Individual initiative versus centralized bureaucracy: The Hungarian case

We often talk about the incompetence of the Orbán government. Top positions go to devoted party cadres. Expertise doesn’t matter much. Party loyalty, on the other hand, is paramount. Or, even better, loyalty to Viktor Orbán.

This incompetence, however, is not confined to the upper echelons; it permeates every level of the administration. It is enough to think of the painfully inadequate response by the government agency responsible for emergency services during the March 14-15 snowstorm. I understand that in the wake of all the winter snow the rivers are now rising and some roads are already under water. We’ll see how the Hungarian version of FEMA handles the next emergency situation. I’m sure that, whatever the case, the prime minister will once again think they are doing a “heck of a job.”

Individual initiativeThis government is particularly inept, but even better organized administrations have often failed to address national problems in a meaningful way. Consider, for instance, government efforts at tackling the plight of the Roma population. Over many years a lot of money has been poured into projects with very little to show for it. Yes, there are a few hopeful signs. More Gypsy boys and girls finish high school and the number of those who don’t even finish eight grades is on the decline. Yes, a few more Roma youth end up in college but not enough. The task is enormous and certainly one cannot expect overnight miracles, but it is becoming obvious that government alone is incapable of solving the problem.

In general, a highly centralized structure is the wrong venue in which to solve local problems. The reorganization of the firefighters is a good case in point. When I heard that thousands of fire departments will be centralized I was puzzled. How can you centralize fire departments? After all, fires are local. It was only after I saw an interview with the head of the firefighters’ union that I suddenly understood how it works or rather how the new system doesn’t work. If a fire breaks out, let’s say in Hévíz, the emergency call doesn’t go to the Héviz Fire Department but to the county seat of Zala County, Zalaegerszeg, which is 27 km away. The people in Zalaegerszeg then transmit instructions to the fire station closest to the scene of the fire. This is crazy.

In the Orbán administration centralization is a key concept, and I guess those who designed this system followed what they perceived to be the desired strategy. Whether it made sense or not.

And the new system turned out to be nonfunctional. The right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. Firefighters who were helping in the snowstorm were sent to locations where allegedly they were needed, but when they arrived the locals had no idea why they had come and what they were supposed to do.

Those who were stuck on the highways saw no policemen, no firefighters, no rescue workers for as long as twenty hours. The first people who reached them were local volunteers who put together money and food and supplied the people half frozen in their cars with some nourishment and hot tea. The locals were the ones who took stranded families to their own homes and gave them shelter and food. Local initiative worked while centralized state authority failed miserably.

But back to the Roma issue. I mentioned just yesterday that about 7% of the country’s population is of Roma ethnicity. Their poverty and lack of education is a serious social, economic, and political problem. And over the past twenty years successive governments  had little success in reversing this trend. It doesn’t matter what glowing reports we hear from Zoltán Balog, the minister in charge of Roma affairs, the situation is not getting any better. On the contrary, because of the racist anti-Roma propaganda of Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party, discrimination against the Roma is growing. In the past I read about initiatives of NGOs, individuals, and some small churches in certain localities that managed to achieve measurable success in Roma villages, but there is need for many more such ventures.

The other day I read an article in Magyar Narancs by Péter Felcsuti, formerly head of the Hungarian Banking Association, about a case that shows the better side of Hungary. There is a village high school attended practically exclusively by Roma children in one of the poorest counties in northeastern Hungary. The education the children receive in this school is poor, and even if a few of the students make it to college they end up with teacher’s certificates or degrees not really useful in today’s economic climate. It is not clear from the article how it happened, but a department head of a good university–I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Corvinus University, which specializes in economics and business–found out about the plight of that village high school. And he came up with a plan.  He got in touch with the principal of a Budapest “elite”  high school and asked him whether the teachers in that school would be willing to volunteer their time to prepare promising students in the village high school for entrance examinations in subject matters necessary for admittance to the best universities in the country. A large number of the elite school’s teachers volunteered as did at least 25 students from the department where the idea of intensive mentoring was born. That means that about fifty people spend their weekends in the village mentoring promising students. The intensive weekend course will be followed by summer camp. The mentoring has already begun, and we will see whether it is more effective than the government efforts of the past.

