The goal is always to be kept in mind: instead of competing for the title of being the best, NGOs are founded to protect the rights of, for example, the disabled people. The public and local government institutions are to be aware that instead of supporting the best organization, they should support a possibly greater number of them.
Reporter Aija Lulle is talking to Trinet Blomhert-Scheltinga Koopman, Latvia project coordinator of the Cooperating Netherlands Foundations for Central and Eastern European Countries (CNF).
In the run of the last decade, you have often been visiting in Latvian on your Netherlands support coordination missions. What was Latvia then and what is it today?
My initial impressions underpin the feeling about Latvia: it was October, gloomy and cold, when I first came, I saw dull faces in the streets and gray buildings around, people seemed tired of everything. Now very much has changed, and I see a city bustling with activities, at least the downtown Riga is such. It is much lighter there! People are active and brave enough to accentuate their individuality. Ten years ago, the majority seemed to be of the same kin, and, moreover, the clothes they wore were in vogue in the West in the 1960s and 1970s.
Changes like more light and colour, faster development and growth are clearly typical for Riga. Through your contacts with NGOs across Latvia, you have watched the development of the entire country.
Indeed, the changes have not been so pronounced outside the capital city Riga. Nevertheless, progress is visible everywhere. When we visit NGOs in the countryside, we use better roads, see neat houses and feel on-going progress there.
What was your perception of the civil society of Latvia ten years ago?
Non-governmental organizations were not in place, and if there were any, they did not resemble those operating in the Western countries for centuries. However, people were eager to be active in this area. We focused on social welfare, health and education, and there were people willing to work.
It is also true that on many occasions they did not understand the activities of an NGO. For instance, there were individuals who rejected any cooperation and refused to work jointly with the local governments. Local governments, as the other party, were unwilling to get involved emphasizing that these organizations were not public. This lack of understanding had to be corrected. And we commenced explanatory work targeted at both the NGOs and the local governments.
It should be noted that this failure to understand each other has disappeared in the course of the last three years. During these years, a great number of new-comers are working with NGOs, and we can see that enthusiasm of the public is growing.
What are the main drivers of NGOs development and maturity in Latvia?
Basically they were educational activities within the NGO sector, adult training, developing skills and abilities of organizing meetings, attaining goals, cooperating with the public sector and foreign donor organizations. All these training courses were extremely significant.
Which are the areas for NGOs of Latvia to further develop their abilities?
They have to move on and proceed with things that have started so well. Good relations and cooperation attempts are to be developed; they cannot be established and then let to drift along.
Another thing for NGOs in Latvia is to understand how important their mutual cooperation is. They have to work jointly to attain common goals, so that to exclude the possibility of inventing the bicycle anew. For instance, such organizations as those protecting the rights of disabled persons and NGOs supporting old people can achieve much more by mutual effort, as they have many things in common that are to be negotiated and solved with the state and local government institutions.
Can competition among NGOs be prevented? It seems to be so pleasing, say, to be the best organization working for the rights of the disabled.
The goal is always to be kept in mind: instead of competing for the title of being the best, NGOs are founded to protect the rights of, for example, the disabled people, to promote the youth activities, etc. It is not a beauty contest, but hard work for the benefit of the society. Public and local government institutions are to be aware that they do not necessarily have to support only the best organizations that have been acknowledged such by a number of criteria. For the good of the entire community, the benefactor can support several organizations, if it is clear that by joint effort their performance will be more successful. It is important also for the optimization of resources.
How do you think the activities of the Latvian NGOs compare to those of the organizations in other East European countries?
They are doing very well! It is, of course, difficult to draw parallels with such countries as the Netherlands where, in fact, institutions of any kind can be and actually are NGOs, among them schools, hospitals, etc. A great number of them take their roots from parish activities at churches.
Here the situation was quite different, as during the soviet times parishes could not be active, and the break of 50 years had taken its toll. NGOs could develop faster in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Latvia has become an EU Member State and is treated as a developed country by a number of international organizations. You are going to render support also during the up-coming year. What will happen after this date?
We will have accomplished our mission then. When we started our activities in Central and Eastern Europe we thought that it would take three or so years for us to accomplish our mission. States are democratic, they develop market economies; we shall assist the NGO sector thus promoting spreading of democracy, sustainable growth and social participation to a greater extent. That was what we thought, yet it took much more time and the transition period was not easy at all. Then we decided to work in these countries until they join the EU. Now we have entered the concluding phase.
