Archive | February, 2013

A sick European civil society – Brussels

18 Feb

Brussels – incentives against reform

The European Structural Funds are no help for European civil society organisations (NGOs) in general, and have a toxic effect on Central and Eastern European NGOs. They create dependency on governments and transform NGOs into governmental contractors for the delivery of difficult/risky social services; a job disliked by governments. The European Structural Funds facilitate corruption and inhibit criticism. They also destroy the credibility of watch-dog organisations.

Other available EU funds (direct grants from the EC) are poorly designed and the selection process is more a lottery than a healthy competition. They are also exclusive (small and medium sized grassroots NGOs have very little chance to access such funds) and have serious inbuilt incentives for false reporting and sugar coating.

None of what I have written above is news. These things are well known within both European civil society and the European Commission. I wrote a number of articles explaining these issues[1].

In what follows, I argue that the solution to the problems associated with European funds for development will not, and cannot, come from Brussels, due to strong incentives against reform.

Brussels has the largest concentration of civil society organisations in Europe. Accordingly, most of the EU funds dedicated to civil society are spent for Brussels-based European umbrella organisations and NGOs.

Most of the NGOs in Brussels depend on keeping a good relationship with the European Commission, either to ensure their funding, or due to the fact that their main priority is to lobby the European institutions.

The typical NGO leader in Brussels lives a rather comfortable life, remote from the challenges of grassroots activist work. High-level meetings, receptions, writing, reading and discussing documents written in an Orwellian language incomprehensible to most of us, exchanging diplomatic niceties, praising and being constantly praised, is more or less the culture of European NGOs in Brussels.

The employment and success of these NGOs leaders often depends on their ability to maintain good contacts and friendly relationships with bureaucrats in the European Institutions. Ensuring that high-level EU officials attend NGO meetings is an important part of the job and one of the main indicators of success for many organisations in Brussels.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that some influential civil society leaders in Brussels have significant previous work experience within the European Commission; this is an important asset as it brings with it coveted connections and inside knowledge. These leaders come with a certain organisational culture quite different from that of civil society. For most of these leaders, academic, diplomatic and networking skills are more important than courage, the ability to inspire civil society, or pressuring bureaucrats. Their grassroots or hands-on experience dealing with harsh realities such as exclusion and abject poverty is at best limited, therefore they are not in the position to criticize the lack of hands-on experience of the European bureaucrats or their decisions.

At the same time, there is also a movement from Brussels civil society to EU bureaucracies. The great salaries and job security of the EU bureaucracy are attractive for many NGO leaders and staff. A significant number of NGO employees moved from civil society organisations to the EU bureaucracy.

Like most of us, the majority of people working in Brussels-based NGOs put the comfort and well-being of their families first. They also have to think about the sustainability of their organisations and the fate of their employees. For most of these organisations, losing EU funding would mean the end of a comfortable life.

So, all in all, there is little incentive for the leaders or staff of Brussels-based NGOs to swim against the current. The system is comfortable and advantageous to them and their organisations as it stands. On the contrary, pressure, strong action, and criticism – which we know are needed to bring about reform – carry significant risks:

  • These tactics threaten to tear the thickly layered interconnections between civil society and the EU bureaucracy.
  • Using such tactics can lead to a loss of funds (easy for a funding organisation to justify nowadays cuts due to economic crisis and the abundance of ready-to-please, funds-starved NGOs) and as a result, the death of the NGO.
  • Institutional memory is good, and a critical approach can cut off chances for NGOs leaders and employees of future employment within the EC.

A similar situation exists in the Member States. Most civil society leading personalities depend of their ability to keep their connections within the EU bureaucracies happy. Sometimes a similar requirement applies when it comes to national governments too (especially the case in Eastern Europe). Representations in important EU committees  (which comes with hefty pecuniary incentives) or invitations to join important EU meetings depend on good political connections and can be threatened by any inconformity.

It takes years of hard work to become the leader of an influential NGO in Brussels or to be known at the EU level for big national NGOs. Once in this position, there are few alternate career options outside NGOs or intergovernmental institutions. Seriously pushing reform (by employing critical discourse and strong pressure) is, very much out of the comfort zone for most civil society leaders in Brussels.

