European Structural Funds (ESFs)- according to the European Commission (EC)- are meant “to reduce differences in prosperity and living standards across European Union (EU) Member States and regions, and therefore promoting economic and social cohesion.”
According to the same institution, Roma (with a population estimated at 10 to 12 million) are “victims of prejudice and deep-rooted social exclusion” and “face prejudice, intolerance, discrimination and social exclusion in their daily lives. They are marginalised and live in very poor socio-economic conditions”. The EC’s Human Rights Watchdog the Fundamental Right Agency considers that “Roma are the most discriminated ethnic minority in Europe”.
ESFs are inefficient when it comes to Roma social inclusion and if continued the same way will become a major factor in promoting social exclusion and increase the already dangerous polarisation among Roma and non-Roma. ESFs design is totally inappropriate to address the situation of Roma ghettoes and forces Roma NGOs to adapt to projects guidelines that make no sense and reflect partially and most of the times not at all their past activities or their mission statement. Ghettoes are and were the main reasons for the series of Roma crises that forced the EU to start working on social inclusion of Roma.
Up to this moment the ESFs and other EU Funding had no effect to stop the constant migration of Roma from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and the growth of Roma ghettoes at the edges of big cities both in Eastern and Western Europe.
Incentives to change the existing situation are minimal.
What we witness at this moment is an anomaly; the European Commission and National Governments behave as Human Rights NGOs and are very vocal during expensive and rather useless meetings in Brussels about the discrimination of Roma. They seem incapable to come up with solutions and reluctant to take any steps that could change the status quo. The very few Roma NGOs that have an acceptable institutional capacity are mostly busy working as contractors implementing social inclusion projects paid, designed and monitored by the EC and Member States. Both the European Commission and Member States recognize the very limited in house expertise on Roma issues. There are practically no experts with significant hands on or academic expertise employed in decision-making positions either within the European Commission or Member States. Those experts exist; ironically many work implementing wrong but very well paid projects of social inclusion that pursue policies and directions designed by inexperienced but in charge inexperienced bureaucrats and politicians.
Here a list of serious problems that is well known to those working with EU funds and Roma but remain hidden, unsaid and unaddressed by those who could solve this : bureaucrats and politicians in decision making positions.
1. The priorities and directions of EU funding for addressing the social inclusion of Roma are decided overwhelmingly by well intended people that have limited (if any) interest in Roma issues as well as close to zero experience working with Roma at the grassroots level. This applies both to high and medium level bureaucrats in the European Commission and national governments. Results are as anybody expect – limited – some say catastrophic.
2. The main incentives for those designing and implementing projects to address the most problematic issues at the grassroots are minimal compared to incentives for research, reports, high-level meetings and trainings. The result is an expensive paper and hot air industry that makes a very small Roma elite, a significant number of bureaucrats and desk researchers happy and able to enjoy a comfortable life style. Four and five star hotels are also important beneficiaries.
There are very few people willing and even fewer able to work in the Roma ghettoes or most isolated and difficult Roma communities. The changes within the communities are many, rapid and often impossible to predict, as the communities have to respond fast to changes, challenges or economic opportunities. From the design of priorities till the start of projects’ implementation there is an average period of two to three years that make most ESFs projects too obsolete to be effective for grassroots work. Migration, a much higher than average incarceration, domestic violence, prostitution, drugs, small criminality and illiteracy rates are all reason why even the unusual efficient EU funded projects are impossible to replicate in these places. Project beneficiaries are hard to be found and even harder to be kept interested. Therefore bureaucrats in Brussels or capital cities and NGOs prefer “safe projects” focused on researches, reports, meetings and trainings that can fulfill easy the required indicators and entail minimal efforts both for those implementing them and their supervisors.
3. Most of the few projects with real community impact financed by European Social Fund resulted in serious problems for the leading NGOs. Even some of the strongest NGOs were or are on the brink of financial collapse due to the ESFs. Member State’s bureaucracy is unprepared and incapable to deal with projects that are complex and innovative. The end result is financial blockages that lead to financial insolvency and disappearance of NGOs. Roma NGOs are even at a higher risk as most Roma NGOs have in general much limited managerial and financial capacity and little experience with EU funding. Moreover there are not many mainstream bureaucrats that will make any effort to help Roma NGOs to get through the stupendous amount of paper work needed for reimbursements. Racism against Roma is not a rare occurrence among state institutions.
4. Most of the ESFs Funds in Romania were directed towards organisations of political cronies that learned how to use the system for their own benefit. The fact that the directors of the Management Authorities for the ESFs are named politically and most of the times have no skills whatsoever to be in these positions lead to widespread corruption. Cheating and bribing are usual practices and some NGOs consider these as the only way to be able to survive a corrupt, rigid or inflexible bureaucracy that has no reasons to try to understand difficulties of grassroots projects and help NGOs. Fake reporting is widespread- the most hunted and valuable human resources are at this moment innovative accountants able to solve the financial quagmire and not at all people capable to change communities. Roma NGOs needed to adapt to the overall trend.
