Polish citizens reject NGOs in favor of community activism

The Black Protest, which spread inside as well as outside of the country, demonstrated the strength of grassroots activism. The Black Protest also reflected the social and political changes that have taken place in Poland and the evolution of the Polish civil society.

Black Protest, Warsaw. October 2016. 

This episode, as well as many other recent developments in Poland, show that postsocialist civil society is not weak or immature. As a study conducted, urban movements in Poland are flourishing.

The backlash against NGO

During the Black Protest, organisations like Gals to Gals and Save the Women, which are informal initiatives and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as political parties and citizens, took to the streets.

The Black Protest, unlike other public events centered on women, was not only attended by women who support abortion rights but also by women with conservative views. The protesters agreed that the current abortion laws should not be further restricted, but they were not unanimous on whether or not they should liberalized.

A protest to ‘Save the Women,’ in Warsaw. October 2016. Konto na chwile/WikimediaCC BY-NC

Since the 1990s, the Polish NGO sector has been considered to be the most advanced pillar in the civil society. Yet Polish NGOs have recently come under pressure.

The division between NGOs is a result of the perceived advantage that liberal NGOs have over conservative NGOs. This was not surprising in a society that is becoming more stratified.

Many criticized what they perceived as an excessive ” NGOsisation ” of Polish civil societies. The turn away from institutions is also a reaction against the individualism of the NGO sector. Social activists are involved with NGOs in order to improve their skills or achieve self-actualization.

It is fair to say that the ” NGOisation of Resistance” as well as NGO activism have been criticized for stifling citizen engagement through project-based and grant-reliant activities.

The NGOs have begun to express their concerns that they may have become a part of the problems they originally set out to solve, such as tackling social inequality.

Researchers are also becoming more aware that they need to shift their NGO centered focus to studying civil society.

Community action

In response to the individualism that characterises NGO activism, and the political division in the public realm, we see the emergence of informal movement, motivated by a desire to restore a sense of community to Polish cities and towns.

In Poland, social activism used to be a domain of the intelligence with its longstanding positive mission of serving the nation. This was especially true during periods of lack of sovereignty.

The intelligentsia in Poland reinforced the ” elite model of local civil societies,” as described by sociologist Joanna Kurczewska. Individuals involved in community-building or civic engagement, unlike NGO activists, declare that they do not aim to lead or educate the nation.

They identify and work for the local community or claim to have global citizenship. They are motivated by humanitarian values and see civic engagement as an act of activism.

We carried out research into non-institutionalised initiatives in Poland between 2014 and 2015. One activist we interviewed told us:

We achieve social goals under different ideological slogans. Politics is not a criterion to exclude people from our community. We all share the same goal, whether we justify it with our leftist viewpoints or their rightist ones, but we still do the same things.

Informal organizations are motivated by the desire to improve at the local level.

The focus of informal activists on local, pragmatic issues is a short-term strategy that will lead to piecemeal changes. Active citizens are involved in multiple types of grassroots organizing.

The initiatives of these people are varied and include revitalizing neighborhoods, organizing workshops for children who are underprivileged, and working to revitalize the community. Some people have hobbies that are related to the area they live in, such as urban gardening, city cycling, urban beekeeping, running cashless trades or non-commercial cafés.

There are also groups that offer free help to the homeless or to young people. Feminist groups work to change public opinion. Groups who seek alternatives to capitalism, such as food cooperatives and the degrowth initiative. History Reenactors, and art collectives are also examples of informal organisation.

These activities are the playground for democracy. These activities often help to identify common goals and strengthen the community bond.

A 2016 historical reenactment depicting ‘cursed soldiers,’ who took over the State Security Prison in 1945. Wojtek Zolneczko, Author provided

These seemingly innocent activities do not always lack an ideological perspective. Behind their pragmatic goals is a conviction that citizens have the power to change reality. This social change is based on a shared sense of purpose and community.

The diversity and richness of the activism in Polish civil society is truly inspiring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *