The backbone of democracy: Civic engagement in Switzerland and in Lithuania

In the context of Switzerland's second contribution to selected member states of the European Union (EU), a delegation from Lithuania visited Bern to exchange experiences and get inspiration for best practices.

Group picture of the Lithuanian delegation with the organisers of the exchange visit.

The Lithuanian delegation in front of the City Chancellery of Bern. © SDC

While in some contexts civil society organisations (CSOs) tend to be perceived as actors challenging state authorities, they are undeniably vital for the upholding of a vibrant democracy. Improving an environment conducive to robust civic participation that works hand in hand with the state, was the primary objective of an exchange visit undertaken by a Lithuanian delegation to Switzerland.

Comprising representatives from Lithuania’s Ministry of Social Security and Labour, the Ministry of Finance, and various civil society organizations, the delegation engaged in insightful discussions with Swiss experts, 10 CSOs and initiatives, and the city of Bern. During this exchange of experiences, strikingly similar challenges and diverse strategies for addressing them were emphasised.

The Second Swiss Contribution

Since 2007, Switzerland has supported various projects designed to reduce economic and social disparities within the EU. The second Swiss contribution, approved by the Swiss parliament in 2021, totals CHF 1.302 billion over a decade. The funding is channelled into selected projects and programmes in 13 partner countries that have joined the EU since 2004, serving as an investment in Europe’s security, stability and prosperity. Aligning with Switzerland's interests, the contribution strengthens the basis for solid economic and political relations with the EU and its member states.

Building upon Switzerland's strengths and expertise, civic engagement is one of the thematic priorities of the second Swiss contribution. 

Civic Engagement and Democracy

In Switzerland, any group of more than two individuals can establish a CSO without the requirement for official registration. This intentionally informal approach reflects Switzerland’s tradition of placing great trust in its own population and providing ample room for decentralized civic participation. As a result, three out of four Swiss inhabitants are members in at least one of around 100’000 associations, primarily at the local level. Those engage in activities such as service provision, advocacy, environment conservation, humanitarian aid and fundraising.

Given Switzerland's commitment to promoting democracy as one of its foreign policy priorities, fostering civic engagement and transparency is among the five key themes of the second Swiss contribution to selected EU countries. Ensuring the equal participation of all segments of the population enhances the likelihood of fair and inclusive development that benefits everyone. For this reason, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has a broad portfolio in this area, as Andreas Weber, programme officer at SDC, explains.

Andreas Weber, Programme Officer at SDC, is talking to the delegation.
Andreas Weber presents the SDC's engagement in the field of civic engagement to the group. © SDC
Evidence shows that societies that are governed under democratic principles have better sustainable development outcomes.
Andreas Weber, Programme Officer at SDC for Peace, Governance and Equality

In both Switzerland and Lithuania, CSOs play a crucial role in nurturing a robust democracy. The different backgrounds and approaches of the civil society sectors in both countries offer avenues for mutual learning. Certainly, as Aurelija Olendraitė, Head of the NGO‘s Development Unit of the Lithuanian Ministry of Social Security and Labour, explains, the sector is still young in Lithuania, rooting in the fight for independence during the singing revolution, wherefore much can be drawn from the Swiss experience. Surprisingly, despite considerable differences, two common challenges surfaced during the workshop: the issues of trust and wide-ranging involvement.

Building Trust

Establishing a solid relationship of trust and fostering close coordination between CSOs and state authorities, as well as transparency and accountability, are essential for achieving mutually reinforcing roles. In both Lithuania and Switzerland, the roles and competencies of CSOs especially in raising awareness and advocacy often spark contentious debates. "In Lithuania, especially at the local level, we are usually not seen as partners but as opponents, although it is getting better. At the national level we are considered as partners and experts," says Judita Akromienė, Director of the National Network of Education NGOs and part of the Lithuanian delegation. Aurelija Olendraitė also sees room for improvement: "We have to rebuild the trust between the government and civil society, because we share common goals and we need to work together." The delegation draws inspiration from the Swiss civil society, as Judita Akromienė points out: "I am really amazed by the culture at the institutional level, as the engagement of the people and the CSOs is seen as an indispensable part of decision-making processes."

Judita Akromienė, Director of the National Network of Education NGOs.
Judita Akromienė, Director of the National Network of Education NGOs. © SDC
I am really amazed by the culture at the institutional level, as the engagement of the people and the CSOs is seen as an indispensable part of decision-making processes.
Judita Akromienė, Director of the National Network of Education NGOs

Several of the participating Swiss CSOs emphasised this particularity of the Swiss system, which enables their early involvement in legislative consultation processes and the opportunity to bring new topics to the table. At the same time, most have already had at least some experience of collaborating with government institutions to leverage collective expertise. In this respect, achieve a partnership on equal footing remains a daily challenge. It is noteworthy that Lithuania's Ministry of Social Security and Labour includes a National NGO’s Development Unit, serving as a governmental contact point – a feature currently absent in Switzerland. Judita Akromienė highlights this matter: "We have both at the national and the local level NGO-councils, which is quite new. Those advisory bodies aim to enable smooth communication and dialogue between politicians and CSOs. This is one way to engage NGOs as representatives of local people and residents in decision-making and service provision."

