At the end of 2014 he condemned the government in a number of articles appearing in the columns of the Budapest Beacon. The other paper he operates with journalists who used to work for Origo, abcug.hu, brings home the situation with regard to poverty in Hungary. The American businessman and philanthropist, Richard Field, supported Mária Seres’s movement and then LMP. In the interview given to our paper he explains where he expects credible opposition figures to come from, why he thinks the government falsifies facts, how it is in everyone’s power to do something about child hunger, and whether there will ever be a statue of him in Hungary.
hvg.hu: We caught up with you in the United States. Aren’t you afraid the government will ban you from Hungary in response to the US travel ban?
Richard Field: I don’t believe I have done anything that would warrant my being banned from the country, but naturally the decision doesn’t depend on me.
hvg.hu: The government’s relationship with America couldn’t be more tense. It regards nearly every Western civil organization active in Hungary with suspicion. Moreover, it has considered you a national security risk since 2012. What is it that keeps you here?
R. F.: The American House Foundation, whose mission is to help East and Central European civil organizations providing support to the poor. Our activities to date have been focused on Hungary. The reason for this was a drastic increase in Hungarians living in conditions of poverty and social exclusion over the past five years. The foundation’s activities are strictly humanitarian. It does not engage in political activities at all.
hvg.hu: Over the past five years the American House Foundation has contributed HUF 800 million to the Hungarian Red Cross, civil organizations, and local governments. The statistics attest to growing poverty. What experiences do you have regarding the extent of poverty in Hungary?
R. F.: We do not collect data and we do not conduct surveys. The food aid we provide is distributed strictly on the basis of need. But it is my impression that the past five years has been especially hard on single parent households with children, especially in those cases when the parent is not able to work full time.
hvg.hu: The question always comes up where the foundation gets the money if your companies active in the region are not profitable.
R. F.: Most of the foundation’s donations (more than 90 percent) come from real estate management companies owned by my family which are members of The Manor Group, as well as from individual donors.
hvg.hu: As is you provided us, you get a lot of letters from desperate people. Seeing their complaints what do you think of the government’s social policies?
R. F.: It is disingenuous of the government to tell impoverished local governments to finance social programs through the introduction of new taxes. Exactly what are they supposed to tax that would not result in greater unemployment or deeper poverty? What the government is really saying is that more affluent communities needn’t contribute to the cost of helping poorer communities. Meanwhile, the taxes paid by the middle and upper classes are used to fund public work programs and to build soccer stadiums. I have yet to read an independent study confirming that public work has a positive effect, socially or economically. I consider the new soccer stadiums a waste of public funds. At best, the government’s social policies are irresponsible. At worst, I would even call them criminal as they violate the EU charter of basic rights which, among other things, guarantees people the right to social security. I don’t know how Zoltán Balog, the Minister for Human Resources, can sleep at night.
hvg.hu: At the end of 2014 you wrote a series of fact-based, satirical letters to government officials in the Budapest Beacon. It is a little bit as though you were doing the job of the press, just like (US Embassy spokesman) André Goodfriend with his Twitter messages. What is your opinion about the Hungarian press?
R. F.: A number of Hungarian papers use satire to good effect, from 168 Óra to 444.hu, so I don’t see anything special in this. What is a journalist to do when a leading government official gives an interview based on half-truths, fallacious reasoning, and outright lies other than show the absurdity of all of it? The US travel ban scandal is a good example of this. If the Rosatom-Westinghouse conflict is behind (the decision to temporarily suspend six Hungarians from entering the US, including government officials), then why hasn’t the US banned officials from a half dozen other companies building nuclear power plants using Russian technology? And if, as the government claims, the USA is using the travel ban to pressure Hungary into signing the transatlantic free trade agreement, then why hasn’t Hungary expressed its reservations about the trade agreement over the course of the negotiations? The current government is not above fabricating facts and rewriting history, even recent history, when explaining its actions. However, nothing justifies purchasing shares in Mol or E.On’s gas storage facilities with money confiscated from private pension funds. Or paying EUR 55 million for a bank whose “reorganization” is going to cost (Hungarian taxpayers) as much as EUR 800 million. And I could cite numerous other examples.
The government increasingly tries to manipulate public opinion. Not content to control domestic public opinion, it is now trying to dictate public opinion abroad with the launch of English language websites, such as Hungary Today, and plans for (state-owned television channel) M1 to start broadcasting news in English.
hvg.hu.: Your other website, abcug.hu, continuously writes about dire poverty in Hungary. How do you see things? How much solidarity exists between that part of society which is better off and their poorer countrymen? How outraged are they by the poverty?
