The policy of small steps – experiencing local development

Author: Monika Balint

Monika Balint shares her experiences of the difficulties of change – both while transforming her organization from a political youth network to a local formal NGO, and the long term investment necessary to change the atmosphere in a local urban community.

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Ups and downs of civil society in Hungary
There are some aspects of the development of civil society in Hungary, which are unique to post-socialist countries. The political changes and peaceful revolutions of 1989 were based on the rise of new civil movements and organizations. In the 1980s, formal and informal activist groups and civic forums were organized in response to certain issues, such as the construction of the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Waterworks. Others aimed to initiate dialogue on the state of democracy and the possibility of change. These organizations had strongly political agendas. Many of them formed the basis of new parties, as the dream of holding the first democratic elections became a reality. Some former activists became politicians and members of the new parliament. The nature of this strong connection between organized politics and civil society has changed over the past twenty years. It did, however, have a strong impact on how civil society was rebuilt, as well as on how civil society organizations are perceived by the general public.

International funds, like Phare, and other organizations that helped to improve democratic conditions by providing financial and professional help for civil organizations, independent cultural institutions and fledgling charity groups played a key role in development in the 1990s. Their activity was perceived with both hope and suspicion. For many, these sources helped to start the process of improving social, ecological, economic or cultural conditions in the country as well as developing new institutions and their networks. In some cases these initiatives grew and became independent, others proved to be less sustainable and collapsed after the often paternalistic help of the state and international organizations was withdrawn. Skepticism was largely linked to a fear of being colonized, and concern that international interests would influence the development of Hungary’s cultural, political and civil spheres.

At the turn of the new millennium, when some political parties gained influence both in the economic sphere and the media, civil organizations also started to depend on party politics. This often did not help their development, and also contributed to the public’s perception of the sector. In some cases, corruption in the political sphere was linked to corruption in civil organizations. In 2002 party politics again strongly invaded civil society, when the so-called Civic Circles (Polgári Körök) were formed by Fidesz, a right wing party, after losing the elections. The Civic Circles aimed to question the legitimacy of the government, but the initiation of civil forums and groups by a political party shook the foundations of the sector.

The politically influenced and strongly divided media has also provided negative representations of the civil movement. Organizations have therefore had to find new ways of communicating to challenge misleading representations. When people started to lose faith in the political system, civil organizations had to think about the ways in which they can gain trust and show alternative methods of civic engagement. Information and publicity remain crucial to civil organizations.  

From a group of activists to an institutionalized organization
ZöFi – Hungarian Young Greens is an association of young people from different professional backgrounds who share an interest in social and ecological issues. The organization was founded in 2001 and has subsequently changed a lot, with many members leaving and new ones taking their place. At the beginning, it was a group of friends interested in green politics. Instead of official political activity and lobbying, ZöFi relied more on activism, street actions, protests, media hacking, printing fanzines, making documentary videos and cooperating with some, more radical, green and anti-globalist groups. This relatively informal activity helped to generate publicity, as well as attracting more and more members, supporters and partners. ZöFi is not a traditional green organization in the sense that it has rarely organized programs based directly on ecological phenomena. Our activity, as noted in the ZöFi manifesto written by Gábor Csillag, has mainly been reflecting and introducing an overall more ecologically and socially engaged view. We also provide examples of how this can be achieved on an everyday level, by making lifestyle changes and taking action. Therefore, disseminating information through different media actions, public events and education is one of the main elements of our activity. Unlike most green organizations, the majority of the members of ZöFi studied human and social sciences, communication, sociology or anthropology.

In parallel to the professional development of members, the core group of ZöFi in the past few years has changed. It has became more institutionalized, and started to develop long-term projects, and apply for large grants and financial support. We are still using the experience and know-how gained in the past, but the structure and the dynamics are somehow different. Our activities and institutional structure are becoming similar to that of other NGOs, rather than less formal activist groups. With this change we are facing new tasks, goals, and problems.

One of the positive elements of this development is that we have been able to create a stable office, and engage in long-term projects and cooperation. This needs more planning and work, and therefore some of us have become part-time or full-time ZöFi employees. The negative side of these developments is that the task of sustaining this new environment and work required by the projects themselves sometimes requires more resources than the staff and members can offer. For example the renovation of the office took almost a year and lots of voluntary work was needed. During this period many of us were spending our free time on this work, and not on developing new activities. As the work was not visible, we felt that we were also becoming less visible. This kind of work requires lots of commitment and in contrast to the street actions, does not give those involved a sense of instant gratification. These tasks do not represent a good opportunity to attract new members. Furthermore, the long-term projects are more complex and in many ways, they require a deeper understanding and commitment. The Magdolna program, for example, is something that might only interest a few people. In many cases, our activities do not resemble projects run by other green organizations. We are only able to delegate some tasks to volunteers, such as newspaper and festival work, and it is obvious at this stage, that we have to develop a new system of working with volunteers.

The organization is still open by definition, but its structure and operation is becoming somehow more closed and less appealing to young students and activists, who were our original target group. Realizing this problem, we had to develop new projects directed at students, and more recently we applied to an NGO for a professional investigation into the state of our organization, and help in improving it.  

