At the Copenhagen NGO conference, March 2001:
Introduction by the Commissioner of the CBSS on Democratic Development



Helle Degn

NGOs - A Threat to the Representative Democracy?




Ladies and Gentlemen,

Helle Degn (CBSS) in Luebeck (19kB)

Helle Degn (left) in Luebeck


It is a pleasure for me to be invited to address this conference. I welcome very much the initiative of the Danish National NGO Preparatory Committee for the CBSS of convening this conference and gathering NGOs from the Baltic Sea region. It gives you an opportunity to strengthen the cooperation of NGO’s in the CBSS-member states.

Let me assure you, that regional cooperation obviously becomes more and more important as we have to handle the globalised world. This was also the motivation for the 11 governments who established the CBSS, 9 years ago.

In the context of regional cooperation the CBSS can obviously be taken as a role-model. The challenges we see in the 11 Baltic Sea countries differ, but they also unite us. And it looks like that this part of Europe can be offered the chance to develop peacefully in contradiction to the South-eastern part of Europe.

We have witnessed the expression of citizens for the desire of sharing common values in developing and promoting strong pluralistic democracies, supporting sustainable economic and social development across the entire Baltic Sea region.

The CBSS can promote and strengthen close cooperation among the governments with the aim to strengthen democracy in the region.

The CBSS can promote and strengthen the law enforcement institutions.

The CBSS can promote and strengthen the institutions, which are the guarantees of democracy in the region.


We have witnessed a slow development of the structure of more binding cooperation among the parliamentarians in the region. The Parliamentary cooperation is still limiting itself to be a Parliamentary “Conference”. During the 80`thies and 90`thies we have seen this come through in OSCE and EU.

In my opinion - strengthening the structure of cooperation of civil society within the region as well as its cooperation with the CBSS, would certainly contribute to the above-mentioned development, as the active and participatory civil society is an essential fundament of democracy. Passive citizens can become the threat to democracy and even to the independence of your country.

Let me underline this threat from passive citizens. Lack of skills or democratic culture, of constructive participation, political and social dialog and community thinking has not to be a barrier but have to be stimulated and taken not for granted, but as very necessary tools in the tool-box to restore and ensure democracy.

Historically the State has been an enemy to the citizens – this has been the lesson learned in France and the Western part of Europe as well as in the Eastern part of Europe, through revolutions and wars.


So citizens also have to develop the social partnership and then feel trust in all democratic institutions. Therefore it is very harmful to the whole concept of democracy when we witness corruption, fraud or politicising or misconduct in the institutions, which should facilitate a democratic society.

As to the role of and cooperation between NGOs in the region, the CBSS have not exploited this potential fully until now. Of course, the cooperation among NGOs themselves in the region exists. All of us know that lack of financial resources and the language barriers has to be facilitated.

The role of NGO’s as active partners in the CBSS and its member states represents so much energy necessary to consolidate our democracies.

It is essential for NGOs being the voice of people to have their own forum at the regional level, taking into account that governments occasionally fail to explain the rationale behind their decisions or citizens disapprove the exercises of power.

I am therefore very happy to congratulate Germany, that one of the main priority under the German Presidency’s regional development strategy in the CBSS, is to encourage civil society to become more involved in the regional development as stated by Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr. Joshka Fischer. I would like to welcome the first ever NGO Forum within the CBSS, organized by Germany, to take place in Lubeck in May.

As you see from the title of my intervention today, I wish to provoke a debate linked to reality – the globalisation, the expression from people of loss of power, and transparency. The frustrations were very visible in Seattle, Prague and Brussels.


The issue of NGOs own accountability and responsibility enjoys great attention. When addressing this issue, questions like these come to ones mind - Do NGOs practice what they preach themselves? Are they transparent in structure of power and to the public? Do they represent a dangerous shift of power from elected to unelected and unaccountable special-interest groups? Do NGOs represent a threat to the representative democracy? 

When questions like these are presented, NGOs can expect nothing but critics. However, it is not my intention to criticize the work of NGOs. They have respectfully to play their role in democracy and I am convinced that NGOs represent the necessary oxygen to any system and structure under the transition we have to handle in these years.

The elected governments are not the only ones to run politics.  They are not the only actors. They have to deal also with the public opinion of NGOs, the political parties, other interest groups, and sometimes even compete with them in the tough media game.


These lessons have to be learned. NGOs act as they have to, as an interest group. And as most interest groups, only accountable to themselves and their audience, or to their sponsors. Sometimes we also have to realise that they are even less transparent than some political parties are. Sometimes they have more significant resources and media attention than the government representatives.

Thus, I am convinced that while discussing the undoubtfully increasing role of NGOs, we must not forget transparency, accountability, and responsibility of NGOs as well. Political parties speak for the public and are accountable to the voters. If they fail they risk losing next elections. But if NGOs fail it is unlikely that they will be penalized. Of course they risk losing their credibility and trust and that is crucial for the members of a specific interest group.

The main task of NGOs is to do their utmost to try to fill the gap between the governments and the very grassroots. Nevertheless sometimes we hear officials claiming that instead of filling the gap, NGOs supported by the media are increasing the gap by using rather populistic slogans to criticize the government, sometimes over-estimating the reality. For all partners the social partnership is the most important for the elected, NGOs and the media to serve democracy and not to undermine democracy.