As I’ve shown here, the incentives to change the existing situation are very weak for most civil society leaders in Brussels, while incentives to maintain the status quo are strong. A similar situation applies for civil society leaders at the national level. Dignitary-like privileges and living standards become more and more the ideal of the European civil society activist. Diplomatic (often a misnomer for shameless lip-service) networking skills, connections, and a willingness to compromise are considered fundamental qualities for a civil society activist in Brussels. Courage, critical thinking, and the ability to inspire are barely recognised as qualities nowadays.

The majority of Brussels civil society risks becoming a mirror of the EU institutions: conservative, elitist and mostly irrelevant for the majority of the Europeans. A similar mirror is emerging in Central and Eastern European civil society, as many NGOs reflect the corrupt, unpopular and professionally inept governments.

During my time in Brussels I witnessed a board meeting where an EC bureaucrat threatened to ‘disappear’ an important NGO if it did not follow the wishes of the Commission. I have seen tens of people move from identifying themselves as civil society activists trying to change stupid EC policies, to becoming staunch defenders of other stupid EC policies, as bureaucrats employed by the EC. In 2008 I was told by a leader of a powerful Brussels NGO (previously a high-level European Commission employee) that we could not pursue the EU Roma Strategy idea as the (mighty and always right) Commission had clearly indicated that it would not accept it. Repeatedly, NGO leaders and well-intending EC bureaucrats warned me that continuing to write critically about these issues would burn my chances for EU financing or employment in Brussels. Not many seemed concerned about what I was trying to achieve.

The overwhelming majority of Brussels-based NGOs and senior managers in the European Union have little or no experience in Central and Eastern Europe; in other words, there is a serious disconnect from the problems of Central Eastern Europe.

This is a serious issue as the problems of Central and Europe societies are more acute that those of Western Europe. Civil society’s dependency on EU support in this region is almost total – as in Brussels (this is not the case in the rest of Western European where other financial sources contribute to supporting civil society) and has a very significant impact in the capacity of NGOs to motivate change in their countries.

The reform of EU institutions and EU funds is not an option, but a must if we aim for a healthy and thriving civil society. For now we have a good part of the civil society (at least in Romania) in an advanced state of decomposition and the stench might soon become unbearable regardless of how much money we throw at it.

To change the way EU funding works one needs 1.000. 000 signatures. Might be worth the effort. We made a first step relevant for Roma NGOs see here

In my next posting I will look at basic needs and possible solutions.

[1] -see also the footnotes in the posting

Why I quit

12 Feb

Systemic reasons

The main focus of most of the important donors, governments and intergovernmental organisations when it comes to the Roma inclusion field is to find positive practices and replicate such positive practices.

Although at first glance finding positive practices seems like a good idea, looking for such positive practices is actually a poor idea considering the systemic failure at all levels to properly address Roma inclusion. This approach does nothing but halt or slow the much needed reform that every single expert with hands-on or academic experience in Roma issues agrees is needed. It provides reasons to continue feeding a profoundly delusional concept of progress, encourages sugar-coating and keeps happy incompetent and clueless people in high-level positions that will continue to take absurd decisions regarding Roma social inclusion.

The successful implementation of a Roma social inclusion project is more likely to be a fairy-tale based on a fake report than a real success. Success does happen, but it is exceptional/accidental, and occurs far more often in spite of existing policies and lines of funding, than because of them.

Overall, EU funding for Roma social inclusion is a failure. There is no disagreement about the failure, the only discussion is about how big the failure is. Opinions of practitioners in the field range from catastrophic to limited.

Funders need to focus on examining the mistakes and reforming the systems in such a way that real success, and not rationalized or imagined achievements are the main results.

The situation of small Roma NGOs that work at the grassroots level, and should be at the core of reform in the Roma communities, needs to become a serious reason of concern. Here are some of the reasons why.

Begging is tiresome and degrading, as work. Sometimes it is an elaborate and grotesque con that involves important amounts of money. More often it is a sad but logical choice for people with no other alternatives or skills to scrape up enough money to survive.

