D-effect - meaning, aims and objectives

Dear Sir/Madam,

We are pleased to provide some information and basic details about the D-effect project, which we are commencing under the INTERREG South Baltic program, with reference number STHB.04.01-IP.01-0005/23. The full project name is "D-EFFECT - CIVIC SOCIETY DEMOCRACY LESSONS, BRING A YOUTH PERSPECTIVE IN THE EU POLICYMAKING AT ALL LEVELS IN LINE WITH YOUTH STRATEGY 2022-2027". The project will be implemented over the next 36 months in Polish and international communities.

  1. Why this project name, where did the acronym come from, and what does it mean?

    The acronym of the project "D-effect" has dual significance. On one hand, it reflects the main premise of this initiative, which is to "rediscover" and implement the democratic social-civic effect and values of democracy at both local and international levels. In essence, we aim to strengthen democratic processes in the South Baltic member countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany through shared engagement, learning, and the promotion of ideas and methods like the local Youth Democratic Festivals. On the other hand, the name also plays on the word "Defect," which denotes something flawed or damaged, referencing the current political-economic situation and prevailing pan-European trends characterized by a significant crisis in democracy, especially among the younger generation. This interpretation is supported by reports such as "Freedom of the World 2019" and "Nations in Transit 2020" by Freedom House, which highlight a sustained decline in freedoms and civil rights globally over the past decade and a half. Each year, there has been a decrease in the global average score of the civil liberties index, with more countries experiencing declines than those showing improvements.

    In 2020, the mentioned report "Nations in Transit" noted, among other things, that Poland fell out of the category of consolidated, or stable democracies. Hungary, on the other hand, dropped to an even lower category than Poland, classified as hybrid regimes, increasingly approaching authoritarian regimes. Given that both countries were recently (after the 1989 breakthrough and joining the European Union and NATO) considered success stories of successful transformation from communist dictatorship to liberal democracy, one can conclude that the crisis of democracy is becoming particularly evident in our region. However, many citizens still find it acceptable as it does not cause significant economic consequences.

    In this project, we focus on lively lessons in democracy by building and engaging a wide spectrum of civil society. It was the youth who inspired us to give the project this title, as they were the first target group to clearly point out the alarming phenomenon of the current crisis of democracy—especially among the younger generation. On the other hand, the initiative itself is about giving a new "dimension" to the youth perspective and more broadly including all beneficiaries in our region in the processes of shaping EU policy at all levels in line with the Youth Strategy 2022-2027.

    2. Why is the topic of civic participation and building a youth perspective on democratic values important?

    After gaining independence, many post-communist countries in our region (such as Lithuania, Poland, Germany), and even those with well-established democratic attitudes (Sweden, Denmark), still struggle with the issue of values as well as low engagement and democratic participation of young people in social and political life. Politics remains unattractive to Baltic youth, and the political activity of young people is at a low level, as is the engagement of this group in social activism or civic participation at the local and regional levels.

    The attitudes of young people towards political issues indicate a development of diversity and a departure from a democratic mentality. Young citizens no longer rate their political knowledge very highly—only about one in four respondents believes they know a lot about politics. Two-thirds of respondents share, to a greater or lesser extent, the belief that young people should have more opportunities to voice their opinions in politics. Although respondents rate both managerial democracy and authoritarian leadership equally highly (63% approval), the majority of Baltic youth favor parliamentary democracy. Six out of ten respondents believe that voting is the duty of every citizen in a democratic state. However, one in four respondents is convinced that under certain circumstances, dictatorship is a better form of government than democracy. This has been confirmed by respondents in consortium projects such as CASYPOT and SB YCGN (publication: YOUTH CIVIC PARTICIPATION IN THE SOUTH BALTIC REGION), whose activities have inspired further work on supporting this target group and responding to its needs.

    Existing studies suggest that political participation begins with influence and engagement at the local level. The fact that most young people are still not interested in local and regional politics, not to mention international politics, is confirmed by various studies (Kalmus and Beilmann 2019). The lack of interest in politics is explained by post-communist disillusionment (Howard 2003), the democratic immaturity of many countries (Kitanova 2020), and even the impact of migration and low levels of ties with concerned communities (Borucisko 2021). For instance, in 2021, in OECD countries, fewer than 5 out of 10 young people trusted their government and still lacked a voice and representation in public life. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, young people in 16 OECD countries expressed their disappointment with the current state of democracy more frequently than older people.

