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

7th, December, 2015

Changing the Paradigm of Roma inclusion: From Gypsy industry to active citizenship

Florin Nasture


It is well known that historically Roma were classified after their professional occupations. We have caldaras, tinkers, bear leaders, rudars, boldeni (horse sellers), singers, ironsmiths, etc. It seems that this list is continuing to expand. Thanks to the Operational Programme for Human Resource Development,1 there are new Roma groups. Somebody told me that an entire community was trained to be hairdressers. Why not? There are hundreds of projects that have trained Roma in many professions. Hence we have Roma groups of cooks, waiters, chambermaids, landscapers, caretakers etc. To some observers it might appear that Roma communities are flooded with projects that aim to train a number of vulnerable people and this in itself has spawned a new industry; the Gypsy industry! Which has proved to be a rather top-down, hierarchical and inefficient industry. This article seeks to provide insights into the growing belief that funds have been poorly used and even wasted. This article draws on my experiences as an activist and community organiser and seeks to map out a development model based on empowerment and social justice.

We are at the end of a period of European Union (EU) funding programmes and at the beginning of a new one regarding Roma inclusion. Some of the assessments regarding the previous programmatic period (2007 – 2014) evidence both achievements and failures of European or national policies. However the most relevant assessment, beyond the language of indicators, outcomes, outputs, objectives, etc., is what we see when we go to Roma communities. There the quality of life for many Roma remains lacking, with limited opportunities to access quality and non-discriminatory education, employment, healthcare and housing.

The development industry or Roma business

The stakeholders (state institutions, non-government organisations (NGOs), international organisations, donors) involved in the inclusion of Roma should also be key contributors to strong Roma communities, providing services and support in order to; help people enhance their participation in the community and influence decision-making; have control over resources; guard human rights and social justice; and ultimately improve their quality of life. Unfortunately the actors involved in Roma inclusion, although claiming to be acting on behalf of ‘the Roma’, often take actions that in fact promote the ‘development industry’ or contribute to establishing the ‘Gypsy Industry’.

In other words the organisations/state institutions present the image that they act on behalf of Roma when in fact they are really interested in their own survival.2

In the frame of the ‘Gypsy industry’ organisations and institutions develop missions and operating principles that they do not follow, and neither do their ‘beneficiaries’. The hidden agenda of those within the Gypsy industry is to mobilise around the acquisition of funds, and therefore the concern of these institutions is to create and maintain a positive commercial image. 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 than professionals with a job to do, take some photos, write some reports - then their work is done, and payment is received. Moreover, there are funded organisations that are completely alien to the Roma communities’ reality and whose approach is based on a mindset that views Roma as a ‘disadvantaged population’. This approach becomes in effect an act of assimilation, as these projects are then without an ethnic dimension and knowledge of the local Roma context. In addition many of their directors/managers spend more time on generating relevant data and developing guidelines rather than on working with the people to improve their conditions.3

In order to benefit from all the opportunities available, the stakeholders involved in the Roma issue are not limited to a specific area of intervention and they are ready to offer interventions in multiple fields to raise funds. NGOs, state agencies and international organisations are more concerned with producing polished results and creating an image of reliable partners (donors, EU institutions) than investing in social partnership with their Roma policy recipients.

This is not merely a theory in the field of Roma inclusion but a recent reality. Many of these policy actors are concerned with their own political interest, power and profit in the name of Roma inclusion, rather than with being engaged in responsible action from which Roma communities can directly benefit. Nowadays stakeholders in the field of Roma inclusion are market oriented. Many of these organisations behave like corporations, concerned with their own survival and profit-maximisation in an ongoing competition with other organisations, rather than with the conditions of those who could benefit from work to improve inclusion.4

Social dependency versus empowerment

In the vocabulary of policy makers, Roma are frequently conceptualised as a ‘problem’ and never as a ‘solution’. Policy makers tend to emphasise the negative aspects and neglect to consider the positive strengths of Roma. Hence, policies are based on the understanding that Roma are vulnerable and in need of social assistance, rather than recognising them as a national minority.

