Aidex Voices

An interview with the founder of World NGO Day – the official calendar day celebrating the work of international NGOs, Marcis Liors Skadmanis, reveals why this international day is rooted in the Baltic Sea Region.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are generally placed on a pedestal for doing the work not being done by other sectors, while often also working to compensate for the damage done by those same sectors. In turn, they achieved a status founded on moral high ground. In light of the Oxfam scandal this year however, charities were declared as no longer ‘untouchable’.

On 27 February every year since 2014, groups and leaders around the world have celebrated World NGO Day. The founder, Latvian-born Marcis Liors Skadmanis is just 33 years’ old and as you can imagine, a passionate advocate of NGOs.

In comparison to western Europe, the NGO sector in Latvia is young, as the first organisations only emerged once the country had regained independence around 1991. In the first year of independence, 89 organisations were founded in Latvia, and 80% of all Latvian NGOs there being founded after 2004. 

In his mission to develop the NGO sector in Latvia, Skadmanis helped shape the definition of international NGOs in a research project for university in 2007. Around that time, the internet was not used as widely as it was elsewhere and some politicians were hostile to the idea of NGOs, believing they were anti-government.

Lots of innovations have emerged from Baltic countries by a generation of young people excited about having the freedom to catch up with the rest of the developed world; take for instance Skype from Estonia or TechChill from Latvia. Skadmanis ardently believes “young people must be the ones to develop innovations that work for all the sectors to enable them to work hand-in-hand”.

Skadmanis believes NGOs will be key players in helping future generations manage the rise of technology. Education technology embodies this symbiosis, take for instance Mumbai’s NGO Masoom Education which launched the Tech Wheels initiative in 2016; a tech bus that travels across Mumbai to improve quality of education and ultimately provide cutting-edge science and technology programmes to night-school students, so as to provide opportunities to pursue jobs in these fields.

Marcis Liors Skadmanis Age 10

Skadmanis owes his personal pledge to the NGO cause to growing up in a big family as the eldest of five. His early memories as a five-year-old were queues of hungry people yelling and fighting for food outside shops, a childhood which fed his desire to widen young people’s prospects not just in Latvia but around the world.  At the time, the country and its people were in thrall to the iron curtain and the demands of the Soviet Union, leaving it struggling financially. Many citizens, including an extremely young Marcis, lived a life in which poverty was an everyday reality. It was not until Latvia became fully independent in 1991 that things started to look up, with the country improving its position on the world stage after joining the European Union in 2004.

Years later, Marcis moved to the UK to continue his work in development. It was in the midst of the global and Eurozone financial crisis of 2009, when he was just 24, that Marcis’ determination to improve the lives of the world’s citizens led him to establish World NGO Day. This international day was designed to fit in the global calendar as a means to help find new solutions to worldwide development problems. Today, it is marked in 89 countries across six continents of the globe.

Calling for better partnerships between the private and charity sector, Skadmanis says the fact that corporate social responsibility (CSR) exists is reflective of the fact that the private sector relies to some extent on NGOs.

“Small organisations are becoming more relevant to the private sector wanting to fulfil their CSR, but there is still room for improvement, such as grass-roots tech organisations preparing young people for private and non-profit sector”, he adds.

When asked what he thinks about the impact of the sexual harassment revelations of household name charities, Skadmanis says sexual harassment, money laundering, fake NGOs, are not acceptable in the third sector. NGOs have a responsibility to be transparent, honest, accountable, and ethical; they must give out accurate information, and not manipulate situations for the personal benefit of their boards and staff. It is important that NGOs discuss their problems, and are honest with themselves or their members, partners, donors and wider society.

“Hopefully organisation’s will take this as a lesson learnt and implement better policies”, he says earnestly.  

Worldwide, there are an estimated 10 million non-governmental organisations which will be in excess of 20 million by 2030. The sector is ever-growing as organisations adapt to the general public’s need for better transparency and accountability. 

Free from an oppressive Soviet-era, even though the NGO sector is relatively young in Latvia, the number of organisations has increased each year. After regaining the second independence in 1991, it reached 21,756 organisations in 2017. According to the data of the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, only 11,112 organisations or 53.9% of their total were active. These figures leave Skadmanis aware of the need to continue pushing for support for World NGO Day, which at its heart brings high profile leaders across all sectors to encourage people of all ages to engage in charity work and to work together for positive social impact. After all, in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), substantial innovation and investment is required which can only work through effective partnerships and collaboration between the private, NGO and governmental sectors.

World NGO Day is a partner of AidEx 2018, which takes place on November 14 and 16 this year at Brussels Expo in Belgium. This year’s theme is ‘Revolution in the digital age: safeguarding for a better future for all. How can technology contribute to a positive social impact?’. Registration will open soon.