Civic society activists gather in Prague for "NGO Market"


Dozens of non-governmental organisations from both the Czech Republic and abroad gathered in Prague on Wednesday for an annual NGO market. The event, which was open to the public, included lectures and debates on everything from the role of civic society in post-communist countries to water shortages in the Middle East.

Tyrsuv Dum
NGO activists mingle with members of the public at Prague's Tyrsuv Dum, one of the many splendid Baroque palaces that grace the city's Mala Strana quarter. This is the eighth annual NGO market in Prague - a meeting of minds for people in the non-profit world - and this year's event was well-attended. It was the brainchild of Forum 2000, the organisation set up by former president Vaclav Havel and others. Coordinator Jana Neupauerova explained more about the event:

"The NGO market has traditionally been an opportunity for Czech and foreign NGOs alike to come to one place and present to the public their activities, their plans for the future and attract both visitors and volunteers, and also sponsors."

One of the biggest organisations attending the NGO market was the Civic Society Development Foundation, a body which redistributes funds from EU and other programmes. The organisation's Alexandra McGhee explained that the work of non-profit groups in post-communist countries like the Czech Republic was crucial:

"The organisations are very much needed in this country because the state cannot provide everything, there are services the state cannot provide to its citizens, there is still a huge gap that can only be covered by the NGOs. So I see them mainly as service providers that still have their space in this society."

But it wasn't just Czech NGOs attending this year's event. Lin Hsinyi is from a Taiwanese organisation campaigning to end the death penalty:

Vaclav Klaus
"From our experience, regional and international networking is really helping the movement in Taiwan to abolish the death penalty. That's why I am here, because I want to meet people from other countries, so that they know about the Taiwan situation and also we want to know the other countries' situation."

The role of non-profit organisations is perhaps more controversial in the Czech Republic than elsewhere. Civic activism has many critics here, and the most vocal is the country's president, Vaclav Klaus. He has frequently attacked the non-governmental sector, most recently claiming that NGOs were a danger to democracy. That's something rejected by the NGO Market's co-ordinator Jana Neupauerova, who says that after government and business, the so-called "third sector" has a highly important role to play in society:

"Everything has always been decided from the top, so if the president says or if the parliament decides, but, come on, people! We really need you to open up to the third sector and start doing something!"