One of Estonia’s priorities in Eastern Partnership countries is to strengthen democracy and empower local governments. The project “Local Responsibility for Democracy: Transparent Governance at the Local Level”, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, focused on strengthening democracy by improving public services in local governments in Armenia, Georgia, and Ukraine. “We in Estonia come from the same system and remember how we came to operate transparently, and we can support our partners in going through the necessary steps,” said Ando Kiviberg, chief specialist for the project.
Ando Kiviberg: Local government is the closest public authority for every citizen anywhere in the world, and it is responsible for all topmost needs. In Estonia, local governments gained autonomy with the adoption of the constitution in 1992, but in many other former Soviet Union republics, local governments functioned as an extension of the state, without their own budget and decision-making power, until quite recently. Although partner countries and Estonia are currently distinguished by the fact that we are significantly ahead of them in development, we are bound by a common past. The methodology of this project acted based on examples; that is, we organised study visits to Estonia for our partners so that they could see and experience how local governments have built public administration services here and managed to function.
What has been the greatest value of this project for the participants?
Ando Kiviberg: First, it is about setting a credible example. Following the example of the municipalities of some Western European countries would not seem realistic to them, because they have not had similar obstacles in history. However, partner countries can identify with Estonia, and our development encourages them, because if we have reached such a level of development, then they can too.
Secondly, the most valuable knowledge for our partner countries is how to get from the Soviet-era system to the modern, free and democratic social order. Public services that we take for granted, such as public transport, water supply systems, and water treatment plants, are still in the development stage in these countries or have not yet been developed. We can give them ideas and inspiration on how to develop, prepare, and implement various services in a way that serves the interests of the local community in the best possible way. For example, during the visits, some participants asked Estonian municipalities for project documentation of local schools and sports buildings in order to use them in their hometowns. This is undoubtedly good educational material for them, and all our partner municipalities here have been ready to gladly respond to their requests.
What were the topics in which the partner countries wanted to develop themselves?
Ando Kiviberg: Each municipality selected two priority areas in which they want to train their local specialists with the help of our experts. There were topics such as public space planning, agricultural development, organisation of water supply, sewage and public transport, and tourism. In addition, I always emphasised during each study visit that the development of entrepreneurship is the basis of community development. It came as a surprise to many that in a free society not everything is the responsibility of the state, but that the development of economic well-being begins with private business.
How did the development of public services help strengthen local government democracy?
Ando Kiviberg: With field trainings, one goal was to encourage partners to take the development of public services into the hands of the local government. Secondly, we also wanted to demonstrate how to carry out major reorganisation in municipalities so that local residents are involved – how to keep the local communities informed about what is happening by not only disseminating information, but offering the community the opportunity to participate in decision-making. At this point, participants were very interested in the process of inclusive budgeting. Of course, there were questions about whether people can really decide for themselves where the local government puts money, and this concept was treated with suspicion. But, we explained that through involvement we can find out what are the important problems that need to be solved for the residents.
Were the goals set for the project met?
Ando Kiviberg: Yes, we can definitely say that we achieved the goal we set for ourselves. With this project, we wanted to help our partners in specific areas, and that’s what we did. However, the real extent of development needs also became clear during the project. There is still a lot of work to be done in this area. However, it must be taken into account that every project has financial restraints and time frames that must be kept to, and we can only hope that there will soon be a new opportunity to continue what we have started based on the experience we have gained and shared. So yes, we accomplished our goals, but it would be premature and incomplete to stop here.
The aim of the project was also to increase the involvement of women and civil society organisations in decision-making processes. How was the fulfilment of this goal organised?
Ando Kiviberg: When partners started assembling their delegations, we gave them guidelines to always include female specialists, female politicians, female journalists as one requirement, and at least one representative of a civil society organisation or an active local resident as another. In addition, when putting together the program, we carefully monitored the activities of local civil society organisations to show how we in Estonia involve them. In other words – as with the basic principle of the whole project – we tried to inspire and teach by example.
What has been project participants’ feedback, and have they been satisfied with the work done?
Ando Kiviberg: In short, the feedback from all the participants’ visits has been overwhelming. They are thrilled with how quickly we have been able to develop. During their visits to Estonia, we heard words of praise and wonder about how we came up with such things for nearly every site seen. Of course, it should be pointed out that many members of the delegations had never left their home country before, so part of this enthusiasm could be the taste of the first trip, so to speak. At the same time, during the visits, we introduced them primarily to their own professional topics, and they gave feedback precisely and above all, each based on their specialty.
Partner organisations from the target countries were also involved in the project. Who were they and how did cooperation with them go?
Ando Kiviberg: In Armenia, the partner was the Armenian Association of University-Educated Women, and in Georgia, the Georgian Anti-Violence Network. Their task was regional coordination of activities there and dealing with reporting, documentation, and data collection. We had a very good collaboration with them: the communication between them was trusting, they acted efficiently and conscientiously, and deadlines were respected. In Ukraine, our partner was the Crisis Media Centre, with whom there was also excellent cooperation, which unfortunately was short-lived due to the Russian military invasion that began in February 2022. We still keep in touch with them.
How was this project useful for Estonia, and what did our municipalities learn from it?
Ando Kiviberg: We certainly also learned from this project; after all, after all every teacher knows and understands that teaching actually teaches the teacher themselves. First of all, our experts often immediately recognise that we too have been in a similar situation. This comparison and putting ourselves in another’s situation helps remind us of where we have come from and how far we have come. Secondly, it makes for good self-training for all politicians and officials, because it provides more arguments to defend and explain to the public the necessity of new development reforms. It is also a useful tool for organising thinking for architects and other professionals. In order to explain the nuances of your work to someone who doesn’t know that much about it, all of the steps must first be reworked and deciphered for yourself.
There were dozens of different specialists, politicians and local government leaders of Estonian municipalities with whom we cooperated, and every single one of them, without exception, was happy to accept partners and conduct trainings with them. A large number of them dedicated their working time, some even their vacation time, and thoroughly introduced their field of work without wanting anything in return. It shows that people understand the necessity of what we are doing.
Info: [email protected]
The Estonian Centre for International Development is a state foundation that organises and coordinates Estonia’s participation in international development cooperation and humanitarian aid projects, with the aim of increasing Estonia’s contribution to global security and sustainable development.