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"We Are Not Scouts": The Reality of Polish Development Cooperation

I. Of Bikes and Business: Polish Development in Action

In countless discussions with people involved in development work in Poland, we were asked: “Have you met Daria Żebrowska?! No? You have to talk with her!” or “Did you hear about eFTe’s project in Ethiopia? No?! It's a new standard in NGO developing projects!" So we took their advice and called her up late one evening (not surprisingly, she is impossible to catch in Warsaw during business hours), amidst the pounding rain of an unexpected Polish monsoon. 

We've all heard the stories – a 4th year student of international relations at Warsaw University decides not to finish her education and starts to work in some yuppie corporation – but here, the story took an unexpected direction. Żebrowska took up African Studies, and began to learn Ethiopian. She visited Ethiopia several times, beginning to develop a love for this place where the electric current would break down every second day and postal addresses were virtually non-existent. From this point on, her path from learning to acting began to unfold. Soon, she was working in the Polish embassy on cultural promotion projects, conducting training on issues related to work ethics, and volunteering in an innovative soup kitchen based on her own ideas.

Connecting her Ethiopian experiences with her experience in Poland working for eFTe, a group that promotes ethical consumption, Żebrowska had the idea of creating a network of bike couriers in Addis Ababa. Her plan was to hire 15 unemployed people, ensure that packages and documents would be delivered more rapidly than any other method, and at the same time, promote bikes as an environmentally-conscious, healthy, and fast mode of transport in Addis Ababa. After finding a partner in Live-Ethiopia Association (the first NGO in Ethiopia to train female drivers), she approached the Polish embassy. The ambassador burst out laughing, but after hearing a bit more, he came around to support the idea. And so, eFTe proposed this project as an entry in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' annual development cooperation project competition--and won.

What gives Żebrowska the motivation to be a pragmatic and active idealist? “In April, my friends visited me in Addis Ababa. When I told them about my idea, they replied that it was impossible. After having a bike ride through Addis, they said it might work. And after a meeting with people from our partner organization, they were sold on the idea.” Żebrowska supports the idea of development cooperation as a large-scale government effort, advancing the slogan “trade not aid!”, but she still thinks that every possibility is worth trying if it will strengthen local NGOs. "Development should be in their own hands, and in Ethiopia they are already doing awesome projects. The most important thing," she concluded, "is just to want to do something.”

II. What’s in a Name? The 'Development' of Polish Aid

The term “development cooperation,” while increasingly employed in government and NGO circles, lacks the instant recognition that names like “foreign assistance” or simply, "Polish Aid", have come to hold for the general public. Many of our interviewees cogently distinguished between the ideas of Polish "aid" and "cooperation," yet most were quick to use the terms interchangeably in conversation. As Kasia Staszewska of the Institute for Global Responsibility put it, “In English, it’s a political correctness debate, but recognition of this difference is not up-to-date in Poland. We agree that aid is more about power relations, but for us, it’s not so much a question of words.” An articulate, enthusiastic young activist, her flexibility on the issue seems to suggest her general impatience with seeming trivialities—anything that would distract from the immensely pressing work to be done. 

Nevertheless, the term “aid”—in Polish as well as English—is often used by default simply because it is shorter, easier, and more immediately recognizable to the general public. The problem, of course, is that it fails to convey the mutual cooperation that Polish development workers want to cultivate abroad. Polish Aid has become a byword for general foreign assistance; in fact, this is the name of the governmental agency Polska Pomoc [Polish Aid]. But the idea of development cooperation implies benefits for both parties: that Poland is not only giving charitable donations to poorer countries, but also working with capable partners to create a better global society. Agata Czaplińska, head of program implementation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Development Cooperation Department, gave a simple explanation: that the slogan “Polish Development Cooperation” was longer, clunkier, and less accessible for the general public than "Polish Aid". Such pragmatic issues, in fact, often decide the terms of public debate. For better or worse, a catchy slogan can create a brand—and an attitude. Czaplińska was clear that their internal policy used “Development Cooperation” as the name of their department and on all official documents, but that "Polish Aid" was a successful, catch-all public name. With these two competing terms floating through the public discourse, it becomes increasingly clear that Polish foreign assistance is still evolving and under debate.

