Russia and the Newly Independent States

Nongovernmental Ogres? How Feminist NGOs Undermine Women in Postsocialist Eastern Europe

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 8, Issue 3, May 2006

By Kristen Ghodsee1

Just two blocks from Vitosha Street in downtown Sofia are the offices and information center of one of the premier women’s NGOs in Bulgaria. The building itself is rather humble; the stairwell is dirty and worn. I walk up four flights of stairs because there is no elevator. The office, like most in Bulgaria, is a converted apartment. The lobby/library area is the information center – a relatively large room with two modern couches and a low coffee-table cluttered with brochures, magazines, and ashtrays. On one wall of the room is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with binders and books in Bulgarian, German, and English about women’s issues. Against the other wall, there is an antique dining table now used as a conference table. It is also covered with papers, folders, ashtrays, lighters, and several open packs of different brands of local cigarettes. The five large windows allow the room to fill with natural light. UNIFEM charts on the status of the world’s women and other women’s empowerment posters provide the decor. There is an old photocopy machine in one corner.

The director’s office is large, with two wide windows looking out onto the street. A kidney-shaped desk sits in the middle of the room. The desk is covered with files, newspapers, and magazines. There is a catalogue from an office supply store and a stand-up desk calendar from the British Know-How Fund. Pictures of the director’s family are taped around the frame of the monitor of her desktop computer. The walls are bare save for a white-board listing the names of different international organizations and what I assume are application deadlines. Against three of the walls are bookshelves jammed full of magazine files with labels written in English: “Trafficking,” “Domestic Violence,” “Sexual Assault,” “Poverty,” and so on.

The director is an attractive Bulgarian woman in her early forties with dark, curly, shoulder-length hair. She wears beaded chandelier earrings that swing as she talks. She sits across from me behind her desk gesticulating with an ultra-thin cigarette. For an hour, I listen as she explains all of the projects that her organization has done in the past and how successful they have been at improving the lives of women in Bulgaria. She has complained about the ungrateful female politicians in Parliament who do not promote a feminist legal agenda and resist all lobbying attempts by her organization. When I ask about her “constituencies,” she admits that Bulgarian women do not care about women’s issues. “After 45 years of ’emancipation,’ women have had enough,” she says. “Women now do not care about gender issues. They are too tired to care about these things. We have to care for them.

“The strength of the organization,” she continues, “is networking. We belong to many networks. It is one of our main programs after the information center. We have created a large network of NGOs within Bulgaria and we belong to four international networks working on gender issues.”

She proceeds to tell me about a presentation that she recently gave on Bulgarian women’s issues in Helsinki. I ask her if she was in Beijing in 1995 for the World Conference on Women, and she tells me she was there. She has also been to Croatia, Poland, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and the United States for different gender-related conferences and trainings. Foreign donors funded all of the costs for her and a colleague to represent Bulgaria in these forums.

She spends a long time talking about the importance of forging international networks between women and women’s organizations. Although she knows that I am an academic, I feel that she considers me a possible source of future funding. Her presentation seems too rehearsed; her Western feminist jargon is too precise. She knows all of the right buzzwords and speaks perfect English with flawless political correctness. I feel that she is trying hard to convince me that her organization’s lobbying and training activities are valuable and important. Throughout her monologue, she sprinkles comments about the difficulty of obtaining funding.

“DemNet is already gone, and USAID is graduating Bulgaria by 2006. Many of the individual European countries are also deferring to the EU, but the EU funding has not quite started yet. These next few years will be very hard for us.”

“What about funding from Bulgarian sources?” I ask.

“There is no culture of charity among Bulgarians anymore. The communists took it out of us. Even if there was, people are too poor to make donations to NGOs. As far as the business sector is concerned, the new law on NGOs gives no financial incentives for corporations to donate to us, no tax breaks. The government will not give us anything. Our only hope is the international organizations, but many of them are leaving now.”

She begins to talk briefly about the political situation and the problem of corruption. I realize then that she has not quite understood how long I have been living in the country, and that I am married to a Bulgarian. Switching to Bulgarian, I give her several examples of the corruption I saw in the tourist resorts and drop the names of several high-profile politicians that I have interviewed. I also slip something into the conversation about my in-laws and the shrinking value of their pensions, and then I complain about the rising electricity prices in Sofia.

Slowly, the director’s demeanor starts to change. She, too, switches to Bulgarian and uses English only for words that do not have direct translations – gender , advocacy , lobbying , and so forth – or when I cannot remember a word in Bulgarian. At this point, I pull out my secret weapon: Bulgarian cigarettes. I ask her for a light, and she smiles.

“Very few of you Americans smoke,” she says.

Americans have the reputation of being openly hostile to cigarettes. Most Bulgarians, both men and women, smoke everywhere and at all times. American businessmen, advisors, and consultants have been known to ask complete strangers to put out their cigarettes in public places such as bars and restaurants where smoking is allowed. The reputation of American intolerance of smoking is such that many locals intentionally smoke twice as many cigarettes in the company of Americans just because they can. To smoke as an American in Sofia immediately marks me as different from the rest of my compatriots.

