Making Sense of Current Hungarian Politics

Mate Varga (w/ pony tail)

Kunbabony, Hungary  The opening session of the 8th meeting of the Citizen Participation University began with the traditional welcome by Mate Varga, the head of Civil College Foundation. Varga is an open-handed and open-hearted man with a ready ability to laugh, often seeming to be chuckling to himself, so his welcome would normally be met with open faces and wide smiles, but this year must have seemed more subdued and sober to CPU veterans.

Mate’s remarks were tempered by the times. He described the protests recently in Budapest around the government’s new restrictions on nonprofits. The crowds, the excitement, the anger, and the disappointment that their protests had been unsuccessful. Nongovernmental organizations that receive any foreign funding are now required to publicly label themselves as “foreign funded” on their literature, website, and so forth. Grants from the Norwegian government are being held up over the dispute. The Civil College has been mentioned in coverage newspapers and television stories along with others including George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire, who is currently the boogie man of Hungarian conservative politics. In fact Mate warned that the very location in Kunbabony where we were meeting had been the target of journalistic interlopers, who might be seeking unsolicited interviews.

Nick Thorpe, a veteran BBC reporter stationed in Budapest and reporting over the last 31-years on Eastern Europe, was partnered with me to provide the keynote to the opening session. He was going to provide context and analysis of the current scene in the region and in Hungary, and I was slated to provide some perspective on how organizations could respond and survive in these increasingly harsh climates. All I would offer on ACORN’s experience in my half-hour could be summarized as “dare to struggle, dare to win,” and never, never ever quit fighting, which was well enough received, but I was especially interested in hearing Nick’s on-the-ground, ringside perspective.

Nick Thorpe (BBC reporter)

He began with remarks about the huge dead-of-winter protests in Romania earlier in the year against corruption. He had spent weeks there trying to solve the puzzle of the protests and the organizers and organizing behind it after being initially skeptical that their efforts had any chance of success, yet the government had fallen to their efforts.

Thorpe warned the assembly that his view on the current condition of Hungarian politics might be seen as contrarian. Despite the foreboding of Mate’s introduction, he felt the government’s attacks might be ebbing, rather than rising. The heart of his argument was that the obsession of the existing government with the Central European University and its support by Soros had crossed a line and had lost support of other right parties and within the governing party itself. Though in the West the situation is seen as a stalemate with a year’s cooling off period, Thorpe’s analysis from his sources was more along the lines that the year was a face saver for the government, rather than the last gasp for the university.

Unfortunately for our comrades among Hungarian NGOs, Thorpe’s sources did not extend sufficiently, at least not yet, to give them comfort on their fight. The same tide had not gone out on nonprofits. On the other hand Thorpe speculated that despite the overwhelming odds stacking the deck for the existing government in the coming election that would require virtually all parties, right and left, to coalesce in order to defeat it, he believed there were signs in the wind that indicated that such a political tsunami might be building. He couldn’t be sure of course, and he could be wrong, but his finger was in the wind, and he could feel currents moving in surprising directions.

All of which made my following Thorpe easier. Where there is even a glimmer of hope, struggle is easier to imagine, and organizing a more obvious necessity.

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DeVos and Education Department Cannot Renege on Student Loans

New Orleans   Millions owe billions in student loans and in some cases it’s a just-past-the-cradle to the grave debt that just lingers on.

In a good move and through a bipartisan vote under the George W. Bush Administration in 2007, Congress approved a bill that under certain conditions would allow an individual forgiveness of student loan debt. The conditions were that they had to make payments for ten years and they had to work for a nonprofit organization or a unit of the government. Now we are coming up on ten years and more than a half-million former students and, arguably, committed public service individuals are hearing that the Department of Education may renege and claim, hey, gotcha, and still hold them to the debt and essentially have tricked them as hostages to their program for a decade. How can that be possible? How can they get away with that?

