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Case study 4: Pécs: developing a social program for the city


The changing local government landscape in Hungary: is there a place for civil society?

Case study 4

Pécs: developing a social program for the city


  • Fanni Aradi | Member/Founder of AVM Pécs (A Város Mindenkié – The City is for Everyone)
  • Szilvia Bognár | Deputy Mayor for Social Affairs and Health
  • Ildikó Bokrétás | Member of EEA (Emberség Erejével Alapítvány – The Power of Humanity Foundation

The city and its context

Pécs is a second-tier city in Southern Hungary close to the Croatian border and the fifth largest municipality in the country. A former trading and mining town, it is today mostly known as a university city.

In 2010, Pécs was selected to become the European Capital of Culture (ECC), as a result of which parts of the historical center were renovated and new cultural facilities were built, including a concert hall, a library, and a new cultural quarter. As with most large-scale urban developments, the ECC heritage left the city with high maintenance costs for the cultural quarter that consume a significant portion of its budget.

In Pécs, Green and environmental civil society organizations grew stronger during the 2000s, when a series of demonstrations were held against the building of a NATO military radar on a nearby mountain, endangering the natural habitat. These organizations later served as the basis for a growing network of civil society initiatives that organized demonstrations during the 2010s, consisting mainly of student protests against the restructuring of the educational system (2012-2014), and anti-government protests after the government attacks against foreign-funded NGOs had started (2014-2016).[1]

How it started: the prelude for solidarity in action

The Pécs subsidiary of A Város Mindenkié (AVM, which was originally formed and based in Budapest) was created as a reaction to a September 2014 ordinance that criminalized homelessness in the city’s downtown and former ECC areas. Initially, an informal Facebook group served as the communication channel for activists and civil society organizations that had already been active in student and anti-government protests. To make the organization more formal than a mere social media group, AVM Pécs was established through the collaboration of a community organizer, funded by the Civil College Foundation (CKA, a nationwide adult education organization for community development) and the Open Society Foundation. AVM Pécs was officially founded in December 2015, and since 2016 has operated as a branch of the Budapest-based activist group. What makes AVM stand out is that consists of a mixed group of middle-class activists and vulnerable citizens who are directly affected by the issues it tackles. It mostly focuses on advocacy, informing citizens, raising awareness, organizing events and offering help to vulnerable groups, as well as seeking collaboration with other civil society organizations (CSOs) and local governments, especially in the field of housing policies.

As AVM Pécs is an informal group, it does not have the legal basis to apply for grants and funding, hence it relies mostly on donations, even though its activities are usually low-cost. To counterbalance its lack of financial resources, it maintains a close interaction with Budapest-based activist groups, such as AVM or Közélet Iskolája[2] and Utcajogász.[3] In addition, if often works together with local organizations such as Élmény Tár Tanoda[4] and Támasz Alapítvány.[5]

One of AVM’s closest collaborators is Emberség Erejével Alapítvány (the Power of Humanity Foundation, EEA) which was founded in 2006 and focuses on human rights development. Both organizations run several programs together. Erősödő Civil Közösségek (Strengthening Civil Communities, ECK) is one of the main programs that develops civil society networks in the region, financed by funds from the Open Society Institute (OSI). Sometimes EEA run campaigns, which the previous local government tried to delegitimize through political attacks in media outlets. For instance, the Élmény Tár Tanoda program does not receive any funds from the state, partly because of the government’s hostile approach towards organizations that receive foreign funding.

EEA’s goal is to develop civil society networks in the region. The OSI funds were useful to start investing in this goal, as our interviewees from EEA described the situation as much worse in neighboring cities such as Kaposvár or Szekszárd, in the sense that there are very few active CSOs. EEA mostly collaborate with newer CSOs, not the “traditional ones,” as Ildikó Bokrétás of EEA explains. In general, EEA have a good relationship with all civil society organizations, but with the “newer ones” they formulate joint strategies and engage in more frequent interaction, sometimes even on a daily basis. To foster the creation of a strong civil network, they run a co-working space for various civil society organizations, which often results in joint programs and common goals and demands.

Forming an informal working group

In 2018, a sudden change in the housing ordinance brought together several civil society actors and municipal institutions: to avoid the immediate eviction of 106 people from their homes, family support services and CSOs started to elaborate a package of proposals for the new housing ordinance. They also set up a temporary contract with the help of a social worker to manage the debt of the households in question. AVM was invited to join by the Hungarian Maltese Charity Organization,[6] and later, in May of the same year, an informal housing working group was formed with the local government, to formulate a unified civil society-social services standpoint.

At one point, the representative who linked the working group to the municipality suddenly disappeared, no decision was made, the communication channels were closed, and the cooperation was phased out in January 2019. The working group had met regularly, at least once a month, and completed a working paper that eventually never reached the local government’s desk. The participants included CSOs and, from the official side, the housing department together with the housing management department dealing with debt and financial matters.

In October 2019, after the municipal elections, an oppositional coalition took over the leadership of the city, which led to a reshuffle of the housing-related municipal institutions, forcing CSOs to rebuild their connections with new institutional actors. As part of its campaign, the opposition promised a more peaceful and inclusive relationship with CSOs. Nevertheless, the pace of change was slow and the process was marked by uncertainty.

AVM and EEA’s strongest tie to the local government was the deputy mayor for social affairs and health, who offered a deeper insight (compared to the former leadership) into the political processes inside City Hall and played an active role in pushing through participatory mechanisms. Consequently, civic groups have also been seeking more intense ways of cooperation with the new local government. The goal was to revitalize the previous informal housing working group and to work together with the public welfare committee. Just when the new processes of participation were meant to be established, the meetings became impossible to sustain due to the coronavirus pandemic, and had to be put on hold in March 2020.

