Public funds

Hungarian government pours money into football, churches and schools abroad

In 2018, the Hungarian government awarded grants amounting to 84 billion forints to organizations of ethnic Hungarian communities living abroad. Universities, churches and football clubs received the biggest amount of financial support. According to our calculations, the Hungarian government awarded more than 80 billion forints (250 million EUR) through the Bethlen Gabor Fund to organizations of Hungarian communities living in other countries.

The number mentioned above is an estimate: it is nearly impossible to calculate the total cost of taxpayer-funded programs aiming to support these communities. The reason for this is that the government distributes this money in a non-transparent way.

More exactly, there is more than one grant system for the support of the Hungarian communities living abroad. While the Bethlen Gabor Fund is the most important in terms of its budget, there are number of other government actors, as well as companies owned by the Hungarian government, that award grants to organizations of Hungarian communities living in other countries.

For example, the 1,45 billion forints (4,5 million EUR) grant for a Hungarian media project in Transylvania (Romania) was awarded in December 2017 by the Ministry of Human Capacities. There are also NGOs supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary and there are organizations that are partners in the projects of the Research Institute for National Strategy. Others are sponsored by the state-owned lottery company called Szerencsejáték Zrt.

Money to football clubs in neighboring countries is usually channeled through the Hungarian Football Federation. The Hungarian National Bank used to have a foundation to finance economic education in the Carpathian Basin. The famous summer university of Tusványos is traditionally supported by a number of Hungarian local councils controlled by Fidesz. And the list goes on.

The issue of grants awarded to organizations of Hungarian communities living in other countries becomes even more complex if we look at the organizations registered in Hungary that have projects involving the communities abroad – one example a Hungarian NGO, Rákóczi Szövetség, that was involved in the Minority SafePack campaign for the rights of European minorities. These organizations also receive significant amounts of taxpayer money.

The Hungarian community in Transylvania, flooded with financial support from Hungary. These are the biggest winners

Grants with a total worth of 47 billion forints have been awarded to organizations from Transylvania by the Bethlen Gabor Fund in 2018. The most consistent financial support went to the Sapientia University, the School Foundation, churches and football projects.

It is not only journalists who get confused when they are trying to get a complete picture of the state financing of organizations of the Hungarian communities abroad.

According to our sources not even the government has a complete and up-to-date database of every source of financing, every application submitted, and every grant awarded to an organization beyond Hungary’s borders.

I theory there is a central database, the Informational System of National Politics (Nemzetpolitikai Informatikai Rendszer – NIR), but here one can find only data from the Bethlen Gabor Fund.

Moreover, it seems that only the grants can be accessed in the database, but a number of programs (such as a program called ‘Szülőföldön magyarul’ aiming to support Hungarian families to enroll their children to Hungarian schools) are missing.

The lack of a centralized database is problematic because without reliable data it is nearly impossible to help the development of ethnic Hungarian communities in a coherent, systematic way. The Bethlen Gábor Fund adopts a list of programs and institutions of national value that are funded every year. Apart from these, each year has a ’theme’ that focuses financial support on certain areas. However, these programs are overshadowed by other, huge and well-funded projects. The latter are usually real estate developments and football projects and the support to them is apparently granted in a haphazard and non-transparent way.

The Hungarian speaking communities living outside the borders of Hungary (mostly in the neighboring countries) have been supported financially by both left and right-wing governments since the fall of communism.

The reason for this is simple: the regions where these ethnic Hungarian communities live are usually poor, as they are often underfinanced by the governments to which they pay their taxes. Because of the chronic shortage of resources, these communities are not able to sustain their public institutions, from schools to cultural institutions and churches. If these institutions fail, the Hungarian communities disappear.

The grants awarded by the Hungarian government are not simply gifts to these communities: during the past few decades, entire generations of ethnic Hungarians finished their education in their native countries and then decided to move to Hungary. Thus, Hungary gets educated, Hungarian-speaking workforce virtually for free.

Thus, the problem is not the financial support itself. The problem lies in the fact that these grant schemes are devised based on haphazard decisions that are backed up by no impact assessment.

Their outcome is not supervised by an independent body, and the chance for organizations to win such a grant is far from equal and fair.

Most of the NGOs working in the Hungarian communities abroad are living from one grant to another, getting a few hundred thousand or a few million forints each time in an overly bureaucratized system, and thus they have no chance for organizational development.

At the same time organizations that have good connections and the right ’ideological background’ are awarded billions of forints based on sketchy letters of intent that are only a few pages long.

Many of these projects have no economic rationale and are useless from the perspective of community building.

For those in the latter category, settling accounts is also a mere formality: we have no information of Bethlen Gábor Fund ever raising questions regarding the implementation of projects even in cases where it was obvious that Hungarian taxpayer money wasn’t spent appropriately.

This is how a grant of 150 million forints (470,000 EUR) was awarded to a politically well-connected group for the renovation of the legendary, but rundown camping site where the Tusványos summer university takes place in Transylvania. However, the renovation of the camping site still has not been finished. We might also ask why should Hungarian taxpayers spend billions of forints on a Transylvanian a football academy whose team is playing in the Romanian third league?

