Brussels, 20th February 2016 – Shrinking civil society space in Europe and it’s impact on public health – a case of Hungary and Poland
Co-authors: Dorota Sienkiewicz and Zoltán Massay-Kosubek
It has been with growing feeling of concern to watch recent developments around the state of civil society of some of the Eastern European countries and a shrinking civic space in which it operates. Despite tremendous amount of progress that civil society organisations helped to achieve in the last decennia after the fall of communism, it is still not uncommon for governments of young democracies to treat such organisations and active citizens as ‘troublemakers’, ‘manufacturers of problems’, and therefore question their legitimacy and representativeness.
(on the picture: Hungarian NGO Ökotárs leader in 2014 investigated by the Hungarian Police – source of the photo – the Budapest Beacon)
Critical and ‘inconvenient’ voices to be silenced
The ex-President of the US, Barack Obama, made crystal clear how serious pressure was put on NGOs is by saying “From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.” Not long since he’s gone that there is already a new wind blowing from the White House. While writing this article over the last couple of weeks, we were observing the news coming every day from the US with regards to first political decisions taken by the Trump Administration and it has become clear that what the subject of the current article is, will be – if not already is – a case of the US as well – the global gag rule reinstated, the ‘Muslim’ travel ban introduced, food, medicines and environmental agencies re-shuffled. Deliberate shrinking and restricting of civil society that opposes current administration has already started – be it on abortion or general advancing women health and rights, climate change, environmental protection.
So is a case of Hungarian civil society nowadays, but the situation is not unheard of in other European countries – civil society is being constrained, silenced and intimidated, its role limited. According to the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law, in the past 2 years at least 12 legal initiatives were launched or adopted that pose a threat to the freedoms of association or assembly – prime signals of shrinking civic space, deteriorating implementation of fundamental rights, participatory democracy and holding governments accountable. In 2016, Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS launched a study on civic space in Europe. The results were worrying: declining financial support for civil society, conditionality measures, poor participatory dialogue, increased nationalisms, discrimination and polarisation of society.
Who watches the watchers?
So what? Is civil society actually necessary to functioning of a state? Are not national governments better fitted to know what their constituencies need and what their reality is? Is not civil society indeed an ‘invention’ of the West and globalised world? Perhaps. But as much as we can not shut ourselves away from globalisation processes, we can not control, critically analyse or defend ourselves from what it brings – be it positive or negative. Is not this the reason why civil society emerged as a response to the perceived weakening of the states’ authority under globalisation and increasing strength of transnational corporations? ‘Big tobacco’, ‘big food’, ‘big pharma’ and so on – many of which pray on individual’s alienation from the rest of a society, inflicting lack of herd protection of information sharing or collective bargaining for better societal outcomes to leave “none behind”, including equity, better health and well-being. States have failed in many respect, and NGOs are often delivering services for the public interests which are desperately needed but states are either not able or not willing to do it. NGOs would therefore deserve support, or at least, a place under the sun, instead of harassment and continuous attacks.
Shrinking space for civil society in the field of public health is what we are concerned about in this piece. We do not consider ourselves absolute ‘know it all’s’ or ultimate number-one experts with exclusive insiders knowledge of the Civil Society – all of the community in this regard counts as such and could be learned from. What we can say is that we have worked for and with European, occasionally global and local civil society on a great variety of themes of public health interest and gained our understanding of realities they operate in and impact their work brings to the real people on the ground. Yes, we are not entirely objective and you may call it a conflict of interests; interests being healthy and ill, children and the elderly, abled and disabled, women and men, better-off or poor and socially excluded, refugees, migrants and our ‘own’ European long-standing, never fully included ‘refugees’ – the Roma…
So, what is there for all of us to loose (health-wise) with disappearing or severely limited in their roles and power civil society? Since public health goes well beyond regular healthcare provision (do not take it for granted though; on the contrary, work of universal healthcare coverage is far from finished), no civil action on such determinants of health like employment, social protection, early years care and education, food and farming, gender equality, climate change and environment, housing and culture (to name but a few) deprives every single one of us of all those fundamentals on which good quality of life is built on. No organisations to protect and demand comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights fulfilment in a country under conservative government (Poland); no cross-border cooperation of civil society on coming together with EU-funds to fight poverty, exclusion, discrimination or inequalities; medicines and vaccination prices, alcohol and junk food advertising or marketing to children and vulnerable consumers left to industry’s self-regulation.
