“We encourage citizens to speak up”
To tackle corruption effectively, Moldova needs both transparent governance and engaged citizens who know their rights and can hold the authorities to account.
Moldova’s president Maia Sandu was elected on an anti-corruption ticket in 2020. The party she founded, Party for Action and Solidarity (PAS), went on to win the country’s parliamentary elections in July 2021. But implementing the reforms needed to root out corruption and promote accountability at all levels of government has been slow. And on 10 February 2023, prime minister Natalia Gavrilita and her cabinet resigned, following a series of crises in Moldova caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“People were very hopeful when the government changed in 2021,” says Olga Diaconu, a lawyer with a passion for transparency and citizen empowerment. “They thought things would change for the better straight away.
“But there are many challenges in the field of governance. Many programmes and reforms are still trying to be conducted to combat corruption. Things are not going to change immediately. Under the circumstances of Russia’s war in Ukraine, tackling issues of corruption and the overall situation in Moldova have become even more challenging.”
Olga, a John Smith Trust Fellow (2017), is a project coordinator at the Association for Efficient and Responsible Governance (AGER), a non-profit that works to improve transparency and accountability at all levels of government.
“My colleagues and I would like to see public money spent more efficiently so that the needs of citizens are satisfied, and Moldova becomes a sustainable country,” she explains.
AGER’s work includes monitoring public procurement and educating citizens about how they can get involved in decisions that affect them. Olga is leading a project which monitors how public money is spent and raises citizens’ awareness about why this is important.
“We identify red flags and encourage citizens to speak up about possible cases of corruption in their communities,” she says. “When the authorities know the public is watching them, they’re more inclined to be accountable.”
Applying the law
In 2020, the Moldovan parliament adopted a law on public procurement in the utilities sector, for companies operating in areas including energy, water and sanitation, and transport. “Some of the companies and public sector organisations that are supposed to apply this law ignore it,” says Olga. “It’s not very well-understood. So we prepared a guide for them how they should apply it.”
Olga and her colleagues also talk to the authorities to understand the issues from their point of view and recommend improvements to the legal framework. “We organise roundtable events where we talk about the problems and look for solutions. We invite the Ministry of Finance, Agency of Public Procurements, National Agency for Solving Complaints and other authorities.
“They don’t take everything we recommend into account because there are many stakeholders, who are all are advocating for different things. But we’re happy when we see some of our recommendations taken into consideration.”
When Olga participated in her John Smith Trust fellowship in 2017, her action plan was to engage communities to know their rights and take part in decision-making. This grassroots approach was aimed particularly at young people. “My idea was to go to schools and teach children about legal education, their rights, and how they can get involved,” she says.
Olga met Rachel Jones from Justice and Bina Patel and Sarah Kilou from the Citizenship Foundation (now Young Citizens), to learn about the citizenship education classes they offer. She says: “I found out a lot about how they did it and how these programmes work in other countries. It gave me ideas for how we could develop in the future.”
She also wanted to find out about other ways to engage citizens in decision-making processes. With this in mind, she talked to David Onigbanjo, then the Organisational Development and Change manager from Thurrock Council. “I was very impressed,” she says. “On their website, they have a platform where people can write about problems in their communities, so the council sees them and can address them.”
Speaking up in schools
When Olga returned to Moldova, she ran courses in high schools, to educate students aged 14-19 about how the law works. As a member of Moldova’s Young Bar Association, she asked other lawyers to help deliver these sessions.
She says: “Before we went to the schools, we wondered how the students would receive us. Would they be interested? Were the concepts too difficult? But it was a good experience.
“For some classes, we used an interactive approach. We gave the students a case, with the situation and some legal provisions. Then we asked them to work in groups, as if they were judges, to solve the case. They were very excited about that.
“In schools, children aren’t taught about their rights. I think it’s necessary to start that even earlier. At Justice, Rachel told me they ran some classes for little kids. You’d have to prepare a special programme to explain these issues in a way they would understand. We haven’t tried it yet, but I think it’s important.”
Be the change!
AGER also recently implemented a broader citizens empowerment programme called Be the Change: engaged citizens – sustainable communities! which was funded by GIZ and the EU. As well as carrying out its own projects, AGER provided grants to 28 projects across the Centre Development Region of Moldova.
Many of the projects took place in rural areas that lack access to basic services, like waste management and sewerage systems. They included awareness-raising activities – like training events and community meetings – where people could have their say about issues such as local infrastructure projects.
“People learned about how they can change their communities by getting involved,” says Olga. “We were happy that some mayors from the villages took part in our events. They’re really trying to use the information they learned to improve their communities.”
Energy crisis in Moldova
Despite progress in some areas, many challenges remain. Corruption it is still a major problem and people are becoming disillusioned with the slow pace of change. Another issue is low salaries in the public sector, which make it difficult to attract and retain competent officials to implement the government’s reforms.
Added to this, the energy crisis has hit Moldova hard. The country was dependent on Russian gas and has had to buy more expensive alternatives. This has led to inflation and economic hardship.
Olga says: “It is very painful for many people in Moldova and has increased unhappiness with the government among citizens. They are trying to compensate people on lower incomes for the higher price of gas. But it is still very difficult.”
In this challenging context, Olga hopes that the government, led by new prime minister Dorin Recean, will continue its programme of reforms. “I also hope they will be more transparent and take the needs and opinions of citizens into consideration more,” she says.
“In this field, you don’t see the results immediately. It takes time. But I feel very proud when I talk to people and see we’re motivating them to be more active and get involved in decision-making. I’m most proud when I see that other people are trying to hold authorities accountable.”
Photo by Sarah Oughton.
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