Philanthropy is a universal phenomenon, yet civil society in different parts of the world reflects a specific local and cultural context. What can be said about philanthropy today in a post-communist country in the heart of Central Europe?
The 2015 World Giving Index by Charities Aid Foundation, which uses several metrics to comparatively measure generosity around the globe, puts post-communist countries in Central Europe such as Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic at a lower ranking than Western countries (and even lower than many African and Asian countries that are on a lower level of human and economic development).
Today, news from this part of the world has focused on the rather negative and rejecting attitude and response of the region’s politicians and public towards the wave of refugees from the Middle East. (See articles here, here, here, and here.)
Looking at these two portraits of the region side by side is telling, especially since the World Giving Index uses “help provided to a stranger in the last month” as one of its indicators of charitable expression. The response of Central European political elites to the refugees — and the nature of public discourse on this matter — can be seen as an in vivo test of the validity of such a measure.
But the story is deeper than that. In a very good op-ed in The New York Times last fall, Ivan Krastev suggested that behind the compassion deficit in Eastern Europe is a deeper crisis of the European project. When looking at the current state of philanthropy and generosity in the region — including how it has faced the refugee crisis — taking into account historical context and legacy is illuminating. To go deeper into this, let’s take a closer look at Slovakia.
As a former Soviet satellite, Slovakia carries a historical burden of four decades of a social utopia experiment with ambition to achieve common good through coercion and ideological obedience. The experience with a closed totalitarian welfare state destroyed the country’s social fabric that had been built for centuries and was so important to the level of trust in society, as well as moral decision-making and charitable behavior. On top of that, the process of ambivalent modernization in a paternalistic state taught generations of Slovakian citizens that initiative is punished and that passively waiting for the state to deliver will be rewarded.
But it is not only the communist past that matters. The 26 years since the collapse of the fall of the Iron Curtain have been important in shaping philanthropy in Slovakia, as well. The past two and half decades have been a period of rapid changes — and not always for the better.
Regained freedom was accompanied by economic and social hardships. Especially in the early years after 1989, people had to adjust to radical social-economic downturn. Even after joining the European Union in 2004, without which many of the reform steps that had to be taken in post-communist Europe would not have happened, the financial crisis stepped in and the dynamic growth Slovakia and others had been experiencing ended.
In terms of the human psyché, the rejection of the old system in 1989 supported the paradigm of individualism among Slovakians. This was natural, as the new ideals of liberal democracy and the market economy praised and rewarded individualistic values. This resulted, unintentionally, in a suppressed concern among people for the “community” or “common good.” A lot of energy has been invested in pursuing individual economic interests to respond to the needs of economic survival in the austerity periods caused by structural transformation — but also to respond to selfish and greedy motives, which has been well-documented by corruption and clientelism in the region.
Thus, the path towards the consolidation of democracy, civil society, and a renewal of moral dialogues so important for the working of democratic capitalism has been complicated. The phantoms of nationalism, self-victimization, and identity politics are still present today and have contributed to the compromising and twisting of principles of liberal democracy and Western values, as we can see today in the international headlines coming out of the region. What has this struggle meant for philanthropy in the region?
Implications to civil society and pro-social behavior
There are different views on how significant the impact of the old regimes has been on the quality of civil society in Slovakia today. There are negative consequences in terms of the density of associations, membership in associations, or levels of volunteering or giving, and as far as levels of interpersonal and institutional trust are concerned.
Today, after 26 years, Central European countries are still less rich than its western neighbors, and have a less structured and developed environment for philanthropic and charitable work. The private initiative for public good is less encouraged and supported by the state, and less trusted by the general public. That said, many of the challenges that civil society in Central Europe face are similar to those faced by its neighbors in Western Europe, especially in terms of organizational challenges — be it problems of transparency, inconsistent regulation of the third sector, or shortcomings in professional management of civil society organizations (Schreier, 2015). The differences exist in intensity and scale.
But there has been progress. Civil society is present and is increasingly playing a role in a variety of fields, such as education and good governance. Following global trends, especially in the last few years, Slovakia has seen a noticeable growth in every aspect of philanthropy — individual, corporate, and institutional (foundation) giving.
On the level of individual giving, the most common practice in Slovakia is giving relatively smaller amounts through public collections in cases of humanitarian catastrophes or domestic charitable causes. Since 2010 there has also been a constant growth in the volume of online giving portals ranging from charity online “supermarkets” to crowd-funding schemes. For example, one of the online charity portals last year facilitated the distribution of 31,000 gifts worth €750,000 to more than 400 various recipients and causes.
Individuals in Slovakia are also embracing new practices such as collective giving through giving circles — in the last few years there has been a growing number of successful examples of this approach in Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
There is also giving from high net worth donors, as in the last few years the region has discovered its own Bill Gateses and Mark Zuckerbergs. These donors are the “new wealth,“ coming from technology or financial equity or other kinds of enterpreneurial fields and looking to make a difference in the public benefit realm in areas like education, humanitarian causes, and anti-corruption, to name a few. There is also growing interest in strategic giving and giving with impact orientation, but many of the region’s philanthropists remain anonymous.
Since private giving does not have tax advantages in Slovakia (which is really unique in the region), the data on its volume and growth are unfortunately not available. Indirect evidence, though, suggests that it is growing. For example, the reported income of nonprofit organizations from private individuals increased significantly and reached €70 million in 2013. Similarly, data from online giving portals shows a steady increase in giving by 30% annually.
Finally, charitable activity is also visible through the presence of institutions of organized philanthropy — foundations. In Slovakia, there are several dozen active corporate foundations, 10 community foundations, and a couple of independent foundations. There are more than 400 other operational foundations, family foundations, and issue-based foundations, of which very few have any of their own assets. Most are flow-through and fundraising foundations. A similar development in the growth of organized philanthropy is also happening in other countries of the region.
Even with all this positive development, civil society in Slovakia still has a ways to go, including in overcoming the challenge that the lingering and pervasive idea of “otherness” poses to charitable instinct in this region. Despite the traditional Christian ethics that are still important in Slovakia, which emphasize solidarity with those who are needy or in escape, many people struggle to overcome their mistrust of other cultures and religion — the “strangers.” There are encouraging examples, such as initiatives organizing material assistance and volunteer efforts to refugees, but these do not get to the news.
Western societies outperform the generosity and vibrancy of civil society in Central Europe in many aspects. But even if the levels of generosity are lower than its Western neighbors’, philanthropy in Central Europe manifests itself more intensively today than it did 15-20 years ago. It is not yet a major social force changing the state of affairs in selected sectors, but it is contributing to addressing challenges in society — and, importantly, doing so through broader participation and not just elite action.
The philanthropic landscape in Central Europe is more complex than one can perceive from comparative philanthropic indexes — or, most recently, from the negative attitude of political elites to the refugee issue that is being broadcast throughout the world.
The legacy of the past provides a good framework for understanding not only the ambiguities and challenges of the philanthropic field in this region today, but it also helps us to see a more realistic vision of this part of the world, more broadly. Looking into the years ahead, the civil society actors, activities, and initiatives in Slovakia and other countries in Central Europe will challenge the path-dependent trajectory and take on the serious moral and practical challenges ahead.
This post is part of an occasional series on the CEP Blog providing international perspectives on philanthropy and foundation effectiveness. Other posts in the series can be found here.