Poor and socially disadvantaged individuals hidden on margins of society, children and women’s voices left unheard by policy-makers, ethnic minorities or refugees’ problems hardly anybody brings up to public attention, future generations’ reality to live in nobody even can yet imagine – if no civil society and civic movement to ensure policies take account of those and co-create solutions with the most impacted by, all work of rights-based organisations lost. But it does not have to be this way and we can do better than that. It may be so that in unfavourable circumstances to the civil society it’s strength and legitimacy is unleashed. This is how resistance is built.
Brotherhood of Hungary and Poland reborn through infamous anti-civil rhetoric?
“Pole and Hungarian brothers be,
good for fight and good for party.
Both are valiant, both are lively,
Upon them may God’s blessings be.”
There are long-standing historical links between Hungary and Poland, the two dubbed “good for fight and good for party”. The countries were three times in so-called Personal Union, having the same king (Louis the Great, Władysław III of Varna and Stephen Báthory). The countries showed solidarity during the 1848 revolution and during the 2nd World War. After the fall of communism, Poland and Hungary were the first countries where the communism regime collapsed and the first two after which EU financial help was named after: PHARE – Poland and Hungary Assistance for the Restructuring of the Economy. They also re-established the traditional Central and Eastern European collaboration called Visegrád-group, making sure the region comes up with strong and coherent political and development ideas vis-a-vis their usually dominant neighbouring regions.
However, nowadays similarities between Poland and Hungary appear in rather antidemocratic tendencies and anti-solidarity trends: countries which used to be model-roles for the region and beacons of post-soviet young democracies became the naughty child or puberty-stroken teenager of the EU. They deliberately chose to rebel against such fundamental European values as freedom and independence of press, rule of law and the freedom of association in order to facilitate informed civil society dialogue.
Case study 1: Illiberal Hungary: NGOs as scapegoats for the government’s failures
Hungary's Orban renews attack on influence of George Soros | https://t.co/FrcfF1gxCl
— Deplorable Don (@dsnepa) 2017. február 19.
“Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát,
Együtt harcol s issza borát,
Vitéz s bátor mindkettője,
Áldás szálljon mindkettőre”
The Hungarian government has a two-tired approach with regard to NGOs: there are organisations being close to the government, receiving financial support from it, and as a compensation they do not criticise the policy failures or actually actively support the government politically. This is the case of the Hungarian ‘NGO’ called Békemenet (March for peace) which organized several pro-government manifestation or pseudo NGOs such as the civil association Forum (Civil Összefogás Fórum) Those organisations are often referred in the Hungarian public discussion as ‘fake civil society’ as they can hardly be considered as being independent.
It is ironic that in light of that authoritarian approach, the Hungarian government has launched several times massive attacks against real and critical NGOs. A first campaign in 2014 was attacking the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and trying to gain controlling power over their funding, distributed independently from the government.
And this is the most recent development when the government openly announced that NGOs should be ‘eliminated’ as they are serving foreign interests. Foreign-backed civil society groups in Hungary, including those funded by the billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros, became the number one target of a new crackdown from a populist rightwing government. In his latest State of the Union address called ‘This year we must defend ourselves against five major attacks’, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán NGOs founded by the west as a major threat to the country:
“Here there are large predators swimming in the water, and this is the transnational empire of George Soros”. By exploring political capital from the refugee crisis, he went so far as describing a conspiracy theory: left-wing politics, the liberal media and international human rights organisations together had created a “worldwide network” to deliver “hundreds of thousands of migrants” into Europe.
