Archive | 25th Anniversary | Pavol Demes Speech

25th Anniversary Dinner
February 14, 1995

The Independent Sector in Newly Democratizing Countries
Pavol Demes

When Lee Auspitz called me, a few months ago, to ask whether I could come to New York to join in the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Sabre Foundation, I accepted his invitation with pleasure. I have been part of the Sabre family since 1990 when I first met Lee. We were both attending a conference on constitutionalism, held at the home of James Madison at Montpellier in Virginia, at the invitation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With my colleagues from SAIA, the Slovak Academic Information Agency, we began a partnership with the Sabre Foundation which provided more than 100,000 gift books and other publications to Slovakia. I think that this program should be recognized as one of the great success stories of western assistance to Central and Eastern Europe. I also looked forward to seeing again many of my good friends from the not-for-profit community in the United States who have contributed significantly to fostering civil societies in our region during the past five years.

A lot has changed since 1989. I think we all still remember vividly the euphoria of those exciting months as the walls between east and west were being dismantled. We all had great hopes for a new and integrated Europe, for the rebirth of democracy with the rule of law and the benefits of a market economy. As the barriers fell, ideas and information, people and goods began to be exchanged. In the east as well as in the west, it seemed that the political and economic transformation of Central and Eastern Europe was going to take place far more rapidly than anyone expected.

However, the experience of the last five years has shown that this transformation is going to take much longer and will be far more difficult than was anticipated in 1990. The task has proven to be enormous. Unexpected difficulties and unanticipated tensions emerged as post communist countries attempted to reconstruct their economic and governmental-systems. Ethnic, national and international relationships were complicated by the emergence of new states.

Many conferences have been held recently, to evaluate what has changed in Central and Eastern Europe during the past five years. They have concluded that institutional or structural changes are not enough to assure the development of democracy, the rule of law and economic vitality. Habits of thought and action deeply ingrained in the public life of the region are proving difficult to change. They cannot be transformed by decrees or charters from above or from outside. Change takes place more slowly from below and within the society. Government programs and entrepreneurial activities can foster change. Ultimately, however, the fundamental transformation of post-communist societies will depend upon citizens exercising their newly gained rights to associate and act together.

What has surprised many of us, is the spontaneous emergence and unexpected vitality of the so-called third sector in post-communist countries. Despite substantial difficulties thousands of new associations of citizens and foundations were established throughout the region. In Slovakia, with a population of about five million people, nearly 10,000 of not-for-profit organizations have been registered since 1990. They deal with a broad spectrum of concerns and engage in a wide range of activities. They have demonstrated the remarkable creativity and dedication of individuals. In societies in which collectivism had practically destroyed individual initiative and responsibility, not-for-profit organizations are the clearest manifestation of the rebirth of a civil society.

The transformation process in each country is not taking place, moreover, in isolation. The rebirth of a civil society is both a national and an international phenomenon. This has been recognized quickly and clearly by third sector organizations. At the same time that not-for-profit organizations in each of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have been developing their self-confidence and the awareness that they are part of unique third sector, they are developing contacts and cooperate with similar organizations in other countries.

What makes this rapid emergence of citizen organizations or the third sector remarkable is that it is taking place despite substantial legal, economic, social and even political difficulties. On the one hand, the growth of the sector can be attributed to the commitment and vigor of a whole new group of leaders who have emerged during the past few years and to the support of thousands of individuals. On the other hand, it is clear that the third sector has been encouraged and supported, especially financially, by western foundations and organizations. Without the assistance provided from the west, from individuals, private foundations and government programs, many of the third sector organizations in Central and Eastern Europe would not have been established or survived. Western assistance, and especially the substantial direct aid provided by foundations in the United States, have played a crucial role in fostering the independent sector in newly democratizing countries.

Although the further evolution of the third sector in the region obviously will depend upon the political and economic transformation in each of the countries, I am convinced that it will require the continued involvement of and assistance from the west. The third sector has emerged. But it is still fragile. Its consolidation and sustainability is still not assured, even in those countries whose economic advance has been considered remarkable. Throughout all of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, the third sector is proving to be vital for the development of a truly democratic, responsive civil society. But, without supportive political and economic conditions, even the most dedicated citizen organizations will find it difficult to continue the work they have begun. They have recognized that regional cooperation and western assistance is needed to develop their own human resources and financial capacities. They also believe that western experience can convince political and economic leaders in the region that the alleviation of the massive problems connected with the process of transformation requires the development of and cooperation with organizations of the third sector. Third sector organizations offer citizens a mechanism to voice their concerns and, even more, to work together to counteract the apathy and mistrust that has frequently accompanied the transformation process.

One positive example of the cooperation between east and west and of individuals within one of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe has been the work of the Sabre Foundation in Slovakia. When I first met Lee at that conference at Montpellier, neither of us sought to anticipate the future. Rather, we simply agreed on seeking a way to work together. But this simple agreement to cooperate in distributing gift books in Slovakia has had a far-reaching impact.

It may be hard for many of you to comprehend how much the gift of books means for my country. The first shipment of books to Slovakia was welcomed with a brass band, local officials, the American General Counsel and reports on national television. The arrival and display of each new shipment receives extensive coverage in the media and hundreds of individuals line up to view and request copies. I doubt that there is a public library in Slovakia that does not have books bearing the stamp "This book is a gift of the Sabre Foundation". This program of the Sabre Foundation is well-known and continues to be one of the most visible, direct and very personal forms of western assistance. But this project of the Sabre Foundation, to which publishers, the United States Information Agency, the Mellon and other foundations have contributed, has had a broader significance. It is not just the content of the books that is important. The whole process by which a few dedicated people obtain and distribute the books has helped to reintroduce a culture of giving and of public service.

Perhaps I can best explain it this way. When books from Sabre first arrived in Slovakia, many asked "Why are Americans doing this?" "What are they getting of this?" Today, they are more likely to ask, "When do you expect another shipment of books?" or "Is their anything I can do to help?" During the past five years, we have appreciated real, sincere assistance. The kind of assistance provided by the Sabre Foundation and by many of you.

Tonight, in the name of all whom you have assisted, I am pleased and honored to say, simply but sincerely, Dakujem, Thank you.

Pavol Demes directs the Foreign Policy Department of the Office of the President of Slovakia.