Radek Hábl

This description of Radek Hábl's work was prepared when Radek Hábl was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Radek Hábl is developing an evidence-based, holistic and systemic approach to transform the current unfair ecosystem of debt, spur close cooperation among key actors and bring a million of over-indebted and excluded Czech citizens back to society.

L'idée nouvelle

One of the most pressing social issues in Czechia is the extreme over-indebtedness of its people. As in other former communist countries grappling with this problem, the society and authorities are failing to deal with it. Over-indebtedness directly affects 10% of the Czech population. Thus, some 863,000 people took out loans and are now unable to honor their repayment, mostly due to predatory interest rates and extremely stringent conditions for declaring personal bankruptcy. The debt struggle leads to a chronic social exclusion and economic deprivation of entire families with substantial risks for the future of their children.

With that said, Radek is implementing a new approach to solving the Czech Republic’s over-indebtedness problem by reducing the number of people currently in debt and eliminating pathways to debt traps. To do so, Radek has developed and tested a holistic and systematic multi pronged intervention, based on Repossessions Mapping, an innovative tool providing crucial data about the problem; repossession is the seizure of someone’s property in order to obtain money owed.

Radek’s approach to the debt problem is to collect all relevant data, develop solutions tailored to personal circumstances and identify the most debt-stricken regions. Concurrently, he is also convening local authorities and civil society organizations to foster local preventive and correcting solutions. The Repossessions Map has visualized the debt problem into digestible and usable information that can be used to build specific action plans. For example, the Repossessions Map has allowed Czech local politicians to identify many more, previously unknown, victims of over-indebtedness and it also revealed that debt affects a wide array of Czech citizens in every city - neighbors, friends and even relatives. The Repossessions Map thus significantly raised the politician’s motivation to actively address the debt problem through steps that Radek and participating civil society organisations are suggesting. The awareness campaign Radek initiated was a big wake up call for Czech local municipalities, which previously underestimated the prevalence of debt in their districts.

Radek also discovered the real causes of over-indebtedness, which has shattered the traditional understanding of how and why people become indebted. Old explanations for indebtedness were debtor´s unwillingness to pay, very low financial literacy or loans for Christmas presents. Radek proved instead that over-indebtedness it is not an individual problem, but a system phenomenon caused by legislative conditions. While two years ago everybody thought of over-indebtedness as an individual failure, now key actors and journalists understand it is a societal problem. Radek totally transformed the way how media and opinion makers cover this topic and gained airtime to lobby for major legislative changes, which would help people with excessive debt, as well as destigmatize debtors as a whole.

Radek has built and tested an impact-driven systemic solution. Within just three years, Radek has already achieved fundamental changes in how decision and opinion makers think about possible solutions to over-indebtedness and how the Czech media reflects this issue.

Le problème

The debt trap affects 1 out of every 10 Czech citizens. Due to the current design of debt collection, every second person facing repossession orders has no chance to escape the debt trap for the rest of their life.

In the last 10 years, excessive personal debt has become a new phenomenon in former communist countries. Yet the true scope of indebtedness has remained hidden and underestimated; therefore it was ignored by government, media, and society at large. Radek Hábl initially worked on identifying the immensity of this societal problem and became the first person outside the Czech Repossession Chamber to access and analyze the data on excessive personal indebtedness. Through this work, Radek identified several alarming facts; for example, that some 493,000 of Czech citizens are facing at least 3 repossession orders. For this situation he coined the term “debt trap”, which is now used by politicians and journalists and experts. The aggregate debt is now at almost a trillion czech crowns ($45 billion) which is almost the same size of the entire Czech Republic GDP.

As mentioned above, the problem of over-indebtedness is commonly attributed to individual shortcomings, such as very low financial literacy, gambling or personal incompetence. Yet Radek’s data has proved this perception wrong. Indebtedness rather arises from unexpected, unfavorable circumstances in people's lives, including (a) loss of employment, (b) marriage breakdown, (c) disability or death of a close person, or (d) financial illiteracy exploited by so-called loan sharks who stimulate people to accept loans with plenty of fine print.