    In the Baltic countries, the issue of institutional trust is similar. Over the last three decades since gaining independence, institutions have undergone significant changes, and the Baltic countries have integrated with international organizations. Nevertheless, institutional trust in bodies such as the European Union can be described as low, especially in terms of how young people accept and perceive institutions as unhelpful, incompetent, untrustworthy (in terms of the potential for activism and engagement), or finally accountable to them (Devos et al. 2002).

    The political system, democracy, and civil society are terms that young people hear daily, most often in schools during special classes, in public spaces, and on social media. However, these terms are not associated with their participation, practice, cognitive development, broader constructive dialogue, and action, or explaining the mechanisms of the system (democracy, the EU) through participation, co-participation, and co-decision-making. Currently, most formal forms of participation for young people hold little significance and essentially act as symbolic gestures. Moreover, the vast majority of young people fear public institutions, especially if they have negative experiences associated with formal education. This results in informal actions in public spaces, showing that young people aspire to be part of society.

    Starting from the premise that democracy is more than democratic institutions and written rules, but a culture that must be nurtured by creating spaces and platforms where people can physically meet, talk to each other, inspire each other, exchange opinions, and debate their ideas, we turned to network activities at the local level.

    Drawing from the experiences of countries such as Sweden (where the ALMEDALSVECKAN Festival and ALMEDALEN week are organized annually), Norway (ARENDALSUKA and Arendal week), Denmark (Folkemødet, The People’s Meeting), Finland (SuomiAreena), Latvia (LAMPA – Festival of Conversation), Estonia (Arvamusfestival, Festival of Opinions), Lithuania, and the European Democracy Festival in Belgium, we would like to learn from them and spread this idea. By creating a bridge between different spheres, we will enable people from various professions and backgrounds to meet to discuss ways to improve their countries, turning values into action. Civil society activists, entrepreneurs, government officials, ministers, and ordinary people will have the opportunity to meet in one place and time and freely talk about how to make their country a better place for everyone.

    These platforms for constructive political dialogue between opinions, ages, genders, and hierarchies will address all identifiable problems of local entities, showing the possibilities and strength of engaged youth.

    In this way, we also want to celebrate the year 2022, which is the European Year of Youth, a time to celebrate the post-pandemic period, to take on future challenges facing European society with renewed strength, especially for the younger generation. Using the above example, we want to support this age group and the entire sphere of organizations working for them in implementing such important grassroots initiatives. Just like the European Commission, which will coordinate a series of activities along with the European Parliament, Member States, regional and local authorities, and youth organizations to enrich young generations with new skills for professional development and increase the number of young citizens engaged in European society, we want to be a precursor of this positive change on a smaller scale in the Baltic Sea region.

    3. Democratic Festivals and the Proposed LYDF Method - Local Youth Democratic Festivals

    In response to the wave of criticism directed at democratic values and the tendencies of young people to move away from these ideas, we decided to focus on the practical aspect of building engagement with various communities and audiences. We want to involve young people in organizing Local Democratic Festivals, which will promote active civic engagement, a culture of discussion, and critical thinking, in response to the alarming rise of authoritarianism and nationalism in our geographical neighborhood.We must remember that democracy is more than just democratic institutions and written rules. It is a culture that needs to be nurtured by creating spaces and platforms where people can physically meet, talk to each other, inspire each other, exchange opinions, and debate their ideas. Democratic festivals support active civic engagement, a culture of discussion, and critical thinking in response to the alarming rise of authoritarianism and nationalism in our geographical neighborhood. They come in different forms, with various organizers, dates of implementation, and periods during which they are held, but they always have the same goal - serving as platforms for democratic dialogue between civil society, politicians, businesses, media, universities, and the general public. They are the largest democratic events in countries outside of elections.For some festivals, democracy is clearly embedded in the program. For others, the program focuses on topics and values that support participatory democracy, such as conversations and opinions. The goals and visions of these events are defined by the historical, cultural, and national context, as well as by the founders and the background of the festival's initiation.All Democratic Festivals have certain common features: everyone can join, admission is free, and events must focus on topics relevant to society.

    The nationwide Democracy Festivals strive to promote participatory democracy and social benefits. They offer free entry to participants and are open to all, emphasizing a festival-like atmosphere and expression. The philosophy centers around participatory democracy in an informal setting, with a focus on conversations and dialogue.

    One fundamental question these festivals face is the barrier between attracting high-level decision-makers or influencers and "ordinary" people. How can we balance space for politicians from political parties with space for other social actors? Moreover, how can inclusivity be ensured for diverse social groups to make the festivals relevant to everyone? There's no one-size-fits-all answer; each festival is unique and tackles these challenges differently.