The media industry itself undergoes big financial transformation and transformation from the only provider of information to a competitive entertainment industry. The new role also of the media in modern democracy is so important and interesting to witness. Reader and user education in our schools and at our universities is important to see democracy be facilitated not only by a new jungle of information, but media that is free and responsible to support democracy.


Why it is so? One may say that both media and NGOs have more narrow focus of interests and limited responsibility than governments have. Each NGO represents a particular subject, particular issue. NGOs judge every step of government by how it affects their particular, specific interests – and so do the media.

Is it inability or unwillingness to look at, and understand the whole political arena? Probably sometimes both. However, we should think again when claiming the NGOs to understand the whole picture. It might be that they do not need that. We cannot expect a “children rights” NGO to have a clear picture of focus area of a NGO dealing with environmental issues. The expertise NGO’s do represent should be welcomed in the law enforcement structures – like practiced in Scandinavia.

Democracy is about to balance power among interests of people. The compromise is not like very often reflected in the press the ridiculous outcome – but to pay respect to balance of interests of your citizens.

Another important issue in the context of NGOs is the necessity of balance in NGOs cooperation with public democratic institutions and authorities.


The 11 governments of the Baltic Sea States have appointed me as their commissioner for the next three years. They have entrusted me with a mandate to support and strengthen the democratic development of the 11 countries.

And that can be achieved by ensuring reliable, accountable democratic institutions development and also development of the democratic culture of dialog and partnership. To follow my activities – you are always welcome to take a look at the website of my office.

One of the areas of interests is to develop a better cooperation also between NGOs and the democratic state authorities. We can refer to successful practise in some countries and to this regard it would be relevant to mention the Nordic countries with a long and strong tradition for involving NGOs in the pre-decision-making process. Other countries might find it interesting and useful to study the Nordic countries experience and accordingly find their ways to use NGO’s entire potential. The governments should not fight against NGOs, but instead learn how to use NGO’s enormous energy and they might use it in order to develop a modern civil society.

Cooperation with government should cover NGOs involvement in pre-decision-making process as NGOs could provide their opinion and information, which might be important for the authorities before finalising the decisions. NGOs could help to construct solutions, which would satisfy various interests. NGOs are able to react timely on the citizen’s interests or opinions and be as intermediate that delivers the relevant message to the various audiences. NGOs have potential to act as intermediates between the society and decision-makers.


In these years a lot of lessons have to be learned. Governments need not feel offended by NGO’s and should stop blame them for critics. And in their turn, NGOs should not limit themselves only to criticizing government, as they are not representing opposition, but the general public.

Much more results and general trust can be achieved if government and NGOs cooperate not fight.

The elected representatives, the public, the grassroots, the society as such would earn so much if both government and NGOs exercise the art of democracy – the masterpiece – the compromise.


NGOs often enjoy the luxury to carry a lot of public trust, sometimes even more than elected politicians do. And it gives a great burden of responsibility for NGOs that should not be forgotten.

However, the government can benefit from this public trust to NGOs. Government must find the ways of cooperation with NGOs. Governments must try in certain way to involve NGOs in its work.

However, I am not suggesting that governments offer NGOs a seat at the “decision-making” table. One shall bear in mind that NGOs can do a lot in strengthening democracy, but not everything – democratic authorities have to assume its own responsibility. As you can see there is a thin line as to how far NGOs can be involved in the decision-making process in a representative democracy.


Until now the Commissioner’s office has produced many surveys to explore the conditions in the CBSS countries. Also one is focusing on the working conditions of NGOs. As well it is passing the recommendations of the Commissioner to the governments of the member states were appropriate.


Now we have to move on further and commence practical cooperation with NGO community. The cooperation between NGOs and CBSS is as important as cooperation between governments and parliaments.

NGOs cooperation is crucial not only at national level, but also at regional level. Let me finish like I started – this region can be a good example to other regions in Europe, and globally.

Already now my office is trying to establish the dialogue between NGOs and governments at regional level. When organizing seminars, conferences on particular subjects I am trying to involve both NGOs and government representatives thus contributing to the dialogue between them. But I expect the establishment of more formal, structural form of cooperation. That is why the CBSS has to take up the role of establishing NGOs network. Instead of competing with NGOs they shall work together. I suggest the governments of this region to learn how to use the great potential NGOs do represent.

We have to realize that NGOs, as a vital element of civil society, can join citizens overcoming ethnical, social and ideological differences, thus creating united, democratic and tolerant democratic society. This is what could be expected of our generation.

I expect from the conference, that a more institutionalized NGOs network structure under the umbrella of the CBSS will be discussed. I would like to invite you to think about it when discussing institutional and structural preconditions for dealing with the problems in the region and identifying relevant actors. The CBSS has a great potential here and possibilities that are not being utilized entirely. Discussions here would form the basis for debates during the NGO Forum in Lubeck.


Let me finally wish you all fruitful and successful discussions and a pleasant stay in Copenhagen.

Thank you very much for your attention.


Copenhagen, 24 March 2001, Update: 27 March 2001



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