Smoking Bulgarian cigarettes, however, is always the real clincher. Imported cigarettes cost about four times more than their domestic equivalents. Most Bulgarians who can afford to buy the imported cigarettes (mostly American and French brands) do so as an act of conspicuous consumption. A handful of the intelligentsia smoke local cigarettes, not only because they are cheaper but because of a sense of national pride. Cigarette production is one of the few remaining viable “industries” left in the country. When I smoke these cigarettes (and I always make sure I leave the pack on the table so that everyone can see that they are Bulgarian), I have noticed that people start talking to me more freely.

“What do you see as the biggest problem facing women today?” I ask, exhaling a lungful of smoke.

Without a beat, she answers, “Unemployment.”

“Isn’t that a problem for everyone?” I say.

“Yes, for both men and women. But single mothers, women between the age of 18 and 25, and widows are the most badly affected by unemployment today. This situation is really bad.”

I pause and think back on all of the projects that her organization has been doing for the last seven years. “You don’t have any projects that are dealing with unemployment?”

“No,” she says.

A long moment of silence passes between us as we smoke our cigarettes. She taps hers on the rim of the ashtray, sighing.

“Nobody will fund projects for unemployment. Maybe there are some workshops and trainings for starting your own business, but the truth is that most small businesses fail after one or two months. The women are worse off after trying to start the business, because they are often in debt. I have heard of women who had to sell their apartments to pay for the loan they took to start their small businesses. Then they have no job and no home. This is not a solution. A woman is better off playing the lottery than she is trying to start a small business in this country.”

“But if this is the biggest problem for women in Bulgaria – and I agree with you that it is – then somebody must be willing to fund projects dealing with unemployment,” I say.

The director laughs at me, shaking her head. Her chandelier earrings swing back and forth. She crushes out her cigarette. She switches back to English.

“Look, Kristen,” she says, “Bulgaria needs foreign direct investment if we are going to develop out of this transition mess. I hate that word transition, because it does not mean anything if you are transitioning for 15 years. This is not transition anymore. It is just a mess. Bulgaria’s competitive advantage with America and the European Union is our cheap, educated labor force. High unemployment keeps wages down and makes us more attractive to foreign investors. Neither the EU nor the U.S. has any desire to see less unemployment here, because they do not want to see wages rise.”

Her telephone rings.

“Excuse me,” she says, picking it up.

I stare at her for a long time. She is right, of course, but I cannot believe that she would come out and say it so bluntly. She has obviously thought about this problem before. It does not seem to trouble her too much, and she seems surprised that I do not know how these things work. I glance up at the white-board of international organizations that she is applying to for funding and see that they are all in the West.

Soon after, we stand to say goodbye. I thank her for her time and promise that I will send some articles and materials from the United States for the information center. She shakes my hand and gives me a stack of brochures about her organization in English for me to pass around to my colleagues. As I turn to leave, she calls after me. “You forgot these.” She hands me my cigarettes, smiling. In English, she says, “We do the best we can.”

It was this conversation that made clear to me the disconnect between the lives of women in Bulgaria and the kinds of advocacy projects being pursued by the women’s NGOs in Sofia. These NGOs issue a steady stream of documents and reports. Statistics and “facts” about women regularly appear in the national media. Yet many women in Bulgaria reject the idea that “Bulgarian women” as a whole have unique, gender-based problems. And women’s NGOs not only disregard the fundamental problems, but may actively obscure them.2

* * * *

In the late 1990s, the Sheraton Hotel in Sofia was the epicenter of foreign consultants and “experts” sent from the West to assist Bulgaria through its period of economic transition. This was before Hilton and Radisson SAS came to Sofia, and the uber-luxurious Sheraton represented the only “decent” accommodation available. The hotel actually shares a building with the offices of the Bulgarian president; its tall ceilings towering over marble columns and floors are palatial. On the velvet upholstered chairs in the lobby or in the Las Vegas-style Capital Bar and Diner, the experts would meet to share observations about the country and compare their strategies for the liberalization of the Bulgarian economy.

These consultants in the Sheraton were part of a much larger phenomenon. After the unexpected collapse of communism in 1989, billions of dollars in aid and assistance flowed from the United States and Western Europe into the former Eastern bloc. These men and women in the Sheraton were part of an army of advisors that descended into capital cities to fashion the foundations of capitalism and liberal democracy from scratch.3 These consultants brought with them the ideological “tool kits” of capitalism – thorough but untested blueprints for how to “transition” these societies away from communism. The proper institutions and legal frameworks needed to be put in place in order to secure the way for the eager foreign “investors” who would soon start carving up the spoils of socialism’s demise. This was “capitalism-by-design” at its very best.

During this same period, many Western feminists and women’s organizations also jumped on the aid bandwagon. The money was abundant. Women’s organizations undertook studies and prepared reports to show that women were being disproportionately harmed by the economic transition from communism. The majority of Western scholars who wrote about gender and economic transformation (on both sides of the political spectrum) painted a very dark picture of women’s position in the emerging post-socialist societies. They often cited gender-disaggregated national statistics from which they could draw the easy conclusion that all women in Bulgaria were worse off compared to all men.

