Kepa is the umbrella organisation for Finnish civil society organisations (CSOs)who work with development cooperation or are otherwise interested in global affairs. At the moment Kepa has roughly 300 member organisations, ranging from small voluntary-based organisations to major national organisations. Kepa was founded in 1985 to coordinate the Finnish Volunteer Service, through which dozens of professional volunteers were sent to work in developing countries. The programme was scaled down after 1995, and Kepa’s work today mainly involves strengthening civil society both in Finland and in developing countries, with the ultimate goal of changing the socioeconomic structures and processes that lead to impoverishment. Kepa’s main activities include training, advisory services and development policy work. Kepa’s headquarters are in Helsinki, and we also have country offices in Mozambique, Nicaragua and Tanzania. Additionally a small regional office covering the Mekong region is based in Thailand. Kepa is a politically non-aligned organisation that receives funding from Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
The Finnish NGDO Platform to the EU, Kehys is ideologically, politically and religiously uncommitted collaboration –and service organisation as well as development political force. The meaning of the function of Kehys is to increase the Finnish NGO’s knowledge of the development policy and development collaboration practised by European Union. Accordingly Kehys attempts to improve the possibilities of the Finnish development organisations for EU-funding and contributes networking and collaboration between Finnish and European NGO’s. Kehys has now 37 member association. Kehys provides services for its member organisations and other interested actors in areas related to EU’s development cooperation and policy and aims to increase the funding opportunities and develop project management capacity for Finnish NGOs.
KEPA is member of AGNA. Affinity groups are groupings of CIVICUS members that exist to take forward CIVICUS’ mission and values. The Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) brings together national associations from around the world. National associations are those organisations, which provide and give a collective voice to civil society in their countries, serve as interlocutors between civil society and other sectors and struggle for the creation of an enabling environment for civil society at the national level.
State/civil society relations:
How does the state view and relate to civil society in your country?
Due to several historical and cultural reasons the Finnish state has taken a very principled, positive and open position towards civil society. Civil society is institutionally recognised as an important part of society and therefore, political as well as financial support is provided. In general, the autonomy of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) is respected. Civil society is also seen as an active associate. Sometimes when there are conflictive situations, disagreements among politicians or in public institutions, political support or political backbone is searched for from civil society by politicians or civil servants. One explanation for such a fluent relationship is the fact that people tend to circulate in these different spheres. Many civil servants may have background in civil society organisations and/or in the academic world and vice versa. However, this applies mostly to those civil servants who are specialists instead of being bureaucrats.
Hence, it has been studied that civil servants are generally more sceptical and close-minded towards civil society than politicians. Some new initiatives for more intensive contact with civil society have not been received with very positive attitudes by civil servants. Furthermore, some civil society actors have found it difficult to promote a new law, for example. There may also be a clear difference between different civil servants, as there is space for different personalities to influence the praxis of their post. Thus, it sometimes counts more who is holding the post than the institutional instructions.
Therefore, although the overall situation is quite excellent there are still easily defined challenges in the Finnish state – civil society relationship. It has also been recognised that the media has a significant role to play in shaping the ways in which civil society is perceived in Finnish society and within public institutions.
Have there been any significant changes in relations between civil society and the government in your country in the last year?
During the last year and a half some positive changes have happened/occurred in state–civil society relations. In the current government (formed by six parties out of eight which have MPs) there are several ministers with either background in civil society or otherwise open to its influence. For example the Minister for Development Cooperation from the Green Party values the role of civil society actors in the development policy a lot more than her predecessor, a senior male politician from the Central Party. Furthermore, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy has shown a new kind of interest to dialogue with civil society actors. However, at the same time it has been recognised that in the long run there is a lessening knowledge on civil society among the new generations of civil servants and that their direct contact to civil society is weakening.
Web-based services, discussion fora and social media have provided new channels for interaction between citizens/civil society actors, politicians and civil servants. It remains to be seen whether this will reduce the number of direct contacts and face to face meetings. Also the experience is that the public sector often provides opportunities for CSOs to participate formally in different processes but their opinions are still not always really taken into consideration.
What conditions do you feel need to be in place to allow for a good relationship between the state and civil society at a national level?
Key issues are open dialogues, permanent fora for dialogue, low levels of corruption, confidence in public administration, low overall hierarchy in the society, institutionalised mechanisms for citizens’ participation and adequate public sources of funding. Another important aspect in a good relationship between the state and civil society is that politicians and civil servants have knowledge of civil society organisations and how they work.
