Subdued and wrong


I just returned from two great days at the Forum 2000 in Prague: many brilliant minds, most of them ready to engage in debate, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to learn from others.

Following this experience, I decided to write a series of articles about things I would like to see changed; things that are stridently in contradiction with the Forum 2000 and Havel’s ideals. Ideas I heard during last years at Aspen seminars and Plato’s virtues of the city and care for the soul also influenced my decision.


October 2012. I attended a conference about transition and conflict focused on North Africa, the Middle East, Cyprus and Eastern Europe. The director of the USAID office of the Middle East Program commented on Turkey as a member of the European Union. His comments showed that he was ignorant about the most relevant initiatives of the European Union in his field. He was also unaware that all Eastern European members of the EU are donor countries and for some of them, one main target of their development aid is Egypt. He was unaware of the Turkish prime minister’s visit to Egypt, and did not know that Turkey is a major donor in the region. His office is based in Egypt.

During the last ten years I have heard many similarly astounding comments from people at the highest level, both bureaucrats and politicians. At an OSCE meeting a few years ago, I dared to wake up a dozing ambassador (I wanted him to hear what I was about to say about his country). My request to ‘please wake up the ambassador’ was considered rude: but I didn’t know the appropriate diplomatic protocol for waking somebody up during a high-level meeting! I also could not find a more diplomatic word than  ‘incompetent’ to describe an incoherent and rather offensive speech on Roma delivered by another ambassador a day later. He had no practical or academic experience on the issue but was in charge of Roma issues within the OSCE.

The EU Commissioner in charge of Roma, Viviane Reding, similarly has no background or experience on Roma. At the start of her mandate I heard the Commissioner stating emphatically that there should be no Roma-focused EU policy. Nowadays – a few years and a few crises later – the Commissioner presents the EU Roma Policy as her major achievement. Her staff avoids at all costs putting her in the position to engage in open discussions on Roma and ensures she leaves the scene as quickly as possible after any speech she delivers on Roma. She might have some great ideas but the tacit refusal to debate makes her vulnerable to critics. After all these years in charge of Roma issues she has yet to prove interest in learning. I am not aware of even a single visit in a ‘difficult’ Roma neighborhood. I could not find even a mention of this. Some of her colleagues did it in the past – serious progress was achieved also due to those visits.

The extraordinary meeting on Roma issues this year in Brussels organized by her directorate was extraordinary only in regards to the abysmal proportion of Roma speakers, the incredible lack of dialogue and the near zero input from those who work at the grassroots level. The cost of the meeting and the lack of results were also extraordinary.

This type of situation appears to me to be a general rule rather than an exception all over Europe. Decision-making, when it comes to extreme poverty and social exclusion, relevant to the case of many Roma, is almost always in the hands of people who completely lack the skills to take such decisions. The relatively few competent people in the EU and intergovernmental structures, as well as in governments, remain blocked in irrelevant positions and struggle to advance even minor changes.

The major output of the EU and similar institutions when it comes to Roma issues so far is hot air, expensive reports written in a language almost incomprehensible for those working at the grassroots level, and resources wasted on fancy and irrelevant meetings.

Criticism is strongly discouraged – lip service is required nowadays not only to advance in a bureaucratic career within the above-mentioned institutions but also to ensure presence at EU and international meeting as well as funding for NGOs. There is yet not a word of any negative experience when it comes to European Funds to be found on the Commission’s website.

The dependency of a strong majority of NGOs in Europe on EU funding is a disastrous development. Watch-dog NGOs – fundamental to safeguarding civil liberties and human rights in EU member states – now depend on funding that is practically controlled by governments or the European Commission. Criticism towards the government or the European Commission in many cases equates with no access to European funding and the eventual disappearance of those NGOs.

Financing for grassroots interventions in the most problematic areas is almost impossible to come by. The focus on projects and quantitative indicators – mostly designed by people with superficial or no knowledge of the reality on the ground – has led to an explosion of activities with no impact on the ground, and in turn, this significantly dilutes the legitimacy of NGOs.

