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Speech delivered by President Kersti Kaljulaid at a meeting with university students, academic staff and NGO representatives on 28 October 2016 at University of Tartu Narva College


Distinguished Attendees, People of Narva College and Other Narva Residents,

I am glad to be in Narva again for the first time in a few years. I used to travel here more often when I worked for Eesti Energia, but I talked to local community leaders here at least once when I was affiliated with the University of Tartu. At the time, the discussion concerned relating to the European Union and its EU assistance.

Since that time, a lot of water has flowed into the sea and Estonia has improved. Today we are preparing to financially stand on our own two legs once again – Estonia will probably receive much fewer resources from the EU Cohesion Fund because we can act on our own now. Yet being here today at the University of Tartu, I am happy to say that the European research funds are open to all bright minds and there are no restrictions on how much a given country can receive.

But our main resource has never come from elsewhere. Our main resource is industrious, educated and hard-working people. In 25 years, we have gone from having the status of a very poor transition country with a middling income level to an OECD member state.

How have we done this? That is a question I was asked many times on my first visit to Latvia and Lithuania. For that reason, I have had to give it much thought and try to put Estonia's success story into words. It is something I have also been asked many times in Western Europe, but there the answer is simple and clichéd: There was no money, so we just had to do things more efficiently, and it happened to be an era when the right digital tools were developing very rapidly.

That explanation does not work in the other Baltic states. It cannot work, because our starting position was the same. So there must have been some specific differences along our respective paths. Those differences are not the product of some predetermined choice made by Fate. The difference in our paths lies in the way that our societies, people and communities think. Not that one is better than another, but the current decade is something that every society has created for itself, with the decisions it made 20 years ago or more. Voters with their choices, citizens with other choices, academicians with theirs.

The path we took right from the start was that of a "thin state." It allowed us to immediately create that which we are still praised for by the rest of the world – a business space that attracted people with deep pockets who wanted to offer us work for meagre wages. Back then, that was a good thing. Because, after all, we got wealthier ourselves.

Once we had become more affluent, our view of the state started changing. Once their elementary needs have been satisfied, people tend to start looking for more. Not for the meaning of life, but something that makes each day happier.

Today Estonia is anything but a thin state. Today everyone is his or her own country; we are all a state. Every time people come together and fix up a neighbourhood, they have done something more than just pay taxes – they have given of themselves for the development of their village, their town and thus their country. Every big thing starts from a single step.

For example, Estonians are crazy about maintaining their landscapes, and as society grows more affluent, villages with riding lawnmowers have become exceedingly attractive, wondrous places for bicycle tourists from Western Europe. For them, it is unimaginable and mysterious – you emerge from the deep forest and end up for the evening in some village full of the fresh smell of summer hay and flowers, even if the houses might need a new paint job. That is our country. They do not have anything like that.

Decades ago, the American sociologist Robert Putnam became well-known for research he conducted in Italy. He was interested in what makes some local governments more successful and capable than others. Putnam tested many hypotheses. Was there an economic explanation? Did the more successful areas have more industry, wealthier companies? Or was stability of local power important, as opposed to places where power often changed hands? None of the hypotheses yielded a clear answer – some areas were just like that, others were not.

Putnam got his answer when he added civic-mindedness to the equation. Then a trend could be traced: the more successful local government units were those where people trusted each other and engaged in cooperation, formed all sorts of associations – it could be something as simple and pedestrian as a handicrafts circle or art club – followed the media and discussed local affairs with each other. These were the places where people were the most content with local life. Which should not surprise us – these people had created exactly the kind of hometown that they wanted.

Estonia – it is a country of free and proud people. Where no one feels they are more important than anybody else, and also where no one feels they are less important, that nothing depends on them. A place where, when people notice that something is not quite how it should be, they do not limit themselves to futile grumbling, but find the will to start doing something and create the change they want to see happen. Where they are equally demanding regarding their own selves as they are regarding others. Where people help the weaker members of society, because they know they – all of us in fact – would be assisted in the same way.