Managing emergency social services for vulnerable groups

Nevertheless, during the months of March and April, the deputy mayor continued the collaboration and meetings with CSOs, to develop an action plan for countering the negative effects of COVID-19. The proposal included the fields of education, housing, homelessness, human resource regrouping and healthcare, and strictly targeted people on a needs basis (especially if they had been excluded from other existing social welfare services), coupled with the coordination of donations and the inclusion of community centers to help families living in segregated areas. A comprehensive proposal was created, based on statistics, research-based recommendations and the relevant decrees and regulations, with the aim of submitting to the mayor for his approval.

Instead, in April, the mayor announced, via an online information session that he organized to keep in contact with residents and civil society, that a “social welfare system 2.0” program had been developed. This happened without the input of the original CSOs and took them by surprise. The deputy mayor was also left out of the decision-making process, and the details of the program were as yet unknown to the public.

The CSOs were mostly critical of the new program, since it was not based on any prior known expert report. Instead of focusing on the most vulnerable groups, according to our respondents, the local government promoted a support service for the elderly during the pandemic, where volunteers helped pensioners with buying groceries or medicine and distributing masks. AVM and EEA have been ambivalent towards the program because it has been over-advertised and has so far only helped middle-class citizens, without offering any solutions for assisting marginalized people and those living in poverty. Meanwhile, the local government pushed this initiative as its main vehicle for including civil society actors in tackling the corollaries of the coronavirus.

Even though the deputy mayor’s working group had put together an action plan with specific practical suggestions, the mayor asked an independent expert group to evaluate the proposals, where the “jury” consisted of several local government employees, such as the head of a children’s nursery, the director of family support and the head of the local government’s human resources office. In practice, after four weeks of collaboration, the deputy mayor and the civil society groups that had participated in the meetings with her were sidestepped, as the expert group appointed by the mayor started to work on its own program. Nevertheless, the deputy mayor’s working group continued to develop its action plan. In April 2020, it finished the proposal, but the mayor did not intend to take action based on its suggestions. He failed to show any real interest in implementing the measures of the program and had another agenda, according to our interviewees. While during the lockdown, the deputy mayor’s group had continued to amend parts of the action plan, the mayor’s office put the proposal on hold.

The mayor appointed an independent expert group to evaluate the proposal of the CSO sector, which took away the deputy mayor’s decision-making role. This created uncertainty inside the local government, and it was not clear anymore who was in charge. In the end, the experts did not take the action plan that had been developed into consideration. They expressed concerns and remained skeptical about the proposed measures, postponing the implementation process, which in their view needed further elaboration.

At that point, it became clear for the civil society participants that the local government intended to focus on an institution-based expansion of social services, without the active involvement of CSOs. As our interviewees interpreted it, this sent an important message: that the local government believes in the development of the institutional system, and not in the inclusion of civil society groups.

In the end, the pandemic resulted in hierarchic decision making instead of collaboration. Politicians jumped on the issue and took decisions without the involvement of CSOs, convinced that they “know how to manage the city,” as Ildikó Bokrétás of EEA ironically notes. Meanwhile, the deputy mayor took a more oppositional role. AVM decided to return to a more confrontational stance and to criticize the local government from the outside. As Fanni Aradi of AVM explains, she and the other activists had expected that the collaboration would not go smoothly and that they would have to argue a lot, but what little hope they had faded away with the COVID-19 events.

Even though the collaboration has come to a temporary stop, the preparation of the action plan contributed to a few social programs that benefited people in need, such as one-time support for citizens who lost their job and the option to defer rent payments. Although these one-off forms of supports are essential for families in need, the local government did not touch upon any of the structural problems. The power struggle among CSOs and the local government continued, including the internal fragmentation of the local government and the question of which political alliances to make. However, the working group continues its work with the deputy mayor even in spite of the coronavirus emergency, seeking solutions that could have a more long-lasting effect.

Obstacles and how to make it work

CSOs are in a sensitive position when it comes to political issues. Despite the fact that mainstream media outlets portray them as in opposition to the central government (and hence to the former political leaders of the city), they often find themselves criticizing both sides of the political spectrum – and acting as the “opposition that criticizes the opposition” is a delicate role to play. As Fanni Aradi of AVM explains, “it is a more exciting time compared to the previous political leadership. The current one is sensitive to criticism coming from CSOs, but they still don’t treat civil society any better.” While the deputy mayor is considered to be on the side of the CSOs within the local government, the mayor does not like to delegate decisions, instead handing down instructions and sustaining a hierarchic process of decision-making.

Another issue regarding the dynamics of collaboration is the divide among the civil sphere, where “old” actors are institutionally better embedded, and “new” ones are typically more critical groups that are excluded from collaborative practices and secure funding opportunities. Támasz Alapítvány and the Maltese Charity Service are well embedded in institutional networks, but they are often less critical towards the local government and also tend to maintain a looser contact with more critical CSOs. Moreover, unequal access to local government and funding results in the taming of collaborative civil society actors, causing them to opt for sustaining aid-based support schemes instead of empowering disadvantaged groups. In other words, these institutionalized CSOs find it more effective to be included in bureaucratic processes, even at the expense of civil society solidarity, as one interviewee explained. Meanwhile, networking, bottom-up initiatives and supporting stronger collaboration are much more typical of the new types of organization. They do not act independently of each other but come up with a strategy for a more concerted approach to bringing back solidarity. Therefore, it would be a task for the local government to develop an environment where both institutionalized and informal civil society groups can express their ideas and share their knowledge.