This is the final report of the participatory action research project entitled “The history and future of our struggles” which was launched by the School of Public Life Foundation in 2020. You may find the preview of the project here, and we also shared an update in May 2021.
The goal of the project was to find answers to the following guiding question: What kind of political opportunities can the 2019 coronavirus pandemic offer to grassroots organizations and how can they take advantage of these opportunities in the long run? The research group was made up of 8 co-researchers with some background in activism and/or social organizing and three project facilitators. At the end of the process, the research team was made up of 6 co-researchers and 2 facilitators. The co-researchers conducted more than 40 interviews in 2020 and 2021. After analyzing our data, we compiled our final study in the second half of 2021. Our research group also took a variety of actions to turn the research results into socially impactful activities. They held workshops for various target groups (e.g., activists, participants of an international Summer University). We closed the project with a final study launching event which took place in December 2021. We also summarized our project in a video.
Our participatory action research (PAR) project started in January 2020. Initially, the research team intended to focus on exploring post-1989 social movements in Hungary to see what kinds of lessons we can learn from them for current struggles. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the direction of the project, and the group decided to work on three different aspects of the impact of COVID-19 for grassroots organizations: (1) political opportunities for civil society organizations during the pandemic regarding their organizational strategies, base building and communication (2) conditions for creating alliances among grassroots organizations through organizing of the Solidarity Action Group (a network of leftwing, green and feminist organizations which was launched during the first wave of the pandemic) and (3) collaboration between civil society organizations and municipalities during the pandemic. The co-researchers chose these topics based on their personal and professional interests. With the exception of one member of the group, they were also involving their own organizations in the research process. Consequently, they not only produced valuable knowledge, but also catalyzed internal organizational development processes in their own organizations.
Project Background, Research Process, Research Outcome
Background of PAR Project
In 2020, a new coronavirus swept the world. With more than three million victims worldwide, the health and economic impact of the pandemic has spread to many areas of our lives and has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Hungary. But a crisis is not a source of trouble only; it is also an opportunity for change. What does it take for civic organizations to turn an existing crisis into an opportunity? What are some good examples from Hungary during the pandemic that we can learn from to be better prepared for another crisis? These questions drove our participatory action research project, launched in 2020.
While Covid-19 has not only had a negative impact on the world, it has also triggered forward-looking government action in many countries. In Spain, for example, in response to drastic unemployment, the government introduced a basic subsistence income, which mainly helps the poorest. In several European countries, including Germany and France, an effective public wage supplement scheme has been introduced to help firms retain workers. We have also seen a number of examples, including in Budapest, where municipalities have created new cycle lanes to increase cycling and have provided financial incentives for community cycling.
So a crisis is not only a source of trouble, but also an opportunity for change. This can be seen in several areas of civic life around the world. Even the most optimistic estimates put at least 88 million people on the brink of extreme poverty and millions more without access to enough to eat. The accumulation of rent and mortgage arrears warns of a new housing crisis. And unequal access to quality internet or computers will determine the chances of children who are excluded from digital education to advance for years to come. What will it take for civil society organisations to seize the opportunities offered by these crises?
We started our work together in January 2020 with a three-day training session where we got to know each other, shared our past activist experiences and took part in an exciting city walk to some of the key sites of the events of 1989 which was the year of the regime change in Hungary. We visited some venues that had a significant role in this process (e.g., Kossuth Lajos square or the memorial of Nagy Imre). We also learned together about social movements and protests in Hungary over the past 30 years and about approaches to participatory action research. We created a code of ethics for the group, which set out our rules for working together, and we also made a roadmap for the period ahead.