    Take, for instance, the Almedalen Week, which epitomizes a democratic meeting place where anyone can join and co-create. Its relaxed atmosphere fosters a sense of inclusivity and importance for all attendees. Chance encounters can lead to unexpected outcomes, making it a platform for dialogue and exchange. Similar events have been established in many countries over the years, inspired by Almedalen's success.

    In the project D-effect, there's an effort to adapt these Democratic Festivals to smaller scales, enhancing local civic participation and dialogue. They serve as "local round tables" dedicated to issues relevant to specific community needs. The goal is to test and integrate these methods into the national and local event calendars permanently.

    Looking forward, the festivals envision contributing to a better world, aligning with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sustainable development is increasingly pivotal, addressing economic, environmental, and social dimensions. Each festival offers good examples of sustainability practices tailored to its context.

    Ultimately, these festivals aim to be inclusive platforms for all who wish to participate, embodying the spirit of open dialogue and mutual respect. They evolve and adapt to local and national contexts, fostering democratic values and societal progress.

    Focusing on maintaining low costs for accommodation, food, drinks, and transportation to and from the festival Making the festival accessible to less privileged individuals Emphasizing cooperation among residents and supporting the local economy Partnerships involving the private sector, state institutions, municipal organizations, associations, civil society, and volunteers Growing emphasis on ensuring access to organic food and providing free drinking water in bottles, etc. Free access to sanitation facilities These are just a few simple examples that can have significant importance, especially if we want to think about the long-term success of future Local Youth Democratic Festivals. Our ambition is for them to become an integral part of social and civic activities and to permanently integrate into the municipal/community/regional calendar as an easy and affordable tool for building the "spirit of democracy and participation" in our communities, engaging as many participant groups as possible.

    1. What is the project's objective?

    The project aims to permanently strengthen civil society organizations and their capacity to cooperate with local public administrations in the South Baltic countries, especially those operating in small towns. The project aims to develop civil society that values social diversity, equal treatment, and dialogue. The culmination of the activities will be organizing local democracy festivals and joint actions by the consortium to create guides and strategies for the future implementation and replication of LYDF - Local Youth Democratic Festivals in other Baltic Sea regions and Europe.

    Project implementation will enable the presentation of issues and their solutions in the public forum and meetings with local politicians and officials who influence our reality. Awareness-raising activities, study visits, debates, workshops, social actions, training, and discussions may be organized as part of the initiative. Additionally, a research team will conduct local qualitative studies in each participating city, including specialized interviews and focus group discussions with young people to understand their approach to participation and perception of democracy. Ethnographic case studies on participation conditions will be conducted, involving observations, focus group discussions, and biographical interviews with youth.

    Through the project, we aim to achieve:

    Better connection between the EU and youth: Increasing numbers of young people lack trust in the EU and struggle to understand its principles, values, and functioning. Deficits in democracy in EU processes are one of the reasons for growing youth Euroscepticism.

    Higher practical dimension and knowledge about democracy and EU values: Youth knowledge about democracy is mainly theoretical and does not translate into practical participation-based solutions.

    Development and cooperation at a transnational level among youth organizations: Stakeholders working towards youth democratization have not yet had the opportunity to exchange experiences and work methods at the international level.

    Creating space and participation for youth: Young people are underrepresented in decision-making processes. They need access to physical spaces in their communities to support their development.

    Development of more integrative societies in the South Baltic: One-third of young people in Europe are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Many of them lack access to social rights and experience discrimination.

    New development opportunities for youth from peripheral regions: It is important to ensure equality and social/political engagement of young people in both urban and rural environments.

    1. How did you manage to build such a large project consortium consisting of 21 organizations?

    Managing such a large consortium, consisting of 21 diverse entities including 12 full partners (4 from Poland, 2 from Sweden, 2 from Germany, 2 from Lithuania, and 2 from Denmark) and 9 associated partners representing local authorities, NGOs, and universities, is one of the biggest challenges of the D-effect project. We are united by dedication to the cause of building civil society and a desire to strengthen our local communities, particularly the opportunity to enable action and dialogue among the younger generation.

    We are most pleased by the significant interest in the project already at its inception stage. We received many inquiries, but due to program constraints and the application itself, we had to focus on the strongest organizations that could contribute the most to future activities. We hope that interest in the idea and concept will not diminish, and after the project activities conclude, we will be able to boast an even broader audience interested in continuing our work.