Citizen initiative and the third sector

Citizen initiatives can also catalyse spontaneous movements which express citizens’ concerns and promote changes to serve popular needs. In instances of vitality, citizen movements have grown, adopting institutional forms and assuming a prominent place in society. Examples of such citizen initiatives in Estonia include the Heritage Conservation Society and the Estonian Citizens’ Committees which played a central role in the transformation of Estonian society at the end of the 80s. At that time, they were an integral element of the driving force for social change.

During the past decade, the role of NGOs increased. Compared with public and business sectors, citizens’ associations and the so-called ‘third sector’ have proved to be particularly resilient in drawing attention to, and aiding the solution of several problems. Their collective and reflexive approach, and their purposeful and economic use of resources, have been very effective.

In 2002, 812 NGOs, and branches of global organisations which operate in the public domain, were active in different areas of Estonian society, (see Fig.5). If housing co-operatives were also to be included, then, according to the Commercial Register, the number of such bodies would rise to 15,000. Nevertheless, comparison of Estonia with developed democracies leads to a paradoxical conclusion: despite the central role played by the citizens’ associations during the restoration of Estonian independence, their role weakened considerably in the 90s and early noughties.

Non-profit organisations by specific areas

Area Amount (%)
Democracy and international views 80
Philanthropy and support of citizens' initiative 35
Education and school 254
Hobbies and pastime 302
Environment 55
Culture and art 246
Professional activity 129
Development of economy 46
Media and mass communication 20
Regional and local development 107
Politics 12
Agriculture and rural life 54
Religion 24
Defence of state and population 35
Social security and health care 186
Sport 94
Justice, representation and defence of interests 179
Human rights 29
Other 96

The government’s attempts to take citizens’ opinions into account was exemplified by the internet portal, TOM, (the Estonian acronym deriving from the phrase “today, the decision is mine”), launched in 2001. This governmental, ‘direct democracy’ portal was open to ideas and proposals, as well as comments on the strategies and legislation drafts currently under development by the government’s ministries. Thus the public was able to monitor the development of an idea into a legislative act, proposals and comments on them being accessible by everyone. Ideas promulgated by contributors were sent by the Prime Minister to the appropriate agency for consideration and a response. In July 2002, the government was processing the following topics which originated from the portal: an amendment to the Traffic Act; a new salary scale for public servants, the Consumer Protection Act; the State Family Benefits Act; and amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Social Tax Act. A particularly lively discussion arose from the proposed new Weapons Act, the number of public comments temporarily clogging the portal.

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