Fellow Since 2006
This profile was prepared when Michal Smetanka was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
The New Idea
Michal is introducing a new bottom-up approach to economic development in some of the most impoverished regions of Slovakia. In communities where traditional state-implemented policies and development projects have failed, Michal helps individuals to organize, act, and create change for themselves. Although a significant portion of Michal’s target population consists of the disenfranchised Roma minority people, he works with broader populations, breaking down strong ethnic divisions in the process. A facilitator, communicator, manager, and connector, Michal encourages local communities to start new organizations and enterprises and then connects these organizations with each other and with the resources they need. His flexible and evolving array of approaches has resulted in community-based initiatives uniquely appropriate for their local context. So far, Michal’s work has generated sustainable and easily replicable employment centers, community centers, village enterprises, and a pilot housing project. A trusted community member respected by local authorities, Michal uses his position as advisor to all these organizations to ensure they work together. In doing so, he helps them understand their role in a much broader movement for change, and creates a new pattern for economic development in the region.
Despite Slovakia’s recent success in promoting economic development, this progress is not universal. There are vast differences between the wealthy central region around the capital and major cities and the impoverished city peripheries, especially in the border regions of northeastern Slovakia. The northeast has extremely high rates of unemployment, poverty, and outward migration, low levels of education and access to health care, and severe housing problems. About 30,000 people live in settlements designated by the World Bank as pockets of extreme poverty—without access to running water, electricity, safe sanitation, or basic infrastructure. People live in overcrowded houses built without construction permits, or, more often than not, in shacks built from scrap metal, wood and mud.A significant portion of the population in the northeast is of the Roma—or “gypsy”–minority. There are an estimated 600,000 Romani-Gypsies in Slovakia, or about nine percent of the country’s total population, the highest proportion of any country in Europe. Most of the Roma live in Eastern Slovakia, more than 40 percent in segregated Romani settlements, or hamlets, perched on the side of villages, or in urban ghettos. In villages where Michal works, they sometimes constitute as much as 60 percent of the total population. The disproportionate poverty in northeastern Slovakia can be traced in part to the prevailing racist, anti-gypsy sentiment in the rest of Slovakia. Roma people are often stereotypically portrayed as lazy and antisocial, making any contribution by Slovakia to the economic development of their communities both wasteful and futile. The Roma people are plagued with the most widespread lack of access to education and jobs in all of Slovakia. Only a few Romani children finish secondary education, and a disproportionate number are placed in special schools for the mentally disabled. In part because of low education rates, most Romani—in some hamlets 100 percent—are unemployed. And a new cohort of Roma coming of age after the Velvet Revolution does not have any work experience and is thus deemed unemployable.The economic development projects devised when Slovakia joined the European Union have failed to improve the northeast. One of the major reasons for such failure is general passivity on the part of the population of the northeast, a result of decades of top-down, state-sponsored development initiatives, often in combination with policies that have actually had the effect of harming the social fabric of these communities. Most have been left with a weakened capacity to solve their own problems.As Michal notes, the momentum in Slovakia for reducing regional differences and helping the marginalized regions is at an all-time high. Instead of addressing local needs, current projects often reflect opinions of the donors and government priorities, and are planned without a thorough assessment of local situations. Top-down plans are whimsically dependent on the political climate. Other non-governmental projects, implemented by well-meaning charities, are less effective because they are implemented by sector—education, employment or health—without recognizing the connection between sectors and between stakeholders. Because all of these projects rely on external funding, they frame local stakeholders as passive recipients of aid and do not approach them as active participants in the process of development or foster a sense of community ownership. In this way, the projects duplicate the failures of the previous excessive welfare state. In addition, often by including only one ethnic group, these projects deepen ethnic divisions. No existing projects target the undercurrent of anti-gypsy sentiment that is at the heart of the problem.
