Croatia: Playing Politics With Hunger

Croatian children school lunch

There’s a worldwide consensus that after many years of stability, world food prices have jumped 85% since 2005 and Croatia is not excluded from this formula. The alarming levels of unemployment due to eroded manufacturing industry, production – closure of production plants and widespread corruption in the privatisation of manufacturing firms – have long ago prompted many a warning of a looming purchase power crisis in Croatia that could only lead to poverty and hunger.

 
At the end of the food chain comes the real crunch: among the poor, particularly the urban poor as people living in towns and cities cannot grow and produce food, those most likely to go hungry are children. If young children remain malnourished for more than two years, the consequence is stunted growth – and stunted growth is not merely a physical condition. Stunted people are not just shorter than they would have been; their mental potential is impaired as well. Stunted growth is irreversible. “Chronic hunger deprives children of the essential proteins, micronutrients and fatty acids they need to grow adequately. Globally, it is estimated that nearly 226 million children are stunted – shorter than they should be. In addition, stunted children score significantly lower on intelligence tests than do normal children.” https://www.freedomfromhunger.org/world-hunger-facts

 
UNICEF’s 2014 report “Children of Recession” had placed Croatia’s levels of children living in poverty and at the brink of poverty at alarming levels. “Soup kitchens”, “social shops” – that give away donated non-perishable food and personal and other hygiene goods to the poor – and countless charitable efforts to feed the poor (in addition to the government’s social welfare programs) have become a way of life for many in many parts of Croatia.

Despite such an alarming situation with poverty and hunger the Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic had, soon after the release of the said UNICEF Report, branded the reports of hunger in Croatia as populist and simply denied any truth to the reports of hungry children in Croatia!

In November 2014 Mladen Levak, member of Croatian parliament for Labour party, addressed in parliament regarding the UNICEF report of 60 000 children living in poverty and asked the government whether the state would pay for meals in schools for poor children … Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic got to his feet quickly and replied: “…That is populism. Let’s not be populists and say that today people live hungry in Croatia. The problem is bigger, people in Croatia eat, there’s more food than ever but the question is in food quality, quality food costs more. There’s lots of food that is cheap, which is not directly damaging but in long term it is damaging. And those are the habits we need to start changing slowly…if someone truly hasn’t the resources for food then the state is there to help them, if someone is truly hungry…that’s not the problem in Croatia, the problem is the abundance of bad food … schools are important in this …” Equally swiftly, Mladen Levak presented his rebuttal to the Prime Minister’s claims and said that such an opinion is Prime Minister’s but that the Prime Minister does not read the daily press to discover such cases of hunger; that there is food in abundance, indeed, in Croatia, but not with those who cannot obtain it due to poverty. “There are funds to fix that by stopping excessive spending in parks or ministerial office décor, spending excessively in various parties and ceremonies ….yes there is food but not for all – for some opportunities pile up while for others poverty piles up,” insisted Levak in the Croatian parliament.

Source video:

 

 

 

The mark of a good politician is the ability to guide citizens away from populism. Unless countered, populism blocks the policies needed to address crises. But in Croatia, poverty and hunger are not sources of any populism, bar in the misguided head of the Prime Minister and those who politically agree with him – they are real and must not be used as political tools that suggest the addressing of these real issues is nothing more than some kind of support for the people struggling against the privileged elite, as populism would have us do. Why, amidst so much compelling evidence of poverty and increasing poverty in Croatia, the Prime Minister chose to label the product of poverty – hunger – as populism can only find an answer in the fact that it is Election year in Croatia.

The Croatian Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic, and Minister for social welfare, Milanka Opacic were at odds regarding hunger among Croatian children soon after the November 2014 Milanovic debacle in the parliament; Opacic did not deny child hunger but swerved off the mainstream road for a while saying, wrongfully, that it’s by a huge majority the Roma children and foreign citizens who do not qualify for social welfare in Croatia that are hungry!

