by Boris Strečanský
Philanthropy in Slovakia, as well as in the Central and Eastern European region today, is a hybrid phenomenon with two faces: traditional and modern one – and that makes it unique.
The traditional expressions perceive the concept of community as a community of known people tied together by family, kin, friendship and neighborhood, common lifestyle, work engagement or confession. The framework of bonding social capital vs. bridging social capital explains very well the relative reservation of many communities in the CEE region towards the external influences and provides fertile soil for cautious and suspicious attitudes towards the influences from outside. The situation in bigger communities and urban environment is slightly different, and there we can observe the effects of globalization, including the modern forms of community philanthropy concerned with the “unknown other.”
One of its traditional expressions is the community mutual help. It includes forms of mutual aid and care of the community and its members, especially in prevailingly rural, more remote and smaller communities where most people know each other. Typical examples are volunteering help in various life situations – such as seasonal help in farming, assistance with building houses, support and care provided to sick or otherwise disabled family members, or help in times of some rare situations such as floods, fires or storms. There is a lot of support provided along the lines of neighborhood, kin or friends networks. These expressions would not be identified in local languages as philanthropy or charity, as they are considered as something natural and valued, but not exceptional. This face is however slowly disappearing as the process of urbanization advances. Nevertheless, Slovakia is still a rather rural country, with a large number of small municipalities.
In bigger geographic communities these forms may include interest-based associations (for example the local Red Cross chapter, parent-teacher association, association of retired persons, local choir or folk group, parish-based charity, etc.). They provide space for strengthening cultural and social bonds and celebrate the community identity and use that community aspect provide support to each other.
On a national level, for example, one of the largest charitable organizations in Slovakia – the Slovak Catholic Charity operates not only in Slovakia but also raises funding from the people for providing aid to countries in Global South. By this it actively breaks the “us” and “them” dichotomy, that is often related to the traditional patterns of help.
The point here is that the traditional “philanthropic” attitude is driven by the commonalities of “us” and reflects the culture of the society that is based on the mutual relationships and not on impersonal rules and regulations. Important cultural factor that informs the culture of the traditional expression of solidarity is the Christian ethics that creates normative pressure for offering help to those that are in need and also calls for humbleness in these actions, so they do not become a source of formal recognition.
In the light of current developments such as the migratory pressures that pass by our region or country, we can see that the general public hesitates towards helping the “other,” who is in need but comes from a different culture, a color of skin or religion. The open society in which we live in challenges some of these memes of traditional culture and that forms the paradoxical nature in which we live today.
The historical episodes of communism and post-communism have also significantly influenced ways how philanthropy is being expressed in this region today. It was also an experience of ambivalent modernization with the paternalistic state that taught generations of citizens that initiative is punished and that passively waiting for the state to deliver will be rewarded. Several generations of Slovaks learned that volunteering is only formal, sharing for the common good is a fake pose and if “you do not steal from the commons, then you steal from your family”. Such multifaceted experience influenced the current face of philanthropic expressions in Slovakia, as well as other countries of similar fate even today, after 26 years of life in free society.
Western models of civil society organization were naturally paving the way after opening the borders after 1989 in the nineties and democratization reforms. Modern forms of philanthropy were also part of that process. They were picked-up by the new generation of activists of civil society that looked for modernization of society and sought alternative ways to do it. They tend to be organized around a particular issue and use social media and internet as a primary tool for their mobilization and organizing. There is lot vibrancy within these communities. They use innovative approaches to reach out beyond their members and ask citizens to support their cause. Crowd-funding and on-line giving tools or social media organizing for example in Slovakia very well serve this purposes well as they allow to reach out to targeted audience and mobilize material or financial support.
Many of the modern expressions of philanthropy and civil society these days have also been addressing the “less attractive” and potentially conflicting issues such as corruption, racism or human rights. However, through these activities, they also contribute to the value conversations and moral dialogues, that are so essential to maintain and cultivate given their great potential for violence and conflict, as we see in today’s world. The big challenge is how to keep that dialogue going and how to cultivate it, so it does not enlarge and deepen the divisions and differences but rather, decrease them and allows for their better understanding.
Boris Strečanský is practitioner and researcher in development, civil society and philanthropy at the Center for Philanthropy in Bratislava, where he leads research and manages peer-learning at the European Community Foundation Initiative.