Weekly research meetings and working groups
From February onwards, we held weekly research meetings, where we held discussions in a moderated setting. Notes were taken of what was said so that the information could be retrieved later as part of record keeping and so that any group members who were absent could follow up on the group’s progress. We continued learning together about social movements and then set about defining our research question. This process was interrupted by the further spread of the coronavirus outbreak, which forced us to move our work online in mid-March 2020. The group quickly adapted to the changed circumstances, and it was during this period that we came up with the guiding question we were all looking to answer: what political opportunities does the 2019 coronavirus pandemic hold for grassroots initiatives, and how can these opportunities be used, even in the long term?
From then on, the researchers worked in three working groups. One group focused on cooperation between local governments and NGOs, the second group examined the cooperation between grassroots initiatives through the example of the Solidarity Action Group, and the third group explored the political opportunities for NGOs in terms of organisational strategy, communication and base building in the changed political-social environment resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. In organising the online meetings, we took care to ensure that researchers working on each topic could gain insight into each other’s work, ask questions and learn from each other.
Challenges to PAR projects related to working conditions. The coronavirus pandemic not only played a key role in defining the topic of our research, but the limitation on face-to-face meetings also had a crucial impact on the working methods of the research group. Members of the group completed much of their work together online, including both attending regular research meetings and carrying out research-related tasks at home. This presented the whole group with new challenges, as we had no prior experience of how the methods we had previously used in participatory action research projects would work in the online space, nor did we know how this forced transition would affect the dynamics of a recently formed group. As well as continuing our joint research, it was important to continue to pay attention to community building and to allow each member of the group to actively shape the process. Gradually, a relatively stable structure of online meetings evolved, consisting of four main sections: an introductory round, a discussion of current research-related tasks, a study block on the broader context of the research (movement history, research methodology or the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on social and economic issues) and a discussion of administrative and practical issues.
To answer our guiding question, we used several research methods: each working group conducted semi-structured, thematic interviews with relevant actors (activists, NGO leaders, municipal representatives). In all cases, the interviews were conducted anonymously. In addition, a review of the literature was also important, in particular to understand the wider socio-economic context of the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. We also paid attention to channeling the researchers’ own experiences into the research process.
After the selection of research methods and the development of research tools (e.g., interview guidelines), a relatively long phase of data collection followed. The vast majority of interviews were conducted online between July and December 2020. The number of researchers was reduced to six at this stage, leaving three pairs of researchers working on the three research topics mentioned above. The three teams progressed at different paces and developed different dynamics. The first research results were known in January 2021, when each team presented the first fruits of their data analysis to the rest of the research team. From then on, there was an even greater emphasis on independent work, and current issues in data analysis were discussed in bi-weekly online meetings. The interviews were processed by one pair of researchers using interview analysis software, while the others analysed the responses using their own categorisation system and content analysis.
The work of all three pairs of co-researchers has contributed to our understanding of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on grassroots initiatives, but the complexity of the topic makes it worth highlighting the key lessons for each topic separately. The topics were: (a) How NGOs operate during a pandemic, in terms of organisational strategy, base building and communication; (b) The operation of the Solidarity Action Group; and (c) Cooperation between municipalities and NGOs.
(a) How NGOs operate during a pandemic in terms of organisational strategy, base building and communication
One of the most obvious, and by no means new, lessons from the interviews is that only a well-paid staff with a lot of experience and organisational and professional knowledge can remain intact under the pressure of a pandemic and have the strength to innovate. In our case, both organisations involved in the research have moved, perhaps under pressure from the research, in the direction of employing paid staff to carry out the basic tasks necessary for their operations. Also, continuous training and learning is important for maintaining highly qualified staff.
In the grantmaking sphere, there is often a pressure to always come up with something innovative (new), which effectively removes the possibility of developing what may have worked in part in the past. In consciously using the organisation’s resources, it is important to build on and build from previous work.
The importance of fundraising cannot be overlooked as a factor in successfully adapting to a crisis situation. We have seen two examples of the importance of this resource for the freedom of organisations and their ability to maintain a positive sense of self-determination. Organisations that have met a large proportion of their financial needs from donations from their social base have also excelled in their ability to cooperate between organisations.
