Imre Varga, mayor of Szomolya in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county, plumbed new depths of crass stupidity and arrogance last December by refusing to accept a consignment of food aid for the starving children of his local authority on the pretext that the offer besmirched the village's good name.
Unimpressed that the campaign to offer assistance had been organised by some of Hungary's foremost intellectuals such as Magda Szécsi, György Faludy and György Konrád, he denied the existence of the problem.
Mere words are inadequate to express the anger and repugnance I feel at the outrageous behaviour according to which the abstract concept of an untarnished reputation is allowed to take precedence over the flesh and blood sufferings of children, the offspring of the very voters, whose interests mayors and other dignitaries are elected to defend.
At times like this, I despair of my country's future and am honestly sickened to the core. This unfortunate episode does not represent the most propitious ending to our second Hungarian millennium and leaves me wondering what the third will have in store for us if the listlessness, the mournful, sunken eyes and searing hunger pangs of our own nation's children leave us cold.
Against this backdrop, I had the honour of interviewing Gábor Király, director of the Feed the Children Foundation (Gyermekétkeztetési Alapítvány), on the problem of child malnourishment in general and the Szomolya incident in particular.
Feed the Children
CER: How big a problem is starvation amongst children in today's Hungary? Which groups are primarily affected by hunger?
Gábor Király (GK): There are approximately 20,000 children in the country, who are suffering from starvation in the clinical sense of the term. Roma children predominate in this group alongside the non-Roma children of the lumpenproletariat, whose parents encounter severe difficulties in providing the bare necessities. There are parts of the country, mainly in the north-east and the east, where the primary root cause of the problem is the total absence of work.
CER: Exactly when was the foundation set up? What is its precise aim and how does it combat child malnutrition?
GK: The Feed the Children Foundation was created in 1993. Our most important aim is to pay the fees due from the parents for their children's meals in day nurseries or school canteens where the parents do not have the means to do so themselves. Come what may, what we try to do is get food directly to the children involved. We do not hand over money to the parents in other words, nor do we give it directly to the children, but we pay it in to the nursery or school in question so that it can be used in the canteen.
CER: Recently, the Szomolya affair kicked up a storm. What is your reaction to the mayor's behaviour?
GK: It wasn't just the mayor who reacted in this way but the local Roma self-government as well. What I quite simply fail to understand is that a corporate body in its capacity as a public body can have the sheer gall to say that it feels ashamed. An individual can feel ashamed because that is what shame is all about.
It is true, however, that nobody anywhere in the world at any time likes to have their dirty linen paraded out and washed in the full glare of public attention. That the ultimate effect of the admission of embarrassment was for the linen to be washed all the more publicly than would otherwise have been the case is tough luck for the bodies concerned, because if a corporate body can feel ashamed of something, it can certainly have bad luck as well.
First: admit it
Somewhere around 1994-95, it was not a rare occurrence for the nursery school teachers and school headmistresses, who turned to us by sending letters asking for our help, to suffer the ill effects of "discrimination" because in many different places proceedings were launched to terminate their contracts of employment, to call a spade they were given the sack. The reason for this was that in those days hardly a single person, company or civil servant in the country lent credence to the notion that such a problem, starving children, existed.
Then it became public and part of common knowledge that the problem did indeed exist. Since then, such reactions have all but disappeared. Generally speaking, when we organise a large-scale collection of donations the mayor of the given community is usually astounded by the huge response it elicits in spite of the fact that we give advance warning that the response will most likely be massive. Our message normally falls on deaf ears because what we say does not have the same impact as the telephone ringing constantly from 8 am on Monday to 6 pm on Friday.
Being confronted with it in practice is a different matter to getting your mind round the fact that it is a problem. Coming to terms with the existence of the problem is an increasingly unusual phenomenon. The reason why the Szomolya case was so deeply upsetting was that it hit the community like a bolt from the blue. Even though people are aware of the existence of the problem, even though the circumstances were shown on TV, a public body—whose duty and task as stipulated by law is to solve this problem within the framework of the budget—rejected a substantial amount of support based on boundless goodwill.
CER: Is your foundation private or public? [The distinction being that in the Hungarian system public foundations are endowed with state funding, which they are expected to channel as they see fit.]
GK: It is a private one, "unfortunately."
CER: In your opinion why is the government not taking any effective action to solve the problem of child malnutrition?
GK: It is simply not true to maintain that the national and local governments are not taking any action in this area. For example, there is the statutory budgetary support given to all schools depending on the number of children enrolled. This sum includes an amount earmarked for providing school meals. Apart from this, the local authorities throughout the length and breadth of the country help the neediest in the population, the large families—and by this I don't mean the three children of the local millionaire—by covering 25, 50 or 75 per cent of the cost of school meals.
If the parents are not able to pay even the 25 per cent remaining, then there is nothing more that can be done. There are also state child benefits, amounts prescribed by law and paid regularly, which more or less meet the expense of a month's worth of school meals for a child. It is handed over to the parents in cash. If every parent were to spend it on making sure their children received one square meal at school a day, then the government would at the end of the day have solved the problem. You can't breathe down every parent's neck dictating to them what they should be spending the money on, however. Let's admit it.
