Restart Romania Challenge: Taking it to the Streets…and to the Web (Part 3)

As mentioned in a previous post, it was a big inspiration for us when 200,000 people got out to clean-up Romania last year, as was the later harnessing of the web for the Arab Spring.  We were not seeking an Eastern European Spring but what North Africa managed through web-activism certainly gave us hope for post-Communist Eastern Europe, where the artifacts of democracy may be in place, but where challenges to a truly open, fair and democratic society are endemic and deeply seated. While revolutions like those in North Africa can be about regime overthrow, in the places where democracy is tenuous, it can be revolutionary to simply craft a space in which individuals are able, empowered and encouraged to join the discussion.

Central and Eastern Europe’s environment leads many to question if citizen-based, Arab-spring type movements can happen here.  There is a deep seated lack of trust offline. Perhaps due to generations of encouragement to inform, studies consistently show most people here do not trust their neighbors.  Further, the slow transition to ‘free’ markets, and repeated disappointment along the way has seeded disillusionment.  There is an increasing lack of faith amongst the digital generations in government, democracy and/or their respective homelands which, in combination with the economic crisis, unfortunately opens the door to the rise of the populist, nationalist, and/or right-wing parties. One can’t blame the skeptics.

On the other hand, 20 years ago, citizens across the region banded together to throw out entrenched governments without the aid social media or even mobile phones.  And it has already ‘happened here’; the eponymous ‘Twitter revolution’ in Moldova 2009 being a case in point.  And at the time, Moldova was considered by many to be more closed than most societies in the region and certainly less ‘connected.’ Today’s Central and Eastern Europe is, on the other hand, incredibly connected and web savvy. For example, as just reported by the New York Times, with a sparkling start-up scene and a wealth of young talent, Romanian entrepreneurs, especially in the information technologies sector, are aiming for the global market.  A challenge like Restart Romania offers an interesting venue for the digitally savvy to participate, take some ownership and gain vision and hope about positively engaging in their futures. 

There is still risk that they will be punished should they become too effective but in these nominal democracies there is also the potential to beat the system through mass engagement.  Should e-leaders be able to mobilize the masses, they may affect serious change – though their challenge will then be moving from ‘burn down the house’ to ‘sit down at the table.’

In the dichotomy between public self-doubt and startups, it was interesting to see a constellation of allies emerge around Restart Romania. There was subset of the NGO world – not the more institutional perhaps, but the activist ones. There were the technology activists and the socially concerned programmers. There were foreign actors, like the U.S. and British ambassadors. And there was powerful support from business interests who believe that more transparent and free societies with strong rule of law are better for business.

Beyond the partners, the public response to the campaign was also surprising. The number and quality of ideas, the collaboration and sharing (including several ideas combining forces)… were all something we had hoped for but not expected.  On the way to Bucharest for meetings recently I heard two 60-year-old men talking politics on a small town Transylvania train-station platform.  Totally normal and I ignored it, until one said ‘Restart Romania.’ A few days ago, a friend who has been deeply involved in RR was at an annual activist gathering when the ‘first-generation’ of Romanian activists started talking about it.  She basked in the discussion as they talked about the ideas they wished they had time to submit, and guessed at the enormous amount of funding needed to run such a campaign (running bets were 8 times higher). It’s still to be seen if we reached ‘the people’ but we reached a few.   

Until we are done I hesitate to talk about the icebergs we avoided, but the biggest is probably political backlash.  We have been careful to encourage government efficiency, positive engagement and support processes which work for systemic change.  We shall see how difficult it is to retain our position when one of these ideas starts making real waves. 

We have helped build a close team of support for each project including a programming company, PR firm, business and soon, political advisors. They have begun building a constituency through their participation. Over the coming 6 months our team will continue to work with the finalists supporting them through our network, promoting their work in the media and offering a variety of training opportunities.

Will they all make it? No, but most startups don’t and these will certainly have more support than the average.   For the country as a whole, we hope these projects make some waves politically and socially.  We hope that Romania, which does believe in its IT&C abilities, is inspired to try more of the same with or without us.  We hope civil society reconsiders its connection with people and a year from now, deep in the middle of the Romanian election, we hope to see at least one of these platforms influencing the quality of the debate.

That is a lot of hope.  But it is a hope based on an increasingly universal, fundamental fact that wherever one can logon, there is the potential to disrupt the system of control and make or maintain room for the citizen in democracy.

by Chris Worman, The Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation and TechSoup Romania

This is the third part in my series.  My first post is here and the second is here (a focus on the possible impact of the Challenge). The introductory post by Daniel Ben-Horin is here. The NetSquared Blog here looks at Restart Romania from the perspective in the context of the challenge methodology we have been evolving at TechSoup Global through NetSquared challenges for the last six years.)

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