Social Innovation in Slovakia: A Long Road

19.08.2013 Blog

Daniela Olejarova is an experienced social innovator from Slovakia, with a speciality in organizational and community development. She is currently in residence at The Young Foundation. We’ve asked her to share her thoughts on social innovation in Slovakia. In this first post, Daniela lays out the Slovakian context, and explores why social innovation hasn’t caught on more widely despite many individual successes.

Social innovations and the context

Imagine a country where – similar to George Orwell’s 1984 – only a single opinion and perception of reality were permitted to exist. Unfortunately, such was the context of many Central and Eastern European countries, including Slovakia, for more than 40 years. Twenty four years later, Slovak society is still struggling with allowing itself to think “out of the box” and be innovative in different areas – technology, research, politics or social issues. According to the 2011 European Innovation Scoreboard, Slovakia is one of the lowest ranking countries for innovation performance in general. Despite high ranking on human resources (top 5 – right after the UK!), the opposite is true (bottom 5) when it concerns open, excellent research systems or intellectual assets. There are some excellent examples of successful social innovation within Slovakia, which I’ll be highlighting below. However, they are islands within a broader culture that does not understand or support them. What prevents Slovak innovation leaders from fully developing their potential?

When we talk about social innovations, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that the word “social” has a common root with “socialist”, which for years has had a very bad connotation in the minds of Slovaks. For almost 20 years in the post-Communist period, the invisible hand of the free market was applied to almost all areas of life – from industry and finance to culture or social issues, and sometimes even in relationships or community life. The early 1990’s upsurge of enthusiasm from newly attained freedom was followed by an increase in corruption and cronyism carried out by all types of political elites. During the past five years, the global crisis, disintegration of the right-wing political spectrum in Slovakia and a pendulum swing to the left wing party has led to a re-evaluation of the panacea pill of the free market economy. Currently, almost everybody is aware that we have to look for new models to organize our society if it is to be sustained long-term. Therefore, a stronger emphasis is now being put on communities, sustainability and innovations at all levels.

At the same time, the concept of social innovation is not recognized broadly in Slovakia. Individual “social innovation islands” have existed within our society for years – many times even without being aware that what they had been doing could be called a social innovation. Topics like corporate social responsibility or fair trade have been promoted for almost a decade. Understanding that all actors in society are important is slowly being rooted in our social consciousness. Individual cases of innovative approaches to community development, integration of Roma communities, funding or new services can be found throughout Slovakia. Some research attempts have been made as well as initial steps in pooling socially responsible funding. Examples of social enterprises exist as well, although only some can be considered good practice.

Using The Young Foundation’s social innovation spiral as a reference, the majority of social innovations in Slovakia have come as prompts, proposals, prototypes or sustaining innovations. Most have yet to scale up or achieve a systemic change in society. As I mentioned, there are many inspiring examples of successful social innovation in Slovakia, some of which I will be highlighting below. By and large, there have been a number of people who eventually took up the challenge, remained persistent in the face of difficulties and have come up with the ideas that – with much iteration and many changes – got tested and implemented in practice to the benefit of a much larger community.  But if good practice can be found in any country, what makes the difference in the innovation level at the national scale? In my opinion, the main difference may be the momentum which the individual efforts build and which gets transformed into the innovation culture in a society. Such a culture can then become a fertile ground for finding solutions to new social issues as they arise instead of considering social innovators to be outliers from the mean. In Slovakia, I guess, we will just have to continue building the momentum!

Successful social innovations in Slovakia

Above, I looked at the context for social innovation in Slovakia. Now I’d like to focus on those projects and organisations that have struggled through a less than welcoming environment to become recognised for their work at national or international levels.