We feel disgusted, ashamed, sometimes guilty, and rarely positively impressed by beggars. Their begging lines are often crude and their servility is off-putting. We are educated to believe that there are criminal gangs behind beggars that make huge money out of it. Most of the time this is not the case.

Begging is also the way most NGOs survive. The process is more elaborate than begging on the street, but the principles are the same. It is terribly degrading for those who have to do it due to their convictions and honesty, and rather productive for those who cheat.

For NGOs, some obvious reasons make begging the rational choice: unequal relations, a widespread practice of rewarding lip-service, insufficient and poorly designed funding, and corruption.

NGO – donor relationships are in the overwhelming majority of cases unequal, as donors have the resources that NGOs want and need. I am not aware of any major donor in Roma inclusion that tries to identify grassroots NGOs that have had an impact within the communities, or have developed some innovative and successful practices, and offer these NGOs funds. The overwhelming majority of the donors behave arrogantly in their relationships with NGOs: the NGOs have to come to the donors with their requests and do their utmost to please them.

Donors can very easily impose their agendas; very few NGOs will dare to openly criticize wrong funding policies of the donors. Submissiveness towards the donor is a much more pragmatic approach than criticism.

From the lowest rank to the highest official of the donor institution, criticism is a problem. It looks bad and could negatively reflect on the careers of the bureaucrats dealing with funding NGOs.

For an NGO, taking a critical view towards the policies of the donors is more of a suicidal than a smart approach. Donor institutions have a defensive reaction when dealing with critical organisations, even if the criticism is one hundred per cent justified. Medium and deep hierarchies, as are the main donors in Europe, will prefer to protect their employees and their image, and most often will end up deciding to choose a “nicer” organisation for the funding.

People in decision-making positions prefer friendly organisations to efficient but critical organisations. The competition for funding is tough; many organisations apply for the same line of funding. Those responsible for selecting the winning bids are more influenced by their personal likes or dislikes, rather than the quality of the proposed project.

As project-writing for EU-funded projects is nowadays a major business, most of the projects look more or less the same and in many cases have a rather remote connection with the capacities of the implementing NGO. Decisions made by bureaucrats in Brussels – who have no clue about what those organisations really do aside from reports (usually heavily embellished) – are as good as a lottery.

The North-American and Western-European ideas about the functions and responsibilities of civil society organisations are great, but simply inaccurate in the case of Eastern Europe, and almost ridiculous in the case of Roma civil society.

Incentives for cheating are much stronger than incentives for complying to rules that make little sense anyway. Corruption is rampant, as is fake reporting. There are not many choices available out there. The EU funds are badly designed and rather dangerous for any NGO that chooses honesty against pragmatism. Most of the other funding available is short-term projects. Most available projects do not include institutional support, or require a serious co-funding component ( 20 %).  There are many costs that are impossible to cover from the lines of the financed projects, and legislation regulating employment and activities of NGOs is still changing constantly. All lead to extra costs for the NGOs.

The way to cover these costs is either through shameless cheating, “creative accounting,” or by trying to find other private financial resources. For most NGOs, but in particular for Roma NGOs, this is an almost impossible feat.

In the case of the organisation I led, the way I covered our needs, and the unavoidable mistakes made during the last five years, was through investing a significant amount of my own money, and constant begging (from private businesses).

I was fortunate to be able to do this, but this is not a sustainable model. In most other NGOs, costs are covered illegally (multiple reporting) or at the edge of legality ( see previous articles I published on funding).

Abysmal image and quality of Roma leadership

Roma leaders are perceived as corrupt and overwhelmingly inept. Sometimes this is the truth. Exceptions do exist, but those people are almost never as visible as the others. Nepotism is rampant and conflicts of interests are more the rule than the exception when it comes to most of the existing Roma political or civil society organisations. Examples of Roma NGOs that do not employ the near relatives of key staff members are exceptional. Most of the small Roma NGOs that work at the grassroots level are in fact small and unsustainable family businesses.

The European Structural Funds have made an important contribution to the worsening of this situation. The huge amounts of money available through the Structural Funds has led to a profoundly corrupt political elite at the national and local level, creating an almost perfect situation for criminals and crooks to be very much involved in the EU funded projects. In the case of EU funded projects for Roma communities the situation is worse due to the already strong stereotypes associating Roma identity with criminality.