Michal has concluded that true change in rural communities can come about only if it stems from within the communities themselves. He guides the process of development in a unique way, helping to launch new organizations, institutions and enterprises, recruiting more and more people to participate in his work, and connecting these various ventures with different sources of capital. In five neighboring counties of eastern Slovakia—Bardejov, Vranov, Levoca, Sabinov, and Presov—Michal has initiated the launch of village-run firms, local employment centers, community centers, and a new pilot housing project. Michal’s strategy depends on his personal reputation in the region as a respected local resident, an active participant in regional cultural events, and a capable facilitator, communicator, and manager. He is seen to be highly reliable and trustworthy by regional public officials.So far, Michal has launched seven local employment centers (LECs), acting on his insight that governmental labor offices in cities are not helpful for unskilled laborers or those that have been unemployed for several years. Rather, he founded proactive institutions located directly in the regions of high unemployment. Michal began by hosting, over a period of a few years, a series of local forums to surface suggestions for the problem. After a period of planning and securing funding from the European Social Fund, Michal helped start the seven LECs, all in different ways, specific to each location. For instance, in the village of Zborov, the municipal council and the local community center created the employment center, while in the village of Hermanovce, it was established by a citizen organization with a longstanding history of work in the village. Trained local employees at the employment centers help their largely Romani clients find jobs and make arrangements, preventing them from being cheated by employers.Michal’s LECs are becoming powerful lobbying centers for their communities, and quickly earning the respect and attention of regional authorities. Michal currently serves as an advisor to the centers, and has created a formal network for them to share information and learn from each other. Because each of the LECs is managed and, for the most part, funded by its affiliated organizations within each community, Michal’s goal is to have all LECs self-sustainable within the next couple of years. They are easily replicable in other communities, and because of their demonstrated success in securing employment for many individuals, other municipalities are already showing interest in opening LECs of their own.The element that ties together all the disparate elements of Michal’s work is his approach to motivating local stakeholders to find their own solutions. Michal organizes development planning sessions and builds networks between individuals and organizations. As a result of the planning sessions, local authorities and interest groups have not only founded the LECs, but also launched three local village enterprises and currently have plans for two more, based on their identification of a possible niche of production and local markets. These sustainable enterprises provide local jobs and promote local economic development. In his role as advisor, Michal ensures that the planning processes take into account all necessary and relevant information. Because he has an overarching perspective on all the different activities, he can call attention to important elements of the big picture, avoiding, for example, competition between the different enterprises.Michal has realized that one of the most important ways to spread momentum for change is to facilitate communication between all the various local organizations. This communication has the power to shift the pattern of development in the region, allowing people to understand by doing that they have the power to create change in their communities, and together, in the region. It is a powerful alternative to top-down state-centered approaches that have dominated economic development to date.Michal is now bringing his experience and reputation to bear on his latest idea: a housing pilot project. Historically, the Slovak Ministry of Construction has passed such strict and prohibitive legislation that social housing has not been built or maintained by tenants or by citizen organizations. Michal is reversing this trend, because government housing construction is costly and slow, unable to keep up with demand. He is constructing several model houses from alternative resources for Roma families in his home village. He convinced construction firms to provide easily accessible recycled materials, the municipality to support the project, and citizen organizations in the capital of Bratislava to join his lobbying efforts. If Michal’s pilot project is successful, he will have a powerful advocacy tool: proof that it is possible to adjust housing to local needs and to make it accessible with innovative local technologies. Most importantly, a successful housing project will again demonstrate to local authorities that Roma in these segregated rural settlements can participate in their own community improvement.
In 2004 Michal became director of A Man in Need Organization Slovakia, officially a branch of a well-known Prague-based humanitarian organization, A Man in Peril. In doing so, he lobbied for legal independence from headquarters to give him freedom to establish an organization with a larger mission than strictly humanitarian assistance. Today, A Man in Need is responsible for developing its own targets, strategies and programs.He attributes his passion for and success in his work to several experiences. First, as a teacher at a school for children with special needs, many of whom were of Romani origin, he witnessed how disconnected the rigid curriculum and uninspiring weekend activities were from the children’s real needs. Much more could be done to give them more of a chance to succeed and have a bright future, but after numerous encounters with the school principal, Michal realized that schools were too rigid and inflexible to adapt appropriately. He left the school and began working for ETP Slovakia in 2000.The work for ETP Slovakia was eye opening in few respects. He was involved in one of the biggest non-governmental projects in Eastern Slovakia, working as a community activist in Spisska Nova Ves and Spisky Hrhov. At this post he became convinced that long-term change cannot be brought about through humanitarian aid or top-down projects, but instead required much more significant community involvement from the beginning. He was surrounded by those with a centralized attitude that put too much control in the hands of headquarters, and “experts” who were out of touch with local needs. He was more drawn to bottom-up strategies and eventually decided to leave ETP. However, during his four years there, Michal learned how to oversee projects, as well as the value of feedback and regular evaluation.His work in the village of Spissky Hrhov, where he lives, has given him a thorough understanding of the importance of local circumstances and values. Since 1996 he has been a member of the local village council. In this post he helped draft a comprehensive development plan for the village. In addition between 2001 and 2004 he worked as a volunteer community activist and managed dozens of projects and activities for the village. This work at a local context helped him understand what successful development projects really need: first, activities that are complementary rather than segmented in specific fields; second, those that are always responsive to concrete needs; and finally, those that from the initial planning stages are client-driven.Michal is also creative and artistic. He owns hundreds of folk musical instruments, 23 of which he crafted himself. During his work at the school for children with special needs he published a collection of songs for these children.