You have been active in different areas – from teaching to competitive debating to tackling health issues at the Estonian National Institute for Health Development. What is the connecting factor from your own perspective? What drives you in your career choices?
A sense of mission. I would say that the main thing that drives me is seeing that my actions effect actual change – seeing something improve, someone’s life getting better. But if I look at it from a more abstract and wider perspective then my goal is to help make our society a better place for everyone, and that is the reason why I have been involved in these various fields. However, throughout, my focus has been on education, having been involved both in formal and also lifelong learning. At the Institute for Health Development I was also dealing with the learning environment in schools and acquiring social skills.
To what extent does your new job at NENO continue this educational streak? Does NENO serve an educational function?
Yes, I do believe that the educational streak continues to a large extent but perhaps not in the traditional meaning of the word. For many people, education equals going to school, whereas for me, it carries a wider meaning. The Estonian lifelong learning strategy states that learning is a process – we keep learning every day, and gain better understanding throughout our lives. NENO can make a great contribution to improving public awareness about civil society, about the different types of organisations (e.g. NGOs and foundations) and what they do. It is our job to ensure that the government sees civil society as an instrumental partner, and as for the rest of the population, it would be wonderful if people would see it as a positive employment alternative, where people can engage in truly meaningful work, make their dreams come true and also make a respectable career out of it.
Civil society is constantly being reassessed, and it means different things for different people. What are the first things that come to mind for you?
For some reason, my first thought was the local association/society that is very active in my home village. We are united against a common enemy – the Rail Baltic project that has galvanised local people, and lead to the establishment of village university and other initiatives that are still ongoing to this day. I believe that it all springs from the mindset that as active citizens, when we recognize a problem, we start looking for a solution, instead of complaining, and waiting around for someone else to come and clean up the mess. It’s about actively involving others and bringing about change. Be the solution, don’t leave it for someone else to resolve!
On the other hand, civil society also includes such organisations as the Estonian Debating Society, and I have been a member for 14 years. They have launched several initiatives that have made considerable difference for the society as a whole, and I believe that such organisations are able to effect profound change. Estonia has a rich and vibrant civil society. That requires a participatory society, getting people involved in discussions on public matters and collaborating with different institutions.
It‘s interesting that your first thought jumped to your village society because it seems that there is a constant tug-of-war between the grassroots level organisations and more professional NGOs. Critics seem to agree that a certain group in a trendy and affluent district of our nation’s capital has become too established and too government-friendly as compared to “genuine” civic activism that should constantly be reborn and sacrifice itself, burning and fighting all the way. What do you think, how could we cross this divide?
To be honest, I don’t see them as polar opposites – both types are necessary. And it is important for people to understand that we need both. Grassroots organisations offer people an opportunity to feel that they can actually do something that makes a tangible difference without having to lean on a large organisation or EU funding. Sometimes it is enough to just get a group of locals together. The problem is that many grassroots initiatives fade away as soon as their problem is solved but, of course, some do go on to grow into larger organisations.
Neither of these alternatives is negative per se, it is the natural evolution of an organisation. When the group disbands after solving the problem – job well done! However, if the problem persists, the group must continue toiling away. In case of more serious challenges, this will entail a more systematic approach and that leads to the development of professionalism in NGOs. Therefore, we may not even need to cross that divide because we need both types of NGOs. With regard to NENO, we focus our efforts on empowering organisations that have reached a certain level of professionalism.
I wouldn’t want us to pit NGOs against each other here in Estonia because different types of initiatives complement each other. Take my example – the fact that there was a society in my home village meant that I could take part in its activities and that, in turn, gave me the courage to start debating in high school and become a member of the debate club which has ultimately led me here – to NENO.
We must also bear in mind that professionalised organisations are not necessarily extensions of the government but rather they are partners, sometimes even service providers. And we need partnerships to get things done in this country. Having financial ties with the government does not necessarily mean dependence. Of course, the government funds various large-scale civil society initiatives because it is in its interest. When it comes to NENO, as a strategic partner to the government, NENO addresses areas that fall under the domain of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and 25% of our budget is covered by a regular operating subsidy from the ministry. However, as a professional organisation we must maintain our legitimacy and courage to be critical if necessary. Having differing opinions and expressing them leads to discussion, and if the discussion is constructive in nature and well-argumented, then it serves as a positive driving force.
