Why has the Society Integration Foundation begun to distribute money without experts, awarding money to people who work in the interest spheres of members of the Foundation’s council, but not to promising projects? Next year will tell us whether the Foundation will become a functioning mechanism or just a small part of foreign policy.
The Integration Foundation at crossroads
We can say that when the director of the Society Integration Foundation was appointed in November 2001, Latvia closed out an important chapter in ethnic policy, the beginning to which can be found in the establishment of a group of people who wrote up a public integration concept in 1998. Will the Foundation fulfill the hopes that have been pinned on it when it comes to the greater consolidation of society? We will soon see. After we study things that the chairwoman of the Foundation, Ramona Umblija, has said in a public policy portal, we have to say that there is a threat that the Foundation will become yet another screw in the state’s machinery, and this little screw may not play the role which it was supposed to play, according to the fathers and mothers of the idea of integration. Why such skepticism?
First of all, I think that the law on the Foundation and the statutes of the Foundation contain far too many unclear, contradictory and impractical elements - ones which may cause harm to the Foundation and to Latvia in the near future. Article 11 of the statutes says that only the Board can approve project applications and establish criteria and principles for the evaluation of proposals. Expert committees are basically supposed to do nothing more than evaluate implemented projects, and they have only weakly defined advisory rights (Article 29). The involvement of experts in the process is not mandatory. Committees are set up by the Board, not by the secretariat (Article 14). At the same time, the law (Articles 8 and 12) says that projects are supposed to be vetted by committees before they are submitted to the Board for its consideration.
In short, the law and the statutes provide too few rights to the director and to experts in the various spheres. The Board, which should shape strategic visions in the field of integration, engages in technical matters, dividing up both small and large amounts of money in the direct sense of the words “dividing up”.
Given the great responsibility that the Board has undertaken, it is important to look at its membership. I think that this is a second potential stumbling block for the Foundation. The Board includes several ministers and local government leaders, which makes the operations of the organization very political. We can debate over whether the presence of NGOs is at a sufficient level. One person who is named as an NGO representative is Normunds Rudevics, who is the director of the Latvian Association of Roma (Gypsy) Culture, but who is also a member of Parliament for Latvia’s Way. According to Diena (6 December 2001), the way in which the Roma Association has used the money that has been awarded to it by the state has been, to put it mildly, very unclear. The truth is that minority groups are represented on the council only by a man from the small organization that is called Western Russians, Dmitrijs Nikolajevs.
This means that potential donors may have at least two justifiable questions: Does the Foundation want to work in the field of ethnic integration? Is the Board able to ensure operations that are open, transparent, competent and objective? It is very clear that answers to these questions will be determined by the extent to which the Foundation proves successful in finding money.
The operations which the fund has launched, furthermore, can create donor questions in at least three different aspects:
- Why has the Board begun to divide up money for various projects without involving experts in the process?
- Why have the first projects to receive support been ones which relate to the spheres of interest of board members (Ls 1,000 for the integration of the Roma, for example, and Ls 30,000 for people with special needs)?
- Why has no money been awarded to a promising project to train potential citizens in Latvian language skills, given that this project has already received substantial foreign financing and the immediate involvement of Latvia is critically important if donor money is continue to flow?
As long as there is no clear answer to these questions, as long as the Foundation's developmental strategy has not been marked out, and as long as contradictions in the various relevant documents have not been eliminated, we will be able to claim that the Foundation is at a crossroads. One road will lead it to success, while the other will lead it obscurity. The next six months or the next year will determine the destiny of the Foundation, I might add. Will it become a functioning mechanism which promotes the reaching of national goals, or will it continue to be a tiny element of Latvia’s negotiations for membership in the European Union and NATO?