Social innovation in Central Europe
*Eastern countries include other fascinating countries in terms of social innovations. This article deals with the countries visited during the Europe Tomorrow tour.
Despite the persisting impact of the former communist regime on the civil society in the Central Europe, legislations passed in the early 90s and increased foreign funding for civil society organisations. Thousands of new CSOs sprung up in the following years. However, civil society in the Central Europe continues facing significant challenges to this day. Networking, cooperation and communication within civil society, corruption as well as relatively weak impact on government and society remain the greatest weaknesses.
More specifically, the problem mentioned of low governance quality at all levels of public administration, including its low knowledge capacity, and high risk aversion makes the social innovations more difficult to undertake or receive support To tackle this state of fact, Open society aims to contribute to building an efficient and well-functioning state where all people would enjoy equal opportunities. Moreover, The Prague Civil Society Centre was set up to empower civil societies across Eastern Europe and Central Asia in their quest for open society and respect for the rule of law, human rights and dignity.
Social innovation is quite a new concept in the country. There is no academic workplace or public policy which would specifically address the subject. But this does not mean that there are no social innovations in the country. There are currently around 100 social enterprises in the Czech Republic, doing business in just about every area of the economy. These include cleaning services, cafés, confectionary shops, restaurants, production and processing firms, graphic studios, digitization studios, call centres, park and garden maintenance firms. Many social enterprises in the Czech Republic employ people with disabilities. This is influenced by tradition, the relatively clearly defined instruments and status of this kind of disadvantage compared to other types. However, enterprises employing disadvantaged categories such as Roma people, homeless people, former drug addicts, can be found increasingly commonly, showing an interesting growing trend for the diffusion of social economy in this country.
In the mobility field, Rekola is an interesting bike sharing system, different from the others which exist elsewhere as they are not using any fixed stations. Bikes are just locked on the streets with normal code bike locks. The user has a mobile application that gives him the right code to unlock a bike in front of him. After that he just rides wherever he wants to and locks the bike anywhere he wants for someone else to pick it up. In the social sector, The Network of Mother Centres is a non-profit organization that seeks to help women with small children maintain their professional skills and develop self-confidence. The network consists of 335 centres throughout the country. They are spaces where mothers and children can meet other mothers and children to learn how to use their free time effectively. Moreover, Cooks Without Homes (CWH) aims to provide homeless women job opportunities, but also to portray homeless people differently. CWH offer vegan, healthy food to different farmers markets, various public and cultural events for voluntary contribution. Pragulic is a social business that employs homeless people to give walking tours of Prague. The tour, costing 200 CZK (10 USD) per person, is catered for locals who are shown the side of Prague beyond picturesque architecture and who want to understand the not so well known part of their city. About the environment, To The Roots provides ecological funerals and bereavement counselling. Czech funeral rituals are in crisis, so they want to revive this very important rite of passage with new green impulses.
Hungary is a landlocked country in Central Europe. The economy of the country experienced market liberalization in the early 1990s as part of the transition from a socialist economy to a market economy, similarly to most countries in the former Eastern Bloc. The social cooperative, which is the most common legal form for social enterprises in Hungary, aims to create workplaces for unemployed or socially disadvantaged people. About 1500 social co-operatives are registered in Hungary. However there are some private programs (NESST, Norwegian Civic Found, Swiss Found), which support social enterprises in general. The NESsT international organization, which was first established in Hungary, provides a range of business support for starting social enterprises. The three main branches of their support are: the capacity support thanks to mentoring and training, the Investment and the social capital thanks to an access of a network of corporate professionals providing pro-bono consulting support. Another network is The Kooperació+ project. It promotes adaptability-improvement of social economy organisations and helps their capacity-development. Kooperació+ also provides professional support for project implementer organizations: networking, spread good practices and operation-models among the actors, helps institutionalisation, and experience transfer.