 
In early March 2015, though, the Croatian minister for social welfare, Milanka Opacic, had announced a new measure to deal with the issues of hungry children at schools. She said that an extra 24 million Kuna (cca 3.2 million EURO) has now been earmarked to cater for warm meals for school children primarily. The funds she said will be secured by diverting funds earned from the state lotteries and will be distributed to humanitarian organisations who will then distribute the funds for families not included in the state’s social welfare program but are living on the brink of poverty and experiencing difficulties providing food for their children. There are more and more families in Croatia who cannot afford paying for their child’s school meals. The idea is for the humanitarian organisations, who are successful at winning the tender for a slice of the 24 million Kuna (to be released mid-March) to go out and seek out or identify the families within the communities who would qualify for this new “handout”. Many local governments in Croatia already subsidise school meals in their areas and, hence, minister Opacic believes the extra 24 million will be enough to satisfy the needs of all.

Social security system is often rigid and, because of a few Kuna higher earnings than upper limit individual families do not qualify for social welfare. For example, a single mother with two children earning 2,400 Kuna (cca 320 EURO per month) who has three children has no right to social security. Civil society organisations can regulate for much looser criteria and quicker response (than a government office),” said minister Opacic on 2 March.

It’s most unacceptable for a minister of a government to accept “looser criteria” in the area of distributing government/taxpayer funds to the needy. Such attitude and practice are fraught with dangers of corruption and favouritism; government must in every civil society demand stringent criteria and accountability from community organisations in receipt of its funding.

 

Identifying families needing such help in the community takes “manpower” and other operating/administration resources. Given that Opacic’s social welfare ministry already have the data about where most such families are living one would think that the funds earmarked for this program would spread much further among the needy were the schools in those areas – who already provide meals to children whose families are in receipt of social welfare – were given the task of identifying the additional children to feed. But, it’s Election year in Croatia and it seems to me that the governing Social Democrats are more interested in reaching more voters within the communities, whose job will be to go out and identify families for this additional school-meal assistance, than they are in ensuring that most of the funds are actually spent on food!

 

Be that as it may, additional help is needed and there are charitable organisations and citizens’ initiatives in the alleviation of child hunger that would perform the task of identifying the needy families/children for this additional social welfare project most responsibly, with a benevolent outlook. The ideal winner of the announced tenders for organisations who would be given the task of distributing the extra 3.2 million EURO would be those charitable organisations that can deliver with the least or minimal operating/administration costs eating into the funds provided; the organisations that will significantly rely on voluntary staff identifying the families who qualify. This is, after all, a fight against hunger among vulnerable children, which hopefully will not last or linger year in and year out. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

Croatia: Government’s Social Welfare Moves In Shocking Contradictions – “If You Are Hungry And Poor, You Will Sign!”

Croatian Kuna

 

The Social Democrat led government is the one that boasts about looking after the poor, the socially endangered and disadvantaged citizens – the best (?).
One was tempted to believe it a week or so ago, at least partially when the government announced it would forgive debts to the poorest. In a measure considered by some as innovative and unorthodox, the Croatian government has gotten creditors on board a plan to erase the debts of some 60,000 poorest citizens. The “fresh start” scheme targets less than 1 % of the entire debt, but is hoped to boost the economy in the long-term, although no precise calculations or forecasts have been delivered. Given that it’s election year in Croatia this measure although great news for the poor who will qualify for the erasure of their debt, may well be seen as populist political move to score some points for the utterly unpopular Social Democrat government, which might as soon as this European Spring face its destiny at early general elections (regular elections are due end of 2015). Certainly those who have labelled it innovative might not be aware or have forgotten that austerity measures such as mortgage debt relief – governments paying banks to forgive debt on mortgages as e.g. in the US or stimulus cash payments to citizens as in Australia during the Global Financial Crisis of late 2000’s etc.
The measure was voted for by the Croatian government on January 15 and came into force on Monday 2 February and will be implemented until 30 June2015. To be eligible to participate debtors must have no savings or property, have a debt no greater than about $5,100, have no assets, and live on welfare or an income of no higher than $138 per month (about 20% of average net wage) per household member.

We assess that this measure will be applicable to some 60,000 citizens,” Deputy Prime Minister Milanka Opacic (also minister for social welfare and youth) said as she introduced the bailout in late January. “Thus they will be given a chance for a new start without a burden of debt.”