One only wishes there were more volunteer programs: a united effort by universities, high schools, and concerned citizens to try to change things on the local level. Whatever they achieve will certainly be  more useful than distributing chicks and seeds to people who have no corn for the chicks and no expertise in growing vegetables. Teaching Roma children the skills necessary to become entrepreneurs, professionals, even prime ministers offers some promise for the future.

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38 comments

  1. If the Gypsy-education project by the “elite” high school is so impressive, why not name the school and the organizers? This is so typical of Hungarian academia… hide the facts because you are terrified of performing your jobs out in the open.
    This is unfortunate, not only from a moral standpoint, but from a practical one. In the end, people (with the support of Fidesz bureaucrats) are going to concoct endless conspiracy theories about this project. The entire thing will be discredited as a plot by Israel to invade Borsod County. All because educators are so terrified of their neighbors that they won’t allow their names to be published. Pitiful.

  2. Maybe the reason that the school doesn’t wish to be named is a belief that, in Orbanistan, initiative is a quality to be suppressed rather than applauded and encouraged. Especially when it’s altruistic initiative.

  3. The purpose of the centralization or nationalization of the

    1. firefighters,
    2. emergency workers,
    3. physicians,
    4. policemen and
    5. teachers

    was not efficiency or better schools, but making it impossible or illegal for them to go on strike or join forces against the Orban government.

    As employees of their local communities they could not be easily fired for political reasons and they were able to and dared to organize.

    As employees of the central government now, they can be fired by the Orban government at will.

    Orban did not care that education, health care or disaster response would deteriorate by centralization. He achieved his political aim of crushing the potential hubs of political resistance against his rule before any resistance had started.

  4. While I applaude the initiative by the faculty of Corvinus University to teach unprivileged children, I can not help but think that this is little more than a case of charity. Like collecting for hungry children of subsaharan Africa.
    The fact is that after the “kind white folks” leave, these children will go back to their segregated lives in a well functioning and popular apartheid system.
    This system of power inequality goes unchallenged when Roma children receive their education as a result of Charity instead of as a BIRTHRIGHT.

    Reply to Ms Balogh’s article on the 2011 Hungarian Census:

    I have been a reader of this excellent blog for the past year or so, but I feel I must take issue with Ms. Balogh’s statement regarding the comment about the recent Census results reflecting a growing trend of “self-awareness” among Gypsies.
    I assure you we are all aware of who we are: the ultimate “Other” in our own country.
    The fact that 74 years after the Pajermos (Holocaust) the wast majority or Roma Hungarians do not identify themselves as such, is less about “self-awareness” and more about FEAR. People have learned the hard way that the only sure way of not getting discriminated against is to hide who you are, if you can.
    The very question of belonging is phrased in a way which reflects the false dichotomy of two conflicting ethnic categories: Magyar vs. Roma. In fact it is the ethnification of the Majority as “Magyar” I find highly questionable for I doubt that the forefathers of Mr. Vona or Mr. Orban – or for that matter Ms Balogh – rode in with Arpad’s tribes. It is this communal imagined identity as “Magyars” which allows non-Jewish, non-Roma Hungarians to perpetuate the systematic disenfranchisement of their fellow countrymen. This powerful illusion allows people to see themselves as the true Hungarians who are victimized by “outsiders”.
    I tell you right now: there are WAY more Hungarians – Magyars – who are Sinti, Roma or Manush than 700000.The “Majority” has a very limited understanding of the history of these multi cultural, multi-ethnic groups.
    “Gypsies” are portrayed as a homogenic group with fixed physiological and cultural boundaries. You do not recognize us because we do not fit into Your Idea of what a Gypsy looks like. But we are here.
    True self-awareness is sorely missing in Hungary. It should start with the “majority” Hungarians who believe themselves to be “ethnically Magyar” as opposed to the “Minority”.

  5. What happen in Hungary now political is terrible; but one of the ways to live with it and also fight it is HUMOR
    Immagine for a moment Orban as a nostaldic amateur operette figure in the provins and you will laugh and that is good medcine for body and brain.
    Thank you Orban for your absurde show.

