Uncomfortable realities

The European Commission (EC) is right that Member States have the main responsibilities in tackling discrimination and exclusion faced by Roma. The EC is wrong to expect significant changes anytime soon. The case of Romania, the country with the most Roma in the European Union is probably the most relevant.


With 83 main “directions for action” the Romanian National Strategy for Roma Inclusion for 2010-2020 (RNSRI) it is a lot closer to a shopping list than a strategy. The only thing that seems strategic about the RNSRI is the way it avoids concrete suggestions for what should be done at the grassroots level in the communities. Instead there is an overwhelming focus on trainings, studies, and awareness raising campaigns plus some other ambiguous (in term or results) or proven corrupt measures. Many of the already implemented projects in Romania are spectacular failures in reality and successes in reports and conference presentations.

One example: the focus on actions to rehabilitate buildings inhabited by Roma was a priority strongly pushed by a powerful Romanian politician that happened to be also one of the most important mayors in Romania. The costs of those rehabilitations were hugely over-estimated and lead to the biggest corruption scandal in Romania. He is nowadays arrested and accused of receiving tens if not hundreds of millions of Euros in bribes. There are at least two similar cases investigated by the Romanian anti-corruption body. This practice is presented as a model of successful absorption of European Funds by the Romanian government.

Most of the 83 directions for actions are proven to be inefficient, wrong or corrupted. They reflect the interests of a few powerful and often corrupt players and the chaotic and neutered input of a few others mostly well intended NGOs but with very limited experience and impact at the grassroots. For example child protection when it comes to Roma children continues to be a dramatically weak point for Romania. Working with Roma children in very difficult conditions is a hard and poorly paid job therefore not many (including NGOs) are interested. The final result is that child protection is the weakest of the priorities within the Roma Strategy with three directions of actions: campaigns, raising awareness and elaborating social interventions for street children that practically avoid what we need the most – hands-on work with the most disadvantaged children.

The talk both in Brussels and at the highest political levels in Bucharest is that there is more than enough money available;  the problem, according to most in position of power, stays  with the lack of good ideas for projects. This is false.

The problem is that the framework for distributing money is illogical and awfully complicated allowing only certain types of projects that are in their majority doomed to be irrelevant ( the cases of trainings, awareness campaigns) or to fail from the beginning. The idea that there is enough money available is ridiculous.

The budget available on the official document posted on the EC website shows a dramatic but very steady decrease from 158 million RON (approx. 40 million EUR) in 2012 to 9.3 million RON (2.2 million EUR) in 2015.  From 2016 to 2020 there is no budget. Taking in account the number of Romanian Roma as estimated by the Strategy it means that for 2015 there is less than 0.004 EUR per day per Roma allocated by the Romanian government.  Even if we calculate the money available for the Roma estimated to live in abject poverty we are well under 10 cents per day.

Mechanisms and human resources

Romania National Contact Point – the main link between the government and the European Commission is a perfect showcase about how seriously the Romanian government is taking Roma social inclusion. Following a series of stupefying declarations during the last EU event on Roma she acknowledged in a discussion with me and the Romanian Roma MEP, Damian Draghici that all her experience on Roma comes from participation to “a few Roma seminars”. No other relevant experience, no leverage among other ministries, no links whatsoever with Roma communities or Roma civil society.

The situation of the Romanian Prime Minister (PM)’ Roma advisor is event worst. According to the much regretted Nicolae Gheorghe, one of the most respected Roma intellectuals : “remarkably mediocre and educationally challenged are the best euphemisms that could characterize somebody with her background and education”.

Romanian National Agency for Roma (NAR) – another governmental structure is considered a joke even by those that work there.  The agency reflects the political interests of one person – the MP representing Roma in the Romanian Parliament for now almost 16 years.  Plagued by corruption scandals and nepotism, lacking both expertise and support, NAR is more an obstacle than help when it comes to Roma social inclusion. It is true that it does employ a few good professionals; most of them of Roma origins. They even see the Agency as nothing more than an useless window dressing measure of the Romanian government. In the past it has been often used as a private electoral agency meant to keep in power the existing Roma MP. It has been led by people that had skills much better fitted to the criminal gangs than to what is expected from a professional within a governmental agency.

The Roma experts at the level of local administrations are, in general, chosen according to their abilities to bring votes for the local (and mostly corrupt) politicians. A good number of those are barely literate and play multiple functions including garbage collector. Sarcastically the Romanian Roma strategy relays on them for lots of rather sophisticated things such as monitoring of implementation of complex policies.

There are around one hundred exceptionally good Roma experts in Romania. Most of them happen to be also human rights activists that embarrassed repeatedly the Romanian government and the European Commission. Considered to be “difficult” none of them managed or wanted to transit from NGOs to position of decisions within the Romanian government. Significant discrepancies between salaries ( a good expert makes 4-5 times more money than a honest state employee) as well as reduced job safety of politically sensitive positions have also a negative effect.

Results up to now

The EU funds in Romania targeting Roma inclusion have been spent in a disastrously inefficient way. It offered fantastic incentives for corruption and created an industry of paper and word production spearheaded by powerful consultancies and NGOs that have the interest and leverage to push priorities that have minimal if any impact at the grassroots but keeps the fat cats well fed. Senior Romanian politicians are interested in the Roma issues as long as there are significant personal gains to offset the huge electoral risks that come with any “suspicion” of sympathy for Roma. Most of the time that translates into embezzlement of EU funds. The EU Funds also created “alternative” realities as many reports describe results that exist just in the imagination of the authors.


It is clear that at this moment we do not have good enough mechanisms, structures, politicians, policies and funding lines. One good thing we have, at least in Romania, is people – some of the best experts on Roma issues are Romanians ( Roma and non-Roma).

The solution is to start with a transparent, professional meritocratic system meant to ensure the appointments in all positions dealing with Roma issues of the best available people.

At the end of the day this is nothing new – private companies and struggling governments see these as the basic requirement for a change of fortune.

It is unlikely that any governments will do that voluntary considering the quality of our political elites. In Romania a good part of these elites are in prison or on their way to prison. IGOs such as the European Commission, Council of Europe, the UN, World Bank need to force such a change.

Creating a strong meritocratic system (backed by all above mentioned IGOs) meant to stop inept political appointments and getting best available people to work on Roma issues could bring the same extraordinary results that were possible due to the strong push of the European Commission to address corruption in Romania.

Complains that these measures are just for the sake of job hunting are often, nothing but a pathetic way to disguise the existing strident institutional racism everywhere. There is an overall agreement that we do not have good enough systems, good enough policies or good enough practices but we do have some very good people around. Let’s start by putting them in positions where they can contribute to the much needed change. Results will follow.

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