Strengthening civic space by working ‘on the ground’

Published: 15 October 2020

My dream is that municipalities in Hungary will develop their own local energy poverty strategies to make sure all people can afford to pay to heat their homes.” –  Csaba Kiss, an environmental attorney in Budapest and coordinator of NOSZA.

NOSZA coordinates a coalition of five NGOs in Hungary, working on diverse topics to strengthen civic space. The coalition does so by demonstrating the professionality of civil sector actors that work on improving the lives of people who are most in need. This is achieved, even in lack of funding and in over-politicised atmospheres, via cooperation. With support from Civitates, the coalition members provide multi-sector services, raise public and stakeholder awareness across the country and learn from each other.

Your coalition consists of a diverse group of NGOs. What topics do you work on together?

Our members work on environmental issues, anti-poverty, legal issues, women’s rights and habitat related challenges. We came together to find common ground and work jointly to fight the shrinking civic space. We wanted to focus on energy poverty because it is a tangible problem in our country. Hungary has cold winter and the energy usage for heating is quite high. Usually, energy poverty and general poverty go hand in hand. Most people who suffer from energy poverty neither have money to pay for clothes, books, hygiene etc. It is part of a bigger picture and therefore also part of the work of all members of our coalition.

How do you tackle the issue of energy poverty in Hungary?

We prepared quite some materials as a coalition – we published on the internet and created a website which we filled in with information on diverse topics related to energy poverty: data about housing in Hungary, about gender issues or as the member of our coalition, the Hungarian Women’s Lobby calls it, the female face of energy poverty, in addition to social and environmental issues. We – with the leadership of the Network of Eco-counselling Offices  – also organised a tour for journalists to show them the situation in the countryside of Hungary. We travelled with them to the North East of the country, to a valley where a lot of villages use lignite for heating. Lignite, often referred to as ‘brown coal’ because it is lighter in colour than the higher ranks of coal, is a soft, brown sedimentary rock formed from naturally compressed peat, mined all around the world. It has a relatively low heat content and is the coal that is most harmful to health. Because of the valley there is a very thick blanket of smoke above the villages. The journalists that joined this initiative wrote several articles about the energy poverty situation and how air pollution is deteriorating in the region.

We also started a ‘model project’ in a village in Southern Hungary where we visited all households and went around with questionnaires and interviewed people to assess people’s needs. The field work of the project was integrated into a 5 years long community development process, led by the Chance Lab Association. One of the most important elements of this work is the method of collective decision making in order to strengthen local democracy. We organised forums to talk about energy poverty, amongst which there was a women’s forum, which was highly appreciated by all female participants because the women from the village rarely have the opportunity to talk freely about certain sensitive issues. As a next step, we approached multinational manufacturing companies for building solutions and we received bricks, roof tiles and mineral fiber for thermal insulation of roofs. And now while we are improving the heating situation of people in the village, we are also working on installations, in fact building tile stoves. 

What do you want to achieve as a coalition?

Well, we are trying to raise awareness among people how to not aggravate their situation by air pollution, by burning household waste instead of firewood. Another part of our work is fact finding journalism. We found out that some municipalities prefer light brown coal to firewood as a donation to those in poverty, while this is not appropriate for households. Some oligarchs – even former socialist ones – are profiting from this. We organised an international conference on energy poverty which enjoyed high attendance and there the participants reported how energy poverty is being managed in Hungary and other countries, e.g. Poland and Spain (Catalonia).

How do you make the bridge from such a practical solution to fighting shrinking space?

We have two audiences: our model project in the village targets individuals and families living in energy poverty, while our awareness raising actions target NGOs from all subsectors represented by the members of the coalition, municipalities and decision-makers at local level.

What are your hopes for the continuation of this project?

One of the partners in our coalition, Habitat for Humanity Hungary, received funding from the European Climate Foundation. Part of this funding is for habitat issues such as renewable energy and part of it is for energy poverty. Habitat wants to continue the work that we set up together and even carry on with the name of the coalition and use the materials and communication channels that we’ve created.

From the policy side, I would like to see local energy poverty strategies developed. We have an informal promise from the municipality of the village where we work, that they will discuss and may follow up on this. If they really put into place such a strategy, they will be the first to have a specific energy poverty plan and as such would set an example. I hope that other municipalities will then come to us for the methodology on how to begin.

NOSZA (Non-profit Sector Analysis) is an association in Hungary that works nationwide on legal advice. The main objective of the organisation is the improvement of legal environment for civil society. NOSZA emphasises the importance of independent, effective and legitimate functioning of non-profit organisations in a sustainable and reasonably regulated environment. In order to achieve these goals, NOSZA analyses and expounds related laws and practices and works in advocacy.