Whatever its name, the key pillar of Poland’s external aid program is its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. Signed by world leaders at the United Nations World Headquarters in New York on September 18, 2000, these eight goals aim to harness the resources of the leading global powers in order to halve the level of extreme poverty, contain the spread of HIV/AIDS, ensure universal primary education, and make reforms that protect "human dignity, equality and equity at the global level,” as the Resolution declares. These responsibilities to a world community transcend national obligations, a distinction which is extremely important to Poland’s participation. Despite the argument that Poland, as a latecomer to the status of “European power”, needs to develop itself fully before taking a leading role abroad, the resolution shows these external responsibilities to represent a separate but equally necessary component of domestic well-being. Of course, Poland still has work to be done, as acknowledged by the MDG Monitor, a United Nations effort tracking each country’s progress toward the Millennium Goals. The country faces problems such as poverty, high unemployment (28.7%, as of November 2007), and gender disparities. Yet it is also ranked 37th out of 177 nations on the Human Development Index, suggesting that while there remains much progress to be made, Poland has still achieved an impressively high standard of development after only twenty years as a capitalist, democratic state.

By signing EU membership at the meeting of the EU’s General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in 2005, Poland obligated itself to commit 0.17% of its GDP to development cooperation by 2010, and to double that percentage to 0.35% by 2015. Whether these obligations will be met is still an open question; according to Barbara Mrówka from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such an obligation is impossible to fulfill. One signal of the country’s commitment, however, was its signing of the Paris Declaration in 2005. This agreement brought together more than one hundred Ministers and Heads of State to establish a framework for responsible development: giving developing countries “ownership” of their own needs, holding donors accountable for results, monitoring progress, and increasing efficiency through greater coordination between nations.

Despite the challenges facing Poland as it attempts to meet these goals, both NGO workers and officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have expressed optimism about its progress. We spoke with Grzegorz Gromadzki, a staff member at the Stefan Batory Foundation who focuses on international cooperation, particularly within Eastern Europe. In his light-filled office overlooking the neighboring red roofs near Warsaw’s reconstructed Old City, he told us that while Poland only began this assistance for the purpose of fulfilling EU treaties, the program has increasingly taken on a greater dimension. “Polish Aid is prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it’s a program of the whole Polish state, supported by the state budget,” said Gromadzki. “It has only been 5 years since we started, a very short time, but it’s already better than 10 years ago. In the past we were active only in words, not in real help, so it was a difficult situation--Poland tried to be active with its neighbors, but without real financial backing." Clearly, the concept of Polish development cooperation is relatively new, and even the terms of the debate—development cooperation versus Polish aid—are not firmly defined. Nevertheless, by committing to the concrete goals set by international resolutions such as the Millenium Development Goals and the Paris Declaration, Poland has already taken itself one step further towards active participation in global development.

It must be underlined that development assistance is only one element of the country’s development policy. The latter includes not only aid, but the totality of actions taken in areas which have an impact on recipient countries (e.g. trade policy, macroeconomic policy, agricultural policy, fishing, environmental protection, intellectual property protection, security policy, arms trade, and migration policy). Because this topic is extremely broad, we will focus on the work of the Development Co-operation Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which controls only 10% of the total budget for Polish cooperation), and the NGOs that are partly financed by them.

III. "To Whom Much is Given...": A New Era of Polish Responsibility

The year 2008 was a good one. In Warsaw, after almost 25 years, the first Metro line was finished. Our mission in Iraq was over. We Poles celebrated the 25th anniversary of Lech Wałęsa's Nobel Peace Prize. Kosovo declared its independence. Barack Obama was chosen the first African-American president in the history of the USA. And at the end of 2008, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) closed its national office in Warsaw. This was a symbolic milestone for Poland—after fulfilling its mission of "developing" Poland, the headquarters simply closed—without fireworks or media fuss. 

Overlooking Warsaw from Stalin's towering Palace of Arts and Culture, we spoke with Dr. Julian Pańków, deputy chairman of international relations at Collegium Civitas. According to Pańków, development assistance “played an important role after the collapse of USSR, helping to create a non-Communistic government and corresponding conditions" for Poland's transformation. The UNDP Office in Warsaw was established in 1990, based on an international agreement between the Government of the Republic of Poland and the UNDP. Its purpose was to support Poland's integration with the European Union, and to foster the social and economic development of Polish society. 

The closing of the UNDP office meant that Poland had finally reached the status of "developed country", in the eyes of the international public. In fact, many consider this to have happened far earlier: Julian Pańków claims, for instance, that this moment came in the mid-1990’s, when Poland had gained some experience as a democratic country and "was ready to share its experience with other post-socialistic countries, where reforms had only just started”. But in addition, Poland was becoming gradually involved in international development cooperation beyond Eastern Europe. In 1996, it gained membership to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of highly developed countries that had made specific commitments to poorer parts of the world. 

