Civil society in Poland – empty shell in free market jungle

Many good things may be said about Poland. In March 2012, when this text was written, it is one of the few European countries that has managed to withstand the global crisis – both political and economic. Yet, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the condition of Polish civil society.

Foto: Creative Commons/ DrabikPani


In 2008, as we all remember, the bubble on the US property market burst, causing an almost complete collapse of the world’s financial system. Poland, however, managed to maintain economic growth for the next four years. It was not very dynamic (for example, GDP grew by 1.6% in 2009, 3.8% in 2010, and 3.8% in 2011), but was still sufficient for Poland to lead Europe in economic growth. The Polish economy did not slow down even when the crisis became severe in the European Union due to financial problems in Greece. In the summer of 2011 The Economist listed Poland among countries with economies most resistant to the crisis.

The relatively good economic situation has been accompanied by political stability. In 2011, for the first time since the collapse of communism, an incumbent government was reelected. The coalition of the center-right Civic Platform and the agrarian Polish Peasant Party prevailed due to the fact that it was rather moderate in implementing necessary reforms.

During its first term, many essential changes were delayed or abandoned (such as the rationalization  of public finances, reform of the pension system and health care reform). This, however, mitigated and prevented social conflicts. After the election in the autumn of 2011, challenging reforms were announced, such as eliminating privileges for various professional groups (e.g., policemen, miners, judges), and raising the retirement age to 67. It was enough to not only sustain but also improve the image of Poland in the eyes of foreign investors and financial analysts.

Unmatched expectations

I mention the facts regarding the relatively good economic and political situation in Poland because although it offers a good backdrop, it unfortunately is not a sufficient condition for the flourishing of civil society. At the same time, the juxtaposition of these two images will encourage careful readers to conclude that on the one hand a strong civil society does not necessarily contribute directly to a good political and economic situation. And on the other hand, a favorable economic and political situation will not automatically generate a vibrant civil society. But it is hard to deny that a democratic state needs all three: political stability, a strong economy and a strong civil society. As Michael Ignatieff rightly noted  ‘Without civil society, democracy remains an empty shell; without civil society, the market becomes a jungle.’

To understand why the condition of Polish civil society cannot be considered satisfactory, one needs to look to the past. The breakthrough, which happened in 1989, was, among other reasons, the result of many years of the mobilization of civil society. Communist authorities of course denied the legitimacy of any social movement that they could not control and that would not comply with the official ideology.

During the communist era Poland enjoyed a strong civil society – or, illegal civil society, as Polish sociologist Jan Kubik has labeled it.  The social movements during communism were not diffuse – they had their own well-functioning structures and organizations, such as the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR), or the Movement for the Protection of Human Rights (ROPCiO). These organizations were formed in the 1970’s, some of them even earlier. The most well-known organisation of the time was of course the trade union Solidarity led by Lech Wałęsa. Civil society was the motor of change and was one of the main factors that led to the final collapse of communism.

In 1989 almost everyone was convinced that this civil society (which was by then legal) would persist and grow without any external help. It was believed that all that was needed to strengthen civil society was a legal framework. Therefore, one of the first laws that was passed in 1989 by the new democratic parliament was the Law on Associations. In the next few years this law enabled the creation of more than 23,000 associations. However, since the mid-90’s the rate of growth of new organizations began to decline.

The number of NGOs is one of the main indicators of the condition of civil society. Currently there are about 71,000 associations and 12,000 foundations – associations and foundations representing two basic types of civic organizations in Poland.  It may seem like a lot, but for a country with a population of more than 38 million, the number is rather moderate. By comparison, neighboring Slovakia, with 5.5 million inhabitants, is home to over 34,000 registered NGOs. In Hungary, where the population is around 10 million, there are more than 66,000 NGOs. Moreover, it has to be taken into account that about one-third of registered organizations in Poland are, in fact, not active.

NGOs as service providers of public administration

Furthermore, the civil society sector in Poland is not very strong. The annual budget of an average Polish NGO is less than 5,000 Euros. The total employment rate in the whole NGO sector does not exceed 1.5% of the total Polish workforce. Moreover, civil society organizations are not very efficient at fundraising and mobilizing private and corporate philanthropy; they are heavily dependent on public funding. Today the majority of Polish NGOs are de facto “service providers” of public administration. Paradoxically, they rarely play the role of institutions enabling citizens to take matters into their own hands, to act for a common good, to solve problems within their communities or to express their opinions, attitudes and interests. NGOs are becoming more and more disembedded from their social base.

The most recent and telling example of this alienation might be the massive demonstrations against ACTA – the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which includes controversial provisions violating, e.g., rights to privacy. Although there are many NGOs in Poland specializing in the issues of e-democracy, freedom on the Internet and human rights protection, they were unable to organize a dialogue with the government in order to address the interests and opinions of internet users dissatisfied with ACTA. Only when protests exploded onto the streets was the government forced to start consultations and reconsider its position on the matter.