  6. Eva S. Balogh :
    Felcsuti’s reason for not mentioning the name of the schools or the university because the project just began.

    That’s not a valid reason. Can you imagine a US newspaper publishing an article that says “some university somewhere is sending volunteers to help educate kids in the Mississippi Delta, but we’re not going to tell you which one because the project just began.” The article wouldn’t even make it past the first editorial meeting, and the journalist who proposed it would be ridiculed.

  7. The official, merged version of the “basic law” that includes the mega-amendment was published on April 1st. Foreign evaluators (Prof Scheppele, Venice Commission, Mr Barroso) & Hungarian subjects, please use this version, since the others were only hearsay.

    http://magyarkozlony.hu/pdf/16526

  8. Well, if the whole thing is only an April’s Fool joke …

    Sorry, but I had to write this.

  9. David Balazs Beleznay :
    While I applaude the initiative by the faculty of Corvinus University to teach unprivileged children, I can not help but think that this is little more than a case of charity. Like collecting for hungry children of subsaharan Africa.
    The fact is that after the “kind white folks” leave, these children will go back to their segregated lives in a well functioning and popular apartheid system.
    This system of power inequality goes unchallenged when Roma children receive their education as a result of Charity instead of as a BIRTHRIGHT.
    Reply to Ms Balogh’s article on the 2011 Hungarian Census:
    I have been a reader of this excellent blog for the past year or so, but I feel I must take issue with Ms. Balogh’s statement regarding the comment about the recent Census results reflecting a growing trend of “self-awareness” among Gypsies.
    I assure you we are all aware of who we are: the ultimate “Other” in our own country.
    The fact that 74 years after the Pajermos (Holocaust) the wast majority or Roma Hungarians do not identify themselves as such, is less about “self-awareness” and more about FEAR. People have learned the hard way that the only sure way of not getting discriminated against is to hide who you are, if you can.
    The very question of belonging is phrased in a way which reflects the false dichotomy of two conflicting ethnic categories: Magyar vs. Roma. In fact it is the ethnification of the Majority as “Magyar” I find highly questionable for I doubt that the forefathers of Mr. Vona or Mr. Orban – or for that matter Ms Balogh – rode in with Arpad’s tribes. It is this communal imagined identity as “Magyars” which allows non-Jewish, non-Roma Hungarians to perpetuate the systematic disenfranchisement of their fellow countrymen. This powerful illusion allows people to see themselves as the true Hungarians who are victimized by “outsiders”.
    I tell you right now: there are WAY more Hungarians – Magyars – who are Sinti, Roma or Manush than 700000.The “Majority” has a very limited understanding of the history of these multi cultural, multi-ethnic groups.
    “Gypsies” are portrayed as a homogenic group with fixed physiological and cultural boundaries. You do not recognize us because we do not fit into Your Idea of what a Gypsy looks like. But we are here.
    True self-awareness is sorely missing in Hungary. It should start with the “majority” Hungarians who believe themselves to be “ethnically Magyar” as opposed to the “Minority”.

    Nice comment David. I totally agree. I gather that most of the descendants of the seven tribes died during the Turkish wars, so there are very few “real Hungarians” left. Most of the white Hungarians came from other European countries.

  10. @David Balazs Beleznay – I agree. Fear is a major factor in not only the gypsy population not owning up to be gypsy, but in an ever increasing layer of the Hungarian population in owning up to anything out of the ordinary. You never know when you are going to be proscribed. Unfortunately I cannot any more remember the name of the institution, but I recall reading about a school somewhere in NE Hungary that was run by a church or some religious group that had been doing excellent work in offering a safe, non-discriminatory environment for gypsy children in which to be educated. The article i read described the removal of the religious group’s state recognition and the subsequent destruction of the school. That is what you can expect in today’s Hungary if those in power notice you are there. If I was of gypsy descent I am fairly sure I would keep it quiet for as long as I could. Sticking your neck out is pretty self destructive in Hungary today.

  11. London Calling! (Still via Győr!)

    David – very good comment. I was beginning to wonder if my “How can you treat the Roma so badly? You know it is wrong.” comment was unjustified judging from the reaction I didn’t get!