Although well intentioned, these statistics distorted the situation of women in several ways. First, under communism and in the early years of post-communism, statistics were rarely disaggregated by gender. Once the National Statistical Institute began issuing the numbers for men and women separately, it was impossible to know whether the situation of women was actually getting worse, or whether the statistics were merely showing phenomena that had existed before the transition but never been studied. Second, because the statistics looked at women as a whole, the dramatic class differences emerging between women were erased by the use of averages that showed them to be more vulnerable to income erosion and unemployment. Finally, women in Bulgaria, as elsewhere in the post-socialist world, were more likely to be involved in the informal sector of the economy.4 Women’s income and employment was much less likely to show up in the official statistics, thus making it appear that women had been more negatively affected than men. Relying on these numbers alone would paint a very dark picture of the women’s position in post-socialist society.

Many Western feminist activists and NGOs really discovered the “plight” of their Eastern sisters after the United Nations conference on women was held in Beijing in 1995. Bulgarian women also became aware of the vast resources commanded by the international feminist community. Coalitions were formed between Eastern and Western women to help the Eastern women manage the transition. The capitalism-by-design model guided the solutions to the “problems” of Eastern European women. Each country was encouraged to reinvent its “national machinery” to deal with women’s issues; the sections and oversight committees were formed, but they were rarely effective because transitioning countries had more pressing concerns, and women’s issues were considered a low priority by post-socialist governments. The other “institutions” of Western feminism – the women’s advocacy groups, the gender think tanks, the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis hotlines, the women’s resource centers – began springing up throughout the former communist countries. Most of these entities were attached to local nongovernmental organizations either directly funded by large multilateral and bilateral donors or supported by Western women’s organizations subcontracted by USAID or the European Union’s PHARE Program to foster “civil society” in the region. Thus, donors hired professional Western feminists to produce what I call “feminism-by-design,” in much the same way as the World Bank retained consultants from the big international accounting firms to create capitalism-by-design.5 Just like the communists who tried to abolish private property by administrative decree, the international community tried to create a new “gendered” subjectivity virtually overnight by importing the “best practices” from the West.

Interviews with the directors and employees of several Bulgarian women’s NGOs in Sofia showed me just how dependent they were on external funding and how this dependence translated into an inability to set their own agendas. After 1989, “democracy-building” grants often included monies earmarked for promoting gender awareness and creating alternatives to the Communist Party-based mass women’s organizations. Nonprofit organizations, think tanks, law firms, and universities in the West began to bid on “gender projects.” If one of these institutions won a large contract from their government to provide democracy assistance in Eastern Europe, they could either send their own employees or hire freelance “experts” to provide the needed advice. In either case, women working in American and Western European corporations, universities, and human rights or women’s organizations were subsequently subcontracted as gender “experts” even if they knew nothing about the region or its communist past. These “experts” would fly into a country for one or two weeks and make policy recommendations to the government and newly formed women’s organizations. Since many of these women knew little about the local context, they came with prepackaged gender advice developed and tested in the Western countries from which they came.

Because of this, gender “consultants” who did not live in the country determined the study and documentation of the situation of women in Bulgaria. They knew what the relevant gender issues were in their own countries, and assumed that the same would be true for Bulgaria. These Western women would then make recommendations for what kind of policies should be implemented, and more importantly, which local women’s organizations were worthy of being subcontracted to carry out pre-designed gender projects. Thus, solutions to local problems were imported from abroad. Although some issues were culturally specific to Bulgaria, there was almost no room for the creation and implementation of homegrown projects and programs to deal with them. Because Bulgarian women’s NGOs relied so heavily on their Western “sisters” for financial and logistical support, the flow of ideas was only one way. The local women’s organizations that thrived were the ones that were best at doing exactly what they were told needed to be done. Certainly, not all of the Western experts were oblivious to local circumstances, and there was some valuable “knowledge transfer” done under these programs, particularly with regard to what was called “civil society capacity building,” or teaching East European women how the nonprofit sector is supposed to work. But overall, it was the Western freelance “experts” who benefited from these ironically named “exchanges,” raking in generous per diems and all-expense-paid explorations of Eastern European capitals.

This imbalance of resources often resulted in what has been called the “political economy of begging.”6 The concept originates in Africa, where different countries receive aid only when there are natural disasters, famines, droughts, or genocides. Western countries give aid only to countries that have “problems,” and it is in the interest of the politicians of those countries to play up their problems in order to secure more aid. In the world of NGO funding, countries that have the direst “women’s issues” tend to receive a larger share of the aid. Thus, it is in the interest of local women’s NGOs to play up women’s problems and downplay their successes.

In the early 1990s, USAID and the Open Society Institute in Bulgaria provided money for program funding to cover the start-up costs of forming single-issue NGOs: gender, ethnicity, environment, health, etc. As the 1990s progressed, most new funding to NGOs became project-based, meaning that the NGOs must now write grants to carry out only the specific tasks designed by gender “experts” at the grant-giving institution. Several NGO directors complained to me about the difficulty of securing funding for overhead and general operational expenses. They are always stretching their resources and capabilities in order to secure the next grant – a bureaucratic hand-to-mouth existence. The donors set the priorities, and the local women just spin the proposals out to meet those priorities. This project-based funding is one specific mechanism that creates a disincentive for women’s NGOs to come up with their own, original solutions to local problems. Even if they think they know how to solve a problem more effectively, there are very few places they can go to get a new idea funded.