Exposure of corruption within Roma NGOs in much sexier for the press as it plays on the very popular anti-Roma sentiment all over Eastern Europe. The incentives for journalists to investigate Roma corruption are therefore much higher. The end result is further stigmatization and exclusion of Roma. Some appalling corruption acts were exposed and some involved Roma. Unfortunately as with the case of larger corruption scandals and the civil society in Romani the reaction of the Roma civil society to those scandals was shameful. Most if not all of the culprits remain in the same positions.
5. Most of the European money (well over 60% and sometimes over 90%) are spent on administration (salaries, rent, office supplies) meetings and reports. Most of the trainings targeting Roma population make no sense and have disastrous results as long-term employment remains an exception rather than an average result. There are cases when same people were trained multiple times and not rarely by the same trainers using the same curricula. Not even the most optimistic expert in Romania will give a better estimation than 20% of the total funding to reach the targeted vulnerable communities.
6. The significant incentives both Roma and non-Roma have towards exclusion and segregation are mainly ignored or unknown to those in charge. We remain caught in dangerous dichotomy an exaggerated politically correct language that is deployed by EU high-level government officials, Human Rights activists and strident anti-Gypsyism of the mainstream societies. Some of the most serious issues are never admitted or addressed by European Funding.
Most of the Roma that live in ghettoes or isolated communities are functional illiterates. Their average educational achievement is much under the national average. That makes them almost unemployable outside very badly paid jobs. Begging, prostitution and small criminality in Western Europe all pay hugely better than any legal job in Romania. Iron collection, basking, selling newspapers or cleaning cars in intersections in Paris, Brussels or London require very limited education and have significant better economical benefits compared to a legal job in Bucharest or Sofia. Roma are the most hated group in Eastern Europe – less than 10% of Romanians will accept Roma within their families. Investment in curbing anti-Gypsyism remains almost inexistent as it is funding that could be used to change the ghettoes. Most of the successful Roma prefer to assimilate than to face racism. The success in attracting the successful Roma within the political and professional European elites remains for the last decade a main point of bombastic speeches of high level EU and government representatives.
7. Donors’ exit and unfair competition. Most donors withdrew from Member States with significant Roma population as it was clear the European Union funds dwarfed any other donor interested in Roma issues. Some of the previous donors decided to apply for EU funding themselves. In some cases very powerful intergovernmental and international institutions such as the UNDP, World Bank, Council of Europe, OSCE, UNICEF and many others decided to apply and won important funds targeting Roma inclusion.
There are many cases in Romania and Eastern Europe when huge businesses won very important contracts funded by the European Structural Funds. The idea to involve such business is good but in practice there are many things that do not work well. In some of those cases the big businesses did nothing but collected a substantial and perfectly legal fee and contracted some other much smaller businesses to do the implementation.
Big intergovernmental organisations have very expensive bureaucracies and very little experience on Roma issues. Most of them are forced to contract other organisations. Is not a rare occurrence that the last ones had to subcontract Roma experts able to do the work at the grassroots level. This is a waste of European money as public money is administrated at least twice by some of the most expensive bureaucracies in Europe. Small Roma NGOs that should be the basis of any significant social inclusion movement cannot compete with such organisations and either disappear or adapt to the wrong but available rules for funding at the national level.
8. Initiatives of the European Commission and Member States related to Roma issues are hard if not impossible to coordinate. Powerful Commissioners, director generals, ministers and highly educated bureaucrats were all pushed by a series of crisis (most strident ones in Italy and France) in having to deal with Roma issues. This is a very thorny political issue and not at all an easy or beneficial topic for career “development” within the EC or national governments. Accordingly, lots of positioning took place in the last years and a large number of medium level bureaucrats change positions as people tried to consolidate their careers getting out as soon as possible from positions dealing with Roma issues. There are some exceptions to this rule but mostly at the low and medium management level.
The best strategy for any senior bureaucrat in charge of Roma issues is to stall any decision and wait for a new appointment/position as the only effective solution is major reform at all levels. Reforms are expensive and considering that any significant amounts of money directed to Roma issues will be hugely unpopular among institutions and the majorities alike there is no incentive whatsoever to pursue such a path.
A number of window dressing toothless measures were taken by intergovernmental organisations and delayed significantly progress. The need for a EU Roma Framework Strategy was proposed first time in 1996 and included in a more explicit form in a report published by the European Commission in 2004. Only this year the EC and Member States started working on it. Coordination within the European Commission remains lackluster as were the results of the few informal initiatives meant to deal with the Roma issue.
