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Roma Rights 2 2015: Nothing About Us Without Us? Roma Participation in Policy Making and Knowledge Production

7th, December, 2015

On Roma Civil Society, Roma Inclusion, and Roma Participation

Iulius Rostaş, Márton Rövid, Marek Szilvási

Nothing about us without us?: Participants of the workshop held in October 2014 and the authors of the present journal issue offer critical insights into the manifestations and implications of this noble principle. The first panel and this section of the journal reflect on the main developments of Roma civil society; the ideas behind the founding Roma organisations; the strategies of the main players; and the main challenges.

Recollecting some of the main workshop debates and the themes developed in the articles, we reflect on the concepts of ‘Roma civil society’, ‘Roma inclusion’, and ‘Roma participation’. We end the paper by discussing some possibilities for ‘dismantling the Roma ghetto’.


What is Roma civil society? What is its distinctive element and who is part of it? In order to discuss Roma civil society, it is worth highlighting the main historical conceptions of ‘civil society’:

(i) The broadest conception is rooted in the tradition of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment (Ferguson and Hume) that distinguished analytically the State and Society. The contemporary version of such an approach embraces all non-state actors, including political parties, companies, and trade unions. Accordingly, the concept of civil society can be defined as “the area of organized social life that is open, voluntary, self-generating, at least partially self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules.”1

(ii) In the 19th century Marx identified the Bürgerliche Gesellschaft as the sphere of competition of economic interests, which is distinctive from the state as the body of citizens. Political emancipation, argues Marx, sets apart the legally equal citoyens and legitimises social and economic inequality amongst the bourgeois. A contemporary interpretation would thus identify civil society with actors of the economic sphere.

(iii) Although Tocqueville did not use the term ‘civil society’, in his book Of Democracy in America he enthusiastically described how individual liberties are guaranteed in the United States by so-called “democratic accessories” such as the separation of the Church and the State, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and the prosperity of associations.

(iv) Gramsci was the first to analytically distinguish the spheres of economy and society. The latter comprises the Church, the education system, and civic associations. The State and civil society form the superstructure (in a Marxist sense). The means of oppression in the former is state violence, and in the latter it is cultural hegemony.

(v) In the 1970s in Latin America and in the 1980s in Eastern Europe a narrow conception of civil society emerged which referred to the autonomous sphere not controlled by the authoritarian regimes of these regions. The dissidents promoting such a conception claimed the moral superiority of civil society over the state. Hence a true social reflex in the post-communist period in which civil society is positively valued compared to politics, which is perceived as a dirty game serving the interests of those groups in power and not the public interest.

Following these conceptual distinctions, we could ask what could ‘Roma civil society’ entail? Is it possible to delineate ‘Roma civil society’ from ‘civil society’?

Taking into account the broad conception of civil society, it is possible to identify a great number of non-state actors that claim to advocate on behalf of Roma or implement projects targeting Roma such as international organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or political parties. These actors have over the years developed into a transnational net- work that can be called “the pro-Roma global civil society”.Furthermore, one could also identify for-profit companies run by Roma and consumers of Romani origin that may be considered as a segment of the market.

Depending on the normative approach, ‘Roma civil society’ may be considered a site of emancipation and resistance (following the classic liberal or recent ‘dissident’ understandings of civil society) or a sphere of economic competition, cultural hegemony, and physical oppression (following the Marxist or Gramscian conceptions).

Emancipatory approaches to civil society tend to neglect some ‘non-civic’ components of civil society, such as criminal groups.3 Furthermore, there are several informal (traditional) institutions that may be considered as part of Roma civil society, such as self-help groups, the Bulibasa, or Criss romano. For instance, criss romano, as a customary conflict resolution mechanism opposing or avoiding the legitimate state justice system may be considered ‘ant-civic’ i.e. anti-establishment and anti-democratic.

Is it desirable to delineate ‘Roma civil society’ from ‘civil society’?

Envisioning a closed and separate ‘Roma society’ can undermine social solidarity and promote the ethnicisation of social relations that may further segregate and marginalise citizens perceived as ‘Roma/Gypsy’. Throughout history, the deep-rooted images of ‘Roma society’ have taken both romantic and malevolent forms ranging from the adoration of pure and free sauvages to their expulsion, forced assimilation, enslavement, and extermination.

On the other hand, the rights to mobilise and to set up various formal and informal organisations along ethnic lines should be guaranteed and facilitated. It is vital to develop (pro-)Roma public spheres where the desirability, efficiency, and legitimacy of such ‘Roma’ projects, mobilisations, and formal and informal institutions could be debated.