It’s expected that some $31 million worth of bad debts will be written off by creditors, who have signed up to the government’s scheme – buying the debts etc. Those include several banks, telecommunication companies, major utilities, several major cities and municipalities as well as the government’s own tax agency. None will be refunded for their losses.

The program would return access to bank accounts to about 20% of the 317,000 (out of 4,4 million population) Croatians, whose accounts were frozen in July last year due to debts. “This is the first time that any Croatian government is trying to solve this difficult problem and we are proud of it,” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said recently at a cabinet session.

And now, if one looks further into the poverty and social welfare pathways in Croatia one comes across extreme contradictions to this benevolent and rather good act of forgiving the poorest people certain debts i.e. debts of up to $5,100 they cannot pay off.

If you are hungry and poor, you will sign,” were the awful and deplorable words directed a couple of days ago by a Ministry of social welfare official in Zagreb, Croatia, at a woman who approached the office with an application for the so-called “guaranteed minimal social welfare payments”. The woman complained, that is, about the part of the application form which states that the person in receipt of minimal social welfare must sign to, in effect, hand over to the government the ownership (title) of the only property the applicant has! I.e., must agree that the government depart will enter a claim to the property on the title deed. Croatian media report that there are more and more similar cases.

While means testing is the usual order of the day for welfare payments eligibility in the developed world one gets quite a shock discovering that Croatia’s government actually demands rights over social welfare payment applicant’s real estate property. Social welfare payments are not loans one needs collateral or guarantees for. Such moves of demanding rights over the applicant’s only property would suggest that this governments social welfare policy also includes measures of making the poorest even poorer and this, to my view, cancels out many positive attributes one might credit the debt forgiveness with.

And so, this same government that has ruled on debt forgiveness to a large number of the poorest with no property, goes about fleecing off or registering claims against the last property of the poorest citizens that turn on its doorstep seeking social welfare payments! No points scoring here Social Democrats! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

A Disturbing Report Card: Croatian Government Fuels Barriers To Education For Children With Disabilities

Luka Wagner gets to school  helped by his mum Photo: Screenshot TV hrt.hr 3 November 2014

Luka Wagner gets to school
helped by his mum
Photo: Screenshot TV hrt.hr
3 November 2014

Dozens of teacher’s aides who help students with disabilities, were dismissed on Monday 3 November pursuant to the decision made last Friday by the Croatian Ministry of Education, Science and Sport. In the counties that were successful in the competition for EU funds, funding for aides from NGOs that applied in the second call for funding applications was denied even though they were encouraged to apply for this European funding by the Croatian Ministry of Education.

In order to best understand what teachers’ aides mean to students with disabilities it’s perhaps best to read the letter by Luka Wagner, an exceptionally good sixth grader from a primary school in Rijeka, who has cerebral palsy. The text of the letter was originally published by Croatian TV – HRT.

Croatian TV reported that, as a result of these cuts to teacher’s aid the families of children with disabilities are left in trying circumstance, Luka’s family ttried to see if they could find the money to pay for his teacher’s aide or have his mum attend classes with him. Luka started to cry: “No, I don’t want that. Because, whose mother attends class with them, whose!?” he sobbed like tru young man yearning for independence despite his disabilities. As the need for teacher’s aide is immediate Luka’s school found a way to help him temporarily – the school’s physiotherapist sat in the classroom with him for a while. So, there are no more teacher’s aids employed by the Cerebral Palsy Association and the city council employs only very few and funds will need to be found to help these children with disabilities to have the support they need to access education within regular schools. Luka’s school says that someone at higher levels of government will need to find a way of returning teacher’s aides positions in schools where they are needed.

And while the authorities and parties negotiate, address the problem Luka reads his letter:

Luka Wagner 3 November 2014 Photo: Screenshot hrt.hr

Luka Wagner 3 November 2014
Photo: Screenshot hrt.hr

Am I different from other people?

I have cerebral palsy. Am I different from others because of that? I am not. I have two eyes, two ears, two arms and two legs, parents who would bring down the stars from the skies if I needed them and I have wonderful friends. That which angers me the most in life is when people say: ‘He’s a child with special needs.” I have no special needs. I have the same needs as all other people on Earth, the need for understanding, friendship, love, going to a friend’s place and to the movies. I only need help menu is only needed help to satisfy these needs I have.

