In 1980 Jerzy Pomianowski and friends set up an independent publishing house at Warsaw University, going underground when martial law came in 1981. They received no financial support from the West, but Denmark and Sweden sent them Xerox machines, dismantled to smuggle them past customs officials part by part.
“Then the big challenge was to reassemble the machines, because there were no instructions,” Pomianowski recalls. “So we developed some skills, and at the beginning of 1989-90 a few of my colleagues became professional sellers of Xerox machines in Poland, because they already knew their stuff.”
He took a different path after the fall of Communism, first joining the ministry of education, then in 1991 the foreign ministry. He spent much of his subsequent career as a policymaker and diplomat, including serving as Poland’s ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2002. Now he leads the European Endowment for Democracy, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to support people in much the same position as the sociology student he was three decades ago.
The Endowment was set up in 2012 by the European Union member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The aim was to give European Union-labelled support to democracy in 15 of the European neighbourhood countries (Israel is excluded). But it operates independently of its founders. “On the one hand it is a simple NGO; on the other it has this political machinery behind it,” Pomianowski explains.
This, he says, allows it to avoid some of the constraints facing bilateral donors and the EU in supporting democracy projects. For example, most bilateral donors cannot support groups that are not legally registered in their country, nor can they be seen to interfere with internal politics.
“Being an NGO, the Endowment can engage itself in those more sensitive projects, because we do not represent the interests of any single nation or any international organisation, such as the EU. And that gives us a certain flexibility.”
Many donors are also obliged by law to follow complex procedures for proposals and project evaluations. “That’s not wrong, but it still creates a gap when something quick is needed.”
By EU standards, the Endowment has moved quickly. Since August last year it has received more than 650 applications. Of around 300 reviewed, 43 projects have received funding, obtaining almost €2 million in direct support. Early grants included support for Meydan TV in Azerbaijan for broadcasting in the run-up to national elections. The Kyiv Post, an English-language weekly in Ukraine, received support within two days of applying, allowing it continue its work uninterrupted during recent unrest.
Fostering democracy has been a recurrent theme in Pomianowski’s career. From 2008 to 2011 he worked at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, running the Partnership for Democratic Governance. As deputy foreign minister from 2011 to 2013 he held the democracy portfolio and helped develop the Endowment as a Polish flagship project.
When the time came to implement the scheme, he felt it was natural to accept the nomination to head it. His role is to lead the organisation and in particular to liaise with its governing bodies. “It is also to connect the work of the Endowment to member states’ diplomacy, since I come from that world and understand their way of working.”
A major test of his diplomatic skills will be financial. The Endowment is an endowment in name only, and must convince sponsors to keep the budget topped up. And while all EU member states sit on the Endowment’s board, not all have yet contributed. “This is definitely a challenge for the coming years,” Pomianowski says, “and one of my roles is to navigate among future donors to ensure sustainable funding for the Endowment.”
Ian Mundell is a freelance journalist based in Brussels.
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