With Poland’s accession to the European Union (EU) on May 1, 2004, it joined the most exclusive club of all--and accordingly, the biggest pool of development donors. Poland participated in all of the major international meetings focusing on global development issues, including the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York, in 2000; the United Nations Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, in 2002; and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in 2002. While it is not among the wealthiest or largest of the member states, its commitment has been consistent.

The Polish ODA consists of multilateral assistance (provided through international organizations) and bilateral assistance (provided directly through Polish bodies). The bulk of financial resources allocated for multilateral assistance are payments made into the budget of the EU, with the remainder going to other international organizations such as the United Nations,  World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), or the European Investment Bank (EIB). From 2008 forward, Polish ODA will also include funds paid to the European Development Fund (EDF).

In this paper, the key focus is on bilateral assistance. These funds, allocated primarily to NGOs and public administration bodies for projects abroad, make up only 10% of the total money spent on development assistance in Poland. The funds are coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and the vast majority is controlled by various Polish ministries and government offices, with a much smaller amount at the sole disposal of the MFA. Though the MFA's budget is limited, there are nevertheless significant pools of money at stake. Given this, the question is: how can this money best be used to maximize Poland's--and its partners'--development goals?

IV. A Balancing Act: The Framework for Government-NGO Cooperation

The field of Polish development cooperation has many players, working as part of a mutually beneficial—if not always tension-free—relationship. Poland’s official cooperation efforts are in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which controls the list of priority countries, sets yearly funding for development projects, and provides direct bilateral aid to foreign governments. Yet, the Ministry’s development work still relies fundamentally on the structural contributions of non-governmental organizations. In September 2005, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs established its Development Cooperation Department, responsible for coordinating the efforts of NGOs, the central government, and local governments in order to provide financial assistance to countries across the world. 

At least 80% of the funds allocated for bilateral assistance go to Poland’s highest-priority recipient countries, according to the Ministry’s 2007 Annual Report, but these are channeled through different means: NGOs, diplomatic missions, technical institutes, and many other initiatives. Every year, the Ministry runs a competition for development projects designed to address specific, targeted needs in partner communities. In 2007, the Ministry disbursed some 180 grants for projects in 38 countries, the majority run by Polish NGOs. Yet, in spite of this apparently reciprocal relationship—in which NGOs need government funds, and the Ministry needs well-administered projects—we continually ran across instances of tensions and distrust between these two groups.

Krzysztof Filcek, deputy executive director of Polish-Ukrainian organization PAUCI, expressed critiques that many NGO workers shared: first, that the government’s yearly budget system was hugely inefficient and unrealistic; and second, that financial assistance should be handled by a separate governmental agency. However, Filcek felt that government clerks were focused on career promotion: “Distributing aid money shouldn’t be in hands of MFA,” he told us, “because the clerks are dreaming about being diplomats, not about sending money.” He praised Grupa Zagranica, Poland’s largest association of NGOs (with 49 members spread out across all sectors, but concentrated in Warsaw) for putting necessary pressure on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Above all, Filcek’s belief that the government mistrusted NGOs suggested a fundamental barrier between the two parties.

We began to observe some of the foundations of this mutual frustration, even while the two actors continued to depend on each other, when we spoke with Jerzy Rohozinski at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Responsible for Caucausus development, Rohozinski clearly displayed an understanding of the questions facing his agency. He acknowledged the problems with a one-year budget, but his frustrations with NGOs—particularly Warsaw NGOs—was most acute. “To criticize the MFA is a waste of time. We, as a department responsible for development cooperation, must act within our legal framework,” he replied to our questions about NGO cooperation. “They are not able to understand this,” he continued. “When they meet with representatives of our department, they only talk about ‘when, when, when’ will we be able to implement two- or three-year-long projects. We tell them you must read carefully the framework of our development cooperation.” 

As Rohoziński points out, it is undoubtedly true that the Ministry’s Development Cooperation Department is just as constrained by the Polish legal system as its recipients. Yet, NGOs understandably feel the need to exert pressure on the Ministry in order to exact necessary reforms. While the relationship between government officials and NGO representatives borders on the contentious, such mutual pressure also seems to keep both parties active, motivated, and moving toward a common goal.

