Nyomtatóbarát változat
Central and Eastern Europe in the Limelight
Ilona Vercseg
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Information on the 'Building Civil Society in Europe through Community Development' - International Conference - Budapest 25-28 March 2004
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„Building Civil Society through Community Development”
International Conference, Budapest, 25-28 March 2004

Central and Eastern Europe in the Limelight

Dear conference participants, dear colleagues,

It is a great honour and responsibility for me to have the opportunity to share my thoughts and experience with you at this significant conference. I have been involved in community development since 1980 and during this period international work has always played a significant role in my activity. Though I have probably been chosen to speak here about our common Central and Eastern European experience it is in fact this area where I have the most modest experience, as we started to reorganise our contacts in the region only four years ago. In my paper I will try to avoid generalities, and instead will focus on a small portion of our joint work in the region and describe the experience we gained through carrying out our comparative research.

My presentation will consist of 4 parts.
The first part will focus on the conceptual level. It will describe civil society as the ideal and goal of community development, highlighting two important aspects of our approach.

The second part is an introduction to the situation in Hungary and to a certain extent, the Central and Eastern European region. It outlines some of the findings we had so far in measuring social capital. Where do we stand in terms of trust, co-operation and participation in our countries? We have taken the liberty of comparing our random local research with the data of the British nationwide representative survey. The findings highlight the tasks ahead, which takes me on to the third part of my paper.

This third part raises some of the issues in terms of the main tasks of community development in the Central and Eastern European region, and will raise questions for civil society, community development as a profession, as well as for decision-makers and sponsors, questions such as: following the practice of the previous political system that consumed social capital is there any new accumulation going on? What tasks do professionals and society have in this area?

The fourth part is about community development workers: are they philanthropic intellectuals who have a „sense of mission” and want to „raise up their people”? This role has well known traditions in Central and Eastern Europe. Or are they specialised professionals for whom the emotional attachment to community has a less decisive role and they apply a „rationalised” approach when they „animate”, „facilitate” the local communities or target groups through „technical assistance” towards the achievement of their targets?

1. Civil society as the ideal and goal of community development
In the centre of civil society there is the citizen. The citizen, according to Dahrendorf, “needs both attachment and possibility of choice to fully achieve his life possibilities” (1997). This approach is close to us because it incorporates the importance of security provided by the community and also the individual’s freedom, that is, the unity of community and civil society. If either is missing, that provides the grounds for the legitimisation of community development.

At the centre of another approach, we find, instead of the individual, civil society itself as a community result. Miszlivetz, who you will meet tonight, said in 1999: “Civil society is … a public zone, a sphere of solidarity, where various interests are articulated and confront each other, where conflicts take place between individuals, groups and organisations ... Civil society is a relation of all these, a kind of reflexivity, not a collection of organisations. It is the mutual interaction that is important, that is what generates a force field in which… civil society comes to being.”

Citizens take part in managing their lives while participating in society’s interactions and institutional processes. As members of their community, they have a role in developing the social rules of their immediate surroundings. They are also willing to subordinate themselves to these community rules and possess the skills and knowledge required to carry through their intentions. A citizen “makes democracy”. According to Aristotle, democracy, first of all, needs free people.

Civil society and the citizen is the ideal for those seeking a better society, „a moral goal the achievement of which we need to struggle for” - says Miszlivetz. This struggle, however, is not justified only at historical turning points, such as the transformation in Central and Eastern Europe to the free, democratic, open society. For a variety of reasons, both the old and new democracies need to continuously fight for a strong civil society, whether the task is the establishment of democratic institutions or the handling of the crisis symptoms of the welfare state.

