“Obviously, this government cannot stand criticism. It does not want its policies exposed. It is easier for government officials to marginalize and discredit civil society rather than engage in a debate about the substance of criticism. I don’t think this only pertains to civil society, but naturally it affects civil society.” – Vera Mora, CEO, Ökotárs Foundation
The following is the first of a series of articles based on interviews with civil leaders regarding the role and place of civil organizations in Hungary.
Vera Mora (pictured left) is the executive director of the Ökotárs Foundation, an NGO tasked with administering the European Economic Area (EEA)/Norway Grants program in Hungary. She became a household name in 2014 after the Orbán government targeted beneficiaries of the program in retaliation for Norway temporarily suspending the remittance of development funds to the government of Hungary. At the behest of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, government auditors launched an investigation into the use of EEA/Norway Grants in clear violation of international agreements. Falsely accused of malfeasance, the reputations of Ökotárs and a number of other NGOs were ruthlessly targeted by the government and the country’s pro-government media. Despite the seizure of office equipment, an audit by the Hungarian State Auditing Office, and a procedure launched to suspend Ökotárs’ tax ID number, Mora’s organization was cleared of all charges and continued to operate and fulfill its mission.
Mora says Ökotárs has devoted the past eight months to closing out some 450 programs funded by the EEA/Norway Grants, preparing reports, and finalizing a lot of administrative work. A number of other programs are scheduled to run through 2017, including twelve community programs in northeastern Hungary which provide training, mentoring, and small financial support to help mobilize local citizens in local matters.
Little cause for optimism
A longtime player in Hungary’s civil sector, Mora is not overly optimistic about the state of civil society in the country. She says NGOs are having difficulty adapting to the new legal environment created by the NGO law of 2012, the law’s subsequent amendments, and a new civil code.
“Trends affecting the broader circle of civil society organizations continued through 2016,” says Mora. “Instead of lessening legal burdens, these regulations have created newer administrative tasks for NGOs, and some organizations are finding it difficult to interpret certain regulations. The legislation continues to be amended quite frequently, so NGOs constantly have to be on the lookout to make sure they are conforming with the ever-changing legal environment.”
Mora says that aside from the regulatory environment, other legal changes have adversely affected the activities of NGOs providing services to various social groups in the fields of education, social work, and health-care.
“These organizations are finding it harder to find financing for their work and to maintain contacts with state institutions,” she says. “In the face of increasing nationalization and centralization of state institutions, these NGOs have fewer and fewer opportunities to provide services complementary to those provided by the state.”
Mora says it became clear in 2016 that very little EU development funding would be available for NGOs in the latest funding period. In many instances, NGOs find themselves competing with for-profit companies, state institutions, and churches for access to EU funding.
“This is likely going to be case for the coming years as well. NGOs increasingly need to turn to alternative ways of obtaining financing, such as crowdsourcing or soliciting individual donations. Of course, it is a long and investment-intensive process to build up a circle of donors or supporters. Some of these NGOs have only just now started this process. However successful an NGO may be at soliciting donations from individuals, they are rarely enough to sustain the operations of an organization,” Mora says.
NGOs struggling to adapt to new legal climate
“In my opinion, and I really don’t like to generalize, 2016 was a year of realization and thinking for Hungarian civil society. Many organizations have only recently come to realize, either in 2016 or over the past few years, that the changes that shocked civil society are here to stay. These changes are not transitional. So, they’ve realized they must adapt to a new situation. In many cases, organizations have had the same mode of operation for 10, 15 or even 20 years, and to change track and work in a completely different way takes time, thinking, and strategizing.”
Beyond the regulatory, financial, and operational changes to which Hungarian NGOs have had to conform in recent years, an increasingly hostile governmental campaign against them has also made things difficult. In 2014, the Orbán government launched a full-scale offensive against Ökotárs and other NGOs that received funding through the European Economic Area/Norway Grants program. Beginning with a war of words intended to tarnish the reputation of beneficiary NGOs, the government attack quickly escalated into an open assault on civil society which included government audits, police raids on NGO offices, and the seizure of property.
The fiasco threw Hungary’s bilateral relations with the Kingdom of Norway into disarray as the Orbán government drew sharp rebukes from the international community. Although in the end all charges were either dismissed or dropped, the government-sponsored witch-hunt, aided and abetted by pro-government media, caused irreparable harm to Hungarian civil society.
A wake-up call
With hindsight, Mora says a positive outcome of the scandal was that the publicity helped to educate the public as to what NGOs actually do.
“In many ways it was a good thing. It was a wake-up call. One of the key takeaways from that story is that the vast majority of Hungarians were still not clear about what NGOs are, what they do, what their function is in society, or how they help the common good. In a sense, the increased attention on NGOs gave them a lot of free advertising and helped them work on overcoming this gap. But this gap is still there.”
On the negative side, the fiasco also impacted organizations completely unrelated to the program, so much so that even smaller NGOs in the rural countryside felt compelled to distance themselves from the conflict taking place on the national level in an attempt to maintain good relations with the “local powers that be” on which they depend for funding.
“These organizations felt that they should keep their distance, that they shouldn’t be so loud or speak out,” she says.
A silver lining
In addition to publicizing the activities of NGOs, the government witch-hunt actually resulted in a noticeable increase in donations for certain nationwide organizations. Mora says a conscious effort was made by some NGOs to increase their campaigning and communication with the general public.
“Major nationwide human rights organizations, such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and Atlatszo.hu made more efforts to cultivate individual donors. You can see that overall, based on the most readily available numbers of the personal income tax 1 percent assignment for the last two years, both the number of assignees and the amount of assignments have increased, which is not bad considering the fact that the personal income tax was lowered by 1 percent,” she says, noting that while the major beneficiaries of the 1 percent assignment continue to be organizations dealing with “sick children and stray dogs”, noticeably more is going to “human rights organizations and organizations committed to democracy issues.”
But why does the Hungarian government treat NGOs as adversaries? Mora says it’s because the government neither likes nor is prepared to accept any criticism, regardless of where it comes from.
“Of course there is criticism coming from civil society organizations. Pointing out or highlighting problems and issues in society, and making recommendations on specific matters where they see opportunities for improvement just so happens to be one of their functions. In this respect, civil society organizations will criticize any government of any color.
“Obviously, this government can’t stand the criticism. It does not want its policies exposed. It is easier for government officials to marginalize and discredit civil society rather than engage in a debate about the substance of criticism. I don’t think this only pertains to civil society, but naturally it affects civil society.”
An uncertain future
As for her projections for 2017, Mora says she can’t see into the future.
“I’d rather avoid making any predictions. Certainly, 2017 won’t be any easier for NGOs than 2016. I don’t want to predict whether there will be any further tangible or material changes that will affect the work of NGOs, but the discrediting of the critics will most likely continue if critics continue to raise issues.
“NGOs must be prepared to accept that their work will not be appreciated. But by now I think they are used to that, as frustrating as that is. You know, civil society is not a static entity. It is dynamic. Some organizations go away, or close down. New groups and organizations pop up and replace what came before them. People move about among different organizations and movements. Civil society is a lot like an amoeba: it moves and changes, it reaches out and changes its shape all the time. But aside from the more formal, organized civil society, there will be more room for, and more of a role for, informal and less organized movements and groups that have already been popping up, such as the Tanítanék [I want to teach] movement or the City Park Defenders,” says Mora.