by Mateja Mihinjac
On June 1 of this year, 4265 tiny Slovenian flags appeared in the capital’s city park. The flags symbolised the number of lives lost in the preceding 12-months from the day the military jets flew over the country to celebrate the presumed “victory” over COVID. It was the day the Slovenian government declared the end of the epidemic following what the government claims were only 108 COVID-related deaths. Little were we prepared for what followed.
The sight of all those flags made me reflect with sadness on the unprecedented crisis over the past year. It also reminded me of the importance of local trust in governance – and good governance itself – to support the nation in times of crisis.
In the SafeGrowth movement, we put emphasis on building local trust and we teach problem-solving and community development with diverse teams within each neighbourhood. The goal is to promote democratic neighbourhood self-governance with the objective of creating safe, liveable, inclusive, and cohesive neighbourhoods.
Our focus is on individual neighbourhoods at a micro-scale. But this process can be difficult when there are large, macro-scale obstacles halting progress – such as poor governance and an intense distrust of those who govern.
I have blogged regarding public concerns about the Slovenian government and the misuse of powers during the crisis some months ago. While the current crisis has deepened distrust, for over a decade 80% of Slovenians have indicated low levels of trust in the national government and its legitimacy.
The OECD also reported a significant 20% drop in trust in Slovenian governance between 2006 and 2017. Conversely, in that same period, Poland, (also a post-communist country like Slovenia), has observed a 42% increase in trust. Clearly, there are things governments can do to create conditions of trust.
Low trust in Slovenia has been attributed to the perception of poor integrity, transparency, and fairness. According to OECD’s findings, the Slovenian government is much less open compared to other OECD countries, which impacts the levels of institutional trust.
When it comes to a functioning democracy, trust matters a great deal. It has been common to hear accusations that national governments have acted abusively and granted themselves special powers beyond those necessary to address the pandemic. Those accusations now have support from research that confirmed this creeping threat to democratic countries.
How do we move forward in such times?
As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, thoughtful and committed citizens are the key to progress. Others have added that organised collective action is just as paramount:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
I recently witnessed some bright moments of democracy prevailing. Just this past weekend an overwhelming 86% of voters rejected the new Slovenian Waters Act due to provisions that would permit construction in the areas where it could threaten natural drinking resources. The referendum – with the second-highest turnout in Slovenian history – succeeded due to extensive efforts and organised action by citizens and civic organisations.
Some issues also require democratic actions on a local neighbourhood level.
For example, very recently, in my local village, a group from the local community worked together to demand the removal of the company responsible for illegal waste storage in the neighbourhood. It demanded immediate action and the residents organised a news conference with attendance from the mayor, representatives of companies responsible for the waste, and the news networks. This collective action prompted the government to act.
The way forward is a commitment to change coupled with organised action. Those are excellent ways to address both macro and micro issues. This reaffirms our SafeGrowth philosophy that an organised approach by informed and engaged local citizens is the key to forward momentum and effective problem-solving with communities large and small.