Among the organisations we examined, there were several that were unable to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the coronavirus pandemic. In many cases this was due to a lack of capacity. Those organisations that were able to respond quickly and proactively had at least one full-time staff member, but there were also some that had 10-20 paid staff.
We also paid particular attention to the attitude of our sample of NGOs towards politics. The majority of the representatives of the NGOs we interviewed feared that the political parties would join the advocacy to stand up for their own cause. Fear of the destruction of a movement or organisation due to partisan divides was the most frequently expressed concern among the interviewees.
(b) The operation of the Solidarity Action Group (SAG)
b1. The role of SAG during the pandemic
The SAG was launched in 2019 and it was initiated by some already existing left-wing, green and feminist grassroots groups in Hungary. The crisis of the pandemic also brought to the forefront the failures of the socio-economic system, which some organisations have long been highlighting. This scenario provided an opportunity that the Action Group was the first to seize. The organisations’ first joint action was to write a series of articles framing the crisis for Mérce (a left-wing online newsportal). Eight articles were produced: on economic and social macrostructure, work, food, violence against women, women’s work and care, maternity, housing, and green. SAG also wanted to include an article on education in the series, but in the end there was no capacity. Although the messages did not reach the general public through the articles, they were good for starting a discussion within the community about a common vision, and the articles gave a new impetus to the individual organisations within the SAG and to the subsequent joint work.
During the first wave, although the terrain was still unknown, there was plenty of will to do something within the organisations. This led to the launch of practical projects such as the Spark Movement’s mask-making and hand sanitising projects focusing on direct assistance, and the Stork Courier Cooperative. The latter was both a response to the sudden rise in unemployment and the limitation of the Stork’s activities, and a response to real needs in the cooperative’s environment, such as food delivery. The Action Group set up the Solidarity in Crisis Facebook group, initially for recruitment and coordination for the mask-making project, but later it started to function as an online forum.
The ‘disaster community’ during the first wave and the force of action provided by the wave of mutual aid associated with the disaster, weakened in the summer of 2020 when pandemic restrictions were eased. Although the membership began to brainstorm ways to continue working together, most ideas could not be implemented due to lack of resources.
The goal of our co-researchers was to explore to what extent this newly formed initiative can be maintained after the pandemic and to bring together organizations who work in different fields under the umbrella of a shared vision and strategy.
b2. Three foci of SAG interview analysis
In analysing the interviews, we focused on three main aspects that emerged from the data: 1) the strengths of the Solidarity Action Group, i.e. the goals it had successfully achieved, the points where the expectations of its members and member organisations met the reality; 2) the challenges it faced as a fresh organisation – here we looked at possible responses to the challenges; and 3) the potential of the network and the untapped resources it had.
1) The strengths of the Solidarity Action Group (SAG). Among the strengths, it is notable that, as the new organisation started to take shape on the basis of existing initiatives, the infrastructure (e.g., online platforms, mailing lists) was already in place at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic, and this contributed greatly to the creation of a new internal communication space. The Solidarity Action Group (SAG) was able to give visibility to the issues represented by its member organisations, and left-wing press organisations that were themselves members of the SAG, played a significant role in this.
2) The challenges SAG faced. Lack of resources was the most significant challenge in organising the network. The SAG was typically run on a voluntary basis (with members rarely receiving small amounts of funding on a project basis from grants), often leaving little capacity to carry out tasks such as the role of general coordinator or coordinating specific projects. A further challenge was that the majority of organisations were used for communication and/or knowledge production work, with less experience with practical projects (e.g., organising direct assistance). There were also many difficulties with the way of speaking within the SAG; its language was typically academic, making it difficult for those from different backgrounds to fit in.