Many women’s NGOs in Bulgaria have become distributorships for Western ideas about gender. As the vast majority of the Bulgarian population grows poorer and poorer, these women’s NGOs continue to focus on gender-specific issues in an economy that, even after over a decade of transition, still has a lower standard of living than it did in 1989, when communism collapsed. For most Bulgarians the major issues are unemployment, crime, and the increasing income polarization between the politico-mobster elite and the ordinary people. Despite this, a survey of national Bulgarian NGOs dealing with gender in 2002 showed that their “top priority issues” were “1) Violence against women, including sexual harassment; 2) Discriminatory employment practices; 3) Limited access of women to decision-making; 4) Unequal distribution and unjust treatment of unpaid labour; and 5) Negative gender stereotypes in education and sexist advertisement.”7

If you spend even a few weeks in Bulgaria and talk to women on the street, almost none of these issues would be mentioned. Indeed, the registered unemployment of men surpassed that of women in 2001, and Bulgaria had more female members of Parliament than any other post-socialist country. You would be far more likely to hear complaints about the rising price of food and social services, the shrinking value of pensions, the stagnating of individual wages, the decreasing employment opportunities, or the growing inability of divorcees to collect their child-support payments. Outside the offices of women’s NGOs, I never once, in the almost two years that I spent in the country, heard a Bulgarian woman discuss “sexist advertisements.” As they worked and struggled to keep themselves and their families fed, a few publicly exposed breasts here and there were the least of their worries.

So what is gained by focusing on these issues that pit men and women against each other and construct women as victims of capitalism? The shift from a class-based analysis of oppression to a gender-based analysis of oppression, as created and perpetuated by many women’s NGOs in Bulgaria, may have actually smoothed the way for foreign governments and transnational corporations looking to take root in the Bulgarian economy by preventing any form of class solidarity or collective bargaining that could put upward pressure on wages. Constant attention to the supposed challenges that women face in the newly liberalized labor market may have helped discursively create a category of people who can “naturally” be excluded from it. Since 1989, the Bulgarian government has no longer been able to guarantee full employment to all men and women. The onset of capitalism created severe unemployment for the first time. Theoretically, there were only two possible solutions – create more jobs or find a way to reduce the number of people actively seeking work.

Since many women’s NGOs in Bulgaria are informed by Western cultural feminism, they tend to view women as biologically or psychologically less competitive and more risk-averse, and therefore in need of extra help in the form of training programs and micro-credit schemes.8 Women’s “lack of success” in the labor market is not explained in terms of the overall weakening of workers’ rights and opportunities throughout the economy, but instead by women’s own inherent incapacity to compete in a free market for labor. This attention to women’s supposed marginalization erases the increasing marginalization of the majority of the Bulgarian people and undermines the possibility of class-based coalitions between men and women that might politically challenge neoliberal policies. Thus, more than being the representatives of a “civil society,” the NGOs may be the unsuspecting allies of Western states in promoting ideologies that support the expansion of Western capital into the region.9

One good indicator of how biased many of the women’s nongovernmental organizations are in favor of the ideology of Western donors is to look at the publications they produce and disseminate in Bulgaria. In one women’s magazine funded by the Netherlands Organization for International Development Cooperation, the editorial content is overwhelmingly about women’s antagonistic relationships with men in society. Most articles revolve around issues of domestic violence, prostitution, trafficking in women, infidelity, sexual performance, alcoholism, divorce, single motherhood, and child support. The majority of the articles focus on the struggle between men and women – the ways in which men lie, cheat, and exploit women for their own gain. Furthermore, although there was a Bulgarian version of this magazine until 1999, eventually it was published only in English due to lack of funding, and therefore became linguistically inaccessible to the vast majority of Bulgarian women.

Another example revolves around child support. Collecting child support is a major challenge that divorcees have faced since 1989. During communism, child support was automatically deducted by the state from the father’s wages and transferred to the mother. The shrinking of the public sector and the relocation of many men into private-sector employment has undermined this system. The courts are considered inefficient and corrupt; few women have faith in the legal system. As a result, many women no longer receive support from their ex-husbands. Since 1997, the Bulgarian government and the multilateral lending institutions have vigorously promoted the independence of the market from state interference. Consequently, the government has failed to pass new legislation regarding how women should collect their support. A handful of women’s organizations such as the Bulgarian Association for University Women are lobbying to reintroduce the state into child-support collection, since the “market” solution is obviously not working. But most women’s organizations completely deny the state’s role and continue to point the accusative finger at the errant fathers. Thus their ability to help women find workable solutions to their problems is constrained by the neoliberal tendencies of their donors.

In Bulgaria, many NGOs also promote micro-credit schemes for women or support women’s entrepreneurship, but they have met with limited success.10 Micro-credit schemes and micro-entrepreneurship promotion by NGOs assume that women are willing to borrow or work to pay for “basic needs,” needs that were once provided by the socialist state. Under socialism, these “needs” existed as the basic rights and entitlements of the communist citizen. Indeed, one of the most lauded achievements of the communist countries was the high level of human development. This was particularly true for women, who benefited from generous maternity leaves, free education, free healthcare, free or subsidized childcare, communal kitchens and canteens, communal laundries, subsidized food and transport, subsidized holidays on the Black Sea, etc.