Going local – from green activism to mediating in a neighborhood
In 2008 we opened an office and became involved in a long-term project, the Magdolna Program. Through its local development company, Rév 8. Plc., the local government of Józsefváros district 8. of Budapest launched a long-term regeneration program for the district. By dividing the district into 11 quarters, they have developed different plans for each quarter, with each gaining a new name. The quarter, which is geographically at the center of the district, was renamed Magdolna, after a positive-sounding local street name. Giving it this nice, female name was the first step in creating a new positive identity for this unpopular quarter. Magdolna is something of an experimentation ground. In this area local residents and civil organizations will work together to bring about change by improving social, economic and physical conditions. Effective cooperation between Rév 8. Plc and other participants is therefore crucial.[i]

ZöFi joined the project in response to an appeal for civil organizations to participate that was made by Rév 8. Plc. in 2006. Organizations from different backgrounds could apply for empty and run-down office space. The local government offered help in the renovation of this office space in return for involvement in the renovation process and organization of projects connected to the aims of the Magdolna Quarter Program, especially in community development. Although ZöFi is not a social organization, and has little experience in community development, its young members found cooperation and participation in the program challenging.


We knew little about local development, but we had a lot of experience in activism, generating public discourse and mobilizing volunteers. Many of us are also engaged in the ‘global education’ program – teaching schoolchildren and high school students about global social, economic and ecological issues from a green perspective. Civil engagement of the inhabitants in local issues and therefore civil organizations in the quarter are weak. Where most of the population is poor and face an everyday struggle for survival, participating in decision-making and in the improvement of the area are far from their priorities. Apart from offering a variety of programs for kids and young people based on our experience in global education, and lobbying for including green elements in the development program, we decided to propose tools that can meet some basic needs. Crucial elements of our projects are communication and publicity. Where a community has to be strengthened and an active civil sphere has to be built, the development of the public sphere is a must. Our experience in acting publicly was something we could offer to this community. We decided to start a new and independent local newspaper, where inhabitants and institutional partners can talk about their experience of the regeneration program, the positive and negative aspects, and their needs. Also we take part in and organize forums with other organizations. Through public art projects and cultural events we also generate debate, and try to attract the attention of not only those living in the quarter, but also of other inhabitants of the city, who might still have negative associations with the area. Some of the programs that we have so far found to be successful include creating gardens with local residents, organizing regular free markets and creating the Magdi local newspaper.[ii]

Experiencing change   
We have gained a lot of positive and also negative experience in the past few years. As we are still committed to the project, we have to have a clear idea of the areas where our help can be useful. ZöFi might look professional in some cases, as its members have their own professional background, but it is a civil organization. We are not social workers, or community developers, architects etc. We cannot take on the responsibilities of other public institutions or NGOs, but we can help direct those institutions towards the real needs of those people we have regular contact with.

Our personal experience shows that there are some problems which are almost constant and their origin seems to be structural:

-          Poor communication.
-          Poor levels of knowledge about civic rights and tools used to prevent them.
-          A clash between different institutional structures.

The bureaucratic structure of the local government is something that defines every move made by the development company, and creates barriers. The problem of poor communication stems from strategies employed by local government offices. Even if many people employed by the development company are sensitive to the needs of the people they meet during the program, their activity is restricted. Timescales also vary dramatically. The local government needs a year to make one decision, the organizations involved need a further few month to prepare their next steps and residents demand immediate action if a problem occurs, or if they have been promised something.

Many of the local residents have no knowledge about the regeneration program. Most people did not know a year ago that they live in the so-called “Magdolna” quarter, which is a basic element of acquiring any kind of feeling of local identity. People can support the program only if they have some information about it, and then only if they find its aims match their own interests or beliefs. Even civil organizations, which applied to take part and other partners, are rarely informed about the next steps. This is the result of both working with organizations with completely different structures, and poor communication methods. It took more than a year for the institutions involved to sign a contract on the renewal of the offices and the community development plans. It was only half a year later that the organizations could sign a rental agreement and get the keys. This setback in development brought six organizations closer together. After almost one year of not being informed, ZöFi organized a meeting of the six organizations involved in the development program. We contacted Rév 8. Plc and the local government and started to complain and show our commitment to start working. This improved the communication to some extent.  

The commitment of civil organizations can be seen in two basic elements: we were and we are ready to take on the fictional name of the Magdolna Community and use this name in our projects. We see it as a tool to clarify our target group and the physical boundaries of our activity. The name is fictional, but the houses and the people who live here, are not. The other element of commitment is some kind of restriction on our activity in this area, according to the needs of the community and the programs of other partners. That means, we can not push programs that do not completely meet the needs or the interests of the local inhabitants, and we have to inform all the other organizations about our future activities and plans. Furthermore, we have had to make plans together with some other organizations. These organizations have different backgrounds and professional knowledge, but similar interests. Communication between us is essential to avoid any of us becoming redundant. Both these elements are different from the critical and free attitude of the activist organization that ZöFi used to be. I think these self restricting elements are generated by a need for cooperation and can be justified through making the goals clear and carrying out conscious self criticism. These elements are required from other partners too. This is where negotiations about roles and tasks can start.  

