A talk with a person who has extensive experience and a strong interest in poverty problems can give more than a dozen books and academic articles on the topic. We talked about poverty and social policy in Lithuania, about the efforts of the government and non-governmental organizations in poverty reduction, about advocacy and about what stands in the way.
Skirma Anna Kondratas is an active public figure with a unique political, non-governmental and analytical experience in the field of poverty reduction. She has served in high positions in the US government and as an advisor on social policy to President Valdas Adamkus and Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, as well as a vice-minister of social security and labour in the Government of Lithuania.
She has also served on the boards of various non-profit organizations dealing with social policy research, anti-poverty initiatives, community development and other socioeconomic issues. Skirma Anna Kondratas is current chair of the Lithuanian Anti-Poverty Network and serves on the boards of several NGOs.
To put our talk into context, how did your poverty reduction work in Lithuania start?
I’ll start with a little prehistory. In 1995, the Copenhagen declaration was adopted by world leaders committing each country to fight poverty. But in Lithuania nothing was done. When President Adamkus was elected [in 1998], a dedicated Social Committee was formed and I was invited to represent the Presidency on the committee.
We tried to start it differently: the social committee was formed of eight ministers, since anti-poverty work needs cooperation in many areas: agriculture, education, health, social services, etc. And we invited scholars and several NGOs to participate as well.
The preparation of the Lithuanian first anti-poverty strategy was funded and supported by the UNDP. It was confirmed by the outgoing conservative government and the next social-democratic government prepared an action plan for the next four years.
But as I watched it unfold, it became obvious that nobody was willing to spend any more money than they were already spending to do anything. What was done was to look through all of the programmes and say this and that can be counted as applying to this and that goal. And the coordination never occurred. The programme was supposed to last from 2001-2004 and nothing really changed, except that there was more attention paid to the problem and poverty became a political issue in Lithuania for the first time.
I imagine that with little funding, understanding and cooperation in the field of poverty reduction there were many challenges, and there still are.
Yes. I remember one very funny meeting. I, a presidential advisor, together with a representative from the UNDP tried to persuade different ministries that poverty reduction was their responsibility. And we went to the ministry of agriculture and were actually floored. They told us that poverty was not their business. It was just incredible. And this was the person responsible for rural policy, with plenty of poor rural people in Lithuania.
I think we have now come a long way in terms of education at least on the responsibilities of the ministries. And the agriculture ministry now has a department that deals with local development and local initiatives. But still if you talk to other departments, there is very little understanding of the poverty issue and why they have to worry about it.
Talking about your current involvement in anti-poverty work, the Anti-Poverty Network unites around 50 grass-roots NGOs in Lithuania. How did the idea to establish the Network come about?
In 2005 the European Anti-Poverty Network organized a meeting in Riga urging the three Baltic sates to form national anti-poverty networks. Martinas Žaltauskas, who ran the NGO Information and Support Centre in Lithuania and still runs it, was instrumental in drumming up support. He and his colleagues drove all over Lithuania, met with non-profit organizations doing social work. A meeting was called in the Seimas in 2006 and three hundred people came from all across Lithuania, so the interest was certainly very high. Very committed people. And I was very excited because finally it looked as something was going to be happening. The same fall the national network was formed.
The Lithuanian anti-poverty network did not have any funding and we did not feel that it was possible to ask for membership dues. Many member organizations were struggling to make ends meet and struggling to support the poor and sometimes working on a voluntary basis. So the lack of funding was and still is a problem for concerted action. On the other hand, it is apparent that a lot of the organizations that deal with the poor know which policies are just wrong and don’t work. But there is little capacity or time to do advocacy individually. As a network we try to all be involved in advocacy together.
Can you give any examples of the problematic issues raised by your member organizations?
One of the recent issues is the problem of debtors who are impoverished. For example, single mothers with children who have trouble paying for their utility expenses, or ex-convicts coming out of prison with debts and no job prospects. The way interest on debts is calculated plus the charges that the bailiff adds on, means that even small debts soon grow into astronomical amounts that the poor person has little chance of repaying. This is a system that works against the poor, but it does not serve the interests of creditors, either, since debts can only be collected at a snail’s pace or not at all.
So we had a working group, discussed and outlined the inconsistencies in the laws and wrote a letter to the relevant authorities. And we got an answer of four pages citing this article and that article in the legal code and why everything is fine exactly the way it is. But this is exactly what you should expect initially! And you have to keep at them, show the problem, you have to keep lobbying. And that is what we intend to do.
We are also taking on other issues, like the inadequate social support for single poor people and single pensioners. The laws seem fair on paper but in practice they don’t really work and need to be changed. And this will be our activity for the next year.
It is indeed difficult to make a difference on a matter as complicated as poverty. Can you give some success stories or anti-poverty initiatives where the network made a difference?
Well, it depends what you mean by success stories. On the local level, there are many examples of how our member organizations helped individual people come out of poverty or alleviated their poverty. If you mean success in reducing national poverty levels – zero. In fact, NGOs can’t reduce poverty by themselves. It’s government’s role to reduce poverty, partnering with the private sector and NGOs.
Hopefully, we can motivate and teach more and make nuisances of ourselves. Because the good poverty advocacy organizations always make nuisances of themselves. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. So you have to make noise as otherwise people don’t see problems. They just don’t see them. And that is where we see our role, to point to concrete problems and also to suggest concrete solutions that work.
What are the main challenges for effective participation of non-governmental organizations in poverty reduction policy?
Civil society and more non-governmental organizations need to be empowered and for that they need funding. For the first ten years in Lithuania things went very well for non-profits because the sector had substantial funding from international organizations. That is why the sector got a major boost at the start. But then there was a financial crisis, and a judgement that maybe Lithuania was capable of funding its own NGOs, and all those international organizations that were helping civil society left.
So there is little now – some European and national government funding for projects in certain areas of NGO anti-poverty work, mostly for direct services. Some NGOs have been successful in adapting, raising private funds for activities giving direct assistance to the poor. But many activities necessary for an active civil society in Lithuania are struggling. It is impossible to raise money for advocacy, for example, to help NGOs to do better in influencing social policy.
By contrast, in America, fund-raising for advocacy is relatively easy, everybody understands what advocacy is and why it’s necessary for democracy to work. The awareness needs to be built here, too.
To sum up, from your experience, what are the cornerstones for stable progress in addressing the poverty problem.
I know what would work, since I have seen good programmes that produce results in various countries. You first have to have intergovernmental cooperation, you have to have the same goals and understanding of the poverty problem at the local level and at the national level. You have to share the goal of reducing poverty.
But I will repeat, intergovernmental and inter-agency cooperation is very difficult, if there is nobody with the authority who personally cares to make it work. If cabinet ministers are required to cooperate, it has to be a priority of the prime minister. Only with effort and leadership can you have successful inter-agency cooperation.
So the thing is to educate our national leaders, so that people in positions of power take it on as a job to make sure there is proper attention to poverty issues. And then you need an active civil society and non-governmental organizations. And that is a weakness of Lithuania as compared, for example, to the United States. If you talk about lobbying and advocacy, in America you have really well-funded organizations that do nothing but advocacy for the poor. When the Lithuanian civil society is such a partner, it will be possible to implement successful programmes that produce good results.