Outreach and politics

or When politics hit close to home

Everything is a matter of perspective.

Without the "Sz" and an accent on the a, my home village, Szirák tuned into a country ravaged by war and insurgency.

Without the “Sz” and an accent on the a, my home village, Szirák transformed into a country ravaged by war and insurgency.

On a hot summers night back in 2013 some – to my knowledge still unknown – hooligans committed crime. They thieved and vandalized public property. Alternatively, one might say they made a statement. By stealing two letters and an accent they turned my small Hungarian home village, unknown to the majority of the global population, into a country suffering from poverty and war and violence: they changed Szirák into Irak (the Hungarian spelling of Iraq). And while, obviously, my village does not have to deal with insurgency and fighting, by many other criteria one might see the likeness: Szirák is a tiny village with less than 2000 inhabitants in a poor rural area of Hungary. Unemployment rates are incredibly high (60% in 2011) and the roads leading to and from the village are so bad you don’t drive there, you slalom your way around ankle-deep potholes. While there’s clean water, electricity, telephone and internet, a centralized sewage system is only now being introduced in the area. The village has seen its share of senseless vandalism and violence, the roma (gypsy) and non-roma population are at constant odds with each other, and there are large social differences: standing proudly next to half-built houses and dilapidated ruins is a 4-star wellness hotel in an old chateau, where well-off tourists can book a “classic package” for 55.000Forints/person – that’s about half of what most villagers, working for minimal wages, earn. So, by and large, things are pretty grim.

My family has been living in this village for over a century, and particularly my mum is very involved in local development. She’s a major driving force behind a charity (with a truly tongue-twisting name: “Szirák Polgárosodásáért Alapítvány” or “Foundation for the Civic Renewal of Szirák” in English) that raises funds and develops plans for restoring local landmarks and improving living conditions, and also organizes various events for education and social life. In my work I often hear about the importance of outreach, and the work she does is the real deal: it’s not a talk or lab practical in a school full of privileged kids and motivated teachers, but programs to educate and bring science closer to people, some of whom barely have primary school education. One of the most recent activities of the charity was a course for the locals on how to farm mushrooms (not the magic kind). The course provided training and education, and additionally also aimed at strengthening the community, by bringing roma and non-roma villagers closer through joint team-building exercises and excursions. These activities were generously supported by the Norway Grants scheme, and would not have been possible without this funding.

Collective efforts bearing fruit (or rather fruiting bodies?). From left to right: mushrooms are grown in a cellar on wooden support, followed through early and late development, and harvested.

Collective efforts bearing fruit (or rather fruiting bodies?). From left to right: oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are grown in a cellar on wooden support, followed through early and late development and, finally, harvested. Images courtesy of the Szirák Polgárosodásáért Alapítvány.

However, such support might now be a thing of the past, because last friday the Norway/EEA Grants scheme announced it would stop all payments to Hungary.  Hungary has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the scheme, which is supported by Norway (surprise, surprise), Iceland and Liechtenstein, and which has the objective is to “strengthen civil society development and enhance contribution to social justice, democracy and sustainable development”. With 153.3 million EUR having been allocated to Hungary and almost 12 million EUR already having been paid out, the grants have been a blessing for many communities, including my home village, and the decision to end payments is a real blow. The reasons are unclear: the official statement explains the decision with the Hungarian governments move to transfer the management of the Norway Grants from a ministry to a state-owned company, a unilateral breach of the agreement between the countries. On the other hand, there has been quite some mud-slinging over the last couple of months, since Hungarian state secretary János Lázár and deputy state secretary Nandor Csepreghy accused the Norwegian Civic Fund of secretly meddling in Hungarian politics, by having the fund operated by a foundation (Ökotárs Alapítvány) with close ties to the liberal opposition party, LMP. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the organisations handling the fund denied the accusations point blank (see here and here), and the Norwegian Grants state that the decision to terminate payments is unrelated to these events, though probably all that bad blood didn’t help. At the end of the day, the reasons don’t really matter.

What does matter, is that for places like my home village, where money from the fund represented a lifeline, a way of improving living conditions, this source will no longer be available. As apolitical as I am, it angers me incredibly, when I see such bigwig political gameplay – it’s the little people who suffer from it.

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