I’m surrounded by wonderful people and true friends who provide me with great help. I was afraid of what will happen when I go to school. A thousand questions went through my mind, but one thing that bothered me the most: ‘What if they do not accept me because I cannot do everything like they can?’. I cannot walk alone, my helper is my walker, getting my books out of my bag is a problem for me and my classmates did that for me until I got an assistant, a teacher’s aide. My classmates would even get into an argument over who and when would we be my helper, because they sincerely wanted to help me with what I cannot do by myself. The fact that I play football with them says how much they have accepted me. Of course, I cannot run, but I am the best goalkeeper in the world. My walker takes up half of the goal space, and so rarely does the ball pass through to the net behind me.

The first days of this school year made me and my mum cry. Why? Because I did not know if I would have an assistant in the classroom this school year so I asked friends via Facebook to turn up at school wearing yellow T-shirts as a sign of their support for me that the first day of school, they come in yellow T-shirts as a sign of support for me and for all the children with developmental disabilities in our fight for our constitutional rights, in this case, the right to education. You guessed? Of course they came in yellow T-shirts and with that showed once again that I am not different from them, I just need their help.

Now, at the end of this letter I ask the question: ‘Am I really different from the other twelve-year-olds?’”

And the education system, sadly, says he is different. The Ministry of Education, Science and Sport reacted: it passes the responsibility onto the local authorities “who have received EU funds from social programs and that these funds should be used for teacher’s aides (not state budget!).”

This government of Croatia has serious problems in understanding the state budgetary meaning of the right to education and its responsibilities in securing access and sustainability to the rights to education, guaranteed under the Constitution! A government simply cannot pass on the funding for teacher’s aides in schools to non-government or other community organisations or funding avenues that are dependent on the success of a funding applications, year by year or so. Teacher’s aides for education of children with disabilities are not a social or welfare issue. It is not a matter of depending on the goodness of volunteers or vulnerabilities of families with children who have disabilities and need support in accessing education. Such an attitude and approach  creates and fuels barriers to education access, which children with disabilities need to grapple with and fear from, year after year.

 

Such a fate simply cannot do! The government must ensure that not only the right to education is ensured but also that the access to that right has no barriers.

 

Luka Wagner Won gold last year at Croatian Boccia Competition

Luka Wagner
Won gold last year at
Croatian Boccia Competition

Many children with disabilities are currently not attending school due to lack of teacher’s aides, in some cases parents have attended to their child in the classroom so that their child could be at school – this though is neither possible for all nor appropriate. A child with disabilities should not have to deal with issues of access to education alongside coping with their disabilities.

The Minister of Social Politics and the Youth, Milanka Opacic, says there is no money in her portfolio or state’s budget for teacher’s aides and hopes the Ministry of Education has applied for funds to the EU because “that was the only way to get enough funds.” The Ministry of Education say that they are “still looking for a model to solve this situation.” (!)

The Education Minister Vedran Mornar is nowhere to be heard on this matter so far; he has fobbed it off to his equally incompetent assistants. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if he gets rid of few of his assistants and advisers together with some other government ministers and utilised the freed-up funds for teacher’s aides for children with disabilities in regular, socially inclusive schools. Every developed society has the responsibility and mandate to ensure people with disabilities are included and access barriers removed or optimally reduced. Evidently, the Croatian government has not caught up in its laws/regulations with the United Nations Convention On Rights Of Persons With Disabilities – heck, it hasn’t caught up with its own Constitution and associated laws when it comes to the rights and access to education for all children. Getting rid of these human rights hoodlums in Croatian government will be the day Croatia may truly start to shine on all levels of humanity. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

 

Josip Grabovac 8th grader at Primary School "Dr Franjo Tudjman" in Knin pleads:  "Please return my  teacher's aide  into my classroom" Screenshot: hrt.hr news 4 November 2014

Josip Grabovac
8th grader at Primary School “Dr Franjo Tudjman” in Knin pleads:
“Please return my
teacher’s aide
into my classroom”
Screenshot: hrt.hr news 4 November 2014

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