Who's Afraid of the Big Bad NGO?: The Hungarian Regime's War on Its Critics Opens Opportunities for Civil Sector Advance

06/02/2015 03:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

For some time now, the regime currently in control of Hungary has been waging war against a significant portion of its country's nonprofit organizations. Associations and organizations who dare to criticize the ever-wobbling and consistently self-centered policies of the Hungarian government are subject to ridicule, harassment, and efforts to block their receipt of philanthropic donations.

As Yale's Eva Balogh explains in her remarkably insightful daily blog, Hungarian Spectrum, apologists for the regime are seeking to divide the functions of third sector (voluntary, nonprofit, civil) organizations in two: On the one hand is the work of "good organizations" that provide social services to those in need while not disturbing those in power with any thoughts, words, or deeds critical of the ideas and policies of the country's ruler. And on the other hand are the "bad organizations", those that dare to observe that the country's corrupted regime might find better ways to address problems of social inequality, ignorance, and distress.

Two particular figures are regularly mentioned as demonic by regime spokespersons: Philanthropist George Soros and the government of Norway. Both of these funders have supported, over the years, a number of nongovernmental initiatives in Hungary that have addressed pressing social needs and values. In a recent statement, a nonprofit organization leader who often fronts for the regime, is cited by Balogh as contending that

Four-fifths of Hungarian NGOs are financed in whole or in part by George Soros. As for the causes these NGOs are involved in-the Roma, drug prevention, and the disabled... these are not the most burning issues in today's Hungary.

Now it is possible that if one adds the substantial budget of the Central European University, founded by Soros, to those of the few brave civil society organizations struggling to survive in Hungary's hostile environment to social advocacy, the argument about Soros' role may be stretched into dubious plausibility. But then again, any individual donor, by spreading small donations among the CEU and the other organizations, could join Soros in that 80 percent club. The point is in any case trivial, and probably represents just another one of those local word games aimed at drawing knowing winks from those deploring the successes of persons of Jewish background, like Soros, in Hungarian life.

The regime's apologist goes on to claim, in Balogh's words, that "the defense of mental hygiene" as a result of the negative influence of the media provides an example of a cause that deserves greater attention, presumably by means of advocacy by "good organizations". So, not all NGOs are bad -- only those which do not support the whims and patronage needs of those within the narrow circle of rule of the autocratic governing elite.

More importantly, the argument could be made that it would be of great benefit to Hungary if Soros and other philanthropists would indeed increase their funding of what the regime now sees as "Bad NGOs" (those that support democracy, human rights, social justice, civil liberties, social equality, freedom of the press and expression, Roma advancement, opportunities for the disabled, women's protection against abuse, etc.) to the level of 80 percent of what is needed. (That huge task may well lie beyond Soros' resources alone, of course, which are also directed against similar challenges facing the third (nonprofit, voluntary, civil) sector around the world.)

At the same time, the regime's war on NGOs may also be seen to open opportunities for organizations within the sector to find new donors to meet the goal of fully funding and supporting an appropriately wide range of nonprofit organizations and civil society initiatives in Hungary. Networks beginning to form among young Hungarian entrepreneurs might develop forms of fund-raising consistent with what historian George McCully identifies as the 21st century "new paradigm" of philanthropy. And Hungary's lively internet-based opposition might find new ways of opening the minds of their participants by using fund-raising and organizational campaigns along the lines of "Who's afraid of the big bad nonprofit...?" Humor with a bit of a bite has always been a great strength of east central European political discourse.

Hungary's need for new philanthropists to step forward and join Soros and Norway in supporting voluntary organizations and the causes they represent is evident. Societies require active civil organizations and a truly independent third sector, able to both provide services to those in need and direct criticism to those in power, if they can justify calling themselves democratic or just. "Bad NGO's" may be very good for people and just what the Hungarian Patient requires if it is to grow, develop, and prosper as a society in the years ahead.