In the post-socialist period, these rights and entitlements have all but disappeared. The collapse of communism in Bulgaria has relegated these rights to the status of needs for the first time in many women’s lives. It should be no surprise that micro-credit and women’s entrepreneurship projects are not welcome or useful in Bulgaria, where many women have not fundamentally accepted that it is their responsibility to meet these “basic needs” in the first place. Women in Bulgaria may have incentives to work for consumer items or to save money to travel abroad, but many are resistant to the idea of taking loans to start businesses to make money to pay for things that they consider the responsibility of the state. Bulgarian women prefer to seek political solutions, which has led to Bulgarian women’s dominance in the membership of the Bulgarian Socialist Party.11 Ideologically, women may be less likely than men to accept that things such as education or healthcare can be justly provided by private, profit-seeking enterprises.12

A newer model is “social entrepreneurship,” of which even the women’s NGOs in Bulgaria are skeptical. One report prepared by a local NGO claimed, “Promotion of social entrepreneurship is a new ( imported ) issue, meant as a tool for the development of a social services market, able to absorb unemployed women and men and to fill the growing gap in social service provision after the withdrawal of the State.”13 The concept of social entrepreneurship once again displaces the responsibility for what were basic rights in Bulgaria – healthcare, childcare, elder care, education, nursing, and other social services – away from the Bulgarian state and onto the “free market,” and expects that providing these services will be profitable for the unemployed. The model assumes that Bulgarian families are both willing and able to pay for these services, and that these services will be performed in the formal economy, two assumptions that do not match the Bulgarian reality. Most likely, women will have to provide these services for their families and communities for free. It is understandable that women’s NGOs are hesitant to implement projects promoting social entrepreneurship even if they are desperate for funding.

As these examples show, women’s NGOs that are overly influenced by Western funding, and “experts” do more to weaken grassroots opposition to unfettered free markets and the dismantling of the social welfare state than to actually help Bulgarian women. First, they ignore the women who have been successful after 1989 and place the blame for the drastic reduction in living standards for women squarely on the shoulders of traditional Bulgarian patriarchy. They deflect attention away from the three key actors primarily responsible for the disappearance of the social safety net that once supported women and their families: structural adjustment policies of the World Bank, the stabilization programs of the IMF, and the complicity of the Bulgarian government.

Second, the NGOs ignore that education and cultural-capital acquisition are the keys to women’s success, and that there simply are not enough jobs in the Bulgarian economy available to employ all Bulgarians who want to work. Instead, many women’s NGOs focus on the technical fixes of social problems and avoid tackling larger issues of economic injustice and inequality in society.14 Because of the project-based nature of their funding, women’s NGOs emphasize individual projects, which address specific goals, narrowly defined by the project’s funders. Community-based self-help projects are encouraged over national mobilizations. NGOs find it difficult to support broad-based social movements that challenge the status quo or that implicate class differences in the ever-widening gap in living standards.15

Third, women’s rights and women’s issues are once again being used as a tool to support the dominant political and economic system. Participation in NGOs that are entirely dependent on foreign funding breeds both cynicism and opportunism in the few committed women leaders who genuinely do believe that free markets and liberal democracy are more desirable alternatives to communism. In informal conversations, Bulgarian women activists complained to me that capitalist “civil society” is really not too different from its communist counterpart. Being forced to digest the rhetoric of international organizations and proposing only those projects which support “American or European interests” is really no different from being forced to regurgitate the Marxist propaganda once required under the old regime.

Most importantly, NGOs in Bulgaria co-opt educated middle-class women who might otherwise organize a solid, class-based opposition to free-market neoliberalism, the same way they organized against the communists before 1989. Instead, these women now scramble to write grants and reports and attend international conferences in Helsinki and Minsk. It seems that almost every other month there is some gender congress or workshop on the “problems” of post-socialist women that requires a Bulgarian feminist representative.

By focusing exclusively on patriarchy at the micro-sociological level, these Western-influenced women’s NGOs and the middle-class women who often run them help create the perception of the victimized woman, and indirectly benefit from that perception. For some, the business of looking after women’s issues has been lucrative. Middle-class women can make careers out of their “civil society”-building activities by emphasizing the problems women in their country face in order to secure the grants to “fix” them, despite the evidence that shows that some Bulgarian women are doing very well. In addition to the successes of women who work in particular sectors such as tourism, almost all of the classic indicators for gender discrimination in a society show no problems in Bulgaria. Bulgarian women outlive men; infant mortality for boys is higher than for girls; women have higher levels of education at almost all levels.16 Women have the right to own property and assets in their own name (which they can keep in case of divorce). Women enjoy longer paid maternity leaves than in most Western nations. In 2002, there were more female members of Parliament than in most Western European countries; there has been a female foreign minister (1997-2001), a female deputy prime minister (2003-2005), and even briefly a female prime minister (October 1994-January 1995). Nonetheless, Bulgarian women’s NGOs are forced to focus on such stock phrases as the “feminization of poverty” in order to attract external donor funding. But why would foreign governments and organizations spend money to fix problems that do not really exist?

