NGO Forum in St. Petersburg: A Step Towards Forging a Regional Civil Society Network

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On 19-20 April 2002 St. Petersburg hosted the 2nd Baltic Sea NGO Forum. Held under the auspices of the Russian CBSS Presidency, it was a natural follow-up to the NGO Conference organised in March last year in Copenhagen and the 1st Baltic Sea NGO Forum held in the framework of the German CBSS Presidency in Lubeck in May 2001. Representatives of civil society structures in Baltic Sea countries thus delivered on their pledge in Lübeck to convene their region-wide gatherings on an annual basis. Equally important is the fact that the Forum in St. Petersburg became a clear demonstration of Russia’s firm commitment to strengthening the NGO sector in the region.

Putting annual Baltic Sea NGO Forums squarely on the calendar of CBSS activities is both a logical and mutually beneficial decision, whereby NGOs in the region obtain direct access to Baltic Sea government structures and the opportunity to be fully and equally involved in the planning and implementation of activities of common interest. At the same time, the CBSS receives extra input by way of utilising the NGO potential and hands-on experience in the spheres of co-operation, where civil society structures are traditionally strong, such as Environment, Human Rights and Social Care.

Combining the efforts of different actors by networking is the most cost-effective way to promote the well being of all residents of the Baltic Sea region. As the CBSS Commissioner on Democratic Development Ms. Helle Degn stressed in her keynote speech at the plenary session of the Forum in St. Petersburg, “Greater co-operation can be achieved by creating a Baltic Sea region NGO network connected to the Council and its activities”. Establishment of such a Network is now the main objective on the agenda. Participants of he 2nd Baltic Sea NGO Forum made a remarkable step forward in this direction.

A record number of participants gathered in St.Petersburg for the 2nd Baltic Sea NGO Forum

In view of the unprecedented number of participants – over 340 delegates from 9 countries – the bulk of the discussions during the Forum were divided in four thematic conferences devoted to some of the most important fields of Baltic Sea co-operation, where NGOs are active and able to make a substantial contribution – Social care, Environment, Human rights, Cross-sector co-operation. It emerged from the lively exchange of views that, on the one hand, the strong commitment of NGOs to cross-border interaction in the region and their great potential in the four abovementioned fields was still not fully realised. On the other hand, it was obvious that the working conditions of civil society structures in Western and Eastern parts of the Baltic Sea region, particularly in the fields of Social Care and Environment, were quite different. Problems could be similar, but the solutions often varied, which underlined the importance of continued exchange of information and experience.

In all four thematic conferences, participants singled out the lack of a well-established link between government structures and NGOs at the national level, and on a regional scale between Baltic Sea NGO Forums and the CBSS, as one of the main shortcomings. At the same time it was widely recognised that, in order to be heard by governments, NGOs should address them with a strong, united and responsible message. Hence the need for civil society structures in CBSS countries to organise themselves and decide on a set of common priorities and activities.

Delegates therefore agreed to carry on with the work launched in Lübeck and move towards the establishment of a Baltic Sea NGO network based on already existing mechanisms of NGO co-operation at the national level and across borders, which would assume a co-ordinating role on a regional scale and act as a civil society counterpart of the CBSS. As a practical way to achieve this goal, participants of the Forum in St. Petersburg endorsed the proposal to establish a Board, which would consist of members from national NGO focal points in CBSS Member countries (11 persons) and also representatives from existing cross-border NGO networks dealing with specific fields, such as Social Care, Environment, Youth, etc. (4-5 persons). It would be up to the national and sector NGO networks themselves to select their respective representative on the future Board.

As it is almost always the case with NGO events and activities, securing adequate financial support was an obstacle, which hindered the participation of many NGO representatives in the 2nd Baltic Sea Forum, and complicated considerably the preparatory process. A stable, reliable source of financing for NGO Forums is therefore clearly needed. In this context, there was a general agreement among those gathered in St. Petersburg to look into ways of establishing a special Baltic Sea NGO Forum Fund.

Though all nations around the Baltic Sea have strong cultural, historic and economic ties, which bind them together as one region, the progress of political and economic development in Eastern and Western parts of the Baltic Sea area is still largely uneven. In this respect, the so-called “third sector” seems to be one of the most vulnerable segments of our societies. Our great hope is that strengthened co-operation among NGOs would contribute towards transforming the Baltic Sea into a coherent region where no country would be lagging behind. As this is also the paramount objective of the CBSS, we look forward to closer interaction with the Council in the run-up to the 3rd Baltic Sea NGO Forum, which will be held in Turku on 8–11 May 2003 – interaction, where the civil society and its budding regional network would be recognised as an independent but reliable and serious partner of the CBSS.

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