And that is how it happened that we do not have a thin state anymore, but rather a very powerful state – a state of volunteers and civil society organizations. Note that just like the business sector exists in many different forms, so does the third sector. A self-employed FIE ("sole proprietor") as well as Eesti Energia, even though they may not have many similarities, are both in the business sector. The NGO sector is just as diverse. Commentator Ahto Lobjakas says it is silly to consider the Defence League (the Estonian volunteer home guard) a part of the third sector. That shows he just does not recognize the third sector, which is based on the joy of pitching in and the responsibility for making our collective lives better, in all of its manifestations.

Why do I mention this here at all? Because I arrived at a realization some years ago. I mentioned it a year ago at the TEDx conference in Tallinn, and during the social defence courses yesterday morning. Our country's next step as a global innovation leader is not related to the digital sector. Instead, it will be a step that brings the NGO and public sectors together. Yes, it will specifically require us to think beyond boundaries and to recognize that in spite of the differences in classical definitions, we can build the state we want by transcending those boundaries.

In my vision, besides state reform, local associations will play a much bigger role in providing public services. It is already taking place now, of course – according to a study conducted a few years ago, two-thirds of our cities and municipalities are engaged in cooperation with NGOs in providing at least some public service. Three-quarters of Estonia's population lives in those towns and municipalities. To this point, yes, the cooperation takes place more in "soft" areas – culture, sport, leisure time. There is much more room for growth when it comes to positive and mutually trustful cooperation on more sensitive social issues.

Someone who is stuck on some narrow definition might say that such a cooperative relationship has ceased to involve the NGO sector. Or someone who is stuck on another definition could say that the service is no longer a public service. But what if we remembered the main thing – that we have these definitions in order to simplify, analyse and describe the world. Every definition is in some way a simplification. An academic approach to a research question is invariably also a simplification. We all create our own terms of reference where certain things in life are just disregarded. And so it becomes very important that we remember the difference between experiments and real life when we analyse our findings.

There is often an elementary simplification at the end of a physics problem – "disregard the effects of friction". We solve the problem without imagining that we can actually go out on the street and operate that way in the real world.

The same applies in the social sphere. Citizens can always reach some agreement with the government that they will engage in cooperation and do so in a place, during a period and in a manner that both find useful. Involving the NGO sector in provision of a public service is good precisely because it can take place quickly and over a short term where necessary, it is compatible with the needs of the service recipient and gives the service provider the feeling that they are human. There's no sin in government – or local government, maybe local government in particular – seeing this opportunity and using it for the good of our country.

The sin is to start nitpicking and asking whether such a state is still a state and whether an NGO that has more than a social contract with the state is still really a non-government association.

The third sector simply has a keener sense; it is faster at noticing and responding and often has greater expertise. In this manner, we can make local public services better. The NGO sector includes a secondary school student who takes their classmate to the cinema in the evening so that they are not lonely and bored waiting at home every day. A public service is when a local social worker has the will and the legal ability to notice and recognize that activity, and then buy the cinema tickets for the kids. Yes, the NGO sector includes that young school pupil, just as it does a Defence Leaguer training in the woods. Every one of us who contributes in this way is acting as the third sector, and at the same time, we also comprise the state.

I am completely certain that the third sector and state are both ready for such a development. And no doubt the definition purists will eventually create new paradigms. What do we care? The main thing is that things get done.

In Narva as well, I am gratified to see that things are getting done. One example might be the exercise movement initiators who encourage people to get physically active. Or a group concerned about traffic in the city. Or Narva Bright Actions, who with their small but tenacious endeavours are making the city look more colourful and appealing by erecting little book huts and putting up information signs. Many day centres and social associations offer locals services that are so needed.

