Zsolt Bugarszki: Empowering ordinary people in Estonia (1)
Zsolt Bugarszki, a Hungarian social worker now based in Tallinn, will give a talk at the Opinion Festival about empowering ordinary people via ICT. Here, he explains his cause.
When I arrived to Estonia, I heard two opposite type of self-descriptions from Estonians. Some said that this country was a land of 1.3 million selfish individuals who cared only for themselves. They told me funny anecdotes that Skype was invented to avoid personal meetings, or that they preferred to hide among the shelves in the Selver supermarket to avoid saying hi to their neighbors. One phrase states that the favorite meal of an Estonian is another Estonian.
Other people said the opposite. Under this unfriendly climate it’s impossible to survive without helping each other. People shovel snow together, villagers watch each other’s chimneys, neighbors chop wood for elderly, and car owners give rides to fellow citizens. They also mentioned that Jaanipäev or the Song Festival as an important event expressing the community of the Estonian people.
Which one is the real Estonia? How is your Estonia?
When we look at the official statistics we find that approximately 28 percent of Estonians are participating in voluntary activities. This is slightly lower than the European average (34 percent) but outstanding if we compare it with many other countries of the former communist block. But this number refers only to the formalized version of volunteering. When researchers asked people if they had helped their neighbors or even strangers in the last 12 months, about 47 percent of responders answered with a yes.
My other very strong impression of Estonia is the obvious progress the country has made to shift from a post-communist society to a mature liberal democracy. Twelve years ago, Estonia was performing at 50 percent of the EU’s economic performance. Today, the country has reached 73 percent of the EU average. Coming from an Eastern European country (Hungary) it was very impressive to me how Estonia got rid of the enormous corruption and the general mindset of learned dependency. Today this is a country of micro-, small and medium enterprises, and we can find here one of the most promising start-up scenes of the continent. The introduction of e-government and turning toward intelligent ICT solutions is shaping the future of the country, a future that looks incredibly bright.
My only concern is whether every Estonian can enjoy these benefits.
While I am very impressed by the vibrant high-tech culture of Tallinn, I can also see how this country starts to be divided. While visiting the countryside, seeing the lack of infrastructure and wealth there, looking at the statistics on inequality and the gender wage gap, a lot of questions are raised. Is it possible to incorporate vulnerable groups into the vibrant, fast development of Estonia? Is high-tech only about Angry Birds or we can use this smart technology and intelligent development policy to create a stronger, more integrative society?
About 9 months ago with a group of enthusiastic people, we established a company called Helpific to create an online platform that connects disabled people with volunteers. The idea was developed during the “Enable” hackathon event of Garage48 where many people with disabilities, social workers, developers, designers and marketers worked together. The aim of the event was to find innovative solutions how to raise quality of life of people with disabilities using modern ICT technology. At Tallinn University we run courses and development programs to encourage social enterprises that combine business and entrepreneurship with social or environmental aims. Peer-to-peer based sharing economy initiatives are bringing revolutionary changes not only in economic models but also to the distribution of wealth.
Empowering ordinary people is the real potential of ICT and high-tech and that’s what we would like to discuss during our sessions at the Estonian Opinion Festival.
Zsolt Bugarszki is a founder of Helpific and a lecturer on social policy at Tallinn University.