Norway Grants mid-term evaluation praises Ökotárs Alapítvány

February 16, 2015

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“The selection of the current Fund Operator in Hungary has been an excellent one. . . . Despite extreme pressure throughout the months of investigations, the Fund Operator continued to show high level professionalism and commitment to realize intended goals and NGO Programme program implementation.” – EEA Grants, Norway Grants mid-term NGO evaluation, February 2015

A “mid-term” report prepared during the second half of 2014 by independent experts at the behest of the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway Civil Funds Financing Mechanism Office (FMO) in Brussels has singled out Hungarian funding administrator Ökotárs Alapítvány for praise, calling it a “model” for other fund administrators to follow.

CREDA Consulting, a Bulgarian-American company, reviewed EEA- and Norway Civil Fund-backed programs in 16 countries based on analyses of on-site inspections, interviews and questionnaires.  In its country report on Hungary CREDA praises the Ökotárs-led consortium for its “independence, experience, strategic vision, expertise and commitment.”  The report concludes that the funds were distributed in a professional manner that was completely transparent, and the projects it supported were well-grounded.

Ironically, the report criticizes Norway and EEA Grants activities in Hungary for not being adequately “supportive of pro-democracy initiatives, such as watchdog activities, citizens’ advocacy organizing and campaigning, investigative reporting, nor fighting anti-Semitism, anti-Roma and homophobia,” the very kind of advocacy groups the Hungarian government has criticized Ökotárs Alapítvány for supporting.

The report stresses the importance of continuing to entrust the administration of Civil Funds to the Ökotárs-led consortium.

The report’s authors note that the government of Hungary has been trying to intimidate civil society, and that politically motivated government inspections obstructed efforts to promote human rights and transparency.

Further, government inspectors (KEHI) had first audited NGOs supported by the Norway Civil Fund after Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) János Lázár tried to relegate administration of the Civil Funds to the PMO after the National Focal Point for EU and EEA structural funds, the National Development Agency, was wound up at the end of 2013.  When this was not successful, Lázár first accused the funds of being politically biased and then accused them of financial irregularities.

The resulting diplomatic fall-out with Norway prompted Hungarian ambassador to Norway Géza Jeszenszky to resign.

In January 2015 a Budapest court ruled that the police raids on Ökotárs and other NGOs that took place in September were unlawful.

Perhaps in anticipation of the release of this report, Lázár sent an open letter to Amnesty International last week warning that NGOs “are not above the law” and that he was confident “justice would be rendered” in the case of Ökotárs in the near future.

Last year the Budapest Beacon named Ökotárs Alapítvány head Veronika Mora “Hungarian of the Year.”   In light of CREDA’s findings, the Budapest Beacon hereby names Minister János Lázár the winner of  the 2014 “Liar, liar pants on fire” award, with deputy cabinet state secretary  Nándor Csepregy receiving a much-deserved  dishonorable mention.

The main report can be downloaded here.

The country report can be downloaded here.

Ökotárs AlapítványIX. Conclusions and emerging lessons on factors and challenges for achievement of planned outcomes 

(1)  The selection of the current Fund Operator in Hungary has been an excellent one. The consortium draws on the most experienced independent Hungarian grant-making organizations who work in close collaboration. Together they combine strategic vision and a value-driven approach with some of the most innovative elements among the 15 NGO Programmes assessed across Europe. The model provides the basis for some of the best practices presented, especially in terms of supporting active citizenship, addressing horizontal concerns and in promoting bilateral relations. As noted earlier, serving as Fund Operator has proven to be a high risk in terms of endangering the reputation, overall stability and legal status as registered NGOs. Despite extreme pressure throughout the months of investigations, the Fund Operator continued to show high level professionalism and commitment to realize intended goals and NGO Programme program implementation.

(2)  The design of the strategy is comprehensive and varied in approach. The 7 different thematic areas of funding provide a good framework for meeting the intended outcomes. The specific condition for macro, and to lesser extent medium projects, to transfer expertise and build capacity among smaller organizations and groups responds to a particular gap between the capital-based organizations and those in the countryside. The complexity of the approach allows the grants to have a wide outreach addressing the main priorities of the NGO Programme. Effectiveness is still too early to tell, but the intent is clear and being tested.

(3)  This assessment concluded that the selection process in all components of the programme have been organized in a professional and transparent way, in compliance with the EEA Grants procedures. Projects were assessed based on publicly announced criteria to ensure alignment with objectives of the call, adequate organizational capacity, innovation and cost effectiveness. Selection and grants processes organized by the NGO Programme in Hungary can serve as a good model of effective grant-making with public funds.

(4)  The two-stage application process seems effective. It encourages organizations to apply yet saves time for both applicants and reviewers when ideas or capacities do not fit the overall objectives and threshold criteria. It also created a reasonable volume for consultations and interaction in between the two phases, especially with macro project applicants given the more complex nature of these longer-term grants.

(5)  The NGO Fund Operator has an effective strategy with sound policies and practices.