Will there be enough Hungarian children for the kindergartens under construction in the neighboring countries? Is the renovation of 200 churches and the series of overly expensive real estate investments the most pressing need of the Hungarian community living in Transylvania? Béla Kató, a confidante of Viktor Orbán and bishop of the Reformed Church District in Transylvania, was awarded 43 billion forints (135 million EUR) for this purpose.

While we cannot provide answers to these questions at the moment, we try to make the spending of taxpayer money through the Bethlen Gábor Fund more transparent.

We publish the grant decisions in a searchable format

In this complicated scheme of grants and donations one thing is obvious: most of the grant money is spent by the Prime Minister’s Office, through the Bethlen Gabor Fund. By adding up the grants awarded by the Bethlen Gabor Fund one can have a relatively accurate picture of the projects that are being supported by the Hungarian government.

This is not an easy task, though. While the grant decisions are published on the web page of the Bethlen Gábor Fund, these are not searchable. The spreadsheets containing the data were printed, scanned, rotated by 90 degrees and then exported and uploaded to the website as pdf documents. The Bethlen Fund refused to send us the grant decisions in a machine-readable format when we asked them to do so through a freedom of information request.

This left us no other option but to use an optical character recognition (OCR) software and to enter the rest of the data manually into a spreadsheet.

Atlo, the data visualization team of Átlátszó worked on the same topic with a different method: they scraped the data from the Informational System of National Politics that contains the grants awarded by the Bethlen Gabor Fund between April 2011 and August 2018. Based on this data, they created visualizations showing the locations of the projects funded by BGA.

We found an important difference between the two datasets: while the list of grants on the web page of the Informational System of National Politics total 190 billion forints, the funding decisions since 2011 we scraped from the website of Bethlen Gabor Fund total considerably more, at 300 million.

One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the Informational System of National Politics includes only the grants that have been awarded. It does not include, however, the cost of the various government-funded programs implemented throughout the Carpathian Basin.

Another reason for the difference is that scraped the grants data published until August 2018, while the other spreadsheet contains the funding decisions until the end of December 2018.

There is no public call for the large grants

Looking through the grant decisions it is obvious that organizations competing for financing through the open calls usually win only small amounts: a couple of hundred, maybe million forints. However, grant requests are also regularly denied by the fund.

The majority of the funds is not available through open calls, but organizations have to ’lobby’ to access money. Grants worth more than a billion forints (about 3 million EUR) are allocated by the Prime Minister’s Office. According to our sources the biggest grant so far, 26 billion forints (80 million EUR) was awarded in December 2017 to the Reformed Church District in Transylvania.

The funding increases every year

In 2018, the Bethlen Gabor Fund granted a total of 84,3 billion forints (265 million EUR) to organizations abroad. This is 13 percent higher than money allocated by BGA in 2017: 74,4 billion forints.

The infographics above show that the funding of organizations is increasing every year since the second Orban government came into power in 2010.

In 2016 there is a highly visible increase: the sum of the grants tripled from 21 billion to 60 billion, and the total increased even more in the following years.

An important milestone was 27 December 2017, the day when the Hungarian government awarded 33 billion forints (100 million EUR) to organizations of Hungarian communities abroad. No other Hungarian government has ever awarded such a high amount of money with one decision.

To put this in perspective: in 2015 BGA’s grants amounted to a total of 21,6 billion forints for the entire year.

Was there a budget surplus that had to be distributed? No.

The 27 December 2017 decision sparked a debate: those supporting the government’s decision argued that Hungary had a budget on surplus and some of that money was simply being ’spilled’ into the Hungarian communities abroad. This narrative was refuted in 2018, when the government decided to allocate another 32 billion forints despite the record-high budget deficit.

If we look at the money awarded to communities in each neighboring country since 2011, it becomes obvious that the total amount of grants awarded can vary wildly from year to year. Based on the totals, it is difficult to find a coherent vision behind the decisions. Neither the size of the ethnic Hungarian population, nor the long-term needs of the specific communities seem to matter when the grants are allocated.

For example, according to the latest census, there are 300,000 ethnic Hungarians in Serbia, but according to multiple reports, this number is rapidly declining. This community was awarded 1,8 billion forints in 2015, then there was a substantial increase to 5,4 billion in 2016. In 2017 the funding dropped to 3,2 billion, only to increase again to 6 billion in 2018.

Funding for the 1,2 million-strong Hungarian community in Transylvania (Romania) is constantly increasing: from the 10 billion forints in 2015 it reached 47 billion in 2018. This increase can be explained by the fact that this is the largest ethnic Hungarian community living outside of Hungary, thus here the long-term investments into institutions and real estate might be justified.

However, some social scientists say that the grants might have serious adverse side effects, as these destroy the self-organization capacity of the community, creating dependency in the long term.

In Ukraine, the duties of the state must be taken over

Zakarpattia in Ukraine is another region where the Hungarian government funding increased exponentially in the last few years. This is understandable: there is chaos in Ukraine caused by the prolonged conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the state being unable to fulfill its fundamental functions.

Several social programs have been implemented by the Hungarian government to help the 150 thousand strong Hungarian community, the funding being increased from 2,4 billion (2015) to 13,7 billion forints.



Written by Zoltán Sipos. You can read the original, Hungarian language story here.

Cover photo: politicians open a kindergarten in Slovakia that was renovated using Hungarian taxpayer money Photo: Csaba Krizsán/MTI)