Social Innovation in Slovakia: Today's Outlook

30.08.2013 Blog

This blogpost is written by Daniela Olejarova.

In general, the concept of social innovation has not been recognized broadly in Slovakia. However, individual “social innovation islands” have existed within our society for years. Many times they have not even been aware that what they had been doing could actually be called a social innovation. At present, certain areas work better, other areas don’t work at all. So, who are the main actors and what have been the most recent developments? Let’s look at them and try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

First, a Centre of Excellence for Social Innovation of the Comenius University in Bratislava was established in 2009 within the framework of a research grant scheme funded from the EU Structural funds. It comprised a diverse group of Slovak researchers from various scientific disciplines – e.g., sociology, psychology, gender studies, mathematics, logics and public policy – from three faculties of the Comenius University – Philosophy; Social and Economic Sciences; Mathematics, Physics and Informatics. The project ended in 2011 with a number of publications that evaluated social innovations in the Slovak context. The aim of this project was to explore the theoretical background of social innovation from four perspectives – culture, identity and communication; public policy and economy; social; and political. However, it lacked the focus on viable social innovation models in practice and action research (for instance, an SI database on the project website is still in the testing mode and empty!). In addition, it is unlikely that the Centre of Excellence will continue its activities since no additional EU funds have been provided or targeted to such centres and, by and large, public support of R&D in social sciences is miniscule in Slovakia. From my perspective, the main contribution of the project has been in introducing social innovation as a concept to the Slovak academic sector rather than developing a long-term base for studying, compiling and supporting social innovation in Slovakia.

On the contrary, a lot more has been done, in my opinion, by practitioners in various social action organizations (mainly NGOs but also small businesses or ventures) who started small with individual projects. They have done excellent work for almost a decade. NGOs have been involved in the provision of services (mainly health or social care); advocating for changes in society and innovations in various contexts; managing community grant schemes; taking part in shaping public policies; or serving as watchdogs of democracy. The NGO sector has become rather strong and numerous – about 35 000 organizations in a country with the population of 5.6 million. Just for illustration, many public policy reforms during the transition period were drafted by NGOs, many NGO leaders have moved to prominent positions in the public or private sectors, and even our first female prime minister, Iveta Radicova (2010-2012), was a former leader of a social research NGO.

Paradoxically – and in distinction to the UK - social responsibility of companies represents a rather important concept that is being implemented in companies of different size. They are encouraged to get involved in the community not only by pure philanthropic activities (donations), but through direct engagement e.g., volunteering, development and implementation of community projects with NGOs or developing capacities of local action organizations. A number of actions have been carried out with the aim to cultivate the mind-set of key players in the business sector.  These organizations assisted companies in establishing and managing funds designated for communities all over Slovakia. Also, they provided support to community organizations in developing necessary capacities for accessing and managing these funds. Best practices among companies have been recognized through a Via Bona award for more than 13 years. Professional advisors have worked with individual organizations or companies through consulting. Corporate philanthropy, volunteering or responsible practices in SMEs have been promoted through implementation of specific projects. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but a lot has been done that can be built upon in future.

Social enterprises – that, unfortunately, is another story. There are several main characters in this story – a former Minister of Social Affairs and Family from the ruling left-wing party; her collaborators at the Ministry; eight newly established social ventures; and the European Social Fund. What has been the result since 2010? A small number of jobs created that, in fact, cannot be sustained overtime; bankruptcy of most of the social enterprises; huge media and public attention; suspended EU funding; and a total bill reaching up to 21.6m Euros that eventually will have to be paid by Slovak taxpayers because of mismanagement of EU funds and alleged fraud. No wonder that the phrase “social enterprise” in Slovak has a connotation of “fraud”! All professionals who are interested in promoting the true concept of social enterprise have been struggling ever since with finding a substitute for the term or replacing the phrase by other equivalents. Nevertheless, there are examples of good practices– for example, a number of small companies which employ disadvantaged young people (e.g., growing up in children’s homes, of Roma origin or former drug addicts) and provide them with the support they need to succeed in life and, at the same time, achieving high quality of the company products and services that can be competitive in the market.

There are innovations in the public sector but they are scarce. However, developing integrated development plans for municipalities with Roma population (with a very complex name “Local Strategies of Comprehensive Approach”) could constitute an example of such an effort. Slovakia is the sole EU country that has allocated about 200 million euros from the Structural Funds for integrated interventions in municipalities with marginalized Roma populations. The main idea is in combining four areas of interventions – education, employment, health and housing – within each strategy when it is implemented in a particular municipality (beyond just the Roma-populated neighbourhoods!). They are financed from six operational programmes. Despite many hurdles, the process was launched three years ago. Currently there are 151 strategies in as many locations approved, running and drawing on the EU money. With enlightened local community leaders there is a high potential to achieve some substantial changes at the local level. However, improved living standards don’t necessarily mean just improved housing or sewage systems. Community development usually requires much more intangible work with alienated communities and their members. Therefore, the overall success of the approach will depend heavily upon the results of individual projects and it will only be possible to assess its impact once the interventions are completed. 

Slovak social action organizations have been rather active in developing innovative ways of financing. A specific system of tax allocation by individuals and companies was launched in 2001. It has been an indispensable tool for the support of local social action organizations and is unique in the Central and Eastern European region. In recent years, crowdfunding has become a very popular and effective tool for raising funds. Several online portals serve this purpose and so far they’ve been able to pool a substantial amount of money for individual projects or needs. However, the whole area of social investment needs to be developed more. Some attempts have been made in pooling resources, e.g., Tatra Banka’s Socially Responsible Fund, or providing venture capital investments into social action organization, such as Pontis Venture Philanthropy Fund. In general, there are not enough social investors or organizations to be ready for such investment. A lot more work will need to be done here.

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: Andruby by Flickr