“Roma Communities Need Results, Not Promises”


The Impreuna Agency for Community Development, an Open Society Institute grantee, is a Romanian organization that takes a “technical assistance” approach to Roma inclusion. A recent initiative, "Empowering Roma Communities," helped over 100 of the most impoverished Roma communities identify and voice their priorities and supported them in their efforts to become true partners in local planning. Local projects were carried out based upon the needs of the communities—including paving local roads, creating a basic medical office, repairing houses, and establishing a small dairy to generate income. (See a video about this work on the Decade of Roma Inclusion website.)

I recently spoke with Gelu Duminica, Impreuna’s executive director, following the organization’s 11th anniversary celebration in Bucharest.

When we first met yesterday, you emphasized that Impreuna is a technical assistance organization. Why is this distinction so important?

When Impreuna was founded, there was a single approach among Roma activists in Romania. This was the human rights approach, which concentrated on trying to eliminate discrimination. But our organization’s founders realized that we have to find ways to empower communities to fight to lessen the effects of discrimination. That’s why they chose the technical assistance approach.

What was Impreuna’s role in the “Empowering Roma Communities” project?

We are a technical organization, not a militant one. Our mandate is to listen. If you don’t know what people want and need, you can’t create a strategy to help them get it. We have only facilitated the process. Impreuna—our name means “together”—is nothing without our many partners. We have eight permanent staff members, and four of them worked on this project—for the whole country. They worked very hard, but obviously they did not do it alone. The success belongs to the people in the field.

Roma communities need results, not more promises. They need real results for real life. People are tired of problems and tired of promises. They want to solve problems; they only need help. And not only the Roma need help: when we began to visit settlements, we found that many town halls did not know what to do in order to get problems solved—just like the Roma!

In the settlements where the project succeeded, Roma no longer go to the town hall with their hats in their hands, like beggars. Now they realize that they are asking for what is due them, what is normal for citizens to receive. And now, because they have become informed, the Roma organizations also have something to offer to the local governments. The know-how Impreuna brought through this project has opened up access to other donors. The Japanese Social Development Fund provided $600,000 for the project, but almost $2.5 million in additional funding was attracted from other donors.

At the conference, I heard that 70% of the participating local Roma organizations had achieved success. What does “success” mean in the context of this project?

An overall key to the success of the project was that the World Bank was very flexible in administering the money. This was extremely important because there could not be one approach for more than 100 communities, all with different conditions and different problems.

But we weren’t too flexible with the NGOs. Before they received any money they had to meet certain conditions. The first condition was that they had to be legally registered NGOs. Then they had to have a written strategy for their work. They had to meet a whole list of conditions before receiving any money, and they had to meet further conditions before receiving more money. They had to develop themselves in order to participate.

This approach is not always easy. Impreuna comes to Roma communities and offers no immediate reward—unlike the political candidates who hand out chickens or cooking oil at election time—and it takes time for people to realize that power is in their own hands and that they need to prove that they don’t fit the stereotypes.

The project had two components. In the first component, each qualifying NGO received 6,000 RON (approximately $2,000). Only 38% of the organizations succeeded in managing this amount. The others did not complete the tasks they had set for themselves.

So in the second component, we took a new approach. Organizations that could not meet the project’s conditions were eliminated—a few simply didn’t even show their faces in their communities once they had received money—and in one county where there was evidence that the funding was misused, we stopped our work completely. We had to take these steps to preserve our good name and the trust of our partners. We also introduced mentors, who could work with the local NGOs to develop their abilities. With this extra help, all of the NGOs succeeded in the second round.

In the video we showed yesterday, one of the villagers says, “We finally feel like we are in the third millennium.” I think this is the best statement about the project’s success.

One of the speakers said that when the country’s 123 most impoverished Roma communities were identified in 2005 the Romanian government vowed to help them. In the years since, has the government helped bring change to these communities?

After the report was issued, the Romanian government received a €47 million loan from the World Bank for a “Social Inclusion Project” to improve conditions for vulnerable groups, including Roma. These funds, which local governments could apply for, were supposed to support infrastructure projects.

Impreuna offered to be a mediator and to help ensure that the money went toward solving the problems of poor Roma. The pseudo-NGO created by the government to manage the money refused our offer, and in practice Roma were often expected to be tokens, to smile and say that they were partners in projects when they really were not partners.

