Petra Francova - Citizens' Advice Bureaux in the Czech Republic
Imagine you turn up for work and you find that your employer has decided to sack you without giving a reason, or your landlord suddenly gives you a week's notice to move out of your apartment. If you live in the United Kingdom or in some Commonwealth countries, it's quite likely that in situations like this you'll turn to your local Citizens' Advice Bureau or CAB for advice. In many countries there are CABs in town centres, offering free and independent advice to the public on just about any problem under the sun. Thanks to Petra Francova, the Czech Republic now has its own network of Citizen's Advice Bureaux in sixteen towns around the country. Petra now joins me in the studio and we're going to be talking about what inspired her to import the idea to the Czech Republic and how the centres are working today.
" (laughs) That's an interesting question. In fact throughout my teenage years I struggled against my father being a soldier and against the way I was brought up. So maybe that helped me in my way to the NGO sector - more freedom."
So you're from quite a conservative family?
"In a way. I think those who were educated by soldiers know what I'm speaking about. It's a bit more strict."
On the other hand your parents had difficulties in 1968 with the Soviet invasion, didn't they? Your father did have to leave the army.
"Yes. My father was very courageous. He was not afraid and he always acted according to his persuasion - what he considered to be good to do. He spoke openly about his opinion. And then all soldiers were checked and he was thrown out of the army and the Communist Party, because he was - before those events - a member of the Communist Party."
And what memories do you have of that time?
"I was quite a small child. I remember it very strongly. In Prague I was staying with my friend, and we were two very young girls. I was staying there on my own, because my father was running all over Prague, my mother was living outside. We were not living in Prague those days. And I was running all over, signing petitions, and my eyes were just falling out of my head from all the impressions which I saw."
And that must have changed your life, that experience as a child.
"Yes, that was very important for me."
And given that your father had such difficulty with the regime after 1968, that must have been difficult for you as well when you wanted to study and go to university.
"I was not allowed to enter university. I remember when I passed my exam and I passed it successfully, so I was given a paper that I didn't pass my exam. When I asked why, I was told - because the political attitudes of your parents are included. So that meant that I was not able to enter any other university."
But eventually you did get to university, didn't you? What did you study?
"I studied sociology at the faculty of arts and then I studied economy as well, so I was hungry for studying."
And you went on to work at the Prague Chief Architect's office - in the planning department of the City Hall. What was that like at that time?
"Because I didn't want to become a member of the Communist Party and to cooperate actively with the regime, I tried to find some job which wouldn't be politically focused. I always tried to follow the point of view of people living in the city - that all decisions that are made in city development in fact have some influence on people who live in the city, and experts who make these decisions do not always realize the consequences. And so I saw my role as somebody trying to tell them what these expert decisions can mean for the lives of people."
And when we were talking a little while ago, you said that one of the most influential experiences of your life was when your children were born. Can you tell me more about this?
"Everything changed then because I started to look on everything with a new way. I had new eyes afterwards, so many things started to be different for me."
So it's not surprising that you then went on to be active in an organization called Prague Mothers.
"It was very natural because I started to be active and to fight against some things happening which endangered my children then - for example, the environment."
And you went from that, after the fall of communism, to form the Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux here in the Czech Republic. That was on the basis of a similar network that exists in Great Britain, wasn't it?
"Yes. It was."
How did you come to have this idea?
"People felt a need for general advice on people's rights and responsibilities. There was a very old, sweet lady, who is Czech, and she works in the Norwich CAB as a volunteer, and her big wish was to establish a network here. So she found a Polish person who helped to establish CABs in Poland, which was a few years before our country, and they together came here on visits, trying to find somebody who would start the movement here."
And could you describe very briefly what CABs actually are?
"Those who know British CABs - I can tell them that it's very similar. It's nearly the same system. They are NGOs, which provide general advice to people and information. This advice is very practical. It's on their rights and responsibilities. These advice centres provide information on a wide range of areas - from housing, employment, social benefits to consumer protection, human rights. It's very broad. People can come with any problem, and either they can just speak about their difficulties, which is often very important for people, or they can get information or specific advice or maybe even mediation in negotiation and so on. The advice centre can act on their behalf."
You have 20 offices and centres around the Czech Republic.
"At the moment. It's growing constantly."
How has the public reacted generally? Has there been enthusiasm - because Czechs, under the old regime, weren't used to the idea of having civil rights and going to ask for advice.
"It's a new phenomenon and people must get used to it. Gradually the knowledge about this kind of service is growing, and I hope that in the longer time period it will be normal for people to go and ask if they don't know, because people need to be careful before signing contracts or job agreements or anything, that many of them came into difficulties, and they realize that this kind of advice is very crucial for them sometimes."
The Citizens' Advice Bureaux have been up and running in the Czech Republic for the last five years. How do you see them developing in the next five years? Do you think they're going to continue to expand and that people will become more and more aware that they exist?
"I hope so. But we are under constant threat of lack of money, as are most NGOs here in this country. And I'm afraid the situation may become worse."
Where does your money come from?
"We apply. We're living on grants mostly."
And some of the grants come directly from the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs do they - and some from the private sector?
"From the private sector there are very few, in fact. Some is from the European Union or some foreign foundations."