Once, standing in line at the Opinion Festival (akin to Scandinavian democracy festivals), I overheard a comment that lately all active and inspiring young people seem to come from the Estonian Debating Society. What have you gained from debating?
Thanks to debating I am more articulate and it has also given me the courage to express my views. It has taught me how to present my arguments in a calm and eloquent manner. It has also given me opportunities to take on new challenges and test my wings again and again. In the Debating Society, if you show initiative, they throw you right in there, head first. Once I summoned the courage to say at a meeting that I would like to try and go somewhere as a delegation lead. Two weeks later I was responsible for the whole delegation at a debate camp held on the border of Lithuania and Poland, and I was a minor at the time. What is more, debating is a team sport and it helps generate an extremely strong sense of togetherness, teaching people how to discuss problems together and also how to solve them.
If we look at the public sphere as a Habermasian marketplace of ideas with competing preferences, then what is your assessment of public debate in Estonia?
If we look at the past 20 years then we have come a long way, and fast. This summer, I was renovating my house and found some old newspapers from the 1990s from under the wallpapering. I stood there for hours, reading how differently things were written about and discussed back in those days. However, we still have a long way to go – we can’t applaud and shout – bravissimo, we have become excellent public debaters! There is still a long way to go but if we look at other countries that used to be part of the soviet bloc then we can be quite content with the level of our public debate and decision-making culture.
What do you think is the main problem in Estonia at the moment?
It is difficult to single out just one thing. One of the biggest challenges is openness. If we approach it statistically and rationally then a country this small with such a small population and a limited budget cannot be sustainable for very long. In order to preserve Estonians and our culture, we should not isolate ourselves from others. On the contrary, we should be open to others instead. We should feel strong enough as a society and value what we have but we shouldn’t do it at the expense of retreating into a defensive position because isolationism is not sustainable.
It is somewhat ironic that in recent years civic initiative has become associated with certain organisations that tend to lean more towards isolationism and exclusion, and who see openness as a threat to the nation and the state.
Well, that’s how the free exchange of views works in a pluralist society. The fact that our civil society breeds initiatives of different persuasions is a welcome development. What is more, each organisation has the right to focus on a specific target group. However, I try to look at the Estonian context as a big picture and I feel for the 80-year-old pensioners who are witnessing the decline in population growth rates. We will get smaller, and we will get stuck if we don’t open or minds and make our policies more inclusive.
But how to talk to people amidst this growing pluralism? How could we understand each other better? Even NENO is not safe from becoming a quasi-organisation that represents only select elite NGOs.
First, we must see to it that our discussions remain calm and collected. It’s not enough to just demand what we want and shout it from the rooftops. We must acknowledge that there are organisations and people whose opinion we cannot influence or change – different social opinion curves have already manifested themselves very strongly. However, that’s not what I’m aiming for. It is enough for me if during my tenure at NENO some organisations will become more effective and will thereby improve peoples’ welfare. I want us to come together in order to figure out how to do things in Estonia in a way that everyone’s lives would improve and we wouldn’t have get stuck in our isolation. This is where different opinions and approaches are welcome. Isolationism sprigs from fear, and we need to alleviate those tendencies. We can’t do that by yelling and screaming – we need to talk to each other calmly.
In the context of pluralism, we also need to learn how to listen to each other better. If we look at what is happening in Poland, Ukraine or Hungary then it is something we must avoid in Estonia. We have an excellent opportunity to learn from their experiences, to listen and effect change that would prevent this from happening in Estonia. In doing that it is important that we listen to dissenting opinions and process their messages in a calm manner. Even in the context of dissenting opinions we can still share common/similar goals – at the end of the day we are all aiming for creating a good living environment in Estonia. Therefore, we must seek common ground, not confrontation.
Thus far we have focused on the problems but what are the main strengths of Estonian civil society, from your perspective?
