Planning, Research, and Evaluation

Lessons Learned: Progress on the Development of a Democratic Society in Hungary

Hungary map

The U.S. Support for Eastern European Democracy (SEED) Act was signed into law by the U.S. Congress shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The aim was to "provide cost-effective assistance to those countries in Eastern Europe that have taken substantive steps towards institutionalizing political democracy and economic pluralism." After nearly ten years of SEED funded support through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Hungary has reached basic targets and "graduated" from the SEED program. Hungary now has a democratic representative political system based on free and fair elections. USAID's strategic objectives in the development of a democratic society in Hungary were accomplished. The lessons learned effort was conducted by MetaMetrics Inc., under subcontract to Abt Associates on the USAID Local Government Indefinite Quantities Contract for Europe and Eurasia. The study assessed the international effort to guide democracy and governance programming in Hungary in order to identify lessons learned for future programming in Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries.

The Lessons Learned Team and Project

A participatory approach was used to form the team to conduct the lessons learned effort. Leo Surla, President of MetaMetrics, served as the Team Leader, and the other members of the field team were Hungarian stakeholders. Ms. Nilda Bullain adn Ms. Ildiko Simon were principals in the Civil Society Development Foundation, a Budapest based non-governmental organization (NGO) that provided technical assistance/training in organization and adminstration to other Hungarian civil society organizations. Susan Hevesi, an Economist at the Hungarian Ministry for Environmental Protection and Regional Development, was familiar with political and economic developments in the country before and since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Judge Viktor Masenko, a member of the Budapest Bar and Senior Research Fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, serves as a consultant to the Council of Europe and is a specialist in Human Rights. The USAID project officers were Larry Birch and Mark Ellingsted.

The four major areas examined in this effort were local government, rule of law, media, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Lessons Learned

Local Government

This area received the most USAID attention and funding of the four areas of democracy and governance. In Hungary, proactive local government that is responsive to its citizens is a work in progress. The USAID local government program impacted approximately 40 primary local government participating officals and an estimated 100 additional local governments that have been associated with regional projects. Even more governments were affected through the dissemination of the democratic principles and ideas. Through the introduction of concepts such as local government responsibility, transparency, and citizen participation, the USAID effort has directly affected the planning and operations of the participating local government organizations.

New Ways of Thinking about Local Government

The USAID program brought about a significant change in thinking. One example offered by an elected official was that prior to the program, local governments employees thought basically in term of quanitity. Now they consider efficiency and quality. Possibilities such as transparency and accountability in governance were introduced as working concepts. Citizen participation in local government deliberations and actions became accepted by key officials. A major shift in thinking brought about by the local goverment programs was the willingness to act to address local problems in the absence of national government support or interest.


Support for Hungarian NGOs began through international private voluntary organizations in the late 1980s. Later, the World Bank conducted NGO workshops and conferences and the European Union instituted a program of grants to NGOs. The USAID supported Democracy Netwok (DemNet) program of grants and technical assistance, which began in 1996, provided training to NGO personnel. The emphasis of this program was on support to local NGOs outside of Budapest and a successful satellite program of NGOs across Hungary was developed. The program also successfully stressed decentralization beyond Budapest and dissemination of NGO information.

Complete the Process

The Telecottage network was a creative innovation established by the DemNet program. Telecottages are community-based centers equipped with computers and internet access to encourage information acquisition and communication. This has helped to strengthen the network of NGOs in Hungary, particularly those in rural areas.

New Ways of Thinking about NGOs

USAID support helped to change the way NGOs see their roles in Hungary. The program encouraged NGOs to promote transparency and accountability. The NGOs also began to realize the importance of being able to compete with each other and the business sector. This has led to a focus on long term sustainability. Donor requirements of budgeting and broad participation in planning have resulted in the design of sound work plans and supported NGO viability.

Rule of Law/ Legal Reform

Members of the Hungarian legal profession, even before the transition, understood the notion and meaning of the rule of law. In Hungary and other Eastern Bloc countries, however, the practice of the so-called "socialist legality" dominated the legal realm. Under this system, the ideas and concepts of the rule of law were suppressed, as the interests of the state and ruling party were to prevail in all circumstances. So it is no surprise that Hungary has embraced the reform of the judicial system. By the time the USAID funded Central and East European Law Initiative (CEELI) program started in 1992, the process of institutionalizing democratic rule of law and legal reform was well underway. The law on elections had been adopted, and the multiparty system was introduced. Plus, Parliament had adopted legal acts regarding freedom of association, assembly, religion and local self-government.

The programs of the Central and East European Law Initiative, 1992 through 1999, have contributed to the development of the rule of law in Hungary, both at the level of legislation and at the level of legal consciousness. In many important areas which were the focus of CEELI personnel, new legislative acts were adopted. These included personal privacy, environmental law, amendments in criminal law and procedure, and strengthening the independence of the judiciary.

New Ways of Thinking about Rule of Law

The rule of law has a direct effect on the other components of democracy and governance programming. Local government, NGO, and media respondents in Hungary all cited the need for clarifications and changes in legislation. The Hungarian experience indicates that a coordinated rule of law effort should be a key component of democracy and governance programming.


During the ten years of USAID support to Hungary, the media environment has changed dramatically in Hungary and a large measure of pluralism has been achieved. Much of the print and broadcast media has been divested of state control. The independent media, however, is confronting a major problem of local and regional sustainability. Training and new sources of revenue can enhance financial viability, but the existence of newspapers, TV, and radio stations will ultimately depend upon market forces.

The media component of the USAID democracy and governance program had two distinct thrusts over its ten year program. The initial effort focused primarily on establishing a journalism center that worked with ELTE University in Budapest and utilized U.S. expertise. After 1995, the program focused on training of broadcast media at the local level through the Center for Independent Journalism, a Hungarian NGO.

New Ways of Thinking about the Media

The media component of the USAID programming brought about changes in the way Hungarian local broadcast journalists, technicians, and management think about media. Strong advances were made in the training and professionalization of media personnel, and the idea that this training is worthwhile was wholeheartedly accepted. Better training will allow these local stations to better overcome their main obstacle--sustainability.

Human Rights

As one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in Europe, the Roma (Gypsies) in Hungary face many problems. Centuries of discrimination, the Twentieth Century experience, and, from 1961 to the end of the former regime, party policies and programs that have resulted in the isolation of Roma from mainstream Hungary. The USAID effort in Hungary has emphasized the problems of this group and human rights in general. Areas that still need to be addressed are the Roma1s unfair treatment under the law, ineffective governmental representation, social and economic discrimination, and lack of educational opportunities.

In assessing programming to support the Roma in Hungary, the lessons learned team identified several factors and areas for consideration. These points are valuable not only because they can help to improve the position of the Roma but also because they can be used in other human rights programming efforts.

Projects should be for longer than one year periods. More time is ordinarily needed to establish and operate programs.

The Roma in Hungary


The intention of USAID funded democracy and governance programming was to facilitate Hungarian transition from the previous regime towards their own defined state of democracy within the community of European nations. The democracy and governance programming succeeded in introducing democratic ideas and principles, initially to national elected officials and later in the program period to targeted segments of local government, NGOs, local media, and the legal community. During the ten years of funding, Hungary succeeded in establishing a successful, recognized democracy. The lessons learned from this successful long-term effort can serve as a guide for further programming in other countries.


U.S. State Department Human Rights Reports

The U.S. Department of State issues yearly reports on human rights practices throughout the world that also include recent histories and summaries of current political process.

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