Très Difficile: Problematic of Civic Associations' Intervention in Human Rights Situations

18 June 2007

Larry Olomoofe1

In this article, I would like to explore the role played by civic-minded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in cases of human rights abuses and abrogations instigated and/or compounded by the lack of governmental action. It is widely accepted that the differing forms of intervention by these organisations is necessary and indispensable. In many cases, without the role played by these various organisations, many people would go without the necessary assistance that they undoubtedly need. It is important to highlight the significant role these organisations play, but it is increasingly important to identify the problems that these organisations present in the pursuit of social justice, non-discrimination, equal rights, and access and opportunity for their different communities, constituencies, client-groups, etc. The genesis of this article lies in the many observations I made during a recent field research trip in and around Paris, France, in November 2006.2

During this time, I observed first hand, in an almost ethnographic sense, experiences and frustrations of those working for a number of civil organisations representing the interests of French Gens du Voyage (GDV) communities. My time in Paris helped to reinforce my perceptions of a sad development in civil society generally. Much of the work conducted by civil organisations is actually exacerbating the situation that many disadvantaged groups face. Far from solving the problem, these organisations are inadvertently assisting the governments in containing the problems. Instead of conducting root and branch surgery to address the generation of certain social phenomena, governments simply "indicate" areas of interest and request applications for limited funds from interested parties and attempt to address fundamental social problems through poorly supported projects or initiatives. This created a sense of apathy amongst practitioners at all levels of action as they felt they were fighting a battle they were ill-prepared to deal with. In many cases, the shortfall between the needs of the client-group and the "services" provided led to insidious conflict amongst the various civil organisations that revolved around ethnicity, religious affiliation, political ideology, etc., replicating patterns of conflict in this sphere that characterise civil NGOs across Europe and worldwide. Perversely, and this is my main concern, the disadvantaged groups that rely upon the services that these organisations provide see them and not the government as the main reason why they have partial or in some cases, no access to social services and/or representation in cases of social iniquity.3

The palpable sense of hopelessness that many of these people felt stem from the fact that governmental agencies provided little or no assistance to them in the task of addressing issues that were legally the responsibility of the government. This highlights the inherent problématique of the involvement of civil organisations in profound social issues pursuing social justice. Due to their admirable commitment to their communities and constituencies, civil organisations are now recognised as the sector that is supposed to contend with these matters. Therefore, various government agencies simply abdicate their own responsibility to address social phenomena such as segregated education and housing, and discriminatory practices in social services, healthcare, employment, etc. This is a highly contentious point to assert, but one that is valid nonetheless. Governments often talk of partnerships between the state sector and the civil sector. These "partnerships" are valuable normative fields within which to work, but they are simply not viable due to the restricted role played by state agencies. I contend that state actors feel that their role is simply to provide the bureaucratic/institutional framework – policy development and implementation, limited funds, processes of accountability – for civil organisations to conduct their activities, and do little or nothing else. Therefore, the perception has been allowed to develop that civil organisations are the correct and appropriate institutions to conduct some of the work they do and not governmental state agencies. I have seen this in other spheres of human rights activities through my work with refugees and asylum-seekers in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region, as well as through the experiences of ethnic and other minority groups in Europe and the USA. The perception has reified into a "natural state of affairs" and suggestions otherwise would seem unnatural, or in the very least, counter-ethical. Well, if it is "unnatural' to critique the role of civic-minded NGOs then we need to question the current state of affairs.

I am hoping that there are collective intakes of breath at this provocative assertion here and am willing to substantiate this point in any public forum or format. Fear of reprisals by government funding agencies effectively nuzzle critiques, complaints and concerns from these civil agencies, since many of them depend on funding from governments, or, in the very least, permission from the state in order to do the work they do. I intend to provide this critique here and present constructive insights. In order to substantiate my point, I will provide in-depth information below on the situation regarding social services in France gleaned from research information and experiences I gathered during my spell there in November 2006. This, I feel, will provide useful contextualisation of the contours of my argument for the reader.

