It is the right thing to hold the EFC Grantmakers East Forum (GEF) – an annual donor conference with a geographical focus on Eastern and Southeastern Europe – in Budapest. Easily reached, an attractive destination, a wide spectrum of accommodation, combined with a strong and well connected host. Yet, discussing ‘Reframing Civil Society’ in the Central European University (CEU) in Hungary’s capital did raise eyebrows, and probably rightly so. Local NGOs cooperating with (foreign) organisations attending the GEF know that their work is being made difficult, and that the pressure to comply with newly made regulations is high. It is well-known that the CEU and all its staff are under pressure. Hungary is commonly used as the first example when policy makers speak about illiberal states emerging as threats to democracy from within the European Union. Still, as Michael Ignatieff, pointed out in his welcome words – GEF in Budapest is a natural choice, liberal institutions like the CEU remain strong and will not be put to silence.
Urgency was also conveyed in an even wider picture; Indy Johar opened with an overwhelming keynote, bundling up a mind-boggling tirade of information, graphics and warnings. We are in the first phase of major transformation, in societal, economic and ecological terms. Ten more years to shape the future – it´s code red. The GEF would have started with this solely pessimistic outlook, had he not underlined the role – and power – of culture and imagination as possible ways out of these frightening developments. Embracing the future and realising the possibilities ahead of us, if only we wanted to, was the suggested antidote and left the one hundred GEF participants, half first-timers, half true believers, in a highly motivated spirit of urgency.
A mix of panel discussions with fine speakers and hands-on workshops, the GEF proved again to be a platform for exchange, made possible by the excellent conditions in which the gathering took place. A workshop, masterly held by Zoritza Trikic, transformed its one dozen participants from different foundations into a mini-projection of society, within fifteen minutes including dynamics of power. As discussion erupted, it became clear how skillful such an interactive format must be handled in order to avoid hurting people – and how close all of us and the societies we life in, can be to fall for unquestioned sets of rules and the abuse of power.
A panel discussion dealt with practical tools to control the latter. It was a team of 800 volunteers around Elena Calistru working as watchdogs in the recent referendum in Romania that made sure that the very low turnout could not be tampered with, thus the referendum failed. The referendum was seen as an attempt by the current government to leave behind ever more political checks and balances, covered-up as a referendum on gay rights. Examples like hers are needed to understand what works and what can not be thought out in the board rooms of foundations. An artistic intervention – these things still exist – closed the working part of fairly intense few hours in Budapest. ‘Peasant in Atmosphere’ around Dominika Trapp combines synthesizer and Punk singers with Hungarian Táncház, a wild ride bringing everybody back to where we started: the powerful role of culture we must not underestimate.
Robin Gosejohann is Project Manager at the ERSTE Foundation