2. The strength of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. Comparative research into the social capital of the region

In an attempt to measure certain characteristics of civil society, the Hungarian Association for Community Development and its Central and Eastern European partner organisations found a suitable framework in the research focusing on measuring social capital. As a basis for comparison, we chose the findings of the 2001 British “Citizenship Survey”. We have extended our survey to 1300 citizens altogether, involving 7 countries and 11 local communities: three Bulgarian, three Ukrainian, two Hungarian, one Romanian, one Russian and one Slovak, and we compared the results with the data of the British representative sample. Our findings so far are as follows:

In terms of trust it appears to us that our region is undergoing a crisis of trust. Though trust between people and their neighbours is similarly high everywhere – despite big differences from country to country –, trust between citizens and their institutions is significantly smaller in the communities we surveyed than in the British national sample.
  • 40 % of those surveyed in the British sample believed that most people can be trusted in their neighbourhood, but this figure was 8-52 % in the surveyed local samples.
  • 80 % in the British sample trust the police, in our region only 17-49 % do
  • 72 % trust the courts, in our region only 16-36 % do
  • 22 % of the British sample trust politicians, in our region only 0-14 % do
  • 36 % of the British sample trust Parliament compared to 4-29 % in our region.
  • The picture is more encouraging in the case of local council, where our data were around 23-54 %, compared to 50 % in the British survey.

The situation is far better in the field of co-operation and caring between neighbours. Compared to the British 83 % - in the same surveyed sample - 51-79 % of people in the region take good care or some sort of care of one another.

From the point of view of community development, however, we found particularly valuable the answers given to the questions on the conditions of voluntary activities. These clearly highlight the need people would have for professionals who would take initiatives, mediate and provide support, who would help people with their communication with each other and with their institutions, provide information, help to find those who are in need of support, and would provide professional information for those who are willing to give voluntary help.

In the field of social participation the differences show more variety. In the activity of groups, clubs and organisations the last 12 months have seen similar or even higher statistics compared to the British survey in religious and church activities, child and youth programmes, but in the field of sports, health and social groups, the elderly, environmental, human rights, hobby and amateur groups and participation in local community or neighbourhood groups and citizen’s groups the difference is 4-15 %.

When we examine the Central and Eastern European regional data on their own, the highest level of activity can be found in groups, clubs and organisations.

The situation, however, is different when it comes to the participation in civic affairs, an area of special importance to community development. People surveyed in our random research generally seem more passive in this field than the Brits – with the only exception being participation in public meetings or rallies, which is 19-29 % in our region, while only 18 % in the British survey. These positive data can probably be attributed to the community development processes carried out in our surveyed locations. And here are some other aspects of the survey: during the last 12 months the number of those citizens in the region who turned to local and parliamentary representatives or officials was roughly half of the number in Britain - 26-57 % as against 82 %, far fewer people submitted petitions (0-8 % as against 58%). In our region 20-49 % of the people surveyed felt that they can have some influence over decisions related to their residential area, as against 43 % in the British survey.

Though the surveyed communities show a significant level of activity, it can be concluded that these are mainly religious, leisure, sports, cultural and social activities, and far less directed at the common good (though social participation can certainly have – and often does have - public implications). In some ways there is nothing peculiar about this, as during „socialism” it was exactly the public activity that was severely restricted, while the cultural and leisure type of activities were supported by the state through an institutionalised network of adult education professionals and cultural houses in each town and village. We could go into lengthy descriptions of our dissatisfaction, criticism, and reform attempts during those times, but the fact remains that this kind of activity became, to some degree, part of our culture. Public activity, however, did not, and the increasingly severe effects of this are experienced daily by the community development workers in Hungary. Frequently there is a gap between the sense of citizenship of the community development workers, their democratic initiative to encourage civil participation and between the reception ability of society that is going through a slow democratisation process, and this gap, in some aspects is widening even further. Democratic initiatives put in the limelight, almost demonstrate, the various risk factors of community action for the cautious, financially unstable, distrustful citizen, which can sometimes generate fear and even a kind of passive resistance. We feel that even now there is only a rather limited reception for democratic initiatives. The reasons for this are complex, but I would point out that neither the educational system, nor adult education or our daily practice provide adequate preparation and do not enable citizens for democratic participation as required by European standards.