    And your ‘Charity’ comment is spot on. It is the worst kind of tokenism. A tiny effort for a massive problem – too little – too late.

    And it allows the hypocritical Roman Catholics (and Calvinists) to salve their consciences – and to perpetuate the persecution by other means.

    Just one point I disagree with:: You say, in essence, that Magyars are Roma (I know you didn’t but for the sake of my point, you did!). But in essence Roma are HUNGARIANS!
    And it’s Hungarian dissing Hungarian. Something that a Londoner just can’t get his head around.

    This ‘purity’ thing is denying equality.

    And such a huge resource wasted. And you have, for example, such a rich culture.

    Karl Pfeiffer said in another context in another blog something that I can’t believe from a Government minister:

    “….Lázár said, those who own nothing are worth nothing. So since they “are worth nothing”, they should not be surprised when they are treated accordingly.”

    And the breathtaking hypocrisy from Zoltán Balog – he who presented the ‘Roma Strategy’ to the European Parliament when Hungary held the presidency – and proudly emblazoned on his CV on the Government site.

    So yes – institutionalised neglect, too little too late – counter-balanced (overwhelmed) by tokenism.

    And fear – yes fear, the corollary in a fractured society.

    Regards

    Charlie

  12. JGrant :
    @David Balazs Beleznay – I agree. Fear is a major factor in not only the gypsy population not owning up to be gypsy, but in an ever increasing layer of the Hungarian population in owning up to anything out of the ordinary. You never know when you are going to be proscribed. Unfortunately I cannot any more remember the name of the institution, but I recall reading about a school somewhere in NE Hungary that was run by a church or some religious group that had been doing excellent work in offering a safe, non-discriminatory environment for gypsy children in which to be educated. The article i read described the removal of the religious group’s state recognition and the subsequent destruction of the school. That is what you can expect in today’s Hungary if those in power notice you are there. If I was of gypsy descent I am fairly sure I would keep it quiet for as long as I could. Sticking your neck out is pretty self destructive in Hungary today.

    A successful Roma school does seem to attract negative attention.
    There is the case of the investigation of the Dr. Ámbédkar School.

    http://thecontrarianhungarian.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/trouble-in-sajokaza-being-buddhist-and-roma/

    @Pibroch I do not think it is just fear of you neighbors, but fear of the attention of the extreme right hate groups. Others who have volunteered help have faced death threats and other forms of violent harassment. In the case of Gyöngyöspata it was enough to drive a human rights activist out of Hungary.

    And it really does not matter how open you are about your activism, those on the extreme right will claim it is some Jewish Anti-Hungarian conspiracy anyway.

    It is not uncommon for major US papers to cite unidentified sources. The journalistic standard it that you do not rely on just one source and you can verify the source’s information.

    I applaud anyone who does this kind of work whether anonymous or not.

  13. …my misplaced parenthesis! I meant ‘tokenism overwhelmed by institutionalised neglect’! of course.

  14. Here is a comparison of the German and Hungarian public television news on April 29! So, no wonder that Hungarians are so ignorant about what’s going on at home and in the world at large.

  15. Astonishing!

    Parish pump stuff v World Politics.

    No wonder Hungary has such a ‘beleagured’ isolationist attitude.

  16. CharlieH :
    Astonishing!
    Parish pump stuff v World Politics.
    No wonder Hungary has such a ‘beleagured’ isolationist attitude.

    Hungarian specialty–feeding garbage….not only to pigs.

  17. @ Mr Beleznay:My reply from the page of your original post fits here better, since you reposted. I would also like to add that even though I support what you previously wrote, I disagree with what you added on this page. I do not see the reaching out, and the “targeted help” as Cinderella being thrown back to be a maid after visiting the castle. I see any support that may help disadvantaged children to reach their full potential as a fantastic thing. Your point of view that it is the government that should do something is valid, but not every child remains a child for an other two, three or dozen of years as Peter Pan. BY the time the government will take some reasonable steps the current teenagers would be lining up for food as many of their older peers do. If it takes fifty organizations just like this, then be it, and leave the politics for the politicians, let the civilians take actions, if they feel like.

