Budapest in May

Every spring and autumn I get the feeling that it is about time to head for central Europe. It is a vague nostalgic feeling. Presumably migrating birds and animals also wake up one morning thinking, “It’s time to head south” or whatever, and there may be some very deep-seated echo in the human genes. In my case, there are associations of pleasant weather – not too hot and not too cold and definitely clement as far as rain, wind, fog and snow are concerned. There are expectations of pleasure – of meeting friends, of stimulating conversations and of interesting social occasions.

It adds up – for FICE members – to being time for the next Federal Council meeting. This spring, as on several occasions before, Hungary has acted as host to the Council, and as always they have done an excellent job as hosts. The meeting was held in a building put up, and recently refurbished, by the Council of Europe on a hill in Buda, looking across the curving Danube with the beautiful expanse of the magnificent Houses of Parliament on the Pest side, the many bridges, and sidelong views of the Palace housing the National Art Museum, Fishermen’s Bastion and the Cathedral. Budapest has a lot to offer the tourist.

The Business

This was the first Federal Council under the leadership of Monika Niederle, and a strategic approach to planning FICE’s activities was taken, identifying the areas which merited the investment of time.

A problem which has rumbled on for some years – and which is shared by other international bodies in this field – was the tension which exists between FICE-Europe and FICE-International. Ideally, FICE wishes to be truly international, with National Sections in countries throughout the world. If this were the case, each continent would have its own ‘platform’. In reality, FICE has strong European membership, but insufficient members elsewhere to create viable continental platforms.

This has two important repercussions. The first is that as an inevitable result, the key honorary officers are from Europe and the Federal Councils are, with few exceptions, held in Europe. European issues tend to dominate the international agenda, and if FICE extends help to child care workers from other continents who are interested in joining, it can easily be assumed that any advice or support offered is Euro-centric and even patronising, even if this is not intended at all.

The other problem is that if a European platform is established, as it was in FICE several years ago, there is then always the risk that the international and continental wings of the organisation trawl in the same pool, overlap in their activities and even compete. There is no easy answer to this conundrum.

At a Special General Meeting, Andrew Hosie of FICE-Scotland was elected as Secretary General. FICE has coped – and struggled somewhat – without a Secretary General for the last six years, and Andrew’s involvement should enable better support to be offered to National Sections and closer monitoring of projects. Andrew has also taken over the control of FICE-International’s website, and great things are planned to enable better communication with members.

Plans are now in hand to expand membership, not only by recruiting new National Sections but also by offering direct membership of FICE-International. Dennis Felty of FICE-USA explained that FICE offered a good place for networking and allowing agencies which wish to develop international links to meet up, arrange exchanges or offer sponsorship, and arrangements have already been made for a partnership between organisations in the USA and in South Africa.

FICE is also getting back into publishing. The first book, to be published by Trentham Books, is nearly ready, focusing on Residential Care and its Alternatives and edited by Friedhelm Peters. Others are at various stages of planning, and include a second volume on residential care, a History of FICE (to be ready for the sixtieth anniversary celebration in Helsinki), and other books on children’s rights and risk.

Friedhelm Peters reported on a fascinating survey which he had undertaken through FICE in 2006. It showed how the welfare state was being modernised throughout Europe.  In western Europe there was decreasing government intervention, with greater choice and responsibility for individuals, more outsourcing of work and a wider range of partnership between governments, NGOs and the private sector. Rather than inspecting processes, service commissioners were now looking for outcomes, efficiency and evidence-based practice. Although there tended still to be greater state intervention in eastern Europe, the trend was visible there too. There was also emphasis on the need to create a trained workforce to deliver the expected standards of work, and Britain’s new interest in social pedagogy was mentioned.

There was also discussion about :

–           the Declaration of Sarajevo and the need to follow it up,
–           the implementation of Quality 4 Children throughout Europe,
–           ways of financing FICE,
–           the Annual Report for 2006,
–           the next Federal Council meeting in Tel Aviv, and
–           the next Congress to be held in Helsinki from 10 to 13 June in 2008.

The Cookery Contest

Federal Council meetings are not all work. On the first evening FICE-Hungary organised a trip to a new opera house where an incredibly energetic and large dance troupe performed and sang a mixture of traditional Hungarian pieces and more modern dance. The performance was brilliant, and it was quite exhausting even to watch them.

Then there was the dinner on a boat which took us up and down the Danube, seeing all the buildings illuminated on either side – a brilliant setting for a pleasant meal and a further opportunity for chatting, networking and sorting out matters not dealt with in the formal meetings.

The most interesting day, though, was a coach trip south, past Lake Balaton, to a children’s home in a small village in the countryside. Here, a field had been set aside for the annual cookery competition. In all, twenty-one children’s homes took part, from all over Hungary. Each team, typically made up of a couple of staff and about four children, had a log fire lined with large stones on which there was a cooking pot with various sorts of goulash in them. Behind the fires, they had covered areas, each one sufficient for a large table to prepare the food and lay it out to be eaten. Behind these shelters there were small white-painted brick-built ovens in which they baked bread.

The variety of food on offer was most impressive and of really good quality. There was warm doughy bread, goulashes made from every sort of meat (probably with names other than goulash, but I was an ignorant foreigner) and delicate pastries.

Some teams were kitted out in uniform style, with themed colours running through their presentations. One home had produced their own pottery, beautifully decorated. Some had put real effort into the presentation, laying the completed menu out attractively. How much was down to staff, and how much to the children? Clearly the staff played an important part, but equally clearly, so did the children, and they seemed to be really enjoying the day.

Throughout the day, children were playing – informal football, more organised games, or just messing around. After lunch there was a dancing competition – some traditional and some modern. We left before we heard the outcome of the judging, but no doubt it was the participation rather than winning the large carved wooden spoon which counted most. The return journey took in a winery and a brief visit to the shore of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s internal sea.


FICE-Hungary has done a remarkable job over recent years. At the political level it has had good contacts with the Government and has influenced child care legislation. At the professional level it has brought key figures together, drawn up documents such as their Code of Ethics, provided training, produced publications and organised exchange visits with other countries.

It has also published children’s writing and organised activities for children in care, such as the cookery competition and the annual ball, when the young people dress up for the occasion and take over a large Budapest hotel. I cannot imagine such events working in the UK, but in Hungary they do.

Under the leadership of Dr Julia Blumenfeld, FICE-Hungary has had a significant impact on the country’s child care services. It has also done an excellent job as host to FICE’s Federal Council, and thanks are due to their team of organisers.

The one thing which FICE-Hungary could not control was the weather. With the rare exception of an odd drop of rain, it was hot with cloudless blue skies for the most part, and the summer poppies were already in bloom. Indeed, it was more like summer than spring. Maybe global warming will mean that FICE will have to start meeting earlier in the year.

Footnote from DCL : I did not take my camera on this visit, and if any reader took pictures of these events, please email me a copy for insertion in the article.

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