Roma communities expect either to be bribed (for political gains) or to receive all kinds of free services from what they perceive to be very rich NGOs using money given by the European Union for Roma. Cases where Roma communities accuse NGOs of stealing “their money” (money communities believe should have been given directly to them) are not exceptional.

There are situations where very poor and very traditional Roma communities (the target, at least on paper, of many EU projects) are controlled or led by criminals. Those leaders will not hesitate to threaten Roma NGOs and try to extort money from them. Sometimes successfully.

Personal reasons

For the last five years I led (arguably) one of the most successful small Roma NGOs in Romania. We work in a ghetto in Ferentari. We won some very important prizes in 2012 as recognition for our work – including the 2012 UNICEF award for best Sports and Education project. Close to half a thousand officials from all over Europe have visited our center and congratulated us for what we have done. We have met with Tony Blair, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, OSCE High Commissioner for Minorities, Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Prime Ministers, Commissioners, the Romanian President, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Ambassadors, and world-known personalities. We managed to get private money from non-Roma businesses that helped hundreds of children in one of the most despised areas of Bucharest. Most of those children are Roma. UEFA, Unicredit, Metro, the Romanian Football Federation, and Brentag are just some of those businesses. There are also tens of individuals who fund us and volunteer their time as they believe in what we do. It sounds like one of the miraculous stories the donors should love. We are proud of our  achievements in the last years. For two years in a row, I have been nominated among the top 100 Romanians by Foreign Policy Romania for my work with this NGO. A life of honors is much better than one of cattle would be the Aristotelian way to look at it.

But there is also another part.

Constant and humiliating begging for funds, significant amounts of money coming from my own pocket (more than half my household income) in order to bridge the gaps that funding can not cover, including many mistakes. Dealing with threats from drug dealers and other criminals, the impossibility to attract well-qualified staff and to financially motivate existing staff (nobody in the organisation has a salary over 500 EUR per month at this moment), dealing with dramatic changes in the policies of donors and in legislation, extremely stressful situations involving abandoned and abused children, lice, drug addictions, theft, child prostitution, police abuses, children hungry, hugely underdeveloped with HIV or at huge risks of HIV, incompetent or indifferent local authorities.

Having the tires of my car slashed, windshield smashed, having to deal with aggressive alcoholic or addicted parents who couldn’t care less about their children or what we do, dealing with emergencies rooms and racist doctors, under pressure to shut up and not talk about what goes wrong within the Roma civil society or with the EU funds. Thousands of hate mails for my stands against racism in the stadiums in Romania, constant idiotic rumors about my origins, motivations and private life. Having to listen to people that have no experience whatsoever on the matter about how we should do things and pretend to agree in order to be able to move a tiny bit forward.

Knowing the solutions and being unable to find the ways to persuade people in decision-making positions to listen or to care to change their comfortable but delusional view of the problems in the ghetto. Dealing with the pressure of having to bail-out the organization with my own savings over and over again due to all kind of bureaucratic delays. Sometimes we received the grants with a delay of over 6 months. Having to deal with the whims and moods of too many people, careful not to burn bridges. Constantly having my skills doubted or being perceived as too emotional or exceptional because of being a Roma. Being too cold and calculated for not being Roma enough. Pretending not to see the institutional racism all around in order to get enough support within those institutions and change things on long term.

Realization that in the large picture what we do is irrelevant as long as we can not change policies, that we are used for image purposes, and some of the professional donors that financed us could not care less what we do with their money as long as the reports look fancy and their name is on the posters; that hard-work and passion is not going to put us in the position to influence anything, and that corruption, lip-service and criminality are much more effective ways to move things.

Tell me I am wrong. Tell me that in fact it is good to lead an NGO in a honest way with all the risks involved. Tell me that there are good reasons why I should carry on. And then think if you would do it.

There are many other frustrations – so many that despite the fact that I abhor quitting, I took the decision to step out from leading the executive position in the NGO I created.

This does not mean I am quitting the ghetto – I still think I can change things there.