Freedom of choice: to starve or to freeze
Parents can be faced with serious dilemmas, such as whether to put shoes on their children's feet in the winter or whether to feed them. They have to choose between the shoes and the food. Without the shoes the children freeze. What a terrible situation to be in.
I know of a lot of places where the parents get hold of the benefits and head off for the market where they buy a sack of potatoes, five kilos of lard, slat and a sack of onions. This is what they live off for a month. A child who eats two big platefuls of potatoes flavoured with onions a day cannot be classified as starving, but the nutrients essential to that child's growth are absent from its diet. A dish of potatoes and onions does not contain all the essential vitamins and minerals children require.
CER: This is absolutely heartbreaking, but I would like to probe into the matter of local and central government responsibility a little more. If a local authority governs an area where a substantial proportion of the population is unemployed, it will suffer a chronic shortage of resources itself and be unable to provide emergency aid in precisely the region where such aid is most desperately needed. In saying this, I am thinking primarily of the east and north-east parts of the country, such as Ózd and Miskolc.
GK: It is entirely true that by the beginning of the '90s, the situation in Ózd had deteriorated to an appalling extent.
CER: So my question would be as follows: should it not be the task of central government to target these crisis-afflicted regions, providing for the children's daily meals via specific funding to be channelled either through the local authorities or through a foundation, money earmarked exclusively for the purpose of feeding the children concerned?
Wouldn't it be possible for the local authority in, say, Ózd to redirect its spending on something less important or pressing, such as renewing the pavements and making it available to starving children instead?
GK: That is a fairly far-reaching question. In 99 per cent of all cases, the budget determines how much the government, whether it be national or local, spends and the purposes of spending. If the government sees a child begging by the roadside it can't just stop the car and give it something to eat, things don't work like that. This is not the government's task.
Find the support
In general, the government—and this is a political issue and I have to confess that I normally avoid politics like the plague—is called upon to guarantee everyone the opportunity of making some kind of livelihood from the humblest down and out to the inhabitants of the most palatial villa. It is up to each government to decide on its own priorities, the areas where spending is to take place and on the appropriate budget lines.
I believe that the kind of support you are alluding to already exists. We have not received many urgent letters requesting help from Ózd for example. The fact that by February of last year many local authorities were struggling by with budget deficits of tens of millions of forints and still kept going somehow and that, if I am not mistaken, five local authorities have gone bankrupt in the last few years are different questions entirely, though I am not quite certain of the exact number that went bust. This implies that central government has to address in some way the lack of resources in the following budgetary year.
It is perfectly possible for the government to decide to target a certain social problem either at sub-regional or national level. There are so many different kinds of social problem around. As president of this foundation I am not entitled to say that the field we operate in is as important, but I am nevertheless aware that it is.
The government should guarantee an appropriate quality of life for the homeless, who also find themselves in an extremely difficult position, and the same applies to pensioners and to people suffering from mild learning difficulties and who are unable to provide properly for themselves.
I can condemn neither the present, the previous nor the future government for shortcomings because I am not a specialist. In all likelihood, if I did happen to be a specialist I would either stir things up or dish out approving applause.
We have already calculated that if the government or any other organisation were to set up a public foundation with HUF 30 to 40 billion (USD 11 to 15 million) in capital at its disposal, it would be possible to eliminate the problem for all eternity using the interest on the capital alone. If one public foundation of this type could be created to deal with every social problem, it would take up the entire budget of the Hungarian Republic.
CER: Did the foundation carry out any special action programme to help starving children around Christmas time?
GK: Every Christmas we have a food parcel campaign. From the money donated to us in the form of one per cent of the amount paid in income tax we buy food and distribute the parcels on the day before the Christmas holidays. The children each receive one parcel containing about 12 to 13 kilos of food to take home from school. This year we were able to make up 15,000 parcels, which we distributed to schools on 20 December, and the children were able to take them home the following day.
The intention behind this programme is deadly serious. During the holidays the children cannot eat at the school or nursery refectories and so the food parcel tides them over during the holidays so that they at least have a chance of a hot meal then. We deliberately fill the parcel with nutritious foods, such as potatoes, fat stuffs, flour, rice tea and the like instead of filling it with chocolate, toys and Christmas decorations.
CER: What about the long summer holidays when the children are away from schools and nurseries for three months at a stretch?
GK: The summer period is the most awkward one as we are at a loss to do anything except send financial aid to the school so that the children can be sent to a summer camp for a week or a fortnight. This gives them the opportunity to take part in the camp activities and be given good quality, decent meals for the duration.
With the constraint we have to operate under, we have no means to pay for the children to have lunch at the local no-frills restaurant, let alone at the Ritz, although that would represent the ideal solution. Unfortunately, neither local nor central government gives support for the local no-frills option of the type they give for eating at school refectories.
CER: Thank you very much indeed.
