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Commentary: NGO war breaks out in Czech Republic

Prague, 15.2.2013 1:25, (ROMEA)
A press conference on the afternoon of 4 February by the former occupants of the residential hotel on Čelakovského street in Ústí nad Labem - Krásném Březně transformed into a
A press conference on the afternoon of 4 February by the former occupants of the residential hotel on Čelakovského street in Ústí nad Labem - Krásném Březně transformed into a "happening" where activists responded to the current situation around the property. The banner reads "Hands Off the Poor" (PHOTO: Czech Press Agency)

"When People in Need, during the worst moment of this crisis at the residential hotel, when there was a risk that people's children would be taken into state care, released a lie to the media claiming that the residential hotel occupants had rejected 20 apartments, they crushed the faith of the people they were collaborating with, as well as the overall faith of the public in NGOs. At the same time, this organization showed that its media image and the provision of an alibi to its allies at the town hall, from which its grant money flows, is more important to it than are human lives and a good resolution to a crisis situation," reads a recent declaration issued by the Housing for All (Bydlení pro všechny) initiative. The abysmal situation of the Romani people in Ústí nad Labem has drawn attention to the deep antagonisms between those whom we have become used to assigning, in a too-simplified way, into apparently clear categories such as "non-governmental organizations" or "activists".

Let's recall the basic news here very briefly (we reported on this topic in the previous issue of Literární noviny): Last October several dozen Romani people had to be evacuated from the ghetto in the Předlice quarter of Ústí nad Labem after the ceiling inside a building there caved in on two women. The evacuated Romani residents moved first into the gym of the local school and later into a residential hotel on the other side of town. Shortly thereafter, the owner of the building in which the residential hotel was run declared it to be uninhabitable and demanded they all move out. The town, the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, the country's evidently most professional NGO (and one of its largest) People in Need (Člověk v tísni), the Konexe NGO, and an ad hoc initiative all took action to assist the residential hotel occupants.

Housing for All

Last week new apartments were finally found for the evictees. However, the mutual recriminations between the participating institutions and organizations are continuing to escalate. These antagonisms between "activists", various views of the necessary degree of radicalism or the nature of  collaboration with municipalities or state institutions concern far more than the "Předlice scandal". However, this particular scandal has received an unusual amount of publicity and has reminded us of these antagonisms in an exacerbated form.

"Radicals" and "servitors"

It is not at all easy to figure out who really did what for the Romani people in Ústí, or what was actually said to them. There is no point in getting into the details, as we do not intend to resolve a specific dispute here or to clarify the insults flying between several different camps of activists. What we are concerned with are the starting points of the dispute.

At first glance those seem to be as follows:  The town claims it could not have done anything more for the Romani evacuees than it did (i.e., offering them the addresses of possibly available housing) and that the evacuees were to blame for their own situations to a significant degree. The Agency says the addresses recommended by the town were inappropriate, that the town lacks a social housing concept, and that it did not take advantage of all of its options. People in Need is fighting with the other activists over who is really helping and who is just exploiting the situation for their own interests.

"Political responsibility for the ghetto in the Předlice quarter lies with Deputy Mayor for Social Affairs Zuzana Kailová (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD), who is completely passive and professionally incapable of resolving the issue. Zuzana Kailová is also the main political ally of People in Need at the town hall, which is why it is taboo for People in Need to publicly criticize her and her (in)activity," Miroslav Brož, a representative of Konexe, writes in an open letter to People in Need. In his view, People in Need is more like a servitor of the system, giving priority to its own "business" instead of to resolving Romani people's situations.

Jan Černý of People in Need responds to these charges as follows:  "His [Brož's] concept sounds good to those who know nothing about it here. For those who have attempted to get something done, his theoretical approach is absurd. I know he knows this. The lack of humility in his approach toward the right of people to take their own way out the ghetto is big-headed, scandalous, and totalitarian." In his eyes, Brož and activists like him are at best naive radicals lacking in humility. At worst, they are directly exploiting the situation of Romani people in the ghetto for their own interests.

Each person participating in this dispute is probably partially right, and there are several options for embarking upon a discussion here. We can conduct extensive arguments over whose role is bigger and more important. We can look for common ground, on the basis of recognizing that even our opponents really do have a partial claim on the truth. Or we can do our best to exclude "foreign truths" from the public space. My concern is that the latter option is rather typical of how our public discussions usually unfold.

Don't fear the radicals

This tension between People in Need and smaller NGOs is not new. Simply put, a number of activists who are fired up and ready to go view People in Need as a bureaucratic, impersonal, too-big firm that is losing its original values and (like it or not) must devote too much attention to its own internal operations and finances.

From the perspective of the "professionals" at People in Need, many activists seem like naive idealists. They may be nice people, but they are incapable of filling out a grant application properly and they contribute unnecessary chaos and confusion to the NGO field, chaos that can sometimes harm the NGO image.

Of course, a similar relationship exists between the big established "green NGOs" in this country and too-radical environmental activists. This has to do with the problem of fundraising and grants. Organizations that live from corporate and government grants and from individual donations do not like to openly consort with "radicals", who for the most part do not evoke feelings of trust from bureaucrats, managers, or ordinary citizens. This posture understandably radicalizes the radicals even more as far as their relationship with established NGOs is concerned, confirming their conviction that there is a need to fight these "soft servitors of the system."

These disputes do not have simple solutions, especially now when Czech NGOs are economically worse and worse off. One essential thing is, nevertheless, clear to me:  The voice of the "radicals" is important, and in that respect the big NGOs really do often make the mistake of avoiding or suppressing it.

We are seeing that now in Ústí. The ghetto in the Předlice quarter is falling apart. A much bigger crisis looms than the one the town just went through with a few Romani families. A comprehensive solution is evidently lacking in Ústí, in other towns, and throughout the entire country. Maybe the "radicals" aren't offering a convincing concept either, but they are not afraid to call this situation out for what it is and to demand a comprehensive solution.

This is precisely what "professional activists" sometimes avoid, because they want "to achieve the possible" - to ensure housing that is at least a bit decent and a bit safe, at a minimum for those who are momentarily most at risk and for those who are already doing their best on their own. They don't want to shut the door on further negotiations with the authorities, and to achieve that aim, they must proceed tactically.

Anxiety over the radicals really can lead to the perspectives of civil servants, established NGOs, and politicians merging together. This makes understanding the radical viewpoint all the more necessary.

Czech original reprinted with the consent of Literární noviny.

Michal Komárek, Literární noviny, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Agentura pro sociální začleňování, Bída, Dotace, Chudoba, Kauza, Komunální, Lidská práva, Neziskový sektor, Stěhování, Systém, Ubytování, Ústí nad labem, Vystěhování, Aktivismus, Miroslav Brož, Občanská společnost, Občanské iniciativy, občanské sdružení, Předlice, Romové, sociální bydlení, sociální služby, sociální vyloučení, ubytovny, Commentary, Czech republic, Člověk v tísni, Ghetto, Housing, Konexe, o. s., Předlice, Roma



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