But this was not the only problem. I know it sounds strange, but local governments in impoverished communities often can’t access funds for impoverished communities because they are not rich enough. For most projects, applicants are required to provide their own contribution, which can only be a financial contribution, and the poorest local governments usually don’t have the required amount of money. There are other expenses, too. If you want to build houses for Roma, for example, technical documents must be prepared. It is expensive to prepare these documents, but there is no funding for the preparatory phases. So it is not true that everyone has equal access to funding opportunities: poor local governments do not have equal access.

What is next for the Roma communities and the local Roma organizations, now that this project has come to an end?

We have a strategy for 2010–2012 that targets the same 103 communities. It is not easy to find funding. Most donors are not flexible, and, as I already told you, flexibility is essential in community development work. Most donors are interested in numbers—how many kilometers of road were paved, how many houses were repaired—but here the numbers do not reveal the true results.

We are now at the midpoint of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Has the Decade made a difference for Roma in the communities where you have been working?

No, the Decade hasn’t made a difference. I was one of the “young Roma leaders” who spent 10 days in Washington in 2003 discussing the idea of a Decade of Roma Inclusion. As one of those who originally thought and wrote about what the Decade should do, I am very disappointed.

Without the empowerment of Roma there can’t be any real partnership between the government and Roma. The slogan is “Nothing about Roma without Roma,” but the state has done nothing to empower Roma communities to become its partners. The Decade has no connection to the grassroots. Roma in poor communities don’t even know about the Decade. While preparing for the project “Empowering Roma Communities” we even met one local government that had never heard of Romania’s national strategy for Roma, which was adopted in 2001, not to mention the Decade.

Impreuna was doing what it does before there was a Decade. OSI, Romani CRISS and others were doing what they did before there was a Decade. And they did not need to have the Decade in order to keep working. In real life, the Decade of Roma Inclusion does not exist. It is something for conferences and speeches, and we don’t need talk anymore.

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Hello, Thank you for this excellent piece about your organization and its work in improving the lives of Roma. I wonder if someone could direct me to more information about the Roma and their culture, because I have a hard time understanding the Roma expectations. I would hope that all human beings be safe and free of discrimination, I wish only good for all, and am willing to help make this happen in the world. On the other hand, I don't want to be taken as a chump. I live in a small town in central France, where every town all around me operates free campgrounds for Roma. They all have nice cars and camper-vans, with free access to electricity and water, often with wash-rooms as well. Somebody needs to explain to me why these services are offered year in and year out, why the Roma have not been able to become independent individuals? Why do their children and animals look so badly nourished and ill kempt? Maybe I just don't understand how poverty works, but then again where do the cars and camper-vans come from? I am a person of very modest means myself, I don't own a house and I don't think I could ever afford a camper-van either. But I pay taxes in France and live as well as I can on my modest resources. The Roma children use the local supermarkets for play areas, running and screaming up and down the aisles, sometimes asking customers to buy something for them; the parents shout across to each other, it often sounds like fighting; this behavior (and many similar relatively inoffensive behaviors) I think merely reflects cultural differences to which I can apply tolerance. Perhaps being indoors in a safe environment is what they're after. But surely they know that leaving a pile of trash behind when they move on to other places doesn't help the image of Roma in their host culture, it's behavior that few cultures would find acceptable. I sincerely would like to understand, I am embarrassed when I find myself reacting negatively. I've been told that there are codes of conduct among Roma that include such aspects as mutual respect, honor and so on, where can I learn more so that I can understand their special position in Europe? When we talk about their rights, surely we want all people to be treated with dignity, but I don't understand what appears (appears!) to be their demand for the right to permanently live off the generosity of others and the taxpayers of the country in which they live -- not just as an interim fix during a rough patch -- as a lifestyle. Please set me straight!

I apologize for my delay in responding to your comments.

For information about Roma culture and history, I would suggest visiting the Patrin Web Journal (http://www.reocities.com/~patrin/). A Google search for “Roma culture,” “Roma people,” or similar expressions will turn up many other sites with relevant information.

The website of the Decade of Roma Inclusion (http://www.romadecade.org) has information about Roma-related policies as well as some videos that might be of interest (http://www.romadecade.org/video/page/list/1/50/0/0/1).

I do not have the expertise to comment on French policies regarding public services for travelling Roma. (The vast majority of Roma are no longer nomadic, by the way.) The website of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights, however, has much information about the situation of Roma and Travellers in Europe, including links to treaties that guarantee the rights of minorities: http://www.fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/roma/roma_en.htm.

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