Health and social issues, education and culture, integration of minorities, ecological and human rights problems: NGOs could bring a lot of positive change to crisis-struck and austerity-crippled Bulgaria, but they are failing to deliver. The NGO sector in Bulgaria is struggling to survive and is in a state of severe internal crisis, as shown by the annual report of the non-government sector of USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development.
The so-called stability index measures the development of the non-government sector in Southeastern Europe and Eurasia and has been in use for the past 15 years. It evaluates factors such as the legal environment, fiscal stability and public prestige.
For 2011, the Bulgarian NGO index was 3.4, with 1.0 corresponding to the highest level of stability and 7.0 the lowest. This is the lowest listing since 2001, when it was 3.6. It is one of the best scores in the geographical region, Europe South, to which Bulgaria belongs for the purposes of the survey, along with countries like Romania, Croatia and Albania. However, this result is far from the 2.7 median index of the Europe East countries.
At the moment, there are more than 34,000 registered NGOs in Bulgaria. Of these, 9,000 declare that they work in the public sector. The number of newly-registered NGOs is steadily decreasing and only 70 percent of those registered in 2008 were re-registered in 2011.
The reasons for the decline are many and various, and have a lot to do with the way the state deals with the NGOs. To begin with, the state has no strategy on NGOs and no administrative body to deal with them, according to the report. Thus, every ministry and administration decides for itself whether to cooperate with NGOs, and what form this cooperation will take.
Funding is another big problem. In the austere 2012 state budget, the government abolished NGO funding almost completely, except for a limited number of organisations sanctioned by various Bulgarian laws.
Before that, the NGOs could compete for state funding, although not without difficulty. In 2011, for example, 80 of the 140 NGOs applying for funding were excluded from the competition, often because of Bulgarian-style bureaucracy, such as attaching photocopied documents instead of the original one. As a result, 250,000 euros of the 350,000 euro budget for NGOs were not allocated.
As a general rule, NGOs do not receive direct EU funding of significant proportions. To avail of EU money, they need the intervention of the state and the municipalities. The state administration, however, prefers to spent EU money on infrastructure, where NGOs cannot participate. Therefore, the only NGOs in receipt of direct EU funding are those working in the social sphere.
Private funding is also a problem. There are some large international donors like the America for Bulgaria Foundation, which redistribute money and fund a great range of projects. Bulgarian tax legislation, however, encourages businesses to donate not to NGOs, but to state-owned public entities, such as hospitals and schools, as there is tax relief available on charitable expenditure. As far as individuals are concerned, it seems they would rather donate a sum of money to a sick child campaigning on Facebook or send a charity SMS. In the end, only 38 percent of the private donations in the country go to NGOs.
That is why in 2011 few NGOs hired fulltime staff. There was also a decrease in the number of workshops providing basic skills in NGO work.
As a result, NGOs have become somewhat ornamental organisations, with little or no influence on policy formation and decisionmaking. Only 1.3 per cent of the NGOs which took part in the survey stated that their work had had a decisive effect on the formation of state policies. Another 49 percent admitted that they had had limited influence on policymaking.
NGOs are not completely toothless, however. In 2011 shale gas fracking was banned after intervention by local NGOs. Some government institutions have even included NGO representatives in their work, albeit solely as observers, without the right to intervene in decisionmaking.
Theoretically, everyone is free to register an NGO unless some bureaucrat does not come with an odd and sometimes impossible to fulfil requirement. The report, however, points out that there are numerous cases where the NGO Central Register has used procedural loopholes to prevent NGOs from registering. NGO registration still cannot be done online, and small organisations especially in the provinces have little access to proper legal counsel.
The NGOs themselves, however, can sometimes be their own worst enemy. In recent years a number of them were established for the sole reason of providing "public" backing for some private interest. Developers in ski resorts and local municipalities, for example, created NGOs whose chief purpose was to counter environmentalist organisations protesting against building in protected areas.
The social prestige of the NGOs in Bulgaria is not very high, with an index of 3. According to the report, the reasons are lack of proper PR skills on the one hand, and the media that cannot tell the difference between advertisement and charity. NGOs are still inclined to keep themselves at a distance from the lives of ordinary people, resulting in reduced impact and influence in the public area.
That is why, when asked who the real representatives of public opinion in Bulgaria are, Bulgarians taking part in the CIVICUS civil society index survey placed the NGOs fourth – after pensioners, students and environmentalists.