In the limestone caves
Who better to turn to concerning the details of the Szomolya case than one of the key figures in organising the campaign designed to help the local children, one of Hungary's most prodigiously gifted graphic artists and authors, Magda Szécsi. Apart from her tireless efforts in introducing Roma culture to a wider audience, she is the very soul of compassion and decency, hence my delight at being given the opportunity to consult her.
CER: Could you please tell us a little about the details of the Szomolya relief operation and what happened subsequently?
Magda Szécsi (MSz): The whole chain of events was set in motion when Erzsébet Scipiades, a journalist working for Magyar Hírlap, visited Szomolya to write an article about the local cemetery since it is so unusual, being ten storeys high. Whilst she was strolling about in the village, she noticed that the Roma live in cave-hewn dwellings. She struck up a conversation with them, the interview was published, the Roma asked for help and Erzsi promised that she would do whatever she could.
After the interview was printed, she telephoned me to tell me about the situation. I told her that I had 20 pictures, that we should contact famous writers to ask them to put texts to these pictures and then we could sell them [with the proceeds going to help the children in question]. She accepted this proposal, adding that we could also get hold of food for them. Then she hit upon the idea of selling the texts accompanying the pictures for potatoes and the pictures themselves for cash. The campaign got underway with 20 famous, celebrated, gifted and kind-hearted artists agreeing to take part.
Nobody's going hungry here
On the day before the consignment was due to be sent, however, the mayor announced that Roma of Szomolya were not starving contrary to all appearances, that he had taken it upon himself to decide that nobody was going hungry and so there would be no potatoes and that they were ashamed of the entire undertaking. They refused to accept the potatoes.
We clutched at every straw to try to resolve the problem and it emerged that the Feed the Children Foundation had been inundated with letters from families, schools, nursery schools and all sorts of institutions asking for its help, because the sheer extent of poverty in this country is quite insane.
Of all the possible candidates, we selected the small village of Gilvánfa and on the second day of the campaign transported eight and a half tonnes of potatoes there in two lorries. We also delivered the donations collected in Szentendre as part of the second-hand clothing campaign, where besides the second-hand clothes themselves, people also contributed food and Christmas parcels.
This caused quite a stir throughout the country as a whole, splitting it into two camps. One school of thought welcomed the campaign as a necessary action, whilst the other argued that the problem ought not to be solved on the basis of such campaigns but it was a task for the government. It was a topic of discussion for quite some time and a lot of column inches were devoted to it. We just felt ashamed.
CER: I do not believe for one moment that any of you have the remotest reason to feel ashamed.
MSz: We perceived it as a failure. Because if one single person, the mayor of a small community, has the authority to decide off his own bat whether the Roma of his village are starving or not, whether their stomachs are empty or not, then I am not sure that we are living in a democracy.
Better keep quiet
CER: I also heard that the local Roma self-government took the mayor's side, at least it did not veto the decision or try to counteract it.
MSz: This is quite correct. I don't know the exact name of the gentleman who is in charge of the local minority self-government, Szilárd someone or other I think. Every minority self-government is fairly much at the mercy of the bigger local authorities and this makes them very easy to blackmail.
For example, by threatening to withdraw support, by saying that the children will no longer enjoy free school lunches, that the Roma living in the limestone caves will not be registered as inhabitants of the village on their identity cards because their homes are not officially recognised as such.
It is possible to threaten them by saying that if news about the extent of the hunger in the local community reaches the ears of the outside world, then their children will be taken away from them into care, which is an appalling prospect. This is the type of threat that can be issued against a Roma family. Their children are their lives. They adore their children so much that of course they agree to anything rather than lose them.
Once the campaign had been concluded, the head of the local Roma self-government, this Szilárd chap, publicly apologised on Kossuth radio, asking for our forgiveness. When we were no longer in a position to offer any help, he admitted that the potatoes would have come in very useful indeed.
CER: It is extremely difficult as an outsider to discern the motives at play.
MSz: It is not just the ethnic Hungarian children who are starving, incidentally. And this has not been our first campaign with Erzsébet Scipiades. Two years ago we collected money for the primary school in Érd, where children were quite literally falling off the benches with hunger. Érd is a huge community in which many wealthy people live and yet the children are still allowed to drop off the school benches starving. The indifference involved is quite staggering.
CER: Yes, Érd is virtually a suburb of Budapest these days and is one of the most prosperous parts of the country. If events like this take place in Érd, then the conditions that prevail in the small villages situated in the crisis-stricken regions, in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county or Nyírség, must be unimaginable.
MSz: A spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs has just announced that the government intends to devote a great deal of attention to the problems faced by underprivileged children this year. I am curious to see what comes of this.
CER: I do not believe that these problems can be solved on the basis of campaigns, however well meaning and well thought through. In my opinion, the state has to come up with a new concept and put it into practice so that this kind of problem cannot arise in the first place.
MSz: Of course! We do pay taxes after all. Part of the revenue from the taxes we pay has to be spent on solving this problem because it is not the task of private individuals to do so.
CER: Thank you very much for talking to us.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 5 January 2001
With special thanks to Magda Szécsi.
For further information about the Feed the Children Foundation, please consult its website (which also contains information in English).
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