Moreover, by uncovering the true sources of indebtedness, Radek’s research calls into question the nature of the full loan system in place. How could one person start with an original debt of 30 CZK ($1.36) and accumulate a debt of 30,000 CZK ($1,360) in several months? His research, conducted with other academics, revealed that there is a vast system designed to thrive on people’s over-indebtedness that has been unregulated by law. The key components of this predatory system include: (a) sky high interest rates, which allowed enormous rewards to be paid for small debts (a thousand times bigger rewards as mentioned above), (b) the transfer of repossession enforcement from public to private repossession men who began using the system for their own businesses (a repossession man is a man who enforces collection of private assets imposed by the court; in European countries we also use the terms such as debt collector or bailiff), (c) strict requirements for filing personal bankruptcy, such as the 30% of the total debt that the debtors still have to repay, inability to monetize assets, and the most stringent conditions for debt repayment in the EU.

With over 1 million people facing crippling debt, the debt not only has an impact on a substantial segment of the Czech population but also induces ripple effects in the entire society. Individuals with excessive personal debt have few escape routes and, as a result, their families move into a state of chronic social exclusion for generations. High over-indebtedness affects areas as disparate as housing, employment, health, education or criminality. Further, the Czech state is losing both tax and insurance revenue and facing increasing costs in the public sector.

By targeting the stigma and roots of debt, Radek has been able to build a culture of action, where government, local authorities, media, and civil society are all working together to stop and prevent the spread of over-indebtedness in the Czech society.

La stratégie

In aiming to decrease the number of people facing repossessions orders and to eliminate ways new people can get into over-indebtedness, Radek´s strategy focuses on four collaborative pillars, which focus on influencing initiatives and key actors on a local and national scale.

The pillars are as follows: (1) Providing uncovered data in the Repossessions Map, which provides key information to the media, politicians, and local authorities to strengthen awareness of this issue, destigmatizing people in debts and changing the public discourse. He also has engaged key Czech media sources covering stories of affected people and the topic of over-indebtedness.

(2) Radek has also collaborated with the civil society organization, People in Need, to advocate for two fundamental legislative changes to establish fairer conditions for those in debt and furthermore establish better support mechanism to get people out of debt. Over ten years, the proposed systemic changes will decrease the number of indebted people by 0.3 million and the number of repossession orders by 1.5 million (from an existing 4.5 million).

As a third key component, (3) based on the Repossessions Map data, Radek is also working with local municipalities and organizations to build rescue networks and strategies, which include preventative and corrective actions, with the goal of long-term changes.

Recently, Radek discovered that last important pillar is (4) addressing employers as a key actor, to reducing the number of their own employees in debt.

La personne

Radek began a career in business upon his graduation from the University of Economics in Prague. Until he was 26 years old, he was a part of the top management of Staropramen, a brewery, where he was very adept at problem solving and data-based processes.

Shortly thereafter, Radek left his work at the brewery and went to work for IBM as a finance manager, but it still took him another six years to muster courage and resources to enact the dramatic change in his life that he longed after so much - to concern about inequality.

Then the moment finally came when Radek was helping his cousin to consolidate her financial situation. He discovered how many people face repossession orders and, in majority of the cases, multiple of them at the same time. Radek began to discern the roots of the debt problem: loan shark tactics, limited regulation etc. Radek also realized how complex the causes are, and that there was a complete lack of know-how for dealing with over-indebtedness. Additionally, here were almost no useful debt-relevant data available from the Czech state, civil society organisations and municipalities and government bodies. he decided to do so in the field of over-indebtedness as well. This is how the idea of The Repossessions Map was born.

Because Radek is a natural leader and an excellent communicator, his work on over-indebtedness in Czechia did not stop with the creation of the Repossessions Map. Radek is dedicating all his energy into systemic solving this pressing issue on all levels.