I spent a fortnight in Paris and its surrounding suburbs conducting research on the social services sector in France and the impact of the French National Action Plan on Social Inclusion (NAP) on French GDV communities. The material gathered reveals that the administration and distribution of social assistance benefits for GDV recipients in France is overwhelmingly undertaken by third party agents such as various GDV associations and a number of local social work NGOs. Virtually every recipient of the Minimum Revenue of Insertion (RMI) that we interviewed during research was ignorant of exactly what they were entitled to under the broad range of social assistance offered by the state and how much their total benefit package was. In part, this was due to the specific nature of the situation in France where GDV communities continue to move from place to place and therefore tend not to have fixed, permanent addresses which are a prerequisite for receiving social assistance from the state. They were therefore dependant upon the aforementioned various networks of GDV associations and social work NGOs to receive their social assistance benefits. Also, due to the high levels of illiteracy among the GDV recipients of RMI, there was little knowledge of the benefits to which they were entitled and a reluctance to talk about the RMI since they had only rudimentary knowledge of the programme (aside from the fact that they were entitled to Universal Health Insurance (CMU) and the RMI from the age of 25). Consequently, the researchers found it difficult to gather specific information from recipients of the RMI and other state social benefits among the GDV communities because of this apparent limited knowledge as well as a discernible lack of desire to speak about the programme without "authorisation" from the relevant association or NGO official.

The intervention of third parties in the disbursement of state benefits is encouraged by the French Ministry for Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity (DGAS) due to the fact that French GDV communities have a particular problem with registration (domiciliation) and are encouraged to register with the relevant GDV association or social work NGO and subsequently use the address of the organisation as their fixed permanent address. Therefore, all matters related to the administration and receipt of the RMI benefit are conducted through the association/NGO and the money is subsequently sent to the offices of the relevant organisation. This creates a dependency amongst the GDV recipients on these organisations since their only source of regular income is dependent upon the capacities and intervention of these organisations and issues related to the continued receipt of the RMI is highly dependent upon the efficiencies of the organisation. A broad outline of the process is delineated below.


The Direction Generale of the Ministry for Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity devises policy to be adopted in the administration and disbursement of the social benefits and has a department that is concerned specifically with the disbursement of social assistance for GDV communities in France. This department is split into three areas of concern:

1. Finance
2. Emergencies and housing
3. Access to law (Programme National Assistance)

Each department is supervised by an official and conducts in-depth research and analysis on the social situation of GDV in France, focusing on the issues of housing, healthcare, and discrimination. Although the offices are separated into specific spheres of activity, there is close interaction and discussion amongst them since the separation is purely pragmatic and is a more efficient way to conduct the business of the Ministry. Results are then pooled and policy drafted based upon the information garnered from the various analyses conducted by the Ministry indicating what measures and strategies should be implemented to address the needs of GDV.

Policies are subsequently implemented at a local and regional level through the Case of Family Allowances Offices (CAF), which are supervised by local municipal governments (Conseil Generale). Due to decentralisation in the French state apparatus, these local offices exercise their right to discretion and "outsource" the administration of various state benefits to associations and NGOs connected to GDV communities indicated above. For instance, in the Paris suburb of Seine and Marne, this process is overseen by a committee of elected local members where the president is the most important municipal member. The programme there was overseen by Mr Jerome Bacholle who provided ERRC researchers useful insights into the administrative process related to the social assistance programme in the region.4 The municipal offices focussed upon the issues of housing, healthcare, education and access to law (obviously premised upon the Ministry's Direction Generale) and programmes were implemented through the local CAF office. The local CAF office subsequently "outsourced" the administration of the programme to various associations and NGOs and they in turn implemented the policy on the ground amongst GDV communities.

Alarmingly, representatives at the regional CAF offices who were interviewed did not have any knowledge of the existence of the NAP. When ERRC researchers showed them the document, they asked "what is this?"5 In response, ERRC researchers told them that the document was the NAP and that it was supposed to be the basis of government policies and actions aimed at integrating French GDV communities, and other socially excluded groups, into society. They then stressed that whilst they did not know the NAP themselves, the relevant people, i.e., their senior officers, did know. The "relevant people" were the policy makers in the Ministry for Social Affairs, Labour and Solidarity, and it was they who drafted specific policy, giving consideration to the provisions of the NAP. The role of CAF offices in this process was reportedly to implement the provisions of the Ministry, meaning that CAF officers seldom participate in the formulation of policy that they are implementing.

