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.