There are only a few dozen people in the area who have the means to be active in public debates and fight for their own good. Different organizations, including Rév 8. Plc and ZöFi, organize forums on local issues. In most of these forums there are only a handful of people (in an area of 5000 inhabitants), and those who come do not represent the interests of all the groups in the quarter. In August and September ZöFi will start an investigation into this phenomenon. With the partner organizations, especially with social workers, who have lots of personal experience, we will try to find either new ways of bringing and involving people in these forums, or use other tools for building the local public sphere. 

It is hard to demand community development in an area, where the community has never been united, and in a quarter, which has never existed before. The society of the area is not one community, but this fiction will slowly start to become reality. As people find their own goals in the programs and find ways of connecting to it, these interests can create something like a community, integrating the different groups.

Breaking down barriers
Taking part in this long term program was, and is, a real challenge. After a period of merging with the new space and the new area, losing lots of energy and even members of the organization in the process, we have got to a point where the positive side of engagement in this local program is becoming visible. We are getting credit for our activities, and also our activities are much more visible by now. We are again able to involve new people in our work and increase cooperation with other organizations. Now it is clear to us that change cannot happen in a short period of time, but can be achieved through taking a series of small steps, while the position of every partner is reinvestigated again and again.

Self criticism, as I mentioned is an important element in this cooperation, but it is also important for the organization itself. We have got to a point, where institutionalization is not something we have to regret, and definitely not something we can step back from. Stepping back would be a radical decision, which can be made, but it goes against the structure that was recently created, with the material sides of the institution, and our engagement in long term projects. This engagement is something that can be fulfilled as I mentioned with a constant reexamination of our position, if we are to be aware of whether the steps we are taking originate in our aims, or are generated by external need. At this point, our position has to remain one of a mediator in this new network of people and organizations, helping barriers to be broken down. Parallel to this, we have to develop programs that are based more on the original, more universal aims of the Young Greens.


 

[i] The program and related data can be seen at: Magdolna Regeneration Model Program - www.rev8.hu, The Jozsefvaros Mid-Term Urban Development Program can be seen at www.jozsefvaros.hu. Sources of statistics include Rév8 and Studio Metropolitana: Regeneration in Budapest – Józsefváros, Magdolna Quarter Program information booklet 2007 and Magdolna Negyed servey by Sándor Erdősi, Rév 8. 2005-2007.

[ii] Details of some of the activities:

  • Creating gardens with the Gang group. Together with Rev 8., the activist group Gang, the Sun Club Foundation and local residents, in the spring of 2007 three gardens were developed as part of the house revitalization and community development program. The gardeners of the Gang group and ZöFi activists helped tenants of 2 municipal buildings to break the concrete in their courtyards and create gardens there. The gardens are still in good condition and are maintained by the inhabitants. Through the experience of working together on the gardening and renovation program, the tenants of the houses have created real small communities, and founded their own civil organization. ZöFi’s participation was well-received and we have maintained a good relationship with some participants.
  • Free markets: together with other organisations we regularly organize a free market (Cserebere Piac) in the new community center at Mátyás square. People can bring anything they can carry from their homes, which they do not need, but others can still use, and they exchange these items for no money. This is a program that answers basic needs, is easy to organize, and for many is a fun social event. During the markets dozens of people are able to get to know each other and us, the organizers. Those who are more well off usually bring more stuff, and those who have nothing to bring can still get a few pegs (instead of money) so that they can still take part, or wait until the last half hour, when there is no exchange, everything goes for free.
  • Magdi: the most important element in generating dialogue and strengthening local identity is the local newspaper we created, the Magdi Újság. The style is simple and resembles some of the fanzines that were previously produced by ZöFi members. The main elements of the magazine are portraits of people living in the neighborhood, who are not usually famous and articles on the regeneration program, future plans and everyday issues, some artwork, local history, and messages from local people. We have received a lot of positive feedback and have managed to collect local volunteers, who regularly write articles. In the first issue we had an interview with one of the tenants on the revitalization of the house she is living in. The Rev 8. Plc was a little bit shocked by her opinions, but fortunately it was the beginning of an active and constructive debate.

 

 


Mónika Bálint, is a sociologist, cultural worker, activist and project coordinator at ZöFi - Hungarian Young Greens. Her field of research is participation in art projects and community development. As a local activist she has been involved in different projects in the Józsefváros, district VIII. of Budapest. She has also worked on some additional projects, including the Magdi Fesztival, a 3 days Romani - Hungarian festival, which took place from 14-16.05.2009, Magdolna Quarter Community projects, with ZöFi- Hungarian Young Greens 2008-2009. www.zofi.hu and on Normal is different. (Bipolar projects) KIMI Budapest – Theather an der Parkaue, Berlin. (http://www.winterakademie-berlin.de), She was also organizer and curator of Filmpiknik, at the Urpan Potential festival, http://www.up-budapest.hu/


This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.

 

 

 


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