It’s a complicated process, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone to hear. Worse, it appears that nothing about the process is transparent, including the reasons why the Department of Education approves some groups as qualifying and rejects other groups arbitrarily, though they are also nonprofits and their work seems almost identical.

Equally disturbing is that this could be a deeper setback than just the question of a student’s debt. There has long been a policy discussion about the value of national service. Since the days of the dreaded draft and the Russian roulette of the draft lottery during the Vietnam War, compulsory military service has been replaced by the all-volunteer Army. In our age of inequity that means the military in peacetime has become a lower rung on the working class job and training ladder, and during wartime which seems semi-permanent since 9/11 has become a high risk option for anyone other than the patriotic or the desperate.

Nonetheless, presidents from Clinton to Obama have argued that there was real merit to increased national service, which was part and parcel to this provision of debt forgiveness for younger Americans that were willing to pass up bigger money and softer cushions to work for the government and in public service, including as firefighters, police, teachers and other critical positions in both cities and rural communities. Nonprofits fit into this same dynamic, which is why they are nonprofit and why many are tax exempt because of their value to the community in service, healthcare, and other endeavors.

The President and the Secretary of Education need to do right on this and honor the country’s word to individuals who relied on the country’s promise that in exchange for ten years of payments and ten years of service, they would have the rest of their loans forgiven. This was a good, fair deal. It should not be changed, and if it is changed, it should be on this Congress, this President, and this Secretary of Education going forward, not clawing back.

***

Please enjoy the Grateful Dead’s Dancing in the Dark.

Thanks to KABF.

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Bought Patient Advocacy Groups Shames Us All

New Orleans   There’s nothing perfect about nonprofits, especially these days when hospitals and many others operate like the greediest corporations almost as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Nonetheless, it was shocking, even if unsurprising in the dark cynicism of our modern times, to read about a recent study by medical researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine and reported in the New York Times exposing the deep and disturbing conflicts of interest between numerous, big time nonprofit advocacy groups for patients suffering from all kinds of maladies and their financial and governance relationships with drug and medical device companies.

The study looked at 104 of the largest nonprofit patient advocacy groups with significant budgets – over $7.5 million in annual revenues – and in the words of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the authors from the University of Pennsylvania, they found that “nine out of ten are taking money” from the industries connected to their advocacy. In addition to finding that more than 80% of these groups take the money, the study found that 40% of them had industry executives on their governing board, and in many cases industry contributions accounted for more than “half of their annual income.”

Adding insult to injury, the study also found that many of these so-called patient advocacy groups were opaque about their finances and the scale and size of the contributions from industry sources. They could have added that all of this is in disregard of IRS 990 requirements to list top donors and amounts, and therefore should have been more specific. The study was able to determine some amounts by trolling the groups’ websites, but, geez, doesn’t the effort by the groups to conceal this already say way more than we want to know. In these cases the drug and device companies are making investments, not donations, even though they are taking the tax write-offs for their purchases, and it seems demanding a board seat in return, just like any other significant purchase they might make in their daily business. Given the silence of many of these groups on the question of soaring drug prices and devices, like the Epi-Pen scandal, it seems tragically clear that at the least many so-called patient advocacy groups have been compromised, if not bought outright. These situations seems less like partnerships, and more like takeovers.

Working with the Mental Health Consumers Action Network (MCAN) in Alaska, it’s easy for me to see firsthand how even a membership organization can be tempted to stop being transformative and become transactional in order to have the resources to work and survive. The industry always claims to want “engagement and dialogue,” but with great care and rigid accountability that can too easily be translated into compromise, consent, and silence even in situations where patients’ voices desperately need to be heard.

There are hard lessons in this. Patients’ need to be able and empowered to speak for themselves and demand care without compromise, and they need organizations that give them voice. Advocates are invaluable and mean well, but this scandal is a good reminder that they need to facilitate the ability of patients and their families to speak, and speak loudly, for themselves, rather than building plush institutional castles for themselves, while patients still suffer and die.