The weakness of Polish civil society also can be illustrated by a recent public opinion poll taken in 2011 by the Department of Public Benefit of the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy. Answering a question about who at the municipal level represents and cares about the interests of ‘ordinary’ citizens and inhabitants, only 3% of respondents indicated NGOs.

Poles do not support NGOs, a state of affairs reflected by a low level of organizational membership, a low level of involvement in philanthropy and volunteering, and a general lack of faith that these organizations conduct publicly useful activities. olvement in philanthropyAn average Pole gives one donation per year, which amounts to less than 15 Euros. According to the Warsaw-based Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS), in 2011 less than 32% of adult Poles declared involvement in social work for NGOs. Moreover, only around 13% of adult Poles declared that they were members of any kind of civil society organization. This leads to other indicators that highlight the poor condition of civil society in Poland.

Another important indicator of the condition of civil society is the general level of social trust and confidence in public institutions. A recent CBOS poll revealed that only 23% of adult Poles agree that, in general, most people can be trusted. The level of trust in public institutions is as follows: in government, 39%; in parliament, 29%; in courts, 45%; and in local authorities, only 58%. If we compare these numbers with the results of the European Social Survey or the World Values Survey in recent years, it is easy to see that in more developed democratic countries like France, Denmark, Sweden and the UK the level of trust in public institutions is almost twice as high. It is important to note that public trust is a key factor enabling collaboration, self-organization, working for the common good, and the creation of social capital.

Another fairly obvious indicator of public apathy is voter turnout. In the last parliamentary elections, in 2011, only 48% of those eligible took part. Even worse, and perhaps paradoxically, is voter turnout in local elections. In 2010, only 47% of eligible voters voted. Low participation rate, even in local elections, is a striking example of civic apathy.

Apathy, individualism and a lack of civic education

To sum up, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that civil society in Poland is not flourishing. Poles are apathetic and are reluctant to associate with and to establish NGOs. They do not volunteer or engage in philanthropic work. Public life and politics do not interest them very much. Society is dominated by attitudes of individualism; at best, Poles are focused on their families and friends. In Polish society this very important ‘social issue’, which is civil society, is very thin. As correctly noted by the well-known Polish social psychologist Janusz Czapiński, the structure of priorities for an ordinary Pole is as follows: ‘me’ and ‘my family’ come first, followed by a huge gap and then religion, which is the second most important element in the hierarchy, and finally the very vague but powerful idea of ​​the Nation. Left out of the hierarchy is a notion of civic awareness, i.e., an ability to cooperate or think in terms of a community or the common good.

As the example of contemporary Poland shows, a country does not need a blossoming civil society in order to reach and sustain a relatively good economy and political stability. To some extent you can live without civil society. In the long run, however, it is impossible to maintain political stability and economic growth without citizens aware of their obligations and rights, and who are ready to act for the common good. Social capital, which cannot be accumulated without civil society, stimulates innovation in science, economics, and public management. A strong civil society and a high level of social capital are essential for development and the process of modernization. If Poland wants not only to maintain but also to strengthen its position in the economic and political realms, it must support civil society.

Now we can move to the last point of the article and answer the question concerning the reasons for the weakness of Polish civil society. A partial answer has already been given. After 1989, policymakers (but also Poles in general) forgot that civil society is something that requires constant attention, investment, and a horizontal, long-term policy approach. In the roughly twenty years since the fall of communism, not one of the new democratic cabinets has had a policy towards civil society. Even civic education has been forgotten. Questions of civic activity, volunteering, associating, and working for the public good are marginalized in school curricula – not to mention the fact that lifelong civic learning programs are almost completely non-existent. The lack of a strategy for civic education is probably the biggest void in the history of Poland’s democratic transformation since 1989.

After the collapse of communism, the most pressing issue was to rescue the Polish economy. After that the priority was to stabilize the new political system and to build a proper framework for international relations. After these priorities came other aspirations such as joining NATO and the European Union.

In fact, it was only after Poland entered the EU that civil society was placed on the political agenda.  The European Commission required that Poland open up its decision-making processes, make governing more participatory, inform citizens about changes in and the direction of the accession processes, and consult decisions with a broad range of social actors including NGOs, informal groups and individual citizens – not only the Catholic church, labor unions and employer organizations as  traditionally had been done. Currently many projects that are aimed at strengthening civil society and mobilizing citizens are financed solely by EU funds.

It was only in 2011 when, for the first time in the history of the Third Republic of Poland, the government prepared a long-term strategy for the development of social capital – a strategy that both recognized many of the problems concerning the development of civil society and outlined some solutions. So there are prospects for the development and strengthening of civil society in Poland. Will they improve the quality of public life in Poland? We will have to wait and see in coming years.

Grzegorz Makowski

Grzegorz Makowski

is the head of the Civil Society Program at the Warsaw-based think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. His areas of expertise include the sociology of social problems, issues of civil society, non-governmental organizations, and corruption.