Another major set of challenges was social inequalities within the SAG. Gender inequalities affected SAG functioning as much as class or generational differences. Another difficulty was that it was difficult to find the boundary between subordination relations between organisations, interpersonal conflicts and conflicts arising from ideological differences. Our interviewees also expressed the lack of a shared memory of the movement and the transfer of knowledge in this context, as well as the lack of continuity, a shared vision or strategy. In an essentially confined space, there is a lack of a shared movement culture, no transparent and clear internal communication between organisations and individuals, which makes it difficult to share resources, thus easily leading to misconceptions and further conflicts.
3) The potential of the network and the untapped resources it had. Different scenarios for the future and potential of the SAG emerged from the research. There was a consensus on the need for the SAG, but there were differences in what kind of SAG were needed. The first alternative was a Consultative Forum meeting at regular intervals, a function that was carried out in plenary sessions during the research period. The first of the challenges and areas for improvement we identified was organisational development, developing a shared vision and strategy, and increasing/strengthening personal knowledge. This challenge was initially addressed through organizing the Summer University which took place in 2021. Some resource problems could be solved by reorganising/reallocating existing resources more efficiently, and one of the actions our co-researchers have launched, the Resource Bank, is a response to this. As resolving interpersonal or structural conflicts would be essential, one interviewee suggested that this could be ‘movement group therapy’.
A long term goal for the SAG could be the central coordination of base building, whether it is the involvement of permanent members or volunteers that can be channelled to projects or specific action levels. Some members see a future opportunity in becoming involved in institutional politics, while others continue to carry out other types of activities, either away from institutional politics or only loosely linked to it. It is an important recognition that the areas that the member organisations of the SAG are working on, which seek to respond to problems in a particular area of society that are not being addressed by the state or the private sector, need to converge. The crises of housing, care, food, environment, women’s rights, labour rights and macro-structural issues (overall social and overall economic) need to be addressed as a single ‘package’, as they are different aspects of the same problem, namely the crisis of capitalism.
(c) Cooperation between municipalities and NGOs
The starting point for this research group was the crisis management measures introduced by municipalities during the coronavirus pandemic. Our preliminary hypothesis was that some municipalities were able to respond more quickly and effectively to the crisis situation because they were enriched by actors with civil or movement backgrounds associated with the 2019 (or earlier) municipal elections. The specific experience of these locally embedded, grassroots groups, and their live, direct contact with wider organisational contexts and populations, could have been an exceptional resource during the emergency. To explore this, we asked a number of such actors how they were able to use their different mindsets and knowledge of local government in crisis management, and whether this was able to shape the way local government operated.
We contacted local organisations in Pest County municipalities of different sizes that have representative(s) in local government after the 2019 elections and have remained active as NGOs. In total, nine semi-structured interviews were conducted with eleven interviewees. Firstly, we interviewed C8 (Civilians for Józsefváros Association), which is active in the 8th district of Budapest; we then interviewed three other organisations.
Based on the experience of the interviews with C8, two interviews were conducted with each of the other three organisations: one with a member who is active in local government and one with a member who is not active in local government but is active in the NGO.
The 2019 municipal elections brought new sources of knowledge to the local governments by the appointment of new actors with civic and/or movement background to municipal roles. This change, however, also brought a number of challenges for both the municipalities (where these new people joined) and the NGOs (the origanizations these people left). The most significant of the challenges following a ‘successful’ election in relation to the issues advocated for and represented by the practices of a particular NGO is the drain of active NGO members who have taken on municipal roles after the election. A further difficulty may be the self-selection of active members who remain in the NGO.
The research also looked at how the NGOs we studied responded to the challenges they faced on the one hand in (re) definding their relationship with the municipalities, and on the other hand in response to the specific challenges associated with the pandemic. There are many possible types of cooperation between a local civil society organizaton and a partner municipality, depending on local conditions, contacts and opportunities, and our sesearch set out to explore this in relaton to the pandemic.