This indicated a rigid hierarchy where officials were simply concerned with executing their tasks within a specific realm and did not participate in other areas, even if they felt that they should be involved. Therefore, the people that implement government policies at ground level do not have any direct or active role in the development of policies related to GDV in France. This restrictive interstitial delineation presents a number of concerns that need to be addressed immediately by the French government. These are:

  1. Limited knowledge of the French National Action Plan in the social assistance framework;
  2. Heavily hierarchical process where officers closer to the recipients at the implementation level have limited or no opportunities for critical, analytical discussions with policy makers. Also, these same officers will have little intimate knowledge of policies they are implementing and therefore have little analytical scope regarding the "successes" of relevant policies; and
  3. Current processes encourage the development of particular cliques that further exacerbate the cleavages that currently exists amongst GDV groups and their various representatives (please see section below for more detail on this).

Implementing policies purely along technical grounds does not allow for a proper understanding of what the policy is attempting to achieve. Therefore, limitations of the perceived "successes" of government action in this field such as the current practice of outsourcing tasks to GDV associations and social work NGOs will not be placed in the proper context which allows for critical analysis of the results of such a practice. Because of this, it is fair to conclude that the policies are reduced to containing the matter instead of addressing, tackling and solving the fundamental causal factors behind the continual marginalisation of GDV in France. Since the people closest to the issue at the implementation level have no room to respond to the needs of the client group as they see/encounter them at ground level, this neutralises the overall effectiveness of the NAP since the process as it currently stands does not allow for a more robust and reflexive implementation of the NAP. Therefore, we can conclude that the true nature of the effectiveness of the NAP in France is mitigated at the very least by the overly bureaucratic and hierarchical process, and at the very worst, negated altogether.

GDV associations and social worker NGOs

These organisations play a crucial role in the access to state benefits for GDV communities in France. Fundamentally, they represent the hard edge of state policy related to the provision of social assistance since they operate at the interface level of the issue. They are the ones who meet with GDV clients, administer their particular claims, inform them of their entitlements under the various government programmes, and subsequently expedite and disburse payments. In effect, they perform the day-to-day duties of the government as well as pursue the interests of their GDV clients. These organisations tend to operate as "special interest groups," working in the sole pursuit and benefit of GDV communities. In mentioning this, however, there is a fundamental difference in the composition of the two forms of representation highlighted here and this is outlined below.

1. GDV associations

These organisations tend to deal with the overall administration of social assistance payments. Due to the fact that many GDV recipients of the RMI do not have fixed addresses (a prerequisite for eligibility to receive the RMI), they register the address of the relevant association with which they are affiliated as their official address, and these organisations subsequently deal with the administration, receipt and disbursement of monies on behalf of their members. Although the associations are not paid any extra monies for the services they provide by the local governments, in some cases, they do charge a nominal fee to their members that cover salaries and other related expenses of expediting the process/payment of the RMI. ERRC researchers found that generally, these associations pursued the interests of their clients through the advancement of a political agenda that focussed upon the registration of caravans as "permanent homes," monitoring forced evictions of families from sites, and seizures of caravans by the local gendarmerie, registration of "traditional" GDV businesses at the Chamber of Commerce, and the pursuit of registered, designated sites for parking of caravans within municipalities. Therefore, the administration of social assistance initiative represented only a part of the activities of these organisations' modus operandi.

Placed within this broader political context, the task of expediting the RMI, for instance, can be an overwhelming and, in some of the cases observed during ERRC research, it was obvious that some of these organisations simply did not have the capacity to expedite the RMI process for their members as comprehensively as they should have. Therefore, some people were unaware of their full social assistance entitlement because their representatives (the association) were unaware of the full range of benefits provided by the state. Typically, GDV RMI recipients interviewed by the researchers received the basic RMI payment and healthcare insurance. Other benefits to which they were entitled in many of the cases were either not received, unheard of, or in other instances, partially received. This revealed a serious flaw in the process since it indicated that full enjoyment of the French government's benefits programme by members of the GDV community was contingent upon the expertise of the relevant representative association's staff and full understanding of the somewhat opaque state benefits programme.6 This places an unfair burden of responsibility on the various GDV associations since many of them also suffer from the limited educational skills that characterises French GDV communities. Additionally, since administration of the RMI represents only one of the tasks of the organisation, the staff spread their limited time and resources very thinly and therefore are prone to oversee the other benefits that their clients are eligible for. In some cases, this issue is addressed through the collaboration of a more informed organisation that provide assistance to these GDV associations, but this is done in an ad hoc, arbitrary and partial fashion.7