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Continued Global Oppression of Non-Profits

people-holding-hands-standing-around-globeMexico City     This was another rough year for nonprofits in many countries around the world. 

Ever since the Organizers’ Forum visited Egypt, after the revolution, and we visited with the outstanding Center for Trade Union and Worker Services that is the central nonprofit supporting the development of an independent labor movement in that country, I have received regular emailed updates and status reports from them, and it’s often a trail of tears.  Their leader was jailed for some time, and they continue to push back against constant government harassment and false accusations.

Reports from Russia indicate that the closures of nonprofits there continues unabated.  Even very straight-laced, mainline outfits like the Carnegie Institute for Peace, active for decades in Russia, where the Organizers’ Forum also visited some years ago, has pulled up stakes.  Environmental and other groups continued to be hammered.  Some activists with whom we visited have relocated to operate from other countries for fear of jailing and losing their children. 

Under the Modi BJP government in India numerous nonprofits have been targeted, once again largely on fabricated financial issues and often about foreign money.  Greenpeace which had been very effective in advocating around the environmental crises and air pollution issues has been starved of funding and support.  Even the Ford Foundation has found itself under glare of governmental criticism, which must have been shocking to them, but is undoubtedly chilling as they look at the profile of their grant making in the country. 

In China, nonprofit organizations have been required to have a governmental partner in order to operate, rendering any notion of independence moot.  There is the possibility of change though since a draft law has been published in the fall which would offer some definition and protection for charities and promises to allow them to begin to register directly rather than coupled with a governmental partner. 

Observers are watching the results of the election in Myanmar closely.  Under military rule, nonprofits and others were closely watched for any potential criticism of the military and financial support.  Maybe there’s hope here as well.

I have to wonder in the rage for randomized trials of effectiveness and measurement of all manner of metrics for nonprofit performance how much credit nonprofits are getting in some of these countries just for surviving against state power.  Too often politics falls off the list of deliverables, yet political threats and tensions have made many nonprofits and their work around the world essential.  Others make compromises to be able to operate in countries with reactionary or repressive regimes, leaving nonprofits involved in social change and advocacy to sink or swim on their own.  There is no simple formula for change around the world or one size fits all way to measure the obstacles that must be overcome, and they are legion.

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Comcast Tactics Increasingly Transparent

comcast_logo_detailNew Orleans    We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep saying it again, but Comcast’s strategy to win approval of its monopoly in cable with a merger with Times-Warner has become increasingly obvious as one that builds support almost strictly on a “pay to play” basis under its architect, chief lobbyist and bullyboy, David Cohen. Tactically, it has muscled up support for its merger through its donations program almost exclusively. Even the New York Times has finally followed the crumbs back to the source.

Cohen of course denies everything as always.

None of us will forget just a couple of years ago that when our partner, Action United in Pennsylvania carried all of our grievances in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas with their fake, public relations $9.99 internet access program, despite the FCC requirement that they do the work to justify the merger with Universal the kind of performance Cohen put on. The suggestion that their outreach program, which consisted solely of leaning on schools to pass out brochures and their lobbyists wining and dining local politicians about their generosity, was woefully inadequate and they needed actual help in hitting the doors and doing real outreach, was greeted rudely by Cohen accusing us of asking for a bribe or something. Whoa there, cowboy! The FCC of course agreed with us and forced the company to pay a $750,000 fine, which Cohen probably also thought was a bribe as well, just of them rather than us, and continue their program for additional years. One of the gratuitous offers Comcast and Cohen have made to create the monopoly with Times-Warner is to continue the same program though of course still without making meaningful changes that would actually lead to any bridging of the digital divide to lower income families.