    “I loved your comment. In a perfect world what you wrote it makes perfect sense. On a census, as in every country they try to identify what is the “background” of a person. In Canada for example the questions are more definable, like Mother Tongue (8), Knowledge of Official Languages (French, English), Language Spoken Most Often at Home, Other Language Spoken Regularly at Home. These question help to determine for example of all the “social strategies” in a bilingual country. (French schools, and even local publicly founded after school language education for Serbians, Polish, Chines, Hindi, etc., as well as Aboriginal strategies) There isn’t a direct question about nationality, but I about mother-tongue and religion.Question about Conjugal Status and Opposite/Same-sex Status for Persons Living in Couples in Private Households is also present.
    Now, if I could compare any of the “self-awareness” issue, I would most likely use the Aboriginal questions, as certainly w/o a doubt all ABoriginals in CAnada are Canadian, and yet to find someone who would identify them as “natives” versus Canadians, although it is commonly used as a secondary identity “tag”. THe native population of Canada do have their similar struggles as the Roma population of Hungary, but the special programs in place actually encourage and helps with assimilation w/o loosing one’s “ethnicity”. It is well understood that there is no Canadian race, and its embraces every and each pieces of the puzzle. Children are encouraged in school to speak about their background, to share ethnic stories and dishes. All kids identify themselves as Canadians and than as part of some ethnic group or having some ethnic background, that actually they encouraged to embrace. Maybe versus visiting so many countries that may can solve Hungary’s economical problems, it is time for the Fidesz entourage to visit some countries that could help them to solve the identity crises of Hungary.”

  18. We no longer watch the Hungarian “news” on tv except when there’s something special like those snowstorms. My wife declines to have alook at the regular news.

    The state tv is such an abomination – horrible, no real news at all! Everyday they “report” on ridiculous things happening in the country – at first I couldn’t believe it, but now I know it’s part of the “dumbing down” strategy of Orbán.

    Make Hungary into a country of pig breeders!

  19. Meanwhile on Planet Hungary …

    The KDNP education geniuses realized that the idea of one hour physical education every day day won’t work, because there’s not enough teachers and/or places and now they are proposing amendments to the education law. For 2 days you will be able to take Hungarian folk dance classes instead physical education. Forget jazz, dance workouts, Zumba or Samba or Yoga. It’s gotta be Hungarian folk dance …

  20. London Calling! (Still via Győr!)

    Mutt are you suggesting that moving interminably from side to side – preferably without any teeth to csango music – is not a good workout?

    Regards

    Charlie

  21. @Pete H. – thanks for the link to The Contrarian Hungarian. I read it faithfully, including the account of Pardeep of his month’s stay in Sajókaza. It reminded me of the day when I realised with horror how deep the generalised discrimination and often hatred of the Roma is in Hungary. It was when I saw how it was precisely the successes that Roma schools, or Roma communities that tried to rise out of their squalor and degradation that incited the highest levels of hatred. It was as if the racist majority needed to keep them in utter penury and degradation to justify their treatment. And a clean, well spoken and educated “Gypsy” would not do for that, would it?

  22. London Calling! (Still via Győr!)

    Almost O/T..

    The ‘International Rhetoric’ gets stronger by the day:

    “This political degradation gives us a gruesome historical and political lesson……”

    from a well respected journal in England – one of my lifetime’s favourites – The New Statesman.

    No pulled punches here! ‘EU get off your arses!’ – in essence!

    Regards

    Charlie

    http://www.newstatesman.com/austerity-and-its-discontents/2013/04/hungary-no-longer-democracy

  23. O/T I saw on television ATV Olga Kalman with Steiner Pal about pensioners receiving gifts and at the same time asked to sign for the 10% reduction verdict of the Courts.

    My wife stated that the same happened to her mother at her home last Thursday, only there was no gift only to sign. She replied that she is happy to sign a petition for 300,000 news jobs or reduction of the VAT, but not for this 10%.

    I believe that the ombudsman does not allow collecting signatures at home. Btw these were young students collecting signatures.