(6)  Approval rates from initial concepts to contracted projects indicate that the selection process was competitive with high standards. Therefore, most of the approved projects are well grounded, have strong coherence with objectives, and clear prospects for realizing intended outcomes. Many of the project promoters expressed deep commitment to their causes. By introducing new activities and methods, they create important opportunities for people to come together and to make visible contributions in pursuit of the outcomes.

(7)  All project promoters interviewed stated that the Fund Operator’s guidelines and procedures were clear; that the system is generally user friendly, and lines of communication are open and supportive. There is also flexibility to adapt projects in a timely manner. Such quality and level of communication is conducive to capacity building, adaptation for maximizing results and improving reporting during implementation.

All that said, the NGO Programme is not without its challenges in terms of realizing the intended outcomes:

(1) The NGO Programme strategy is ambitious, yet the Fund Operator is confronted with time constraints due to the late launch of the program. The two-step application process and heavy workload of external reviewers also takes time, which does not allow for more pre-monitoring of organizations, which would be ideal.

(2)  The anticipated spending on macro projects in the first round was over-ambitious. This resulted in a reallocation of funds to future rounds. As a result, fewer projects of longer term scope and capacity building elements for smaller groups and NGOs were supported than originally intended.

(3)  The general context is not supportive of pro-democracy initiatives, such as watchdog activities, citizens’ advocacy organizing and campaigning, investigative reporting, nor fighting anti-Semitism, anti-Roma and homophobia.

(4)  The results framework is too complex and difficult to actually report against as many areas overlap. Basically the Operator and project promoters must discern and report on programmatic priorities, horizontal concerns, anticipated outcomes, 10% funding allocation requirements and ‘special attention to Roma’. The database of the Fund Operator is also not aligned or connected with that of the FMO, which creates double work on the part of the Operator.

(5)  Generally, organizations working in the priority areas are unstable; they do not have secure funding to pursue core strategies. Last, but not least, the government accusations and pressure through media attacks and investigations draw more time and energy from all those involved, while creating even greater uncertainties over the future functioning of the Fund Operator and many project promoters. This climate strains efforts to foster civic courage and creative thinking for advancing human rights, democracy and social justice.

X. Recommendations
1. For improvement of the current programme:

1.1 It is of critical importance that the NGO Programme in Hungary continues its implementation independently from the Government and operated by the current consortium.

1.2 Many adaptations were already made in the second round in 2014, and some new measures have been introduced, such as action projects to augment activities addressing horizontal concerns.

1.3 The Fund Operator could support learning among Selection Committee members and Assessors by sharing the results of monitoring and reporting on the impact of supported projects. This may help their future evaluation work.

1.4 Look into possibilities to assign resources for additional complementary activities on convening sessions for capacity building in methods and approaches, and in strengthening public relations and communications.

2. For the next financial period

Strategic recommendations (related to content, strategy approaches and priorities)

2.1 It would be important to maintain priority on democracy and human rights. Here capacity building for constituency organizing and interest representation will still be highly relevant.

2.2 Youth issues and empowerment of Roma are still very important, and both require capacity building for self-organizing and for leading their own initiatives.

2.3 Funding strategies should seek to foster local attitudes of responsibility for at-risk groups, including children, youth, elderly, Roma and people with disabilities.

2.4 Local community level is an important location of change for promoting and supporting democratic practices and active citizenship.

2.5 Explore potential multiplication of experiences with community foundations that support sustainable citizens groups and local charitable giving.

2.6 Consider adopting a regional approach among participating countries for cross-border support among those working hard to address democratic deficits; see how they can support each other, share experiences and inspire each other with ideas.

2.7 Balance support for innovation, creativity and adaptability with support for organizations to develop and pursue multi-year strategies.

2.8 Include focus on building capacities for effective public and media communications. It should be savvy, catchy, fitting and effective for communicating the purpose of the NGO Programme and role of the Operator and project promoters through their work. The methods should respond to the need to find channels to reach the general public other than traditional media outlets.

2.9 Consider alternative tools and means to measure capacity building results, including those that may reflect informal groups and small organizations.

Operational recommendations (related to management set-up, procedures etc.)

2.10 Ensure that the NGO Programme is run by a Fund Operator which is independent from Government and directly contracted by the FMO. There is a risk that the funds come under government control, which would greatly decrease the diversity of NGO approaches, and likely cut off core work on transparency, accountability and human rights.

2.11 Consider a direct invitation to apply as Fund Operator in the case of satisfied management in current and previous programmes. This may save time lost in negotiations that ultimately affect ability to realize outcomes.

2.12 The selection process with multiple layers is good. The current set-up provides for extra safeguards in standards and for quality assurance within and across the different thematic areas. Given the experiences so far, something like a reference guide and documented learning on ‘justified cases’ for revising recommendations of external Assessors would be helpful for all and improve transparency. In case of concerns, then the FMO should provide clearer guidance or parameters.

2.13 Consider increasing the management fee or the breadth of complementary actions, so that the Fund Operator has adequate resources for mentoring and coaching new groups with less experience. This would encourage fostering of new initiatives among people with good ideas, but poor conceptual and grant-writing skills.

2.14 Engage more closely with other donors, and consider organizing regular forums for coordination of strategies and support around the programmatic priorities.