Contemporary conceptions of ‘Roma inclusion’ and ‘Roma integration’ often tend to be paternalistic as they rely on the exclusionary ethnic view of ‘Roma civil society’. Accordingly, the undeveloped/marginalised/uncivilised ‘Roma society’ has to be included/integrated into the developed/just/democratic/civilised ‘society’. ‘Roma’ often appear on the radar of the actors of inclusion as marginalised passive masses, a ‘vulnerable population’ that has to be assisted in their inclusion into society.

Roma inclusion policies are often closely tied with patron-client relationships where the benefits of patrons designing and delivering services – be it public authorities, international organisations or civil society – dramatically exceed the benefits of activated ‘Roma clients’. Hence, rather than directly empowering the excluded local Roma, the existing system provides civil society and other actors with resources and paths for representing and servicing these ‘clients’.

The patron-client relationship excludes the clients from the design of ‘inclusion policies’ and limits their participation in crucial decisions affecting their lives. Providing socio-eco- nomic services can often be aptly described as patrimonial as these services undermine the civil, political, and human rights of their ‘recipients’ by simply taking over their claims and representing their interests while having no accountability structures in place.4 The fact that this context allows human rights to be delegated from individual Roma to civil society suggests that the current system paves the way for a certain type of actor, who is already relatively empowered.

As Rancière bluntly points out, human rights can be actualised only by those who understand them as commodities.5 These patrons gain unrestricted access to the trade-off of human rights claims on behalf of their clients. Human rights and inclusion policies thus operate in the broader system of the rights economy in which the most vulnerable and the excluded can be further alienated by empowered patrons.6 In order to access their human rights, ‘the Roma clients’ need to turn to vanguard actors who are empowered enough to stand up for their claims. In sum, under some civil society settings excluded Roma might remain just as vulnerable with their rights addressed as they would without.


Having decades of experiences with paternalistic ‘Roma inclusion’ projects and ‘Roma organisations’, many Eu- ropean citizens of Romani origins have learnt to distrust them. Nonetheless, participating in such projects and organisations may provide a crucial source of income and open channels of upward social mobility.

‘Roma participation’ thus entails a particular market of ‘Roma activists’. On the demand side, various ‘Roma’ projects, programmes, and organisations (from local projects, to national level NGOs, minority self-governments, and various European-level bodies and programmes) require the participation of Roma activists/politicians/professionals to legitimise the structure for which they work.

On the supply side, there is a broad spectrum of persons of Romani origin including some highly qualified and truly committed persons who struggle for noble causes in often ‘imperfect’ structures, as well as token appointed ‘Roma’ whose main job is to approve often shameful ‘pro-Roma’ projects, programmes, or policies with their ‘brown stamp’.

The selection of ‘Roma participants’ and the election of ‘Roma representatives’ are frequently connected with their over-emphasised Roma identity, authenticity, and their availability to assume a subordinate position in relation with authorities.Authenticity is often linked to being ‘visibly Roma’ i.e. having a darker skin colour, having a well-known Romani family name, or knowing Romani. As a result, not fitting the racial and ethnic stereotypes can be disadvantageous in this market.

It is important to underline that even seemingly democratically elected Roma-led organisations can play a purely tokenistic role. Consider the case of the Hungarian National Roma Minority Self-Government that has supported every Roma inclusion policy of each government without ever formulating any substantive critiques vis-à-vis the establishment.


Paternalistic Roma inclusion policies are typically disconnected from broader social, economic, and political developments. Roma integration strategies usually comprise smaller-scale targeted policy interventions but do not address the sweeping social changes affecting the lives of most Roma, such as the economic collapse of the so-called ‘post-communist transition’ and the withering of welfare states which is sometimes referred to as the emergence of ‘neoliberal regimes’.

The authors of this section of the journal issue provide ample examples of this process from Bulgaria, Romania, and the United Kingdom.

Analysing the case of Bulgaria, Russinov points out that “during the Socialist period, most of the Roma […] were relatively well integrated in the macro society. After 1989, many of them lost their jobs and migrated towards the cities. In the cities, Roma families moved to segregated Roma neighbourhoods and their children attended the segregated Roma schools. The levels of school segregation have thus increased from around 50% in 1990 to 70% in 2003.”8

Discussing paternalistic Roma inclusion policies, Acton and Ryder claim that “policies which invoke the language of ‘social inclusion’ rest upon narrow, assimilative, interpretations of what it is to ‘civilise’ and integrate. Such structures lead to bureaucratic processes stifling funding streams for community organisations and creating projects with limited goals to achieve service adjustment or give the impression of consultation. This imposes hierarchy on community organisation and constrains community leaders to dance to the tunes of their funders, smothering their appetite for more transformative action.”9

Nasture provides a vivid description of what he calls the ‘Gypsy industry’ which comprises “organisations and institutions develop[ing] missions and operating principles that they do not follow, and neither do their ‘beneficiaries’. The hidden agenda is elaborated around the aim to mobilise for funds and therefore the primary concern is about creating and maintaining a positive image of their organisation/institution. As a result the organisations/institutions are report-driven and focused on polished project results. Those who know how to produce these receive funds, even though these ‘experts’ go to the communities more like tourists, take some photos, write some reports and then their work is done, and payment is received.”10

How to break out from the ghetto of the ‘Gypsy industry’?