V. Who, What, and Where: The Motivation and Politics of Cooperation

While Poland provides development assistance around the world, the motivation behind its choices in supporting specific nations is not always clear. We tried to analyze the conflicting and corroborating information we received from experts in the field, in order to find answers to the questions: “To whom? Why? And for what?” Today, Poland’s priority countries for development are Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Afghanistan, Angola, and Palestine. To a smaller extent, it also supports work in countries from the South Caucasus and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), Sub-Saharan Africa, the Western Balkans, and the Middle East.

When it comes to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, Poland’s motivation seems almost entirely political, with priority given to neighboring countries. “We want our neighboring countries to be countries where human rights are highly valued, and where economic conditions for people’s development are well functioning. So one of our objectives in cooperation is to help create such conditions in these places,” emphasized Prof. Julian Pańków during our meeting at Warsaw’s Collegium Civitas. 

One of the countries given priority for receiving this special kind of co-operation from Poland is Georgia. In this case, in light of the situation there, the reasons are more or less clear. When we posed the question “Why Georgia?” to the MFA’s Jerzy Rohoziński, specialist on the Caucasus and Central Asia region, his answer was simple and understandable: “Hmmm, because of historic and geopolitical reasons.” So we broadened the question to ask why a country like Poland would give assistance, and what might be the main criteria for cooperation. This tack yielded more: “Georgia is our main friend in Caucasus,” Rohoziński elaborated. “After last year, there was a donors conference in Brussels. Each country, including us, declared various amounts dedicated to Georgia.” Poland’s pledge to Georgia this year is twice as great as the previous year, with a total of 5.3 million euro declared for 2008-2010. 

While Poland’s cooperation with Georgia is not entirely surprising, more mystifying is the link with Angola: Poland’s only presence in Africa today. Poland has some little-known historical links with Angola; for instance, Angola used to be a Communist country, and there was a system of scholarships for Angolan students in Poland that has resulted in there being (at least a few) Polish speakers in Angola today. But the most important reason for giving aid here is a pragmatic one; that for now, the country is not covered by many donors. Many of our sources spoke of a glut of aid in “popular,” well-governed nations, whereas neighboring countries went almost entirely unnoticed. “We’re looking for places where we have the chance to be visible, a serious partner to the government. We cannot make an impact in India or Nigeria, though we can provide small grants. It is much harder to work in a place without established history or links,” emphasized Agata Czaplińska, head of program implementation at the MFA’s Development Co-operation Department. 

NGO representatives, however, had a slightly different opinion on the question of priority countries. Grupa Zagranica has several times asked the government about its criteria for choosing  priority countries, but according to their press, still have not received a satisfactory answer. For those who object to the MFA’s logic, there are other channels for idealistic projects abroad. The foundation Education for Democracy, for example, implemented a short-term project in Tajikistan, raising money in Poland to buy cows for women in rural areas, which they could use for the production and selling of milk. “For us this is something very little, but it can really change a way of thinking. Governments don’t have to like each other, but people should cooperate—that’s what developing aid is all about,” said Justyna Janiszewska of Education for Democracy.

The most crucial and controversial issue, however, is our presence in Afghanistan. The fact is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spent 40% of its 130 million PLN development funds in Afghanistan, mostly for programs carried out by the Provincial Reconstruction Team—in other words, clearly linked to military intervention. Zbigniew Ruciński and Katarzyna Kot from the MFA, responsible for Afghanistan, tried to explain the situation: “Developing assistance in Afghanistan cannot be compared to cooperation in any other country—you are not able to do anything without guards—that is why Polish NGOs are not involved much in the program.” Unfortunately, our mission in Afghanistan has very low public support: “Many Poles don't understand why we are in Afghanistan—it is only a tie-in action. We are a member state of NATO, and in case of any trouble NATO will have the capacity to help us.” Ruciński said. This argument is logical, yet it walks a dangerous line: Poland’s focus on Afghanistan seems to conflate military intervention, international foreign relations, and “development cooperation”.

Echoing this cautionary view is Piotr Sasin, who spent 2 years in Afghanistan and now works for the Polish Humanitarian Organization. Sasin remains indignant at the MFA’s major involvement in the country. “We cannot mix developing aid with military support. It is dangerous, and against the philosophy of development. Americans link developing assistance with military purpose, but this never works.” In summary, we would argue that while Poland is on its way toward fulfilling its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and related international obligations, its priority choices remain largely politically motivated. 