And here is where we return to the idea of revalued cultural capital. One of the purposes of NGOs in Eastern Europe is to provide employment for displaced intellectuals from the old system, to allow them to adjust to the new capitalist reality. Because capitalism is dependent on meritocracy in order to justify its unequal distribution of resources, the new system must visibly reward those with excessive cultural capital even if that capital was acquired under the old system. Bulgarians working in the NGO sector have high levels of general education. In fact, intellectuals and academics run many NGOs. As in tourism, these intellectuals had their cultural capital revalued after 1989, because they could speak foreign languages and were familiar with the West (in this case, Western literature and ideas). But this cultural capital was not revalued by the unfettered international dynamics of supply and demand (such as the foreign demand for the Bulgarian tourist resorts), but instead by foreign states that provided funding for the creation of a civil society. In 2000, the UNDP found that “the NGO sector is growing not only because of the availability of a solvent and low-risk market as represented by donors, but also because of the growing unemployment among intellectuals. From its very origin this market is an export of services. Therefore, the NGOs sector has not emerged in a natural way, as a result of internal citizen needs; it complies with an external demand, articulated in the donors’ aspiration to stimulate civic society in Bulgaria.”17 The Bulgarians working in women’s NGOs have themselves admitted that one of the most important roles NGOs play is in creating employment.18 Thus, foreign governments have essentially bought out the intellectuals. Professors and academic researchers in almost all fields have been pulled into the civil-society sector by the attraction of high consultancy fees and opportunities to travel abroad for international networking.

Meritocracy justifies capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources by arguing that anyone – regardless of race, class, gender, or religion – can be successful if she has the ability and if she works hard enough. Formal education (or the lack thereof ) allows people to be sorted out into the haves and have-nots in a capitalist economy. If you receive less than a “fair” share of society’s resources, it is because you have somehow failed to meet the requirements for being worthy enough to have that share. Meritocracy deflects blame for injustice away from the economic system and places it on the shoulders of the individual. This allows the privileged to enjoy their wealth without guilt or concern for the less fortunate. The privileged believe that they achieved their wealth because they worked hard – they come to believe that they deserve it. Thus, in order to establish a functioning meritocracy, those with education and skills must be given a higher status in the social space than those who do not have education and skills.

What the idea of meritocracy hides is that education (not just at the university level, but at all levels beginning with preschool) is a commodity under capitalism. Only those already in a privileged position in society have access to the best educational opportunities, while the children of the less fortunate have to make do with substandard schools and underpaid teachers. Capable young people may be unable to get the right qualifications because they are economically beyond their family’s means. This is particularly true in a small post-socialist country like Bulgaria, where the state cannot afford to subsidize many scholarships. Certainly, this situation also holds true for many advanced capitalist countries like the United States, but what is different in Bulgaria is that this supposedly meritocratic system did not exist until the very recent past. Many Bulgarians believe that meritocracy is a lie, and they are angry at the deteriorating opportunities for social mobility for their children.

The need to prove the efficacy of meritocracy has meant creating jobs for the educated unemployed in the post-socialist period, because unemployed intellectuals are dangerous and may challenge the imposition of globalization in their country. At worst, they can be the vanguard of a new class-based social opposition to capitalism, particularly since many academics have access to large audiences of idealistic youth in their university classrooms. Moreover, if there are a lot of educated unemployed, people will cease to believe in a meritocracy and may begin to criticize capitalism as simply an unjustified, unequal distribution of resources to those who are the most immoral (like the Mafia). The Western-funded NGO culture thus creates a new habitus among the intellectuals, one in which the tastes that mark one as privileged have steadily become Western tastes that are in line with the logic of global capitalism, especially regarding consumption. Business trips taken to Western countries, stays in nice hotels, and relatively generous per diems allow those employed in the NGO sector to acquire both the experiences and the material accoutrements of “success” under the capitalist economic system, which may dampen their opposition to it.

Under communism, cultural capital was not an asset that allowed individuals a greater share of scarce economic resources.19 Indeed, intellectuals under the old system were frustrated with what they perceived to be a total lack of meritocracy – where political connections and age determined everything regardless of education. These intellectuals were the dissidents who helped bring communism down. According to Gil Eyal, Ivan Szelenyi, and Ellen Townsley, in Making Capitalism without Capitalists, these are the inheritors of political power, with their ideological commitments to free markets and liberal democracy. However, not all of the intellectual class made it into political office, and salaries for professors and researchers steadily declined throughout the 1990s. The salary for teaching one semester at Sofia University in 2002 was 250 leva, compared to the 600 leva that a maid earned cleaning hotel rooms for the same period of time. Almost every Ph.D. or professor I knew was moonlighting at a variety of different jobs just to survive. In one case, a professor earned her entire monthly salary for attending one afternoon workshop. Many others found lucrative positions as “consultants” to the projects of international organizations or started their own NGOs. The funding was easily available in the early 1990s. For foreign governments, whether intentionally or unintentionally, funding NGOs was a way to funnel resources to members of Bulgarian society with the greatest amount of cultural capital. NGOs bolstered the structures of the meritocracy necessary for the growing acceptance of class difference among Bulgarian women based on newly scarce cultural capital. The irony is that women’s NGOs may help to create the class divisions among women that the women’s organizations then help to obscure.

