It will take decades until the Romani community in Europe feels the effects of our everyday work. To change the status quo sooner rather than later, we Roma need to stubbornly maintain pressure on political decision makers over the long term.
As discussed in the video above, the voice of Roma communities will become less dependent on external supporters only when organizations led by Roma become strong enough to make the case on behalf of their constituencies, to have their own voice heard and their own power felt by governments, the EU, and others.
The European Commission, Norway Grants, and private donors such as the Open Society Foundations need to increase funding for Roma organizations’ independent work. Many NGOs who rely on governmental funding to exist—largely by managing European Union (EU) Structural Funds and Norway Grants—have been transformed into contracted providers of services: for example, trying to provide education or health assistance to Roma children that schools, health, and social centers normally provide for other children.
This affects power relationships: if an NGO relies on the government for most or all of its funding, it loses crucial independence. This restricts the ability of Roma organizations to voice real priorities and analyze the difference EU and Norwegian funding makes, or not, in the lives of people. If we are serious about service-provision projects making an impact, funding to strengthen the independent voice of Roma organizations needs to be increased and reformulated.
Likewise, a Roma NGO should be more than a legal entity, there to execute a project, produce short-term gains, represent the good intentions of their donors, and publish photos of abject misery to legitimize the whole process. Funders should help organizations not only to survive from project to project but also to attract and nurture a team and peers, improve leadership, gain the trust of Roma and other people, and increase their contribution to public decision-making.
Organizations need to rethink the way their voice is heard and power is felt. For many, the standard approach is not working: poorly timed meetings, repetitive reporting, unheard recommendations, and low-level conference participation have proven almost irrelevant for real decision-making processes. To make any serious impact, organizations must improve their understanding of the decision-making process and power relations of key players, employ media-savvy strategies that influence public opinion, and build coalitions with mainstream organizations.
The question of leadership in Roma organizations is particularly critical. This relates not only to people in positions of authority but also to the practice of enabling others to take responsibility. Up to now, decision-making in most Roma organizations has been highly centralized, conservative, and often discriminatory toward Roma women and youth.
Roma organizations generally lack democratic practices of participation, transparency, and accountability, both internally and in relation to Roma communities. The leaders of Roma organizations need to realize the damage this does to their credibility: how can you challenge politicians on their accountability or transparency when you do not uphold these principles either?
The Open Society Foundations and others have held the belief that nurturing a “Roma elite” through university scholarships will strengthen the voices of Roma organizations and help make them more effective. There have been positive developments here. Roma have never had a bigger number of secondary school and university graduates. They are the best hope for Roma communities.
But here, too, there is a paradox: even though we now have more highly educated Roma than a decade ago, the voices of Roma organizations seem weaker, as does the trust placed by the community in these organizations. This impression, though not formally researched, is widely shared in the field. Roma organizations need to become a place that highly educated Roma recognize as a privilege, and a public service that can help them build their careers.
There are plenty of external challenges to contend with: civil society is under attack; the space for citizen participation and influence is closing; human rights and human rights organizations are being delegitimized; anti-Roma speech and behavior is allowed and even endorsed at the highest level in parts of Europe.
We can’t take on or solve all of these problems, but a good to place to begin is with those areas we do have control over.