As a good example of labour integration initiative, The Last Straw Foundation addresses the needs of the poorest in Hungary’s poorest, post-industrial areas. The foundation begins with providing food, medicine, social aid, employment possibilities, and financial services to families. After these basic needs are met, the foundation introduces special forms of mini-farming in agriculture and animal breeding to ensure long-term sustainability. In the social field, Fruit of care currently sells two hundred different high quality, designer gift and decorative products made by people with intellectual disabilities in eight sheltered workshops to companies and retail customers. The aim of the Salva Vita Foundation is to give the mentally disabled a chance to create new, independent lives and to assist them in their social integration. The foundation helps provide them with integrative workplaces and the training programs they need to succeed in mainstream society. The foundation’s broader mission is to spread the concept of “supported employment” throughout Hungary. Kockacsoki offers high quality handmade chocolate products and chocolate-making workshops. They also offer an internship program for people with autism, encouraging participants’ employability and providing skills training for a successful job integration. Kockacsoki will also provide workshops to people with disabilities that aim to enhance their independent lifestyle focusing on kitchen skills. matyodesign creates casual hand-embroidered clothing, embellished with traditional motifs from Hungary’s Matyo region. The clothing is embroidered by local women who are experts in this traditional art form and who have difficulties finding employment elsewhere in the region. “Special Stay” aims to help B&B owners, especially in the disadvantaged sub-regions of Hungary by providing efficient marketing advisory for a reasonable price, teaching the beneficiaries how to improve the quality of their services through simple and cost efficient tools. A special search engine will also be launched to support the small guesthouse owners’ access to the market.
The integration of people with disabilities is also the focus of social enterprises such as The Society of People with Golden Heart, The Symbiosis Foundation, The Halfway Foundation, The Real Pearl Foundation or HelloMum!. Finally, there are several unconventional civil society movements organised by young people that can hardly be grouped into a category and often do not even have a registered organisation in their background and use the internet, Facebook and Twitter to promote their goals. As an example, one could mention the Critical Mass movement that is successfully fighting for bike lanes and respect for bikers in traffic, or the Bike Kitchen, where volunteers repair donated bikes and provide them to orphanages and other social institutions.
Hungary faces all social problems that are typical for a Central European country, such as an ageing population, growing unemployment and a big Roma minority. According to the last census in 2001, there were approximately 190000 members of the Roma minority living in Hungary, constituting the biggest national minority. Another significant problem is the growing divides between the capital, Budapest and to a lesser extent the bigger towns on the one hand, and the countryside on the other hand. Unemployment, minority problems and quality and access to social services differ considerably. Almost one third of the country’s population lives in and around the capital, and most big companies and universities are located in the capital or the bigger towns.
Roma (or Gypsies), the largest ethnic minority in Eastern Europe, are perhaps the region’s most misunderstood, most persecuted, and maligned minority. Since their migration from India approximately six hundred years ago, Roma have suffered economic, political and cultural discrimination at the hands of both communist and capitalist and both democratic and totalitarian societies. The post 1989 transition in Eastern Europe has created a huge ethnic underclass consisting of over 5 million Roma who by every statistical indicator, political, social, and economic (literacy, income, life span, infant mortality, diet, representation in government, access to healthcare and legal aid, education, employment) have the lowest status of any ethnic group in Eastern Europe.
The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) is an international public interest law organisation working to combat anti-Romani racism and human rights abuse of Roma through strategic litigation, research and policy development, advocacy and human rights education. Since its establishment in 1996, the ERRC has endeavoured to provide Roma with the necessary tools to combat discrimination and achieve equal access to justice, education, housing, healthcare and public services. The ERRC’s thematic priorities include: State response to violence and hate speech; Access to education and Housing; Free movement and migration; Identity documents; or Women’s and children’s rights. The Mahájána Foundation in Budapest operates a weekend school for the children of the Roma community living in deep poverty in Csörög. They plan to launch a handmade cheese workshop to generate income for some of the Roma families, and additionally contribute to the financing of the weekend school. A pilot year is co-financed with Badur Foundation. The Roma Managers Professional Association has designed a program for education reform and skill training that addresses discrimination against Roma people in Hungary. It has been remarkably successful in involving municipalities in decreasing school dropout rates among Roma children and in helping adults find jobs. The Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI) is creating the framework for civil rights legislation in post-communist Hungary by providing the country’s first legal defence system for Roma and teaching the first Hungarian university course on human rights. The Dear House Project operates in the poorest region of Eastern Hungary and provides a family atmosphere to gypsy children from disadvantaged and poor families. Children live all week in the dormitory attached to the school where they learn social and life skills as well as taking part in the educational program of the school. On the weekends, the children go home and begin to teach their parents what they have learned. As a result the parents are returning to school to finish 8th grade diplomas and the children are integrating themselves into normal secondary school classes.