  24. wolfi :
    We no longer watch the Hungarian “news” on tv except when there’s something special like those snowstorms. My wife declines to have alook at the regular news.
    The state tv is such an abomination – horrible, no real news at all! Everyday they “report” on ridiculous things happening in the country – at first I couldn’t believe it, but now I know it’s part of the “dumbing down” strategy of Orbán.

    I’ve been doing the exact same survey (MTV1 vs Tagesschau) for awhile now, and the results are always the same. Somewhere around 17 minutes in MTV switches to international news (usually two items) before going back to domestic stuff. If it’s a really slow news day in Hungary (only a few traffic accidents), then the international material kicks in at around 13 or 14 minutes.

    In all fairness, though, this has been going on for years… I remember this from the 90s too. it’s not a Fidesz thing… it’s a Hungarian perspective on the world…

  25. To Mr Beleznay: A very interesting comment. When I read Eva’s blog yesterday, I thought exactly the opposite: why is it better if people with Roma background state this as their nationality? I would have thought that stating Hungarian nationality would have shown progress with integration; people with Roma etc. background do feel that they are also Hungarians. So thank you for explaining another perspective.
    As regards the ability of the Hungarian “nation” (understood as the concept, not the people) to own up to its mixed origin, I learned here from one of the Fidesz payees (aka trolls) some time ago that Hungarianism is actually a religion. You are Hungarian if you prove to believe in the national myth. What exactly this national myth includes has not become fully clear in the conversation, but certainly it will be some kind of “purity” and “exception”. The national myth also has a “noble” component (Hungarians = nobility). Without trying to downplay the discrimination of Roma, I had the impression that also for other strata of the Hungarian society it is intentionally made harder to move up to the “elite” (of which the national news are a clear indication). A democratic revolution will also need some modernisation of the concept of the Hungarian nation.

  26. @Kirsten: “I learned here from one of the Fidesz payees (aka trolls) some time ago that Hungarianism is actually a religion. ”

    Here is another way to put it, from the Hungarian writer, Istvan Orkeny (One Minute Stories, 1979):

    “HUNGARY. A mania (med. fixa idea) with a population of ten million. It is now generally regarded as curable, though this would take away much of its charm.”

    I think, since he wrote this in the 70s, it has gone way beyond being charming.

  27. I am new to this site, and also new to investigating in deeper terms my Hungarian heritage. However, that said, what disturbs me about the ‘purity’ issues of Hungarians (many) is that it sounds quite like the Germans before WWII.. The Aryan Nation, the Magyar Nation. And we know…looking back at history, where all that went.

    My father’s family is fully Hungarian. I am told by the elderly (100 plus years) aunts that “we are pure Magyars”. Hah!

    In this age and time what can that mean except exclusion to all other ‘tribes’ that make up…have to, the Hungarian Nation? Romas, Jews, etc…certainly make up this Hungarian nation, yet some…and not all right wing thinkers, seem to box off this issue to the ‘real Hungarians”. This is silly.

    We have a lot of this same backward thinking in our own US society.

    My greatest concern is not only the rise of the right wing in Hungary, but the social basis for that within the common Hungarians.

    It seems to me (and I am new to this present history) that the grounds are being laid for the same discrimination and exclusion, and more…the forceful and violent dealings of everyone else who isn’t ‘pure Hungarian’.

    Just having finished a remarkable book: “Savage Continent”, about Europe (mostly Hungary, Poland, etc.) and the 10 years AFTER WWII…it seems that the war really never ended. Nationalism raises its ugly head in the most critical of times…..It seems this trend is coming around again and not necessarily in ‘new’ forms.

    Jane Kohut-Bartels

  28. And Bartels sounds German to me …

    Among my wife’s ancestors there are also some Schwabs (and Slovaks too …) – we often joke that she must have inherited a lot from them, because she is so compatible with me (though I’m also only half Schwab)!

    PS: There’s an old German proverb: Wissen, wo der Bartel/Barthel den Most holt …
    It means to be really clever.

    PPS:

    Just found more than a dozen totally different explanations for this proverb, really astounding – for anyone who knows German: http://de.wiktionary.org/wiki/wissen,_wo_Barthel_den_Most_holt

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