Civil society – it is when people actively and intelligently take part in discussing common matters, making decisions and carrying out the decisions – and the charm is that it cannot somehow be created externally, with orders and rules. Civil society develops and becomes stronger in the presence of those who are itching to start doing things, who cannot stand the fact that they have not started doing so yet.

What we can all do is create the conditions where there is more fertile ground for this type of civic initiative to blossom. We can do so by example and with a respectful attitude – including toward initiatives that we do not understand or where it seems to us that we would ourselves prefer some other kind of solution. It's the respectful attitude in particular, expressing one's thoughts and being ready to listen to others, that leads to learning and development.

Civic initiative can take many different forms. I hope no one still thinks that the first step should be founding an organization and writing up project or grant applications. People can associate and organize in many different ways – even via a Facebook group of people interested in the same goal. The perhaps best-known civil initiative in Estonia, Let's Do It, operated for years as a network uniting all of our cities and municipalities, based above all on the energy and initiative of local leaders, before a separate foundation was recently finally set up – and that was not for organizing the collective activity days familiar to us but rather the 2018 global World Cleanup Day. In the same way, through self-initiative-based cooperation between hundreds of NGOs, businesses, media organizations, public sector institutions and active individuals, the August Opinion Festival in Paide has taken place, one of the forums for free ideas, which has spread its roots to Narva as well.

Volunteering is often the first step that leads to other things, but it is also a fine thing when a project ends up becoming the leaders' and activists' day job. Especially as regards provision of public services, but also when it comes to defending local or sectoral interests, it is in all of our interests when not everything depends on whether the movement's leaders can find the spare time.

I have noticed a pointless distinction being drawn with civil initiatives being labelled "right" or "wrong". For example, when a contrast is drawn between smaller and bigger NGOs, or between endeavours driven by volunteer/paid work or projects that survive on membership dues and donations and those that are funded by state subsidies and their own revenue. These distinctions do not serve any good purpose. A civic initiative has one criterion – does it spring from people's free will and desire to make life better? And also: it should not intentionally hurt anyone.

A small, sparsely populated country has always been a country of civic society. At some point, we felt that if we became rich enough, the state would respond to our every need, everywhere. That cannot lead to anything but waste, or as it is called in the IMF's parlance, unsustainable growth of debt burden. This will create services that no one exactly needs as well as provide them to people who don't exactly need such a service.

In the 1990s, in northern Finland and northern Sweden I saw the outcome of this act of pulling the blanket of services evenly and unselectively over an entire population.

The Samis attended courses paid for by the state to learn how to cope with life in the dark, remote north as social funds had been earmarked to subsidize life there. These people actually needed something to keep them from hitting the bottle during the dark months. They did not get that, because the fund did not have those kinds of resources. So north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, the state paid people 10 months of assistance as long as they were employed for two months. The entire private sector had adapted – there were always enough jobs for one-sixth of the population and wages were scarcely paid at all, only enough to get the ten months' free ride at a reasonable rate. These stories might be inaccurate in a few details because they were told by ordinary people. Project managers might have explained it in a different way.

Incidentally, in the same region, at the same time, I also saw a service that was jointly designed by the NGO sector and the private and public sectors. Every village was sure to have a taxi driver who took kids to school in the mornings and ferried people home from the pubs at night; the local government paid for both services. The service was only made possible by the fact that the people lived far north of the Arctic Circle, but it worked well.

What was the role of the NGO sector in providing this service? Their role lay in noticing if some older person or someone who was weary for some other reason did not have the strength to get home or realize that they needed the municipal taxi service. Overestimating one's abilities means death in that climate. Everyone who noticed saved someone's life, and they did so on a voluntary basis. It did not meet the definition of volunteer work, but people took action anyway.

To sum up – a functioning state and a working local government – this is us, we the people. The government is preparing amendments to the local government revenue base that will mean a system that is tilted more toward the poor. What we must now do is think how we can give local workers the authority to buy those cinema tickets and ensure effective oversight to prevent abuses of the system. We will get there.