About the development of civil society, DemNet‘s vision is a world based on the responsible and sustainable relationship of self-organised citizens and their communities respecting human dignity. Their mission is to facilitate and strengthen cooperation and self-organisation processes of community actors thanks to the empowerment of CSOs and grassroots, community initiatives, to supports to improve sustainability of NGOs and to foster civil society actors’ social embeddedness. Moreover, the primary goal of Civil Support is to improve the effectiveness of Hungary’s social organisations. In order to achieve this, they provide functional, strategic and matchmaking services for them. They also develop strategic cooperation between stakeholders (for-profit, government and NGO alike). Finally, there are also NGOs that help refugees, even if the government is more focused on closing its frontiers. MigationAid or InfoAid are two examples. The Migration Aid volunteers decided to help them find which trains or buses take them to their destination and give them food, drinks, personal hygiene products and a couple of good words while they are transiting at train stations. To finish, InfoAid is a smartphone app that helps migrants to have real time information about the borders.
Romania has a long tradition in social economy that was unfortunately interrupted by the communist period and which has affected the essence of volunteering and cooperative movement, and created in this way some barriers that we need to face and to struggle to overcome them even nowadays.
The country faces several challenges such as a high unemployment rate. In 2013, the unemployment rate was 23.6 percent. The situation is even more concerning among disadvantaged groups. According to the December 2012 data from the National Authority of People with Disabilities, there are 618,000 adults with disabilities in Romania and only 4.6 percent of them are included in the labor market. The Poverty risk is important, especially in the rural areas. According to Eurostat, 28 percent of the Romanian population is at risk of poverty, and the deprivation rate exceeds 25 percent. Moreover and according to the World Bank, Romania has the highest proportion of the rural population in the European Union at 45 percent. It also has the highest incident of rural poverty at 70 percent. Skills training, employment opportunities, or job placement services for people with disabilities, at risk youth, ethnic minorities, and other populations excluded from the regular labor market are also challenges.
In Romania, ESS actors are not yet organised. They exist but are so few that it is difficult to make it a system and to constitute a high-impact alternative voice. By the way, actors such as the Babele network, le Hub Bucharest network or the Nesst one had to widen the niche of social projects to innovative classical entreprises. In a nascent universe, it is above all a matter of developing and training Roma people to the entrepreneurship culture before even considering social and community entrepreneurship. The basis being the creation of a sufficiently powerful first community capable of spreading ESS’s principles.
Among the projects we identified, Light into Europe helps deaf and mute people with the will to reach a real financial self-sufficiency. Concordia is an authorized protected unit, which aims at the social reintegration of children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have taken a social entrepreneurship approach, creating a bakery, a coffee space and shops selling products created by Concordia apprentices. IKEDOO was founded in 2010 in Romania to help children improve academic performance and to facilitate their adaptation to real life using 21st century skills. Bond’n’Bake is a cooking project for kids with story-like illustrated recipes that provide an interaction-based context where children develop communication skills as well as fine-motor abilities. Atelierul de Panza is a NESsT Enterprise in Romania that promotes sustainable development by producing and selling canvas bags and other textile products employing people with disabilities.
About the environment, We Plant Good Deeds is a project fighting against deforestation. Pink Lime is a circular economy project (cradle-to-cradle) producing hammocks and beanbags. Pink Lime was among EIB Social Innovation Tournament’s finalists. Village life is a project promoting sustainable rural tourism in Romania, they are winners of the Nesst award.
Concerning education, Sigur.Info project is being developed by a consortium which include Save the Children.The project is part of the Community program to promote the use, in greater safety conditions of the Internet and new technologies online, Safer Internet plus. There is also Digital Kids which is a programming course for children from 8 to 14 years.