With one exception, the organisations we contacted had not established a transparent and joint decision-making mechanism for the endorsement of candidates in municipal elections and then, following the election, the appointment of NGO members to various municipal committees. The candidates were decided in ‘informal discussions’. In contrast, one community conducted an internal competition for the external committee positions. Such an internal tender gives the membership the opportunity to assess not only the competence and ability of the candidates [for committee appointments], but also their role in the association. And for the candidate, it [the internal competition] reinforces the awareness that he or she occupies the position through the association, in its colours. This pair of co-researchers was mainly focusing on the changes in the relationship between the municipalities and NGO-s as this situation created a series of new opportunities for both parties. They examined the pandemic rather as a horizontal factor and a certain kind of “test period” for these newly defined relationships. Therefore, the co-researchers paid a lot of attention to the internal processes that are described here.
We observed different practices in the NGO renewal process which aimed to appoint new position holders (e.g., president or vice present) as a consequence of the brain drain effect that resulted from their prior key figures having been appointed to mnicipal roles. One association re-elected remaining board members, thus reaffirming the confidence placed in them in the changed situation. In the case of the other association, following a successful election, the entire board resigned due to a conflict of interest, and a new board was elected.
There is a need to ensure as many opportunities as possible for a community to have a say and exert influence on municipal decision-making, including through the members of NGOs. One organization explicitly encourages membership to join in Facebook groups related to the interests of the organization. A less direct practice is for the membership to contribute to the preparation of upcoming municipal council or committee meetings: preparing background material, brainstorming, drafting proposals. We did not see a dedicated method in any of the municipalities we examined for the community to provide input to the municipality, although the NGO members who became involved in the municipality are generally open to input and feedback. An important insight from one NGO is that there is not necessarily a contradiction between the watchdog role of the organization and the communication and commentary functions of local government development: public communication is a way for the community to exercise its watchdog role.
Regular and face-to-face meetings play an important role in ensuring that there are no obstacles to the flow of information within the community, to the development of new relationships within the organisation or to maintaining the enthusiasm of the membership. The need for a permanent venue for the convening of such meetings was expressed by all the organisations.
Cooperation between the municipality and the NGOS was a common interest in the city we examined. It is important, however, that the work of an NGO be visible to both its members and the larger public, even in cases where it can be difficult to quantify (e.g., surveys, event organisation, public communication) the work of the NGO. Quantification is important for two reasons: First, it makes the organisation’s work for the municipality visible and contributes to external recognition of its achievements. Secondly, it helps to raise awareness within the community that the NGO’s activities are useful work. Yet, in the municipalities we examined, key NGOs were not as visible as they could have been, and this was due at least in part because of the lack of resources to make their work during the pandemic more visible and also because of the lack of well-defined coopertation between some NGOs.
Through our work, we would like to help communities be better prepared to face crises and be more aware of the opportunities for change for a greener and more equitable future.
The aim of our research was to help communities be better prepared to face crises. We saw some great examples of how to turn a crisis or organizational challenge into opportunities. We examined the opportunities of different stakeholders (NGO-s, grassroot initiatives and municipalities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although each sector has different needs and challenges to face, some general conclusions can still be made. First of all, the amount of resources (human capacity, financial and/or material capacities) determines the opportunities of an organization of any kind during times of crisis. The second lesson refers to importance of collaboration between the relevant actors. Mutual support among diverse NGOs and municipalities can be a very significant factor in the long-terms success of crisis responses.
We hope that these good practices will be useful for those who work in similar fields, and who fight for social change and for a greener and more equitable future.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Ádám, Z., Lohász, C., Mihály, M., Molnár, Z., Rosenfeld, A., Sebály, B., Udvarhelyi, T., Vass, Z., & Zsámboki, M. (2022, October 6). The history and future of our struggles regarding grassroots organizations in Hungary during the pandemic: Final report. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/the-history-and-future-of-our-struggles-regarding-grassroots-organizations-in-hungary-during-the-pandemic-final-report/