The profiles of these representative GDV associations ranged from being faith based (Christian), mainly Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelist, to more conventional forms of NGO activity-led association. This axiomatic line of distinction is the main cause for the fissures that can be seen amongst the French GDV community since there was a discernible difference in the material existence of GDV members belonging to Evangelical associations. This was accompanied by a palpable wariness and mistrust of outsiders and, in some instances, outright hostility as evinced by one particular woman who shouted at ERRC researchers, asking them to leave immediately.8 It is fair to conclude through the observations of the researchers that there was some resentment on the part of members of the various GDV associations, especially by those members of associations that were not Evangelist. This, in part, was due to the aforementioned visible differences in the material wealth and conditions of GDV members of the various Evangelist associations in comparison to those who were not, and the deep suspicion that this was due to preferential treatment or other more dubious reasons being shown toward these Evangelist associations.9 This "problem" was acknowledged by state officials (national and local) as well as other professionals working in the sphere, but there is little or no political will to address this issue and this underlying tension still prevails.

A number of practical issues were highlighted as problematic for GDV RMI recipients. The main issue was that of domiciliation which in turn led to issues related to the registration of RMI recipients with the relevant local municipal authorities. French GDV communities have a unique identity card called the "Carte d'circulation" (the circulation card) which is renewable with the appropriate local municipal offices. This card indicates that the holder is a Traveller and is likely to move from region to region. If they do move, they are required to register themselves at the local municipal offices so that they can continue to receive their RMI payments. This is done via the association so there is little disruption to the recipient. ERRC researchers found that the period of "re-registering" ranged from three months to twelve months depending on which municipal office was overseeing the process. This meant that recipients needed to ensure that they complied with this technicality in order to continue to receive their RMI payments. Failure to do so would result in their RMI being suspended or stopped altogether. There were some cases where registration was not necessary since the association would take care of the matter for their clients. Despite acknowledgement amongst GDV communities that were interviewed of the technical sense of the policy, they felt it was an imposition on them since it was an impractical measure which could/ would mean that they would have to travel back to the authority where they had originally registered in order to prevent any disruption to their RMI payments which was the only consistent form of income they had. Many of the respondents requested that the procedure be reviewed since it was a type of discrimination against them and a hidden form of monitoring of their movements by the authorities, a view shared by many of the social workers that worked with these communities.

2. Social worker NGOs

During field research, ERRC researchers were provided useful information by representatives of the many social workers NGOs working with French GDV communities. Ostensibly, this sector of the social assistance process was the most informed group and shared many useful insights with the researchers. They displayed a broader and fuller understanding of the process and were able to provide experiential material that helped provide the contextual framework in which phenomena related to social assistance and the NAP could be interpreted and analysed. An example of this is the social work NGO ADEPT based in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris. This organisation represented the interests of a number of GDV social assistance recipients and performed a vital role in the receipt of social funds and resources. In many cases, without their intervention, a number of their clients would not have been able to fully expedite the process of collecting social funds at all. Employees of this organisation displayed a significantly high level of knowledge and expertise of the French social assistance programme and, based on this, were able to provide comprehensive knowledge and services to their clients. A number of their clients who were interviewed during research mentioned that they had received "terrific assistance" from ADEPT and without them, many benefits that they were receiving would not be possible. This last point taken from my experiences in France outlined above, sadly, and this is my main point, indicated that French government did not provide ADEPT (and others in the field) the requisite resources that they needed to offer full and comprehensive service and that they had to rely on their own industry and expertise in order to perform their necessary tasks and duties. I contend that if they are to do their jobs properly in what is a thoroughly desperate sphere, then the government should provide more support for them and not simply provide them with the "Direction Generale" and then subsequently wash their hands of the problem.10 Although the government's argument of decentralisation is a powerful explanation for not imposing things on local municipal governments, it is a weak rationale explicating the current state of affairs where French citizens are not receiving certain "benefits" due to the lack of local governmental action or political will. I am particularly worried about this since it creates a chasm between national and local governments which is inevitably filled by the actions and the efforts of civil associations, and when the system fails, as it inevitably does and will, the finger of blame is always pointed at these same civil organisations, the worthy interlocutors who are only trying to help. This is the inherent peril of the current situation facing civil organisations. Increasingly, and perversely, they too are coming under the suspicion of simply trying to preserve the status quo, containing the many problems and "creating" a system of dependency whereby their clients never really solve whatever social problems they face and therefore depend on the intervention of these civil organisations to ameliorate their situation for them.