VI. The Blame Game: Fighting for a Legal Overhaul of Polish Financing

Asked about the main obstacles facing development cooperation in Poland, Iza Wilczyńska, representing one of the biggest NGOs in Poland—the Polish Humanitarian Organization (PHO)—answered without a second of hesitation: the absence of any legal act. “In Poland we still don’t have a legal act concerning development cooperation, which means that we are able to have only one-year projects. At PHO, if we have a mission building schools or wells, it is extremely difficult to accomplish anything significant in the six months between receiving money and reporting results. This procedure has nothing in common with global thinking about development policy,” she told us. Not surprisingly, this lack of a legal framework—resulting in a problematic financing system—was the most frequently cited obstacle when conducting our research. 

The staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is well aware of the problem, but our contacts continually insisted that there was little more they could do. We caught up with Agata, Head of Development Co-operation Program Implementation Unit, in a crowded conference hall just after she spoke at a meeting on financing for NGOs. She admitted that not much progress was made last year with respect to the creation of a new act, but that they are still working on it. “It should be very complex reform, including a public finance act—the entire framework for dealing with public money in Poland. Our work is quite advanced, but some issues still need to be discussed. The law will mean financial obligations for the state, so it is not something you can accept without thinking hard about it. But we believe it should reach the Parliament next year.” 

In contrast to Czaplińska’s open and optimistic (but realistic) attitude toward the NGO problem, the spokeperson of Ministry of Foreign Affairs—Barbara Mrówka—responded to the same question at a press conference we attended with just two sentences: “Well, solidarity within the government doesn’t let me say why the act is still not existing. But despite the one year financial term we are still able to conduct long-term projects.” Unfortunately, that is not a universally accepted statement. Arguing against this idea is Piotr Sasin from PHO, who claims that it is extremely difficult for NGOs to make an impact under such conditions. “You are never sure if your project will be accepted or rejected… for example, this year our organization was not given money for the continuation of our project in Sudan. Even 2 or 3 years is too short—it should be at least a 5-year program,” he told us.

This leads to another question, which is whether NGOs should be more active in lobbying the government to pass such an act. In our interview with Zbigniew Ruciński at the MFA, for example, he suggested that NGOs needed to take more responsibility in this field. Katarzyna Staszewska, from the Institute of Global Responsibility, responded rhetorically, “That might be an argument, but in reality what we can do? Just talk, prepare proposals, statements, policy papers, be open for consultation—sure, the legal framework is important, but it is not the beginning or end of our work.” Despite their clear statements regarding the limits of their power, members of the government clearly understand that responsibility ultimately rests on their shoulders. Referring to the struggle for a legal act, Agata Czaplińska of the Development Cooperation Department told us that she believed it was the government’s job, not NGOs, to elaborate that act.

While one-year funding constitutes the major internal obstacle, there is another notable factor which weakens the effectiveness of Polish development cooperation: the absence of bilateral agreements between Poland and the country receiving assistance (of which only one exists, with Palestine), and agreements between the donors themselves. Especially alarming is the situation in Africa: for example, Mozambique has a glut of about 200 international donors for AIDS-related causes, while Somalia has almost none. A comparable situation exists in Afghanistan, where there has been little cooperation between the countries that are present. Bagiński added, “Uganda, Tanzania, Mozabique, Bolivia - they are fed up with aid, there are 25 donors in each sector.” This is just one among many problems that face international donor states. In any case, the primary and most immediate obstacle in Poland seems to be the lack of any legal standard for development cooperation.

VII. Walking the Line: Is Poland Succeeding in its “Cooperation” Efforts?

As discussed in Section II, the language of development aid is imbued with social and political implications for Poland. Although “development cooperation” has garnered official favor, it’s not always clear that cooperating is, in fact, what Poland does. Between aid, cooperation, and assistance lie different approaches to the problem.  Thus, we sought to learn how Warsaw experts viewed Poland’s success in actually delivering true, mutual “cooperation” from partners in developing countries—not just through words, but action. 

Julian Pańków began by defining some of the ideas being discussed: “I think that it’s better to use term “cooperation” instead of assistance. It sounds like we are aiming to reach a country’s development together, and that it’s not only a one-sided process.” Dr. Pańków also emphasized the idea of “technical help,” suggesting that this “expert” help is a component of all grants and loans from IMF. Such a feature is meant to bring greater expertise to decision-making and management processes—though we must add a note of caution when it comes to the intervention of foreign “experts” in the affairs of any other country. If we insert the word “cooperation” here, however, the problems associated with the notion of “aid” begin to be resolved.