Ghettos provide the most severe example of social exclusion. A grassroots activity within a Roma ghetto is very complex and needs to take into account a volatile and quickly changing environment. Drugs, prostitution, small criminality, high mobility (people go abroad, or are imprisoned at a much higher rate than average), extreme poverty, violence, and very low educational levels are all reasons why such interventions need to be long-term and cannot provide the typical and immediate indicators required by EU funding.

On the other hand, its easy to justify spending some 2 to 3 million Euros on a project with clear indicators, for example: 10 meetings with 20-30 people each sharing experiences, 3 reports, 5 roundtables, 2-3 trainings, 5000 flyers, 200 posters, 8 partners in EU member states, and 3 TV broadcasts. And the real results? Hot air and paper production with no impact whatsoever on social inclusion. Such a project has a good chance to obtain funding, despite the fact that 10 to 20 projects in ghettos could be financed with the same money.

In the last years NGOs have become social contractors that show a worrisome tendency to adapt to whatever the project requirements are. I have witnessed NGOs staffed by the same (very few) people developing projects dealing with education, health, housing, anti-discrimination legislation, monitoring policies, media campaigns, poverty and exclusion all at the same time. Often none of the staff members are experts in any of the above-mentioned topics. People working in the field joke that if there was money for the social inclusion of Roma on the moon, there would be no lack of NGOs ready to prove their required three years of experience for accessing European funds.

In the following weeks I will give examples and argue that:

1.     There are major problems with the system of big intergovernmental institutions dealing with Roma issues. Most of them show clear signs of institutional racism.

2.     A significant part of the funding available at this moment works against Roma civil society rather than for it.

3.     Many decision-makers at the level of intergovernmental institutions and governments are unprepared, and sometimes completely inept when it comes to Roma issues.

4.     A significant amount of the already insufficient funding targeting Roma is wasted.

5.     There are major problems with Roma leadership and the existing European concept of Roma identity is both fake and detrimental to social inclusion.

6.     The main European incentives work against addressing the huge problems within the poorest and most excluded Roma communities.


These articles are not meant in any way to be attacks against institutions. They will be indeed critical analyses of these institutions made with the strong belief that critical thinking is the responsibility of any European citizen and the only way to prevent aberrations from and improve democracy. The exposure of major flaws of the leadership of these institutions is meant to help address existing and prevent similar occurrences. There are many cases of the Kings of politics, bureaucracies but also of civil society that are far too used to admiration for their invisible “clothes”. Civil society is responsible to make sure they embarrass themselves and the rest of us for as a short time as possible.

There are some amazing people that work within these institutions and NGOs. I can only hope that what I will write will help them to achieve their goals.

I do believe many good things happened due to these institutions (stakeholders). But as an admirer of Havel I also believe that intellectuals have a responsibility to predict and talk about problems and leaders (political or bureaucratic) have a duty to listen and act.

I expect my rationale to be flawed at times and I hope my readers will let me know and help improve the arguments and proofs in my articles.


  1. I have to do the most with the least, having a small pension, but living in the midst of Roma families poorer than I am. We are in Florence where our families come from Romania to beg in the streets for other family members back home. What we have done is showcase Roma manual craftsmanship, blacksmithing, stone masonry, carpentry, gardening with the restoration of a historic anti-slavery cemetery visited by many tourists in Florence and its library where we hold Alphabet School for Roma of all ages. This is now a great success since Roma explained the need to have women separate from men, studying in two separate spaces, the women insisting on this. We also help families help other families, repairing homes etc. We hope to set up library clubs in four Romanian towns, to whom we will send books, the librarians being young mothers whose small stipends will help pay their rent and support their children, their homes previously having had no books. We know education, especially of women, housing, medical care, work are essential in the face of this poverty. http://www.ringofgold.eu/Brussels.ppt.

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