R. F.: Many Hungarians are of the mistaken belief that dire poverty only affects Roma (gypsy) families. While Roma families are disproportionately affected, there are at least as many non-Roma families living in poverty as Roma ones. I believe Hungary’s policies with regard to poverty are misguided. Instead of giving prominent Fidesz supporters state land and agricultural subsidies, it should give them to local governments and cooperatives engaged in labor-intensive agriculture. To the extent such cooperatives cannot compete, the government should support them by requiring certain public institutions, such as schools and retirement homes, to purchase fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, etc. from them, even if it costs more. There would be enough experts for the system, and an intelligent system of supports would enable them to be competitive.
hvg.hu: Hungarian society is stirred up, with one protest followed by another. How do you see these protest? Could a new movement or party grow out of it capable of running the country?
R. F.: A kind of awakening seems to be happening, especially among those born after the 1989 system change. Since Hungary joined the EU in 2004 more and more Hungarians have been voting with their feet, that is, leaving the country in search of better jobs, better education, and a better life. As a result of this, growing numbers are struck by the contrast between life in Western Europe and Hungary. Certainly there is a growing feeling of frustration with politics and politicians in general. And it was this frustration that caused me to support Mária Seres and then LMP in 2010. People are fed up with corrupt public officials. Unfortunately, the protest movement appears to lack direction, and certain protest organizers seem to lack certain leadership qualities, like perseverance. Still I believe Ágnes Heller is right that the next generation of political leaders should come from civil society.
hvg.hu: The legendary American civil pride is light years away from East-Central Europe. In addition, civil self-awareness is lacking in Hungary, and for this reason solidarity and self-organization does not work. Have you see changes in this regard over the past 20 years?
R. F.: The most pernicious legacy of communism is the notion that the state is responsible for solving everyone’s problems, because this is not the case. Governments exist to provide basic services, not to ensure that everybody has a university degree or a great job. Good governance involves bringing about conditions that promote economic growth and job creation, while providing people with the opportunity to recognize these opportunities. Good governments invest in the education of their own citizens and play an important role in helping the poor climb out of poverty. People don’t understand why politics tries to regulate their lives and are asking themselves whether they shouldn’t take matters into their own hands when it comes to solving certain problems. Former LMP MP Gábor Vágó hit the nail on the head when he called on the protesters to help a poor family or person. If every Hungarian with a full time job were to undertake to feed one more mouth, then 700,000 children would not have to go to bed hungry at night. This was the first time I heard a Hungarian politician tell the people that they are capable of doing something about poverty other than simply paying their taxes. So long as people think their ability to live well and lead fulfilling lives depends entirely on the government, then they will be easily to control and intimidate.
hvg.hu: You supported Mária Seres’ Civil Movement, and then the LMP campaign. In 2012 you offered to help Péter Juhász make connections in the United States. What do you think of these steps, and would you support a political party now.
R. F.: No. Mr. Juhász wasn’t willing to take the necessary steps to visit the United States as a result of an earlier drug conviction. For this reason I was not able to introduce him to potential supporters. Furthermore, in 2012 I publicly vowed not to support Hungarian political parties either directly or indirectly. And I have kept my word.
hvg.hu: Could the time come when you would play an active political role.
R. F.: No. I am not a Hungarian citizen. I am only interested in cooperating with civil organizations in their poverty eradication programs, and contributing in my own way to independent, fact-based reporting in Hungary.
hvg.hu: What do you think, will they ever erect a statute to you in Hungary?
R. F.: Only if I turned myself into an eagle!
The people of the plain today: Messages from below the poverty line
Impoverished people turn to the American House Foundation with their daily existential problems, whose associates deal with the following on a daily basis:
“For 12 years I was steadily employed. I worked from morning to night away from my children and my family! Despite this it often happened that I go to work for twelve hours without food, so that my children can have something to eat when they get home from school. Even then it often happens that they open the door to the fridge and then close it! At times like that my heart breaks!”
“We are now at the point where we are starving, because we often go to bed without dinner, or I only eat during the day so that our children can eat! I respectfully ask you to help us if you can.”
“Please help us buy a wood burning stove for the kitchen because I cannot afford it, and it is cold in the house all day.”
“On Thursday at 6 pm we suffered a tragedy. After being treated in the hospital for two days my brother died without warning. He had nobody other than my younger brother and myself, and for this reason we will be the ones to bury him, mostly me. The doctor is making an autopsy, and for this reason we still do not know the cause of death. But I have to pay for his gravesite in order to bury him between the two holidays because it costs money to keep his body in the hospital morgue. I am turning to you because Christmas is around the corner and we don’t even have money for bread.”