Above all, paternalistic conceptions of Roma inclusion - assuming a just and civilized society into which passive and marginalised ‘Roma’ have to be integrated – must be thoroughly debated. Rather than integrating into unjust, oppressive societies, Romani citizens should contribute to the healing of these ‘sick’ societies.11

Russinov recalls the Bulgaria of 1990 when Romani activists, professionals, and intellectuals founded the Democratic Union of Roma, which played an active role in debating and establishing the new constitutional and social order. They advocated the equal participation of Roma in the new democratic society, through political participation, participation in government, and the freedom to develop Roma culture and language.

Discussing the example of the Gypsy Council in the UK, Acton and Ryder draw attention to the importance of developing financially autonomous membership-based organisations that do not depend on external donors. “The Gypsy Council is arguably at its most agile when links to funders are minimal and the organisation depended on membership fees and unpaid activism. A frequent complaint in recent decades has been that the Romani Movement has undergone a process of NGO-isation, in which donor-driven agendas and hierarchical management forms have subverted and emasculated grassroots activism.”12

Autonomous grassroots organisations can exert real pressure on authorities by means of non-violent direct action. In the late 1960s, “resistance to eviction became a prominent feature of the work of the Gypsy Council, generating publicity, attention and recruits. Noted publicity stunts such as parking trailers outside Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, or Parliament, were staged. The non-violent direct action of the Gypsy Council in part reflected the methods in vogue at the time, such approaches having been employed with great effect in the civil rights movement in the USA.”13

Nasture argues for linking civic activism to the concepts of Phralipe and Pakiv i.e. to build on brotherhood, solidarity, trust, and transparency. Roma should mobilise their social and cultural capital in order to transform the unjust societies in which they live.

The above examples illustrate that Romani citizens and Roma organisations can and should play an active role in both broader social, economic, and political developments, as well as in concrete local cases.

Contrary to the common expectation, citizens of Romani origin and Roma organisations should not seek a common voice. Tensions inevitably arise between moderate service providers and anti-establishment activists, or between confrontational anti-racist groups and those seeking dialogue and cooperation with the broader society.

Nonetheless, we do advocate for dismantling the ‘Roma ghetto’. The narrow focus on ‘Roma inclusion’ has diverted attention from questions of social justice, welfare, democracy, and diversity. Anti-racist, feminist, LGBT and leftist movements can be neither credible nor successful without incorporating Romani activists and organisations. In turn, Roma and pro-Roma organisations, institutions and networks cannot be successful without developing alliances with progressive social movements.


  1. Larry Diamond, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 221.
  2. Márton Rövid and Angéla Kóczé, “Pro-Roma Global Civil Society: Acting for, with or instead of Roma?”, in Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection, ed. M. Kaldor, H. L. Moore and S. Selchow (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  3. Pavel distinguishes three segments of civil society: civic, non-civic, and anti-civic (i.e. anti-establishment, anti-democratic). Dan Pavel, “The Theory of Civil Society Revisited” in Sfera Politicii,Vol. XVIII, Number 2, (February 2010).
  4. Joanna Bourke-Martignoni, Echoes from a Distant Shore: The Right to Education in International Development (Geneva: Schulthess, 2012).
  5. Jacques Ranciere, “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, The South Atlantic Quarterly 2-3/103, (2004): 297–310.
  6. David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004); Slavoj Žižek, The Future of Europe, (2009), available at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL031DE139C14CEE38.
  7. Iulius, Rostas, “Workshop Debates: Traditional Versus Modern”, in: From Victimhood to Citizenship: The Path of Roma Integration (Biro, Gheorghe, Kovats et al), ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Publishing Corporation, 2013), 149.
  8. See article of Rumyan Russinov in this issue, p. 24.
  9. See article of Thomas Acton and Andrew Ryder in this issue, p. 13.
  10. See article of Florin Nasture in this issue, p. 27.
  11. As Saimir Mile, Albanian-French-Romani activist noted at the workshop.
  12. See article of Thomas Acton and Andrew Ryder in this issue, p. 13.
  13. Ibid. p.16.


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