Like many other NGO workers, Paweł Bagiński, a representative of Global Development Group, also prefers the term cooperation. The problem, Bagiński said, is that there often is no real cooperation, because local NGOs are unequipped to act as equal partners for larger Western NGOs. This fundamental imbalance was also cited when we spoke with Piotr Sasin, who manages the PHO’s project in Sudan. He too hoped for cooperative efforts, but didn’t see any problem in talking about “help” or “aid,” since in many cases these terms accurately represent the situation. While Poland can and should seek a program of true development cooperation, according to Sasin the present reality is far from this ideal. “We are really not equal, and it’s visible. It’s a very big process. If we are talking about Sudan, for example, it starts from the passport you are carrying. It’s a dream for the Sudanese to have this passport, so that’s not equal. And I don’t believe that foreigners going there for the first time are really going to cooperate on an equal level. It’s just a nice dream.” Clearly, there is work to be done in reconciling the terms of development with their actual interpretation. The question is, should nations like Poland continue to strive for this ideal cooperation—what Sasin called a “nice dream”—or simply pour their money into funds abroad, acting unabashedly and unrepentedly as the purveyors of necessary “aid”?

VIII. Just Trust Us: The Need for Transparency in Development Funds 

There is a common perception that development aid can make situations worse: that governments make aid organizations pay a certain percentage of the total aid as a bribe, then place restrictions on those organizations. According to this school of thought, the various organizations providing funds are not working together to fight corruption, and thus are not helping the people who truly need that money. While this problem may indeed exist to some extent, the majority of our interviewees clearly stated that they did not consider it a problem or impediment to Polish development efforts. In almost all cases, relationships abroad were personal, bilateral and limited, such that funds were controlled and projects properly managed.

Iza Wilczyńska from Polish Humanitarian Organization, for one, disagreed wholeheartedly with this idea. “I really believe in urgent need and deep sense of global cooperation for development. The same as our country took advantage from foreign assistance in the past, nowadays there are still countries which needs this kind of support. It is question of human solidarity, However we have to remember that this is not only our moral obligation but also our self-interest and thinking in terms of global security and creating more stable world. When it comes to corruption issue, of course it is still a big problem in a lot of countries, therefore it is so important to stress the good governance role in development as well as transparency of all development activities. Of course development cooperation it is very complex issue, a lot mistakes have been done, but also a lot of progress have been made. Therefore there is such urgent need to work on aid effectiveness and to take a lesson from good and bad practice from the past. It is good to criticize aid systems in order to make donors more responsible, but we shouldn’t questionnaire if there is a need of development cooperation as such,” she argued.

Nevertheless, corruption and mismanagement—two related but separate issues—are very much still open questions for potential donors. Post-Communist countries, for example, often lack a comprehensive structure of controls over the transparency and channels for this development money. Another important question is how important these standards for reporting are to donor organizations. Many of the Polish NGOs we consulted considered it to be a matter of trust, insisting that they know their partners personally. The Polish Ukrainian Co-operation Foundation “PAUCI,” for instance, adheres to this strategy. With partner organizations in Ukraine and Moldova, it implements projects successfully by knowing its representatives well and placing necessary trust in them.

Grzegorz Gromadzki, a specialist at the Batory Foundation, is also very concerned about the ability to place trust in the partners with whom one is working. “Sometimes we support NGOs in Belarus as underground groups. They are more or less unofficial groups there, so trust is very important in our relations with them. We don’t know all their people, but at least those in charge.” Because they must work around and not through the Belarus government, NGOs in Belarus have much less institutional accountability. However, in more open countries (Gromadzki used the example of Ukraine), transparent and accountable relationships between donors, local NGOs, and the government should be the norm. 

Fortunately, for the moment this appears to be the case. In Poland today, there are certain NGOs and institutions that monitor aid and state funds. One example is the Grupa Zagranica, a network of organizations giving development assistance, which is well-known for putting pressure on the Polish government and attempting to hold them accountable for their funds. Still needed, however, is a greater set of resources for monitoring Ministry-funded projects abroad, as well as institutional reviews of how development cooperation funds are used in each country.

