“NGOs” and “The State” — respectful cooperation, cohabitation, or divorce (“To be or not to be” relationship)

18 July 2017

Still, I believe much in the sense of doing good.

Because, left to themselves, things get worse.

Even in order to remain in their current position, constant efforts are needed.

The natural direction is to decay and chaos;

In order to thwart them, we must constantly put in dissuasive energy.

This energy I call “good.”

— Christian Takoff*

Over the past 13 years, HIV prevention in Bulgaria has been secured with resources from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, an organization that has proven its effectiveness globally, but also an organization whose place is in the world’s least developed, poor, and needy countries.

2017 is the year when the Global Fund leaves Bulgaria, and that is right.

I personally do not believe that someone else should do our job in our own country. Bulgaria is a member of the EU, with a decent GDP, enough resources to cope with such challenges, and plenty of expertise in the field, and has worked effectively for 13 years — a country that needs very little to stay in a strong position to ensure the interaction between the major players in HIV/AIDS prevention to outline its common future or its lack of a future.

Together with the enormous benefits of the presence of the Global Fund in Bulgaria, we will be able to address some of its negative aspects — negatives that mainly affect civil society and its role in overcoming the epidemic in the country.

Long-term funding by the Global Fund made some of the NGOs involved lazy and quiet. On the one hand, they received the opportunity to learn about the world’s best practices in fighting HIV; on the other, the stability devalued the civil society presence in the sphere and made it meaningless.

All activities were coordinated by the Prevention and Control of HIV/AIDS program, which is under the direct control of the Ministry of Health, and which was doing very well while the Global Fund was implementing its arrangements fairly and regularly. On the one hand, the NGOs allowed themselves to be put in a position of “subcontractors,” a term unknown in the civil society world, and a position that has put them in the role not of equal actors in the process, but of mere executors of the program. For a short period of time, it was not so bad; the program provided everything they needed, including wonderful training and opportunities to involve many more organizations that had not been involved in HIV prevention before. On the other hand, NGOs became completely dependent on the will of the government and entered into a routine of obeying orders.

The lack of a vibrant and meaningful civil society is being felt very strongly right now. At a time when the Global Fund is finally ending its lengthy presence in the country, it has become clear that there is a complete lack of the civil society energy that is needed to advocate for the necessary funds and mechanisms for an effective continuation of the program.

It is quite natural in this process that the Prevention and Control of HIV/AIDS program itself finds ways to continue some of the activities, without seriously engaging in lobbying to ensure its effectiveness. The Ministry of Health representative prefers to carry out something easy and good looking than to fight for the continuation of the contracts with the effective service providers. And it decided to redirect activities to regional inspectorates; it can be called a decision, but not an effective one.

After all, in the international reports, Bulgaria looks like a country that has found a good way to transition to domestic funding. But somewhere between the lines the fact remains that there is already a serious increase in the number of new cases of HIV infection among at-risk groups. The quality of services and access to them, if they exist, will be many times less effective than those provided by the Global Fund, and this will discredit the work of all those involved in the process over the past 13 years.

In this context, EHRN, together with the Global Fund, provided technical support to Bulgaria, enabling NGOs to structure their needs, build a common vision for future action, and coordinate a transition plan.

As part of the technical support, analysis was undertaken to identify opportunities for project funding of NGOs with public funds, which is currently impossible. An online information platform was set up for representatives of many of the organizations which have been working on the Global Fund program over the years and who are interested in the subject. EHRN and the TB Europe Coalition also hosted a two-day workshop and meeting with officials. During the workshop a decision was taken to create an NGO platform which will involve people and organizations that are ready to adopt a common civil society position and start to advocate for the necessary legislative changes that will allow for the continuation of effective practices in their work. Dr. Tonka Vurleva, who is responsible for the HIV/AIDS program at the moment, made a clear statement in favor of NGO support and ongoing collaboration with civil society representatives.

Given this situation, the outlook looks good, but in the end the question remains whether NGOs will really be able to emancipate themselves and grow up on their own, without the support of state administration officials. I wish them the strength not to leave things to themselves, but to create good ones!

Christian Takoff was a Lecturer at Sofia University, an Associate Professor of Civil Law, and a Civil Society Visionary who passed away on July 11, 2017.

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