Stanislaw Sitnicki is an economist who lectured at Warsaw’s School of Planning and Statistics (SGPiS, now the Warsaw School of Economics) until 1990, when he was appointed director at the Ministry of Environment responsible for foreign assistance to environmental protection and for the preparation of Poland’s National Environmental Policy. He served as executive director of the REC from 1993 to 1996, followed by a term as manager of the Environmental Action Plan Support project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (1996–1998).
Sitnicki has been active in supporting public participation in environmental decision making, and was deeply involved in establishing the EcoFund Foundation in Poland to administer the debt-for-environment swap programme (1992). He was named EcoFund deputy president in 1999 and served as president of the foundation from 2007 to 2010. Sitnicki has worked on the selection, appraisal, implementation and monitoring of more than 1,400 projects related to air, water, climate protection and communal waste management.
What were some of the biggest challenges of the “transition years” that people today might take for granted?
Communication in general was a problem for NGO groups in the region, as were the different perceptions of the emerging transformations of the social and economic dimensions in CEE countries. From its inception in 1990 the REC has been a multilingual and multicultural organisation, and this unique dynamic has presented the REC with unique challenges and opportunities. Staff were recruited in several countries, including the U.S., with the majority coming from the CEE region. Team building was therefore a very real exercise.
Staff were provided with tailor-made training in team building and time management to develop the necessary skills and avoid conflicts on a daily basis. The ultimate goal was to shift the REC’s responsibilities for programming and day-to-day operations to the CEE staff members — who were supported and advised, but not replaced, by U.S. and EC colleagues. Volunteers also played a huge role. Young volunteers, eager to better understand both the environmental problems and cultures of CEE countries, were a core group of trouble-shooters that were called on to offer encouragement or repair flaws in a particular area of REC activity. The real challenge was to combine the experiences of East and West, and different skills and cultures, into one team that was eager and able to respond to emerging needs and expectations.
Which accomplishments during your tenure as REC executive director were the most significant and rewarding for the organisation?
In the early 1990s the REC’s activities in CEE countries were supported by a U.S. donation of USD 10 million. Four major initiatives were funded from the donation between 1990 and 1996: a grants programme for NGOs; public participation; REC initiatives; and an information clearinghouse.
The local offices network became crucial for making contact with potential grantees, but also for sharing environmental information and identifying problems to be researched and discussed on a country-by-country basis. Despite sharing common environmental problems, the CEE countries were not exchanging information and cooperating on addressing these problems, nor were they building consensus on how to solve them. Nor were the public engaged in discussing environmental problems and seeking transboundary cooperation. The local offices network, however, offered the REC access to local environmental experts, allowed it to overcome language barriers, reached local environmental groups with grant support, and upgraded project development and implementation skills. As a result, the REC has reached out to its member countries and become better known among CEE environmental leaders.
The network also assisted in making the environmental movement in CEE countries more organised and visible on a regional and European basis. Equally important was the achievement of a better understanding of responses to environmental challenges in the region. In 1994, the report “Strategic Environmental Issues in CEE” was developed in the framework of REC initiatives. More than 100 environmental leaders were interviewed in 10 REC member countries, and the collected opinions were used to paint a general picture of the environmental needs and expectations shared by citizens, businesses and governments in the CEE region.
How would you assess the REC’s role during your time with the organisation, and how do you feel that its experience and expertise can be best put to use today and in the near future?
The REC has provided valuable input on how to build civil society in former communist countries in the CEE region. Citizens were not expected to erase past damages to the environment, but instead to avoid new harms while expanding and reconstructing economic activities.
The REC did its best to assist citizens groups in organising themselves to lobby for environment-friendly legal regulations. Watchdog groups emerged to monitor the implementation of environmental legal acts and to enforce their use in practice. At the time, the REC was the only place in the CEE region that provided an independent ground for exchanging opinions and searching for more efficient instruments to protect the environment.
My hope is that the REC will continue the work it has carried out in previous years focusing on strengthening civil society, public participation, information sharing and training. I would also advocate for wider engagement with new ideas that combine values, stewardship and responsibilities among the younger generations for the future of our planet. Reaching out to post-Soviet countries to work together towards peace and a better environment would also be useful for Europe’s environmental future as a whole.
What special role do you see the REC region playing in a Europe-wide and/or global context in the years to come?
The REC has already decided its role in the emerging Europe. As with many other reputable NGOs, the REC has positioned itself as a think-tank, eager and able to be a part of any important initiative that can have an impact on the environment or resource use and resource efficiency. This is, to a great extent, because the REC is a project-driven organisation that is dependent on generating funds to deliver its “opinion” on a particular issue. While specialising in selected environmental problems, the REC has to follow processes within which financial means are available to run projects. Among other consulting organisations, both public and private, it competes by offering a better price, or better quality of work, or a better level of understanding of the CEE region’s environmental problems. To play this role in a Europe-wide context, the REC needs more freedom and stabilisation, which can only be based — at a minimum — on financial independence. Therefore, it would be advisable for the REC to turn to its initial founders and business partners and to consider establishing a capital fund, which could allow the REC to undertake more independent studies in environmental protection and ecosystem management, as well as to be more proactive while offering expert advice and training.
What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
The REC was established to help countries work together from their communist past and towards civil society and civic responsibility.
“Environment” was chosen as the area where problems inherited from the communist past were the most identifiable and widespread. The first five years of REC activities in the CEE region were combined with the economic and social reconstruction of communities, and with conceptual and cultural catching up with Western economies. There were voices at the time indicating the need for foreign assistance to first address economic hardship and deteriorating living conditions, rather than environment, education and training. Also, the lack of an NGO network in the CEE region made things difficult for the REC at the beginning. There was even a time when the name “REC” was replaced by its opponents in the West with “WREC”, which betrayed mistrust and a lack of confidence. Fortunately, the Hungarian Government took a decision to establish the REC, with financial support from the U.S., the EU and other member countries — and this turned out to be a great success that has been widely appreciated by the region’s NGOs community and governments.
Please can you share a memorable experience involving the REC or the CEE region?
The REC was an international organisation from its inception in 1990. Even with English as the working language of the REC staff, there were several languages spoken and heard each day in the original REC headquarters in Budapest. This mixture of regional languages and cultures made the REC an attractive place to work for Westerners, and the Hungarian language was the most evident. To communicate efficiently, staff members developed a type of “Hunglish” slang that could only be understood at the REC.
Due to a shortage of working space at the original Obuda headquarters, small group discussions took place nearby, where folk music was usually being played quite loudly — so there was this mixture of serious debate and gypsy music. The atmosphere of the old Obuda district was a valuable inspiration for young REC staff members in which to imagine and plan their work together on new and challenging projects. Discussions were carried on long into the night, and the next day some new concept might begin to take shape, depending on the REC’s existing human, financial and organisational potential. Some ideas won out and were brilliant — the Junior Fellowship Programme for instance, which the REC started in 1994. Young environmental leaders from CEE countries and former Soviet republics, including Russia, were invited to Budapest for a two-month period and provided with a tailor-made training programme on how to run a successful NGO campaign or project.