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Even the Ruler of Hungary Needs an Independent Third Sector

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I've spent my life in the practice, study and development of citizen participation and voluntary action. Crucial to these arts is the wise and effective use of two resources we each have in our possession: time and money.

When I have visited and taught and lectured as a Fulbright Specialist in Northern Ireland and Hungary (Disclaimer: I write here only as myself, and not for that splendid program or its funder, the U.S. State Department), I always ask the same question: Can I help you to see how your country would be a better place if you developed an active and vigorous Third Sector, with lots of time being contributed on a voluntary basis to the advancement of social purposes, and a good bit of money being raised and given to support these worthy efforts?

In Northern Ireland, during the past decade of my frequent visits there, these questions generated lively responses. People quickly realized, as research by my colleague Arthur Williamson indicated, that throughout times of governmental immobilization by paramilitary violence, the third sector was there providing services to the needy and its efforts to bring people of different backgrounds into some kind of communication with each other.

In today's Hungary, a very different situation presents itself. A duly elected government seems bent on creating a one-party state that controls nearly every aspect of the country's life --public, civic, voluntary and even religious. And this monolith is steadily reducing the capacity of the Third Sector to provide for citizen initiative and participation.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has secured lasting power for himself by utilizing governing techniques he learned as an oppositional movement leader fighting the Sovietized autocracy of the late 1980s. Whatever he does seems to work, at least in assuring repeated re-election. In both 2010 and 2014 his ruling party, Fidesz, secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament, allowing it to reshape the constitution of the country at every overnight whim. Variously identified by its critics as a "mafia", "octopus" or "Franken-" State, practicing "crony capitalism" within the context of an "operetta state" inside a "goulash archipelago" of "Orbanistan", the government of "Viktator" Orban functions as a highly effective political machine. Indeed, Orban himself has already secured nine mentions in the dystopian resource book, The Dictator's Handbook.

The Third Sector has been turned inside-out in Orban's Hungary. Philanthropy finds itself subject to state control and direction; the participatory processes of civil society find themselves closely sniffed by the big nose of the state in the form of blacklists and grants favoritism; and the independence of what Americans have come to call the (at least partially) "independent sector" is reduced to a set of complaisant organizations placed on what political scientist Merle Fainsod once called the "transmission belt" of an authoritarian society.

A rather bizarre case in point is found in a contemporary conflict between the Norwegian government, acting as a philanthropist to Hungary under the peculiar folkways of the European Union, and the Hungarian government, which took exception to a grant awarded to a nonprofit organization it finds too closely associated to a rival political party.

According to press reports, Hungary's position is that:

It would like Norway to extend the suspension over the three funds disbursing monies allocated to civil organisations and to renegotiate the entire programme structure of the scheme. The most important aim in connection with the Norway Grants scheme is to ensure that only state bodies should fulfil tasks connected with the management of funding... Norwegian funding for NGOs is currently transferred through (a) Foundation which appears to be an NGO but in reality is a satellite organization" of (a) small opposition party.

So, the brave new world of the Hungarian Third Sector is revealed: Grants may be received from sources outside the government, but only if they are managed by the government and are directed to organizations it approves.

So much for encouraging philanthropic giving -- "give only to me" is the government's message. So much for an independent Third Sector -- "organize only what we approve" is the government's message. So much for encouraging civil processes of social participation and innovation in the civil sector -- "do only what we tell you" is the government's message to its Third Sector leaders.

In both the long and short run, Hungary is likely to suffer from the majoritarian zeal of Orban's desire to run it all. Even the strongest ruler stands to benefit from citizen interest in resolving society's problems -- especially those problems that government seems nearly always unable to resolve -- poverty, unemployment, pride in ethnicity and life-style, disaster relief, substance abuse, comfort for those in need or distress.

Not only does the Third Sector provide effective services needed throughout society, it also permits new ideas for policy and change to emerge. Some of these ideas will of course be critical of established ways and policies, and of the actions of entrenched officials bent on retaining their authority and control. But philanthropy allows both new ideas and new moneys to flow, addressing problems government cannot resolve. And citizen participation unlocks energies that might otherwise be directed toward individual and collective frustration and disillusion.

Viktor Orban and his ruling party can benefit from the emergence of philanthropy, the establishment of an independent Third Sector, and a civil respect for civil society groups, ideas, and programs throughout Hungary. Not only are these rights protected by Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they are also underwritten by Hungary's membership in the European Union. When the time comes to give a final assessment of the Orban era, what will count will not be how many years he served, but what his country became during those years of service.