I have presented a comprehensive account of my experiences in France to highlight a point. Civil associations are in need of more support from governments in order to perform the work they undertake, in many cases on behalf or instead of governments. They are helping governments fulfil their obligations to the citizenry. They are trying to help desperate people who, without their intervention, would be even more desperate than they already are. They are also helping to ensure that social justice is achieved and respected in societies across the globe, eradicating inequalities and holding state governmental apparatus and agents accountable. Their cause and efforts are noble and should be supported by concerted efforts from governments. Radical action is needed by state governments. By this, I mean that states need to evaluate their roles in these situations and provide these civil organisations with the required assistance in order to properly address the social phenomena mentioned here. Failure to do so will further erode public confidence and will show the true nature of these "partnerships" between state governments and civil organisations I elucidated above. Recognition of this fact cannot come quickly enough, and if human/civil rights activists and practitioners are to continue playing a meaningful role, the sooner the better.


  1. Larry Olomoofe is the Human Rights Trainer at the ERRC.
  2. These observations formed part of a general view that I had been developing over the past few yearsthrough my work in the sphere of Roma rights. It can be said that the observations collected inFrance fi nally confirmed my thought-processes and compelled me to articulate the various levels ofintrospection that I had been conducting.
  3. Again, this view is based upon a number of discussions I have had with members of disadvantagedgroups across Europe over the years. The fact that my opinion crystallises around experiences gleanedin France is simply coincidental here and not suggesting that this phenomenon is particular to France.
  4. Mr Bacholle was the “Charge de Mission” in Seine and Marne and his task was to focus upon the department’s scheme to build up “designated sites,” collaborating with nominated GDV associationsin an effort to discern the best way to “insert” local GDV communities into society.
  5. This somewhat troubling question was asked during an interview with two local CAF workersconducted in November 2006.
  6. In some instances, when asked by researchers about government social assistance programmes, respondents provided erroneous answers or had no knowledge of the relevant benefi t and had to be informed by there searchers what the correct policy was, as was previously explained to them by the government officials.
  7. An example of this is the collaboration between the Association des familles des Gens du Voyaged’Ile de France, Aubervilliers, Seine-Saint-Denis and the local social worker NGO ADEPT, whoprovide a joint service for members of the association. The association puts its members into directcontact with the social workers at ADEPT and it is they who expedite the social assistance claimsfor the GDV recipients. Due to their thorough knowledge of the process, the social workers canpoint their clients towards the full range of benefi ts as well as inform them of the technical andadministrative obligations they have under the various programmes.
  8. The woman in question was a member of an association that was located on a permanent site withgood facilities in the Paris suburb of Mitry-Mory, Seine-et-Marne. During the incident which tookplace on 24 November 2006, she shouted at the researchers and said, “We do not need any help! Wehave everything we need here.” The researchers tried to reason with her before talking to a maleresident of the site who requested that they inform the government that he needed some educationalprogrammes/resources to learn to read and write properly so that he could conduct his businessproperly. The researchers took note of this, thanked him for his time and promptly left.
  9. Although this deep suspicion was widely held, there was no clear evidence of why these opinionswere held and no evidence offered apart from anecdotal information based upon experienceof perceived differential treatment by officials in similar cases to theirs where members of theevangelist association were successful in claims for loans for caravans, registration of sites, etc,where they had not been.
  10. By this, I am alluding to the provision of adequate fi nancial and structural/programmatic resources that should include training and professional development programmes in order for organisationslike ADEPT to be able to do their jobs properly. The government should conduct regular trainingworkshops for everyone working in this fi eld and ensure that the local municipal governments insiston this knowledge before anyone takes up the role of representing the interests of French GDVs.

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