Given these critiques, there are several things that women’s NGOs can do to become more responsive to the needs of Bulgarian women, including the young women struggling to find their way in the new economy. First, these organizations must find ways to become more independent of funding from Western governments and Western organizations. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it is absolutely necessary if NGOs in Bulgaria are to gain any legitimacy among the Bulgarian people. This process may already be happening by default as foreign aid moves away from the Balkans and into Central Asia and other regions of the world that need “developing” and “liberalizing.” The withdrawal of these Western donors from Bulgaria may actually give the prominent national women’s NGOs the push they require to start listening to the real needs of women in their country. At the very least, the withdrawal may stop the constant stream of bad news about Bulgarian women emanating from the country in order to attract funding.

Second, women’s NGOs need to become more independent of imported Western feminist “consultants” and the generic gender-project templates they support. NGO leaders must realize that projects designed in the United States or Belgium may not resonate with Bulgarian women, and can actually hinder the ability of NGOs to reach out to constituents who reject the very idea of a “gender issue.” NGO leaders must be more creative in finding homegrown solutions to local problems. Of course, there are women in both America and Western Europe who have some relevant knowledge and are committed to helping solve the real problems of women and men in Eastern Europe. Some of these women remain dedicated to work in the region even after the lucrative subcontracted consultancies have disappeared.20 More equal coalitions between these groups should be encouraged based on mutual understanding, with women from the region taking the lead and women from abroad doing what they can to support a locally driven agenda.

Third, civil-society leaders and Western “experts” should recognize and accept the legacies of socialist feminism, and not continue to attempt to organize women as a biologically homogenous group in opposition to men. Women raised under socialism were taught to believe that working-class men and women are natural allies in their struggle against bourgeois men and women – bourgeois women and working-class women did not share similar interests. NGOs could instead organize women not only as women, but as professionals or students in sectors of the economy or areas of the educational system where women dominate. For instance, a professional association of receptionists would be a de facto women’s organization without the “gender” stigma attached to it. So would an association of maids or hotel managers. In fact, a professional association of tourism employees would be largely a women’s organization, generating projects and addressing issues that would primarily benefit women.

Another example would be to create an NGO to help young people prepare for the university entrance exams in tourism by coordinating volunteers to work as language tutors, creating a library of study materials, or simply organizing study groups among students. Again, a few men would take advantage of the services, but on the whole tourism programs attract an overwhelming majority of women, so much so that some programs have had to create special quotas for male students. NGOs could also be formed for exams in other subjects for which a majority of young women apply.

Once the organizations are formed, they can begin to lobby the government for legislative changes or mobilize political support for certain parties. While this approach to creating women’s civic organizations may not be ideologically in sync with mainstream Western feminism, it may be more successful at getting women in Bulgaria involved in shaping their own political and economic futures. In the end, this should matter most.

Finally, nongovernmental organizations and their leaders need to publicly challenge the negative effects of neoliberalism and agitate for change. If the post-socialist state can no longer interfere in the market, then NGOs must step in to address the growing imbalances in society. Women’s NGOs can play a very important role in the next generation, but only if they, too, are truly independent of the market. This means that NGO work cannot be a professional position, led by salaried employees of foreign governments. Their role, further, should not be to justify dismantling the welfare state, but to work against the most egregious excesses of free-market capitalism. Particularly after Bulgaria becomes a member of the European Union, those disenfranchised by an increasingly liberalized economy will be in desperate need of public advocates. Intellectuals and activists can then use their cultural capital to become dissidents once again.


1 Kristen Ghodsee has her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College. She is the author of The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (Duke University Press, 2005), from which this article is adapted by generous permission of Duke University Press. Her articles on economic transformation, development and women have been published in journals such as Signs, Women’s Studies Quarterly, The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, and L’Homme: Zeitschrift fьr Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft. She has won numerous fellowships to support her ongoing fieldwork in Bulgaria and has been the recipient of residential fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Copyright 2005 by Duke University Press.

2 There is an extensive body of literature on NGOs and civil society in general. For information on the role of NGOs and international aid in general see: James Petras, “Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America,” Monthly Review 47, no. 7 (1997): 10-16; and “NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 29, no. 4 (1999): 429-41; James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Globalization Unmasked (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood, 2001); Julie Fisher, Nongovernments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World (West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian, 1997), and “Third World NGOs: A Missing Piece of the Population Puzzle,” Environment 38, no. 4 (1994: 6-17); Michael Edwards and David Hulme, Beyond the Magic Bullet: NGO Performance and Accountability in the Post-Cold War World (West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian, 1996), and NGOs, States and Donors: Too Close for Comfort? (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997); Gerald Clarke, “Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Politics in the Developing World,” Political Studies 46, no. 1 (1998): 36052; Marina Ottoway and Thomas Carothers, eds., Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion ( Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000).

On the specific topic of Western aid to Eastern Europe, see Janine Wedel’s excellent book, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Aid to Eastern Europe ( New York: Palgrave, 2001). For information on NGOs in Eastern Europe, see Sarah Mendelson and John Glenn, The Power and Limits of NGOs: A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), and Democracy Assistance and NGO Strategies in Post-Communist Societies, Carnegie Endowment Working Papers, Democracy and Rule of Law Project, no. 8 (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000); Kevin Quigley, “Lofty Goals, Modest Results: Assisting Civil Society in Eastern Europe,” in Funding Virtue, edited by Ottaway and Carothers.