We have invested over 5 million euro in more than 300 projects in the course of ten years. We have done our best, indeed. Now an adequate number of good samples are in place to encourage the others.
Now our core task is to support the formation and consolidation of local organizations as successors of our activities. In Latvia, the Community Initiatives Foundation has been established. We did the same in Hungary and the Czech Republic, also in Bulgaria. Almost all countries now have their local foundations in place.
What would you advise NGOs to do for raising funds in the situation when international donors are leaving Latvia?
It should be done at several levels. First, local foundations must be in place to give assistance, to teach how to apply for the EU resources.
Second, it must be born in mind that the small organizations, for which it is a problem to apply for funding and to obtain it, do not compete for large amounts of money. Hence the state should get involved in coordination of all available resources similar, say, to the Latvian Society Integration Fund.
Third, over a long-term perspective, we see that the state is evolving and that increasingly large resources are accumulating in it. As is the case in many parts across the world, the private sector is to be more involved in NGO financing. Be it so, the local businesses work for a better life for the whole country and its community. NGOs have to improve their business-involving skills.
They should not cease explaining and illustrating with good examples that all parties will benefit from their support: businesses will earn good reputation, the environment they are working in will become safer and sounder, and they will learn that their own employees often get involved in NGO activities selflessly and willingly. Mutual ties exist everywhere and among all. The attitude, undeniably, must change. These are not relationships between a benefactor and beneficiary; instead, these are the relations between and among partners, and these relations are directed towards the benefit of the people.
It would likewise be worth considering a benevolent legislative framework. For instance, the OranjeFoundation is financed from the income earned by the national lottery.
Nevertheless, many stick to the view today that their last santim is to be invested in their own development and they cannot donate to NGOs.
Irrespective of the scope of their operation, good companies will always have good will and at least some possibility to support good ideas and initiatives.
Can you name any project in Latvia for which you feel proud and happy?
There are many of them. I can certainly refer to Baltā māja in Līvāni. I am really pleased to see the enthusiasm of people working there and how important it is for the local community. It is a good example of fruitful cooperation among several NGOs in attaining common objectives, an example set for and to be followed by the entire Latvia.
I can also mention the crisis center Dardedze in Riga. People working there help resolve very serious problems of children and their parents. Their performance is very diligent, and they work jointly with various public institutions and organizations. In Liepaja, Karosta, people work with the organization K@2 under difficult circumstances, and the results are good. There are an ever increasing number of such examples. In all instances, NGOs have managed to introduce positive changes working hard and with enthusiasm.
We and the Community Initiatives Foundation are active in areas of social welfare, education and health care. They all have pressing problems and will be in the focus in the future.
New experience is to be mastered as well, and cooperation with NGOs in other countries is to be continued.
What are the current plans of your foundation?
Oranje Foundation is going to close its activities in Eastern Europe in 2013. As we started operation in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and other countries later, we have to complete our work there in the up-coming years.
In Estonia and Latvia, we are going to close on January 1, 2007, whereas in Lithuania where we started our activities later, we will close in 2008.
Oranje Foundation is an organization with its core activities in the Netherlands. In exceptional cases, we can raise funds for operation in other countries as well. We have a large number of projects, which need support also in our own country.
How long have you personally been involved in NGOs sector?
I am with this foundation for more than 25 years. I like non-governmental organizations! I do like industrious people who do not spare time and effort to make good ideas come true. I do like my job, indeed, and the same is true about my activities in Latvia.
People are very grateful and they appreciate assistance given to them. But there is one interesting thing – they almost never ask anything, like, where the money comes from and why we do these things.
They just accept it as self-evident: one madam came from a distant country and offered money for a project. Many had no idea or a rational approach, the assistance rendered to them made them think they were living in a fairy tale.
Let me ask you an often omitted question – why do you do it? Why do you offer help?
It simple as this. It may sound pathetic, but the core lies in solidarity. We help countries with which we have so much in common but due to historical and political circumstances we have been separated by an iron curtain for many years. This is the foundation on which we act.
 The Cooperating Netherlands Foundations for Central and Eastern Europe have been active in Latvia since 1995; over this period, project financing has exceeded 5 million euro. The Foundations pursue an objective to support the formation and evolving of civil societies. NGO projects in Latvia are coordinated by Oranje Foundation, which was known as the Queen Juliana Foundation of Latvia until 2004.