The legal and regulatory environment:
Are there any particular challenges with the legal and regulatory environment for civil society? (e.g. are the laws outdated / inappropriate / inadequate / over-complex / partial / not properly applied / adequate)?
Legislation is very permissible in Finland. It offers a lot of freedom for CSOs, but at the same time it can be considered weak, as some definitions (e.g. voluntary work, non-profit) are missing in the legislation, leading to several different interpretations. Law on fundraising is constraining. Small organisations especially have problems in raising funds. Some fund-raising activities can be considered profit-making by the tax authorities, which lead to risking the status of non-profit organisation and exemption from taxation.
Regulations for procurement and tendering are constraining for CSOs and in practice often prevent CSOs from participating. People active in CSOs are not necessarily very familiar with the legislation related to the associational life, and on the other hand legislators and executors are not very familiar with the realities of the associational life. Moreover, EU legislation influences the overall situation a lot. In Finland there is a constant fear that EU’s trade regulations will end the state monopoly of lottery and that would be catastrophic for Finnish CSOs, which get crucial amount of funding from this source.
What recent trends do you feel have enabled or restricted the efficiency of civil society?
- Why does the question focus especially on efficiency? It is not the primary role of civil society to be efficient.
- There are positive signs of lightening many regulations. The state is not willing to burden the CSOs without a reason and thus some new practices have been introduced, e.g.in the associational law compulsory auditing is now replaced in certain cases (small CSOs) by “action checking” and participation of members vía the internet are allowed.
- Option for citizen’s initiative is a very recent way for influencing the preparation of legislation as well as public discussion. Other ways for direct participation are increasing as well, especially web-based fora. For example, there is a website called “otakantaa.fi” (take a stand) to discuss public projects, initiatives etc.
- It is very easy to form and register a new association.
- Big changes in the legislation are not at the table in the near future, which offers stability for CSOs as well. Legislation on fund-raising and the law on foundations are currently being updated and hopefully will provide more opportunities for civil society actors. However, it has also been discussed that if the new law on fund-raising – now allowing only CSOs with a separate permit to appeal to the public for money – will allow anyone to collect money for any purpose that may also have serious consequences on the image and resources of CSOs.
Funding environment for CSOs:
What is the reality of funding in your country? (Access to funding/ patterns of donor support/ restrictions on funding etc.)
- Funding is available, if one only knows how to apply for it. Applying processes require skills, knowledge and effort, which might be a challenge for small organisations.
- Funding is also possible for advocacy and awareness-raising.
- Funding channels are categorised. In other words, funding channels are limited to a certain sectors or activities, whereas the activities of the organisations may cross sectoral limits. Rare donors are willing to fund administration or long term activities, which leads to project funding (with certain exceptions).
- There is a tendency for example, from Finland’s Slot Machine Association (RAY) to request organisations to provide services.
- The formats and procedures are the same for every organisation (equal treatment of applicants). However, it is difficult to assess whether the treatment is truly equal or for example, if reputation or connections play a certain role.
- Finnish organisations have in general a large self-sufficiency level
- Fundraising has been more popularised and funds are easily directed according to the donors’ will. In general, the private sector is more and more involved in project work. One could say that some kind of charity mentality is rising, whereas traditionally Finnish CSOs have relied more on their members for funding. Sustainability and quality of the work may suffer as quick and quantified results are required.
- Municipalities have diminished their support, for example, they do not offer premises on the social and health sector any longer.
- Officials are looking for new ways to administer funds, for example by outsourcing
Where is money going and for what purposes?
- A key challenge is how to finance administration and other core functions, networking, long-span work as well as more ad hoc/quick initiatives. At the same time, administration requires resources even when the work is project based. In addition, project based funding in practice, forces one to focus attention onto project activities instead of more systemic issues like continuity and sustainability.
- Donors are giving the overall framework for spending. Often social and health organisations, sports, culture and environmental issues are provided more funding as they are seen apolitical.
- The Ministry for Foreign Affairs wants to focus on larger programmes or projects and reduce fragmentation and administrative resources. The effects of this approach remain to be seen.
- Well-established actors are in a better position when it comes to applying for funding, whereas newcomers and small organisations have problems. The same rules for everyone is a good principle and increases transparency but may not always be fair for voluntary-based and new organisations. For example, for smaller NGOs, hiring of staff remains a constant challenge.
- The question remains, how to influence the situations where a recipient country does not allow organisations to work in the country for example, because the work is seen to be political.