Goodfriend shows solidarity with beleaguered Hungarian NGOs at press conference

October 10, 2014

CSO advocacy has suffered a significant backlash in recent years. This trend continued in 2013, with more and more evidence that traditional modes and channels of advocacy have become useless. Government-CSO consultations are top-down and only serve to legitimize official positions. According to CSOs, the state administration is not interested in CSOs’ ideas and opinions, but is only seeking friendly organizations to support its current policies. – The 2013 CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, pp. 92-93

The US Embassy in Budapest presented Hungary-related findings of the 2013 CSO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia Thursday afternoon. Commissioned by USAID since 1998, the Hungarian chapter of the Civil Society Organization index shows a deteriorating status of civil society in Hungary in terms of available funds, advocacy and legal status. The findings were presented by M. André Goodfriend, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy, and Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Foundation, USAID implementation partner in Hungary. During the event, Goodfriend briefly addressed recent conflicts between the government of Hungary and Norway Civil Grants recipient organizations, mainly Ökotárs. He said that government steps had “led to the intimidation of the civil society in Hungary” in recent months.

The index evaluates the situation of civil society on a 1-5 scale in which 1 stands for completely independent and 5 for an oppressed role. Hungary received the second-worst evaluation in the region followed only by Slovenia on the bottom of the list.

Both Goodfriend and Móra emphasized some of the deep-rooted problems with the situation of civil society in Hungary. As Móra commented, “In 2013, we wrote that there is a lack of media representation for various civil societies in Hungary and where was media coverage it was mostly in connection with scandals. This situation recently has changed, but the labeling of civil organizations as connected to one of the political forces in the country still continues.”

Goodfriend also thinks that the report’s assessment of the CSO scene in Hungary shows that independent private contribution is much in need, and that the enviroment leaves much to be desired.

“The legal framework in which the civil society operates also helps to establish whether they are able to receive support directly from the society rather than relying on government funds,” he said. “All of these aspects have an element of identifying how beneficial the environment for civil society is. My understanding of the current evaluation is that this environment does not validate for an independent civil society.”

Móra noted that recent changes in the environment, in particular the nature of state financial support as well as civil society’s decreasing role when it comes to advocacy, are among the main issues affecting civil society in Hungary. However, she emphasized that “Hungarian civil society is much more than simply the Norway Grants or the KEHI (Government Control Office) probe”, pointing out persistent key tendencies that produced last year’s low evaluation.

Besides being the administrator of Norway Civil Grants, Ökotárs has cooperated with USAID as an implementing partner in Hungary since 2012. They have been collecting data and preparing the index for Hungary for USAID since 1997.

The Hungarian press has noted that the release of the annual report does not normally attract this level of press attention, and considers the joint press conference a “demonstration of solidarity” with  Ökotárs as well as with other civil organizations under pressure from the government.

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