Professional Foster Care

Professional Foster Care (PFC) started as the dream of an enlightened professional at the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family who “smuggled” the concept into a prospective bill by adding a small sentence, of which few took note. The bill was passed in 1993 and only a few years later the concept started to materialize. The main advantage of PFC is that it allows children with court-ordered residential care to live in families instead of children’s homes. In 1997, the Navrat Civic Association launched a pilot project where 60 children were placed into PFC from one of the children’s homes in northern Slovakia. Subsequently, a whole paragraph on PFC was added into the law a year later. Since then, a number of new directives and guidelines on PFC have been developed and enacted at a systematic level. Dozens of children’s homes got involved in promoting and implementing PFC in close collaboration with a number of public organizations and NGOs. A new system of education, training and support for professional parents was created. What is the outcome in 2013? The number of children in PFC has grown from 60 in 1998 to more than 1200 (26% of all children with court-ordered institutional care) at present. It has become mandated by law that all children in care under the age of 6 must be placed in foster care. So twenty years from the conception of the PFC idea – thanks to the involvement of a group of enlightened professionals – Slovakia has become a model example for other Central and Eastern European countries in this particular area of child care.

Charitable Tax Donations

The year 1998 can be considered a break-point in the system of funding for NGOs in Slovakia. Major international development donor organizations were moving out of the Central and Eastern European region. The main sources of funding for NGOs were thus drying up, which resulted in a significant crisis in the sector. Many NGOs had to scale down or even close their operations entirely. The NGO sector leaders decided the situation had to be addressed and opened negotiations with the government about a new systematic form of support for the sector. They proposed that Slovak taxpayers should be able to allocate a certain percentage of their tax (initially 1% and later 2%) in their tax declarations to go to a registered NGO or charity of their choice. After many rounds of negotiations and legislation amendments, Slovakia launched the system in 2001 as the second country in the world to try such a scheme (Hungary being the first). The system was “upgraded” in the subsequent years by enabling companies to assign 1% of their tax as well (later 2%) – which is a unique mechanism, non-existent anywhere else in the world! As a result, the support of the NGO sector increased from 3 million euro a year in 2002 to almost 45 million euros through more than half a million declarations ten years later. However, the system could be modified to find other ways to motivate companies to be truly philanthropic and make them use their own resources to support social action organizations in addition to tax allocation. Also, by 2020 we should expect a gradual decrease of the corporate tax allocation from the current 2% to 0.5%. Nevertheless, the system constitutes a good example of a social innovation that contributed to long-term sustainability, greater professionalism and transparency of the NGO sector and to increased communication among all sectors.

Audio Cash Machines

In 2011, a major bank in Slovakia, Tatra Banka – through close cooperation with the Slovak Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted – launched an innovation of cash machines which provide recorded instructions to visually impaired people that they can listen to through headphones. This allows them to have direct access to their finances, helping them to become more independent. The bank employees were engaged in recording the instructions on a voluntary basis. Almost 120 such cash machines have been installed throughout Slovakia. This could be considered a systemic innovation because it’s the first bank in Slovakia providing such services to people with visual impairment.

Spissky Hrhov Municipal Enterprise

Another great example of Slovakian social innovation can be found in Spissky Hrhov.  It is a small village of 1500 people in east Slovakia which is unique in its approach to tackling social issues connected with the Roma population. The mayor of Spissky Hrhov, a sociologist with management experience from abroad, decided to embark upon this challenge by creating a municipal enterprise employing local Roma. The company would provide services for local government as well as for other customers. In addition, the debts which Roma residents might have on municipal fees or investments that they would like to make – such as a new house – could be paid off by their share of work in the enterprise. It is a simple concept which over the years has proven to be very effective in addressing local unemployment in the Roma community, as well as mitigating unwelcome social patterns and enhancing Roma and non-Roma integration in the village.

These are just a few of the many examples of successful social innovation in Slovakia, all of which are building up a momentum which is transforming our national culture of innovation for the better. Innovations like these – and especially the people promoting them – make a significant contribution to overcoming relicts of the past and building the foundations for Slovakia to be a free and open society.

This blog was conducted within the project "Learn from the Best" which has been funded with support from the European Commission within the LLP - Mobility (PLM). This blog reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credit: photosam88 under a flickr creative commons license