IX. “What is this conference about?” – Polish awareness of global issue. 

The second most common criticism we encountered, after the urgent need for reforms in the Polish legal framework, was that Poland needs to step up its level of global awareness. With EU accession and greater economic prosperity, it seems as though the world is shrinking: Poles can travel freely through the Schengen area, buy cheap airline tickets to Delhi or Dubai, or meet South African backpackers in a Warsaw bar. Yet there remains a perception—one that is loosening, but still present—that Poland has its own problems to face, and that questions of development ultimately belong to historic world powers like France, Britain, or the US. Equally problematic is sheer ignorance and apathy. All of these are interlinked societal problems, for which the public, politicians, and the media are equally responsible.

Nevertheless, the overall outlook for development awareness seems positive. “As far as politicians are concerned, the situation is improving. In the past, it was extraordinary if they knew anything, but today they have regular hearings about Polish development cooperation. Of course it is still far from desired, but this has improved over the years,” Izabela Wilczyńska said. This increasing awareness is a credit to both the administration’s and NGOs’ efforts. The Development Co-operation Department recently organized a study visit to Afghanistan, so that clerks from different departments could improve, firsthand, their understanding of development issues. Izabela Wilczyńska, who claimed that many politicians perceive development assistance as charity, was not ashamed to say that this is little more than a political issue for most MPs, who think in terms of short election cycles. She uses her contacts in Brussels to lobby European Parliament members, asking them to speak with Polish deputies in order to increase awareness of the problem.

In terms of public perception, it may be useful to consult some statistics. In 2005, the per capita aid to developing countries about $300 for Denmark, $5 for Poland, according to Paweł Bagiński. But on the other hand, according to a public poll conducted by TNS OBOP, 84% of Poles support delivering assistance to developed countries. Bagiński emphasized that Poles are not 60 times poorer than Danes. So: where does this disparity come from, we wonder? “The problem is mentality,” he suggested. “Cars in Warsaw are new and fashionable, but people still think they are so much poorer than in the rest of Europe.” This theme was echoed almost verbatim in Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski’s opening speech at a June 29 press conference about Polish development cooperation: “It is a paradox that even we, Poles, think that we are much poorer than we are in reality.” The old mindset of Poland recovering from Communism and attempting to catch up to “Europe” seems to have remained pervasive. According to Bagiński, 90% of people surveyed on the street still think of “aid” as income to—not from—Poland. But there is increasing awareness: public events such as Polska Pomuc’s Refugee Week film festival this past June, and a program of media training sessions and summer school for experts on development cooperation which is run by Bagiński’s own Global Development Research Group. This group is also working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prepare for Poland’s Presidency of Europe in 2012, and ensure that NGOs, journalists, and statesmen are well-informed and supportive of development efforts.

Despite all of these efforts, it continues to be evident that Polish journalists, in general, lack the knowledge and background to deal with development cooperation in any depth. Arriving at the June 29 press conference of the Ministry Foreign Affairs, the first conversation we overheard was the question “What is this conference is about?” To reiterate: this was a press conference, not merely a briefing. This question reflected more than one poorly-prepared journalist; it conveyed the entire tone of the conference. Perhaps we should not have expected more—it is extremely difficult to find substantive articles about the issue in the Polish press. During our interviews, we were usually told “Oh, there is one journalist… but I don’t remember his name.” This represents a true problem, as the media has an immeasurable impact on the awareness and priorities of both politicians and the public. Equally alarming were the questions asked during the conference; there were only five, and two of these were entirely unrelated to the topic at hand.

It was easy to walk away from this conference with the impression that most of these journalists came for the opportunity to meet with Sikorski, not because they found development cooperation to be a pressing or engaging topic. Agata Czaplińska of the Development Co-operation Department claimed that the problem is the nature of the subject: “Some journalists really would like to devote more space to the problem, but this is mostly the decision of editors—and development is not sexy enough. Certain problems make exciting news, but risks and costs are high to send journalists there. Only the biggest TV stations can take on this expenditure, and they will do it only when something is really extraordinary.” If this is the case, then it seems Poland must work to transform development cooperation from a mundane obligation into a truly public, global challenge.

X. Solidifying the New Solidarity: The Future of Polish Development Cooperation

Twenty years ago, Poland achieved its long-sought independence with the collapse of Communism. Ten years after that, it signed on to the world’s most ambitious project yet: the eradication of extreme poverty by 2015. Between these milestones, however, lies the hard reality: in order to fulfill its commitment, Poland must devote substantial energy and financial resources—amidst an unexpectedly debilitating global financial crisis—to development and democratization efforts abroad. Nevertheless, what we found again and again was the opinion that now, more than ever, is the time to invest in development cooperation. Yes—invest—with the idea that partnering with stable, well-governed and rapidly developing nations will give Poland a comparative advantage in trade, foreign relations, and reputation abroad.

