established?
I must emphasize once again that the law on the Foundation says that our duty is to support projects which are in line with the National Program on Society Integration, and the three main pillars here are ethnic, social and regional integration. The way in which our Program operates is that we support projects in the areas of language, education, research and culture. We can’t say that the Program is intended to operate only in the ethnic area.
If we look at the “elite” nature of the Foundation's board, then I will stress once again that minority issues are just one of the elements in the Foundation's operations. You can debate whether minorities are represented on the council to a great or a small extent. The law says that the board is made up of five ministers, five representatives from the regions and delegates from five non-governmental organizations. If we compare our operations with the goals that are set out in the national program, then I think that the board is very balanced.
Why are there five ministers? Is it not possible that the Foundation will become a political affiliate of some government organization?
I don’t think that it’s bad to have five ministers. On the contrary. Otherwise we would risk having the Society Intergration Foundation stricken from the general understanding of the state.
It might forget the money that has been awarded?
Perhaps. If the ministers attend meetings, study the proposals, make judgments about how valuable each one is, and look at the situation with finances, then I really think that when they are sitting in government meetings and talking about the national budget, that benefits our Foundation. Ministries deal with issues that have to do with the integration of society, too, and so the presence of ministers on the board helps us to avoid the possibility that the Foundation might start duplicating the functions of government institutions. I think that this is very important, because the level of financing from the state is quite low. It is great that we have people on the board who really know what is happening in each sphere or sector and can take precise decisions about the areas in which the Foundation should provide its support. I want to say that in the area of integration, the Foundation's board is a unique structure in terms of its high level of representation and influence.
The statutes of the Foundation say that only the board can approve project proposals and determine criteria for evaluating them. That means that these 16 “wise men” on the council are the only ones who decide who gets money and how much money is given. Isn’t that a violation of the principle of “transparency” which you mentioned?
Absolutely not. The board of the Foundation is the institution that takes decisions. The state trusts the council and gives it money and the right to deal with that money. The law says that board meetings are open, and journalists can come and watch.
The second thing – the board does not have experts on all issues, and members are not supposed to be universal experts. How do they evaluate the applications? Look at the law again. It says that proposals are turned over to committees which are made up of experts. The system was borrowed from European Union programs.
Who has the right to challange decisions that are taken by the Foundation?
If you think that there has been too much support for social integration and not enough for ethnic integration, then the board has the right to accept or refuse the relevant decision, but if you think that the board has acted unlawfully, then you must sue it in court.
The Foundation has already approved projects with total funding of nearly Ls 127,000 – Ls 30,000 to the library for the visually impaired, approximately Ls 20,000 for Ministry of Education projects, Ls 1,000 for the integration of the Roma. Ministers of Welfare and Education as well as Normunds Rudevics are all on the board. This does not seem fair to me.
If there is a suspicion that a representative of a certain sector is lobbying in favor of his own direction, then he does not take part in the relevant vote.
Did that happen when these proposals were approved?
Exactly so. A project can receive support only if an absolute majority of the board members supports it. Not a majority of those who are present – an absolute majority. That means that there must be at least nine votes in favor from those who are at the table at that time. That really causes problems for us in the sense that we fear that there will not be a quorum, but at the same time it means that projects which the majority of those who are present have deemed to be good are the ones which receive support.
You said that Ls 12,000 went to the Ministry of Education. Let’s pick up the national program and look at what it says about the areas which the Foundation must support. One of the main goals there is to teach the Latvian language to non-Latvians. The Ls 12,000 are being divided up among various projects that are aimed at the development of bilingual education. Proposals have come from schools and the Naturalization Board, and the total sum for language projects is around Ls 43,000. Making accusations about the fact that of that money, Ls 12,000 have gone to the Ministry of Education while the minister is on the board is not really proper. Furthermore, at the very beginning there was a debate over the idea that the Foundation should make a key investment in promoting social integration – ensuring that everyone in society has equal access to everyday services. The national program says that culture is one of the forms of support, but we cannot build a cultural hall or a sports facility with the fund’s money – let’s be realists. The board, however, decided that it would support projects with long-term effect. There was a proposal to buy books and informational materials for the visually impaired, and the council was very unanimous on this issue. It was immediately obvious that the Foundation would do something very good if the visually impaired could obtain information. It is completely out of line to link that decision to the fact that the Minister of Welfare is on the board.
Is there any financial “ceiling” for project proposals, or can there be requests for Ls 100,000 or 200,000?
I think that we should have such a ceiling. When the fund gets PHARE money, the idea will be that the cost of a project will not be allowed to be under EUR 100,000. There is a lot of value in supporting small initiatives, and we are going to do so, but we must also make the demand that the fund support large projects which require a completely different level of activity from their organizers. There must be true influence in the areas in which they work.
The Foundation's purse is not bottomless, though, is it?
I have to look in the future. Next year government financing will increase by 40% to Ls 282,000, we will get EUR 100,000 from the PHARE Program, and in 2003 we will get EUR 1.5 million. Next year we will be able to support as many projects as this year with the state’s money.
How will you convince foreign investors that the Society Intergration Foundation is a good thing and that they should open up their money bags?
First of all, there is the openness of the Foundation's activities. We intend to publish everything on the Internet. Secondly, our financial reporting mechanisms will have to correspond to the basic principles which the donors are accustomed to seeing back home. We are still working on our financial flows. In 2002 there is to be a special PHARE project which will bring in EU experts to help us to organize all of the money procedures so that they are in line with EU principles. That is a key condition to receive the aforementioned PHARE money in 2003, by the way.
What kind of reporting system will it be?
It will be based on the following principle: Project organizers will have to file an intermediate report in which we will see the progress that has been made in pursuit of the project, as well as the way in which financing has been used. When the project is completed, of course, there will be a final report. At the end of each year, there will be an annual report on the fund’s operations. The fund is ready to prepare those documents in line with the demands of donor organizations or individual donors.
You recently told the press that you’re not hoping for much support from the member states of the European Union. Why such skepticism?
Let me say precisely that this is not skepticism, it is the real situation. The European Union is helping Latvia through the European Union as an organization, and as long as we are not in the EU, there are opportunities for bilateral cooperation. A good example is the national program to teach the Latvian language, which has attracted a lot of money with the help of the United Nations. Member states will donate something to the fund between 2002 and 2004, but I do not think that we’ll be talking about millions.
In other words, foreigners are not standing around at the door of the fund with piles of money in their hands?
It would be just lovely if at the moment when the fund is opened there were a line of people outside with a desire to invest. I must emphasize once again that the basis for the fund is financing from the state and the EU, but the law on the fund also allows us to find our own money. This is an issue that I would like to divide up – there are foreign donors and there are domestic donors. The latter group, sadly, have not been particularly active. It would be very valuable to receive even small but targeted donations – to support the disabled, for example, to install a wheelchair ramp at a museum or library. Then we would tell the donor where the money went. I really would like to ask organizations in Latvia to donate even small sums of money.
You know how it goes with those donors. I’ll donate Ls 1,000, but the fund will support my project with Ls 10,000.
That won’t happen. I don’t even know how it could happen. The projects that we have supported show that we have accomplished many good things. Perhaps I am too much an idealist because I have been in this job only for two weeks, but I am not seeing any black cats in the bushes.
How much does the name of Nils Sakss weigh when it comes to the decisions that the council takes?
Absolutely nothing, zero. I am the director of the secretariat. When I was invited to take the job, I said very clearly that it would be incorrect for me to approach the council with my own insistent suggestions. My job is to prepare as much high-quality information as is needed for the council to take the right decisions.