3. Main tasks of community development in the Central and Eastern European region
As I highlighted in the first part of my lecture, in terms of civil society, the primary task of community development is to support people to become free. In terms of social capital, the task of community development is the conversion of the inherited ways of community life to active citizenship. We strongly believe that this is not just a professional-methodological question, but a more general task in the solution of which community development can play its part. The degree of its involvement, however, is highly dependent on the status of the profession in the individual countries.

One of the questions for the present and the future is to what degree our transforming societies are willing to make sacrifices in order to regenerate the damaged community tissues of society, to develop skills and functions which have not been able to enfold, to strengthen civil participation - or, to put it in a different way, to renew the social capital in the region and secure its extended reproduction in a more up-to-date way.

The answer that can be given to this question also has implications as to how realistic the attempts are to democratise our societies. If there isn’t a strong civil society, who will fight for participation in the preparation of decisions, decision-making and the control of the execution of decisions? Who will make democracy a daily practice? How can the conditions of professional support for community development be created? The most important of all these are:
  • an incentive-funding system which is based on local needs, and instead of short-term funding only it also supports development initiatives that can be achieved in the medium or longer term,
  • it is also important to have free adult education, accessible for all,
  • it is also indispensable to train and work with professionals who can provide specialist support with these processes.

We would need a multitude of local development initiatives which are worth following– instead of the current 10-20 cases per country per year - and as part of a social learning process we would need professional analysis and assessment of individual solutions, and a search for new areas of professional intervention.

We all know that community development and community work is directed both at adaptation and change. It seems to me now that we have to work harder for change.

4. Community development workers: „philanthropists or specialised professionals”?
As I indicated in my introduction, in the final part of my lecture I am going to talk about community development workers, and here please allow me to focus mainly on the experience I had in our country. As I get older and look back on my own and my colleagues’ work in Hungary, I can see that in spite of our aim to become specialised professionals, our activity, to some degree, has always had elements of philanthropy and a movement. The lack – to a greater or lesser degree - of a sense of citizenship, of civil courage and of strong civil society inevitably causes a shift into that direction. At the same time, this is one of the reasons why the impact of community development on social, political, economic decisions has remained limited. Modern, long term solutions that really involve a wide circle of stakeholders have mainly appeared in Hungary as exceptions or experiments, not as a general practice that would be supported by those in positions of power.
Civil awareness, citizenship, professionally supported civil initiatives, movements or organisations have often been able to operate only as a kind of „model experiment”, not as a general practice, therefore, even up till now, have rarely developed into new, professionally matured solutions which then could be rolled out and supported by society’s decision-making processes on a more professional and qualitative basis. Our social history has had long periods when we lacked wide scale civil autonomy and grass-roots organisation which, in their focal points, could generate social movements, civil activity and, at the same time, create a professional basis for shaping society. We could also put it in this way: in this aspect the development of the profession in Hungary and in Central and Eastern Europe in general was more the result of the initiatives supported by intellectual reformers than the result of wide scale institutionalisation of society’s operational and regulatory actions.

Our young colleagues in some ways are in a different situation now in Hungary and perhaps also in the region. Partly as a result of co-operation with Western partner organisations, they tend to follow the more modern and democratic roles of „technical assistance”. However, I believe that the long term acceptance and integration of this role will not be easy, even with significant external professional help. This is partly caused by the so often mentioned „democratic deficit” in the region, but also by the fact that this type of helping role has not been embedded in our culture, even if the deficiencies which it addresses are clearly present. A further factor to be considered is that the maintenance of this role, given its nature, depends on funding and resources. The question is often raised whether these are available in the required form and amount in the given countries and periods.

We believe that if we want these to be available and if we want to provide momentum for growth with a high social and community content, investments into social capital and community development are indispensable.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Ilona Vercseg
Hungarian Association for Community Development