Nonprofits who are involved in partnerships with big corporations and their corporate contribution programs know the score. You take the money from their open hands for this or that, unless it’s part of a court settlement or an aggressive campaign, and the day will come when your liaison calls and carefully couches his request in the most positive light as not having been a quid pro quo but they need help before this hearing or that district or whatever and would it be possible for you to issue a statement, write a letter, testify or whatever to the work we have done together. Certainly ACORN and our banking partners on our housing program often got these calls, and we would push back or modify them to an agreeable proposition, but it was all part of the game, and chits were shelved for the future, just as antes had been placed on the past.

With a crew of reportedly 140 federally registered lobbyists and god knows how many working state by state, region by region, market by market, Cohen is no slouch, and they would know how to put a quota on their governmental relations crew to produce the number of statements they wanted to the FCC from groups that they had given money to for this or that in order to deposit money in the “future” bank for just this kind of FCC play.

Luckily, despite all of Comcast’s and Cohen’s denials, this is not the FCC’s first time at the rodeo either. It’s a shame to see so many nonprofits snared in this mess, but times are tough and rationalizations are pennies on the dollar as well in the pay-to-play political game.

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First They Come for the Nonprofits

On 21 July 2014, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation registered five prominent Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the 'Foreign Agents' list. - See more at: http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/26677#sthash.CAIIw7Y1.dpuf

On 21 July 2014, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation registered five prominent Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ‘Foreign Agents’ list. – See more at: http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/26677#sthash.CAIIw7Y1.dpuf

Waveland   It seems not so much a pattern as an iron law that as governments move to clamp down on their citizens, first they come for the nonprofits. The evidence is everywhere, but the most recent examples can be found in Russia and Egypt.  When a delegation from the Organizers’ Forum visited each of these countries in recent years, first Russia in 2007 and Egypt in 2011,  the tendencies were clear, but now they are full-blown.

In Russia, the first steps involved registration of nonprofits, but it was obvious that the real issue was not so much whether or not there was proper registration with local authorities as whether or not it would be possible to block financial support from international NGOs and other foreign sources. In Egypt, since the repression following the revolution there have been arrests of representatives of nonprofits and human rights officials including foreign nationals from several countries including the USA whose work was focused on civic engagement or democracy building.

Journalists, bloggers, and activists have certainly suffered the brunt of continued repression. In Russia, we had met Evgenia Chirikova, who at the time was a young middle class mother of two children whose family had moved to the outskirts of Moscow and had become an environmentalist when she stumbled onto red X’s on trees in the Khimki Forest while walking her daughters and realized a highway was going to be built through the ancient forest. I still follow their fight against all odds, enduring beatings, false arrests, and constant harassment in what has been largely a losing fight. Similarly, some of the young organizers we met in Egypt who were in the middle of the action in Tahir Square during the revolution have now scattered to the winds after arrests and constant harassment.

Nonetheless, autocratic governments don’t  feel secure enough just going after these courageous activists and organizers, so they push to curtail nonprofit activity is an attempt to cut off all of the supply lines that support such work. The new application of such laws in Egypt seems especially chilling. According to the Times:

The new law imposes a potential life sentence for the crime of intending to “harm the national interest,” “compromise national unity” or “breach security or public peace,” if it involves receiving money from abroad. Foreign funding is how virtually every credible human rights group here has subsisted for decades because of the legal and practical obstacles to domestic fund-raising under Egypt’s authoritarian governments.

Ghada Waly, the Egyptian minister of social solidarity, in charge of administering the program is ironically a veteran of some of the same international NGOs that are fleeing the country, having worked for CARE and the United Nations Development Program. She likens the laws to anti-smoking regulations in hospitals in the US, saying simply that the new law “… is a rule and you have to respect it.” Meanwhile the Carter Center has closed its office in the wake of the new rule and the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies after 20 years is moving to Tunisia.

No matter what these governments say, when they ask for the ability to approve every single grant to a nonprofit, seize staff and hold them for months during “investigations,” the nonprofit community is clear that they can hear the feet coming up behind them and the knock of the door to take them away. No matter what these governments say, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

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