On women’s NGOs in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, see Laura Grunburg, “Women’s NGOS in Romania,” in Reproducing Gender, edited by Gal and Kligman; Rebecca Kay, Russian Women and Their Organizations: Gender, Discrimination, and Grassroots Women’s Organizations, 1991-1996 (New York: St. Martin’s 2000); Valeria Sperling, Organizing Women in Contemporary Russia: Engendering Transition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Gal and Kligman, Politics of Gender; Julie Hemment, “Global Civil Society and the Local Costs of Belonging: Defining Violence Against Women in Russia,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 3 (2004): 815-40: Elissa Helms, “Women as Agents of Ethnic Reconciliation? Women’s NGOs and International Intervention in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Women’s Studies International Forum 26, no. 1 (2003): 15-34; Armine Ishkanin, “Working at the Global-Local Intersection: The Challenges Facing Women in Armenia’s NGO Sector,” in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition: Nation-Building, Economic Survival, and Civic Activism, edited by Kathleen Kuehnast and Carol Nechemias ( Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2004).

For discussions of NGOs in Bulgaria, see Keith Snavely and Uday Desai, “The Emergence and Development of Nonprofit Organizations in Bulgaria,” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 27, no. 1 (1998): 32-48; Krassimira Daskalova, “Women’s Problems, Women’s Discourses in Bulgaria,” in Reproducing Gender, edited by Gal and Kligman; United Nations Development Program, National Human Development Report 2001: Citizen Participation in Governance from Individuals to Citizens (Sofia: UNDP, 2001); Snavely, “Welfare State;” Gerald Creed and Janine Wedel, “Second Thoughts from the Second World: Interpreting Aid in Post-Communist Eastern Europe,” Human Organization 56, no. 3 (1997): 253-64; Cellarius and Straddon, “Environmental Nongovernmental Organizations,” 188. Finally, for a more thorough discussion of women’s NGOs in Bulgaria, see Kristen Ghodsee, “Feminism-by-Design: Emerging Capitalisms, Cultural Feminism and Women’s Nongovernmental Organizations in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 3 (2004): 727-53.

3 Wedel, Collision and Collusion.

4 For examples from Hungary, see Szalai, “From Informal Labor”; and Fodor, “Gender in Transition.”

5 Ghodsee, “Feminism-by-Design.”

6 Manuel Castells, The End of the Millennium, vol. 3 of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998).

7 Regina Indjewa and Stanimir Hadjimitova, “Mapping NGOs Dealing with Gender Issues,” report of the Women’s Alliance for Development, 2002, (

8 Cultural feminism proposes that there are critical biological and psychological differences between men and women that are irreversible, and make the literal equality of the sexes impossible. In this view, men and women are not the same, and have different needs that must be met separately in order for women and men to achieve social equality. Cultural feminism as an ideology has been “mainstreamed” into societies around the world through its gradual integration into the bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and the thousands of local and international women’s organizations they fund. Cultural feminism is a convenient package of ideas for the promotion of a free-market agenda; it allows donors to recognize that women may be differentially affected by macroeconomic changes, and to address their “special” needs within the established status quo without challenging the logic of neoliberalism. Because men and women are so fundamentally different, cultural feminism argues, all women have more in common with each other than they do with men. This idea of a global sisterhood, however, erases important differences in power and access to resources among women of varying race, ethnicities, and nationalities. Previous critiques of cultural feminism have gone unheeded in the reconstruction projects of the former “ Second World.”

9 Theodore H. Moran, Foreign Direct Investment and Development: the New Policy Agenda for Developing Countries and Economies in Transition (Washington D.C.: Institute for International Economics, 1998).

10 Microcredit schemes extend small loans to groups of poor women. These women either use the money to meet immediate basic needs or invest in some small income-generating project that allows them to pay the money back after having made a profit.

11 In 2001, over 60 percent of BSP members were women. United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2002 ( New York: UNDP, 2002).

12 United Nations Development Program, National Human Development Report 2000 ( Sofia: UNDP, 2001).

13 Indjewa and Hadjimitova, “Mapping NGOs,” 12. Emphasis added.

14 Kevin Quigley, “Lofty Goals, Modest Results: Assisting Civil Society in Eastern Europe,” in Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion, edited by Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers ( Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000); Jenny Pearce, “NGOs and Social Change: Agents or Facilitators?” Development Practice 3, no. 3 (1993): 222-27; Clarke, Non-governmental Organizations.”

15 Petras and Veltmeyer, Globalization Unmasked.

16 For comprehensive statistics on women in Bulgaria, see UNDP, Human Development Report 2000.

17 UNDP, National Human Development Report 2000, 41.

18 Indjewa and Hadjumitova, “Mapping NGOs.”

19 For an interesting look at the role of intellectuals under communism see: George Konrád and Ivan Szelenyi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, translated by Andrew Arato and Richard E. Allen (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979); and Szelenyi, Socialist Entrepreneurs.

20 After 2003, most of the gender “experts” had already moved on to Central Asia, Afghanistan, or Iraq.