In a financial crisis, the poorest nations are always hardest hit. As Kasia Staszewska reminded us, development cooperation is essential to the budgets of many developing countries. “A lot of countries have cut the budget for aid, and it’s a scandal—it’s the poorest countries that will feel the crisis. These are important revenues for these countries—in Liberia, for instance, over half the national budget comes from aid. We think it’s even more important now to push the government to help,” she said. Knowing that development cooperation for Poland is rooted in a view to the future, not in historical reparation—it never had colonies like France or Britain, for instance—and that it is not meant to be charitable aid, the idea of an investment holds that much more appeal. Poland must consider development cooperation not only to be its responsibility as a citizen of the world, but also as a strategy for strengthening its international standing.

After speaking with more than ten Polish leaders and major players in development issues—whether from the governmental or NGO perspective—we can conclude that several concrete changes are necessary in order for Polish development efforts to be more effective. Firstly and most importantly, the one-year budget period (and thus, the entire state financial system) must establish the possibility of longer-term funding so that development projects can be more extensive and complete. Secondly, the Development Cooperation Department should become an independent agency from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so that it can draw from its own funds and act independently. As Agata Czaplińska suggested, the bureaucracy of the current system means that it takes far longer than necessary to make decisions and sign contracts; with greater autonomy, Development Cooperation could act far more efficiently.

On a broader level, Poland’s current focus on seven countries that were more-or-less randomly chosen should be expanded to embrace a more comprehensive list, which takes global priorities, not just national priorities, into account. As these projects go forward, Polish NGOs must continue to concentrate on the needs of local communities, and focus their efforts on projects that can make a tangible impact. At the same time, the government should provide these NGOs with funds for monitoring, since it is the sometimes-antagonistic relationship between those two parties that also helps makes them mutually accountable for progress. Meanwhile, the NGOs and lobbying organizations must pressure the government to uphold its international agreements and accurately report the results of its investments in development efforts. Only in this way can the “Polish Aid” movement truly transform itself into a multilateral, globally accountable, and future-oriented force for development.

References

Publications:

Polish Development Assistance. “Independent research conducted by non-governmental organizations.”  Zagranica Group, Warsaw, 2007.
Poland’s Development Cooperation. “Annual Report 2007”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Development Cooperation Department.

Legal Acts:

Strategy for Polish Development Co-operation. Adopted by the Council of Ministers of
the Republic of Poland on October 21, 2000.
Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals, 2000.
Monterrey Consensus, 2002.
European Consensus on Development, 2005.
Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, 2005. 

Websites: 

www.polskapomoc.gov.pl
www.pah.org.pl 
www.zagranica.org.pl www.igo.org.pl 
http://www.mdgmonitor.org/index.cfm 

Interviews: 

Paweł Bagiński, Global Development Research Group. June 29, 2009.
Agata Czaplińska, Development Co-operation Department. Head of Development Co-operation Programme Implementation Unit. June 30, 2009. 
Krzysztof Filcek, Deputy Executive Director. Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation (PAUCI), June 26, 2009.
Grzegorz Gromadzki. Batory Foundation, June 30, 2009.
Justyna Janiszewska, Education for Democracy Foundation. June 26, 2009.
Julian Pańków, Deputy Chairman of International Relations Department at Collegium Civitas. June 25, 2009.
Piotr Sasin, Polish Humanitarian Organization. June 26, 2009.
Katarzyna Staszewska, Institute of Global Responsibility. June 29, 2009.
Jerzy Rohoziński, Development Co-operation Department. Assistance projects to Central Asia and South Caucasus. June 25, 2009.
Zbigniew Ruciński and Katarzyna Kot, Development Co-operation Department. Assistance projects to Afghanistan. June 25, 2009.
Izabela Wilczyńska, Polish Humanitarian Organization. June 29, 2009.
Daria Żebrowska, eFTe. June 30, 2009. 

Conferences:

Seminar of Polish Federation for Woman and Family Planning on Polish development aid – June 24, 2009, speakers: Jolanta Szymanek-Deresz (parliamentarian) and Barbara Mrówka (responsible for Programming and Strategy for Polish foreign assistance).
Press conference with Minister of Foreign Affairs on Polish development cooperation – June 29, 2009.

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