Roma inclusion: Who will do the work?
*Angéla Kóczé Русский/Russian
Will this young girl remain with her community? By offering high salaries, international NGOs attract the brightest Roma, but diminish the pool of local leaders.
BUDAPEST, Hungary – 16 July, 2012 – Before the European Union (EU) enlargement to include certain Central and Eastern European countries many presumed that the institutionalization of Roma political activism over the last two decades had created solid civil society structures to push forward the issue of Roma inclusion.
A few years down the road we have to admit that we are not there yet.
This is particularly depressing given the fact that resources, in the form of EU funds, are there but are simply not accessible.
This is particularly true in the most marginalized and segregated communities.
What could be the reasons for this, and why does Roma civil society continue to suffer from serious financial, managerial and operational incapacity?
In order to respond to this question, it is worth exploring the evolution of Roma civil society in the decades of transition and how two fundamental concepts – that of human rights and that of human development – have gradually internalized and slowly converged.
The degree to which both concepts have converged is associated with the strength (or weakness) of Roma civil society.
The Central and Eastern European context
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, European societies have experienced remarkable economic, political and social transformations.
The restructuring of post-World War II welfare systems in Europe, the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the enlargement of the NATO and the EU to include former socialist countries, and the growing economic inequalities and crisis have brought about economic and political restructuration and an affirmation and consolidation of neoliberal policies in the greater Europe.
All these changes have had profound implications on the evolution of Roma civil society.
Many researchers have recognized that one of the most visible by-products of this phenomenon has been the increasing social exclusion, pauperization, racial discrimination and territorial segregation of Romani citizens in Europe, and particularly in Central and Eastern European states.
Huub van Baar argues that since 1989 there has been a tangible emergence of new forms of European governance which includes the neoliberal restructuring of states, economies and civil societies, and the resurgence and reshaping of forms of nationalism and anti-Roma sentiments.
The old structure did not provide any opportunities for Roma to participate in civil society and influence policies, but it did offer a secure workplace, a predictable life, and even some social mobility.
The new structure offers some kind of minority recognition for Roma on the one hand, but on the other, the market-based economies which require highly-skilled workers have cast out the poorly educated Roma.
As a response to the deteriorating socio-economic status of millions of Roma and to growing anti-Gypsyism, discourses emerged on human rights, minority rights and later on equal opportunities.
A new rights-based paradigm permeated Romani political activism, putting emphasis on civil and political rights at the expense of economic and social rights.
International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) offering high salaries attracted the brightest Roma from local associations, acting as a ‘brain-drain’ and further weakening grassroots initiatives.
One of the failures of the donor communities was not providing and supporting extensive capacity-building measures at local level. Instead, they concentrated on international advocacy and legal cases.
There has been criticism of the rights-based discourse that emphasizes the responsibilities of the policy-making elite, politicians, and donors.
This type of democratization process enabled Romani political actors, as well as many other politically active groups and NGOs to use the international environment to advocate for their rights at the expense of action at local and national level.
The reliance on international organizations and frameworks, on the one hand, has introduced international standards - but on the other hand, it has reinforced the perception of Roma as ‘alien’ to the local community.
Recent trends: merging the approaches
The United Nations and the World Bank also contributed to the convergence of the rights-based and human development-focused approaches.
Both intergovernmental organizations have published reports on the situation of Roma in Europe: in 2003 the UNDP and the International Labour Organization published a joint human development report with the title ‘Avoiding the Dependency Trap’.
A year later the World Bank published a book entitled Roma in an Expanding Europe: Breaking the Poverty Cycle.
Both attempt to go beyond the hegemony of the rights-based discourse and highlight the persistent and entrenched poverty and dependence of Roma on various forms of state support, which creates obstacles to their social and economic integration.
However, the UNDP report put a strong emphasis on the application of the human development paradigm.
This was a new framework for Roma issues, which also included a focus on human rights not as a remedy for Roma issues, but linked to access to jobs and education.
Losing the change makers
The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 is a unique international initiative formulated by the most important non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations, and is an opportunity to act together to improve the situation of Roma.
In 2012, as we enter the final phase of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, one of the major obstacles is that we have lost the local activists and experts who could carry out the real work on Roma inclusion and could make good use of the EU funds.
The burning question today is: where are those significant numbers of change makers that are needed for the fundamental task of Roma inclusion? They are definitely not at local level, which means that change so far is top-down (and not bottom-up).
Another question is: who will do the ground-level job of Roma inclusion?
The situation is changing now, but is Roma civil society ready to seize the opportunity?
The outcomes of the last two decades for Roma civil society as well as for the donor community are mixed. Much has been achieved, but the foundations for serious problems with human capital have already been laid.
Not enough has been invested in nurturing the new generation, particularly those who can remain in their local environment and implement social inclusion programmes.
Although the Decade of Roma Inclusion has made an attempt to capacitate and empower young Roma to advocate for Roma rights, there is still work to be done to establish a critical mass at local level that would drive the communities out of exclusion, marginalization and dependency.
The tiny, fragile Roma elite will not make tangible changes without a solid base at local level. Supporting the emerging initiatives and helping them grow is a priority.
This cannot be done through ‘training’ and ‘workshops’, as we have seen. It can only be done through real work, starting with small steps. Roma civil society and the international donor communities have a great opportunity and shared responsibility in that regard.
If we act now, in 10 years’ time no one will be able to say that ‘there was no political will for Roma inclusion’.
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