This is a sad situation in times, when Hungary has witnessing growing health inequalities and the contradiction between the official government propaganda about the successes of the Hungarian reforms and the growing poverty and increasing health inequalities is huge.
Case study 2: What once used to be a land of the Solidarity movement, puts a muzzle on its civil society… Polish watchdogs increasingly under attack.
Screenshot of an article published on www.ngo.pl, an online portal for Polish NGOs, on a summary of 2016 and calling for halt in destroying NGOs. A caption translates to: “You can have other ideas, but you cannot destroy (public) trust to a very diverse activity of civil society in all of Poland.”
“Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki,
i do szabli, i do szklanki,
oba zuchy, oba żwawi,
niech im Pan Bóg błogosławi.”
Poland is one of those countries in Europe with a history of young democracy. In the last 25 years much has been achieved, many changes happened and lives of millions of people transformed – often to a better but not all benefited equally. Civil society has always been in a bit of a struggle with political and financial working conditions, but even despite that is has grown significantly and now we can see a good deal of a vibrant and strong community working for improved quality of life of people living in Poland. In the 90’s and in the first decenium of the 21st century, numbers of non-governmental organisations, charities and foundations exploded. Many of them focused on immediate determinants of people’s lives, health (or rather disease or disability) or poverty being one of those. With maturing democracy and rapidly improving standards of life (again, not for all), new forms of civic engagement and NGOs were born – holding the government accountable, participating in policy- and decision making on equal footage to business and formal state structures. Or at least demanding to be seen as such… It has never been easy or quick enough but some progress was made in the recent years. However, as everywhere else Polish society camps with social, economic and health inequalities – left unheard for too long, voters grew impatient. With a new conservative government coming to power at the end of 2015, these times have come to an end. Although the winning conservatives party was the only one coming to the table with a plan for non-governmental organisations and participatory civil society, its proposals have lacked consultation and have proven highly criticised by same civil society they are supposed to serve. As a prelude, the government weakened or even cancelled whatsoever democratic institutions like the Constitutional Court and the office of the Ombudsman. Following this, some major public media was censored and government critics discredited, and now deep reforms of educational system and civic space are underway – gender and ‘non-patriotic’ reference are removed, right to peaceful assembly and demonstration are restricted, watchdog NGOs are accused of political links and unclear sources of funding, or using donations and public money to run organisations (like in case of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity). The very same watchdog organisations that were created to hold the government and politicians accountable, keep check on election promises, are accused of meddling with politics… Most direct link of such developments on public health is on sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls (restrictions on family planning and infertility treatment), violence against women (including on sexual and domestic grounds), discrimination of the Roma or LGBTQ community, migrants health (disrespect to rights-based approach to access to healthcare), poverty-related health disparities (undermining state’s responsibility to protect) or even climate change and air pollution impacts on population health (questioning evidence-base).
At the European level, public health civil society should debate and exchange on countries situations, attacks on civil society space and strategies of addressing those. The duty and the essential role of civil society for the public interest should be recognised. Attacks and harassment of critical NGOs must be stopped immediately. Solidarity is needed more than ever: civic participation on equal footage, respect for fundamental values such as human rights, freedom of expression and assembly are what defines the beauty of Europe and stands for its strength at national level and at the global stage.
We may have different views and believe in different ways of solving social problems, but we may not let social trust to non-governmental sector harmed by political upheavals. We are the NGO community and first and foremost we must speak for ourselves, remain supportive and protect the community whether at home or abroad.
Disclaimer: stating no conflict of interests; about authors in short: Dorota Sienkiewicz is an independent public health advocate; originally from Poland, she is based in Brussels, Belgium. Zoltán Massay-Kosubek is a Hungarian qualified lawyer and acting advocate of the European Public health community, living in Brussels. This article reflects strictly only the personal conviction and views of the authors.
(source of the ‘Pole and Hungarian’ proverb: Wikipedia)Zoltán Massay-Kosubek