9. The existing EU monitoring and assessment mechanisms are too diplomatic and tend to focus almost exclusively on positive practices. This tendency translates in practical terms into discouragement of constructive criticism or objective reporting of failed practices. The focus on positive practices often backfires as most governments or implementing organisations will present exaggerated positive reports or positive reports of totally or partially failed projects. Such practices lead to further financing, a cycle that clearly discourages constructive, but critical, analysis of failures. This leads to a repetition of mistakes and becomes an inefficient way of using EU or national money. In the very rare case of critical reports or evaluations the European Commission will go to lengths to purge out criticism and sometimes delay or block the release of papers the Commission is unhappy with. The result at this moment is nothing but a dangerously growing balloon – the reporting of Roma organisations and governments present more and more positive practices and achievements on paper while at the level of Roma communities these results are considerable less visible and sometimes minimal or non-existent. The strident discrepancy leads to frustrations both of Roma communities and the majorities and discredits the EU, governments and Roma organisations. This is a significant factor for increased exclusion.
10 .There are a number of other serious backlash effects EU funding had on Roma civil society. Watchdog Roma NGOs were replaced in part by submissive and opportunistic NGOs happy to access the enormous salaries possible by accessing Structural Funds distributed by governments. There is a running joke between Roma elites saying that if the European Commission will launch a EU social inclusion grant for Roma social inclusion settlements on the moon there will be tens of organisations claiming the required three years experience. Most of the best Roma Human Rights activists are nowadays well paid contractors within EU funded Structural Projects that have limited if any impact on Roma social inclusion overall.
11. The existing incentive of Romanian authorities (largest Roma population in Europe is in Romania) and possibly of other countries’ authorities to access Structural Funds that can help the social inclusion of Roma is minimal at best.
Romania as most of the Eastern and Central European member states with significant Roma populations have poor absorption rates of ESFs. The amount of money that reaches Roma communities is minimal in comparison with necessities and in strident discrepancy with the claims of high rank government and EU officials about the help provided by the European Union.
At an expert meeting with Ludovic Orban earlier this year the Romanian minister of EU affairs – a job created in order to improve the absorption of EU funds in Romania -he made clear that his ministry is focused on the larger Structural Funds –big infrastructure projects that can significantly improve the low absorption rates and please both politicians and the majorities. Those funds are practically irrelevant for the social inclusion of Roma. The lack of sufficient technical expertise within his ministry (and all Eastern European ministries for that matter) was exposed as a major problem as the best bureaucrats left for much better salaries offered by the private sector. Roma issues were clearly not a priority for his ministry.
The European Social Fund is the most relevant off all the existing funding for Roma social inclusion. Absorption rates are under 10%. The lines of financing are much smaller compared to all other Structural Funds making it the lowest priority for governments. Reduced inside technical expertise, pressure to focus on the biggest lines of financing as well as the overall prevalent anti-Gypsyism makes Roma inclusion a very low priority for governments, politicians and local administrations. The result is a very poor use of EU funding opportunities that might be used for Roma.
Local administrations in cities and villages with a large Roma population in Romania do not have any incentives to attract Roma funding. The salaries of people working in the local administrations are the same with or without EU funding and most of those responsible for Structural Funds have very limited(if any) technical expertise. The Roma votes are easy to buy and mayors are reluctant to get involved in Roma issues as a good majority of mainstream voters are openly against Roma.
12. Mainstream funding directly from the European Commission that could be used for social inclusion of Roma targets European networks.
To qualify for such a networks the EC requires at minimum 9 and most of the times 15 EU member states to be covered. Outside Romania, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Portugal, Czech Republic, Slovakia one can hardly find any reliable Roma organizations capable to deal with European Funds. This type of funding remains largely inaccessible to Roma.
Solutions exist. But none of those are simple or fast to implement. A major switch in the funding concepts related to Roma inclusion is needed. European funds should invest massively in development of the Roma civil society – in active citizenship. It should stimulate work in the most difficult communities and encourage organisations that manage to get the support of the communities in their work. Intergovernmental and international organisations that work on Roma issues should be required to attract Roma expertise and invest in educating Roma.
I am one of the initiators and until recently a member of the Making the Most board an OSI’s initiative that helps Roma NGOs deal with Structural Funds. I took part in many peer-review processes and evaluations of ESF’s funded projects and I lead a think-tank in Bucharest – Policy Center for Roma and Minorities that works in one of the worst ghettoes in Bucharest. I was involved in the writing of two reports commissioned by the EC. The organisations I lead is the recipient of 2012 UNICEF award for Sports and Education.
[i] The Dutch disease linked an increase of available natural resources to a decrease of manufacturing output and a paradoxical economic downturn. I argue in my analysis that the explosion of available funds for Roma inclusion (if not seriously rethought) leads to a significant increase of paper production, rhetoric, expensive meetings and an overall decrease in efficiency of public money, grassroots work, erosion and disappearance of some of the most important pillars of the Roma civil society. This analysis might well apply to civil society in general but my expertise gives me more legitimacy to argue about the Roma civil society.
The arguments here are not against European Funds nor against European Roma Strategy. Those, I believe, are very much needed as otherwise Member States with significant Roma population will probably continue to do nothing to address anti-Gypsyism and Roma exclusion. It is much more comfortable for Central and Eastern European governments to tacitly encourage Roma migration and ask the European Union to solve “their”(Roma) problems than tackle it themselves. Many times in the past high-level officials did not hesitate in drawing a very clear but racist line between”them” Roma and “real” national citizens.