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Two Cheers for Government

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It's not easy to find people in East-Central Europe who will put in a good word for government.

First there are all the traditional complaints: government is slow, inefficient, corrupt. On top of that is the residual anti-communist belief that current state structures are only cosmetically altered versions of the old system. Then throw in the more fashionable neo-liberal critique of government as too large and crippling the invisible hand of the market. Finally add all the non-governmental organizations that are devoted to demonstrating that government is not accountable, not delivering the right services, not guaranteeing human rights, and so on.

Put this all together and government is not part of the solution, it's part of the problem. Indeed, for many people, it is the problem. This is hardly unique to the region. Anti-government sentiment is quite popular even in the United States, where we have government of, for, and by the people who dislike government.

It can also be quite difficult to disentangle the agendas of political parties from the everyday work of unelected civil servants. In Hungary, for instance, the government of Victor Orban has attracted international condemnation for pushing through controversial amendments to the constitution. But the Hungarian government also consists of the constitutional court and the office of the ombudsman, both of which have pushed back against Orban's creeping authoritarianism. Obviously government is not just one, undifferentiated entity.

Danilo Vukovic currently works for an NGO in Serbia -- the Development Initiative Group (Secons) -- but he has also worked in government and with the United Nations. He has a more charitable view of the Serbian government than many of his colleagues from other NGOs.

"Because I've worked for the government," he told me in an interview at his Belgrade office in October, "I don't think it's all black and white. When you're in government, you also meet many people who want to do the work they're supposed to do, but they meet obstacles. And the obstacles are not always political. It's not that somebody wants to block you, but things are complicated and difficult, and you can't change them so easily. If it were easy, we would probably be Switzerland at this point."

In research projects at Secons, Vukovic has evaluated the improvements in government performance in Serbia -- the training of staff, the implementation of new guidelines, the improvement of the technology and infrastructure -- and identified weaknesses in decisionmaking and intra-government mobility. Challenges notwithstanding, the professionalism of Serbian officials has markedly improved since his first visit to government offices in 2002.

"But they are never as good as we would like," he said. "Probably people living in Liechtenstein say, "Well, our government is not good enough." On the other hand, our government is for sure better in the areas that I know than the governments in Montenegro or Bosnia. People working with the Croatian government claim that the difference with Serbia is not so big as you would imagine, considering that Croatia is about to join the EU. So, this is another sign that Serbia has a more developed administration."

Vukovic is now focused on the legislative process in Serbia -- how laws are created, influenced, and enacted. We talked in particular about social policy and its impact on marginalized populations such as the Roma, refugees, and people with disabilities. He is interested most of all in the nuts and bolts of policy: how to make what might seem to be small alterations in rules, regulations, and laws that nevertheless have a major impact on the quality of life of Serbian citizens.

The Interview

I've noticed there is considerable poverty here and I was told that the average wage here is the lowest in the region. Low wages have proven useful in attracting foreign business, but in general it means a pretty vulnerable population. Do you see any positive signs in terms of poverty alleviation and social integration over the last couple of years?

Over the last couple of years, the situation has been getting worse, and the statistical data confirms this. The absolute poverty line has increased from roughly 6 point something percent to close to 10 percent. We have regional pockets of poverty that are not really just pockets anymore. Whole regions have been severely hit by poverty, structural poverty with strong historical roots. These regions -- Southeastern Serbia, Eastern Serbia -- have been traditionally underdeveloped. Eastern Serbia has changed in the last 20 years due to the deterioration of the industry that existed there prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. The population in these traditionally underdeveloped regions is getting older and older, and the average household is small, with a small amount of land that they cultivate. The data say that only 20 percent of these households living in rural areas are producing for the market. So, the majority are subsistence farming and cannot survive on these small plots of land.

We also have something called polutan, which is a phrase describing people living in between the countryside and cities. They are not a proper working class that lives in an urban area and working full-time in factories. Rather, they are living in rural areas, cultivating land and at the same time working in factories. This has been a characteristic here even before the Second World War. This rural poverty is strongly entrenched and has strong historical roots in various agricultural and regional development policies. The position of this rural poor is getting worse and worse. And in the last couple of years there was a rise in the unemployment level. People were losing jobs, particularly those with low qualifications and those working in the sector of vulnerable employment such as part-time employees and self-employed persons. So the data show that in the last couple of years there was a decrease in economic activity, an increase in the level of poverty, and rising unemployment. On the other hand, to what extent we can really attribute this to the government or to global trends, I'm not sure whether anybody can truly say.

Some countries, like Poland, were in a better economic position to withstand the globe economic downturn.

The type of growth that we had here in the last decade did not provide a solid basis for the country to survive the crisis. Two-thirds of the annual GDP growth that we had here was attributed to the parts of the economy that do not produce for export: transport, telecommunications, construction. We actually failed to develop the part of the economy that could bring in money. Like elsewhere, we had a crisis in the construction business. There was also a crisis in the financial sector, though, as far as I understand it, it's a different crisis than in the West. We had here a crash of big banks. Reading the newspapers you get the impression that these were state-owned banks. Actually, the state has 20 percent of the shares, and they were 80% privately owned. The banks crashed due to the insolvent loans that they issued. They say it's roughly 300 million Euros in losses. That's a lot of money for a small country like this, and it can really shake the banking sector. In that sense, sometimes I think we're not that bad off, having in mind how vulnerable we are. But we might get into the Greek kind of situation, you never know.

How would you evaluate the actual functioning of social services for the elderly, the unemployed, people who have recently become sick?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.