As a specific exemplary method for fostering trust within civil society, the delegation was introduced to the association "ZEWO", which certifies CSOs. ZEWO showcased its role in contributing to the legitimacy and accountability of Swiss CSOs, promoting their professionalization, and thereby providing a quality seal for the Swiss population, which donates over CHF 2 billion annually. This raised interest among the participants: "I would really like to learn more about the criteria for self-transparency coming from the organisations so we can use this also in Lithuania", states Gaja Šavelė, Executive Director at the National NGO Coalition Lithuania.

Aurelija Olendraitė, Head of the NGO‘s Development Unit of the Lithuanian Ministry of social security and labour.
Aurelija Olendraitė, Head of the NGO‘s Development Unit of the Lithuanian Ministry of social security and labour. © SDC
We have to rebuild the trust between the government and civil society, because we share common goals and we need to work together.
Aurelija Olendraitė, Head of the NGO‘s Development Unit of the Lithuanian Ministry of social security and labour

Wide-ranging and Local Involvement

A solid basis for trust in public authorities in Switzerland stems from broad public involvement at all levels, starting in local municipalities. Switzerland's tradition of subsidiarity, which delegates public action to the lowest suitable level, provides it with a comparative advantage in this aspect. Furthermore, Switzerland's diverse linguistic, political, religious, and economic disparities serve as catalysts for its dynamic civil society sector.

Civic engagement complements Switzerland's system of direct democracy, in which politicians pursue their own professional careers. However, similar to Lithuania, institutional rights do not always guarantee broad participation. Out of the 75% of the Swiss population that are part of the electorate, less than 50% make typically use of their right to participate, with even lower rates among young citizens. Consequently, the delegation visited the Association of Youth Parliaments in Switzerland and the Swiss Association of Youth Organizations, which showcased innovative approaches to promote youth engagement through accessible platforms for debate and political participation, along with providing easily understandable information on complex political issues.

The participants look at humorously edited pictures of the Swiss federal councillors which were created by youth CSOs.
The participants are surprised by youth CSOs’ humorous approach of encouraging the engagement of young people. © SDC

Lastly, volunteering stands as a cornerstone of civic engagement in Switzerland. Through a presentation by Benevol, one of Switzerland's centres of competence in this field, the delegation learned that in 2020, 1.2 million people in Switzerland engaged in unpaid work through organizations, associations, or public institutions, while 2.3 million engaged in informal unpaid work. Gaja Šavelė is impressed by this commitment: "We don’t have this extent of voluntary tradition. Up to 16% are volunteering and most of them are young. Now it is a question for us how we can also involve elderly people."

Towards implementation

Following a week of intense debate and dialogue, the Lithuanian delegation takes home many learnings and avenues for future collaboration to further strengthen the country’s young and growing civil society sector. "People are very much united in Lithuania, even though the organisations are not very old and only started growing after independence. We have a growing number of organisations in different fields," says Gaja Šavelė. Judita Akromienė agrees: "The civil society organisations are getting stronger and their networking process is gaining tempo. They gather under different umbrellas to resolve certain issues. Especially at the municipal level, we still have a lot to do, in terms of strengthening capacities and networking."

It is very interesting to learn from the Swiss civil society and government institutions about their ways of collaborating for common goals. Switzerland has unique ways of involving civil society in decision-making.
Judita Akromienė, Director of the National Network of Education NGOs

Asked about the potential of future collaboration, the members of the delegation have already many ideas: "I see much potential for follow-ups and collaboration in the future. I already agreed with Swiss organisations to keep in contact", says Gaja Šavelė.

The exchange with over 10 Swiss CSOs and several experts laid the ground for individual follow-up and collaboration. The exchange will contribute to shaping and successfully implementing the Swiss-Lithuanian civic engagement programme under the second Swiss contribution. Ultimately, the participants agree that the fundament of lively civic engagement needs a collective attitude: not asking, what the government can do for oneself, but rather what one can contribute to society. 

Gaja Šavelė, Executive Director at National NGO Coalition Lithuania.
Gaja Šavelė, Executive Director at National NGO Coalition Lithuania. © SDC
I see much potential for follow-ups and collaboration in the future. I already agreed with Swiss organisations to keep in contact.
Gaja Šavelė, Executive Director at National NGO Coalition Lithuania

More information on the second Swiss contribution and civic engagement

Switzerland has signed the bilateral implementation agreements for the cohesion part with all partner countries of the second Swiss contribution. The implementation phase now follows and news are published on the Swiss contribution information portal. Find a per-country overview of the Swiss engagement and all bilateral framework agreements on the FDFA website. 

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