The people! We have so many brilliant people with wide-ranging skills and enormous motivation to contribute their time and energy in order to improve life in Estonia. The challenge is how to bring people together and make use of their know-how efficiently in a manner that would help organisations operate in a more professional and effective manner. Estonia has one of the most educated populations in Europe, with a considerable share of the workforce having a university degree. The question is, how to utilize all that knowledge in a way that would contribute to society and unite us, instead of promoting isolationism and exclusion. All the problems we have touched upon today are manageable, but we have a tendency to get stuck in our problems. Instead, we should focus on cultivating a more optimistic, and solution-oriented attitude. We need to develop a mentality that if we come together then we will find a way. If we don’t succeed the first time around then we learn from our mistakes, change course and try again.
How about government and civil society – what should be done to make them better partners to each other?
The government should finish the things they have started, and they should do that in an efficient manner. For example, zero bureaucracy – an amazing idea at the conceptual level! However, considering the volume of reporting prescribed by the state, I am of the opinion that the implementation of this goal hasn’t been done in a particularly effective and efficient manner.
With regard to civil society, we must revisit professionalisation. In order to be considered a strategic and equal partner NGOs must strive for collaboration. Civil society is made up of a wide variety of initiatives – approximately 15,000 organisations, if we exclude apartment associations/coops. In comparison, the list of government agencies is long but doesn’t make up even a fraction of it. Therefore, we need umbrella organisations and unions/federations that represent common interests and empower organisations to be equal and valuable partners for the government. We must be open to discussions and collaboration. At the same time we must prevent the implementation of measures that could damage the society in the long run. In these circumstances we must act as a constructive but also as a critical partner, if the situation calls for it.
How about engaging the private sector in solving problems faced by our society?
In this respect, we should look beyond money. Often, people get their start in the non-profit sector where they earn their dues and then continue their careers in the private sector. I would like to create more opportunities for private sector professionals to contribute their time and know-how, if not money, to civil society.
We should also create more opportunities for organisations to collaborate across sectors. And I don’t mean only financial contributions or donations but rather through sharing professional expertise. We could all benefit from broadening our perspectives. We need to be proactive and reach out to people –I have this problem, perhaps you have an idea how to solve it? Often we just don’t have the time we need to keep our organisation going but in that case we should approach at it as an investment – if I contribute by thinking how to do something more efficiently, then in the long run, it will free up time for us to address the issues of organisational sustainability.
In addition, we need to adopt a more constructive approach for collaborating with the private sector. It is common for NGOs to talk about the private sector mainly in the context of donations – one party gives, the other receives. At the same time, there is so much more potential for collaboration. NGOs must strive to pinpoint and highlight the advantages their activities could offer to the private sector. Does it improve awareness among employees, does it better the work environment, or benefit mental health? Civil society contains an abundance of know-how and experience that could benefit business and, in turn, the private sector could contribute by helping NGOs become more professional.
Management jobs are nerve-wracking, and it’s common knowledge that civic activists burn out easily. How do you take care of yourself?
First and foremost, it is important to have a good team that will keep each other from burning out. If the team is satisfied and knows what they are doing then it keeps their leader grounded. After finishing work I enjoy dog therapy sessions at home. I’m lucky to have a hyper-energetic dog who wants to walk and run as much as possible. Nature is another important grounding element for me. For example, yesterday, I went hiking around Lake Tamula in Southern Estonia. For me, such weekend hikes are the best way for recharging my batteries. I am also fortunate to have a family that knows how to claim their time – they stand their ground and say that it’s time to finish working and do something else.
Describe the kind of NENO you want to hand over to your successor?
I’m currently studying to become a supervisor and I recently drafted my vision for NENO in three years. My goal is to hand over an organisation that is financially sustainable, with a flexible and a balanced budget that is not dependent on project-based funding. I would also like for NENO to have a team with efficiently allocated roles, and one that actively pursues common goals. I’d like for the next Director to be hired by a Board that represents perspectives from different sectors. Ultimately, my aim is to hand over an organisation that has clearly focused operations, whose team and members understand what NENO is, what it does and why.