This approach towards Roma and the Gypsy industry described above perpetuates the social dependency of Roma, and thus the circle of poverty. Therefore it is not surprising that in Romania for instance, after 20 years of inclusion policies and 250 million Euros of investment,5 little has been achieved. More and more people involved in the Roma issue have started to speak openly about these taboo issues although they face the risk of being rejected by the system which perpetuates the Gypsy industry.

Policy makers and donors have also come to the understanding that there is a need to change the discourse and the paradigm of Roma inclusion. In fact the international organisations and donors involved in Roma inclusion (the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the World Bank, the OSI, the Norwegian Fund, United Nations Development Programme) have lately started to develop their own policies and enforce the integrated, bottom-up approach. Even though it has been long known that this is ‘the way’ to Roma inclusion, the stakeholders have previously not taken it seriously. Nowadays it seems more than ever, however, that an approach in which community members and local authorities are empowered, made accountable and engaged is being attempted.

Donors and international organisations

At the level of donors and international organisations, coordination among programmes is simulated; in reality the experience of Roma suggest that coordination is hardly visible. A Romani neighbourhood can be approached by several programmes simultaneously, each with the same methods, with each donor claiming to have found the solution to Roma inclusion. Although officially they declare the intention to empower community members at the local level and increase community participation, this often fails to materialise. In other words, one can find very few Roma working in these institutions especially in decision-making positions. Those Roma you do find working for such institutions often have nothing to do with their local communities and may have become disconnected from them.

Local authorities

Local authorities do not give adequate consideration to how to bring about change for excluded Roma. Formally they claim to want Roma inclusion but in truth they are interested mainly in the electoral capital and potential funds attached to Roma. As long as the Roma stay poor, and hence can be easily bought, why would they invest in the emancipation of the Roma?! Many mayors are interested in the Roma only if they can use them to get some money into their municipality. A deputy mayor said to me, after I showed him a project proposal developed for Roma in his municipality, “Let’s hope this time you will really do something for the Roma”.

The local authorities also fail to work with those implementing programmes to ensure good communication so that their efforts are not being duplicated, leading to a waste of efforts and resources.

The NGO sector

Even Roma organisations and pro-Roma organisations do not have a single voice. We are kept busy with project-design, implementation and reporting. We care about Roma rights, but our material and organisational comfort comes first. We are service providers. We are not interested in a ‘common cause’, and shared civic responsibility is a concept alien to activists, experts, and organisation leaders.

Those of us who have certain connections and communication channels believe that we can influence policies but in reality, alone and apart, no matter how capable we seem, we are only ‘the Roma on duty’. We focus our energy and thoughts on the tensions and the competition among us. As long as we do not give up our egos and as long as we do not prioritise the common interest ahead of the personal, group or organisational interest, we will not produce policies to improve the quality of life of the Roma. That is a pity because if organisation leaders shared a common voice, they would be more effective in influencing policies for Roma, donors’ approaches and the indifference of public authorities.

Roma from communities – policy recipients

When I recently entered a Roma community the first thing they asked me was “what did you bring us?” The Roma from many of the communities where projects and programmes have reached, have developed a victim mentality. They have become clients of the social service providers. Ever since the 1990s reports, research and studies have presented Roma as victims who need assistance, which has become a defining characteristic of the industry of Roma projects and policies. As Nicolae Gheorghe pointed out “Activists tend to think decision makers can only be made aware of the situation and stirred by dramatic images of Roma as victims of their societies.”6

At the same time, the Roma from the Roma communities have started to become aware of the social benefits they can access as a vulnerable population. Some of them have cottoned on to the idea and started to play the victim. For many this process has been an unconscious one. When everybody tells you that you lack skills, you lack education or you are a problem, you start to believe this and behave accordingly, becoming characterised by pervasive feelings of helplessness, dependency, marginality, and powerlessness. Consequently, the Roma, once again, embrace the culture of poverty. In the short term, it is a win-win situation: NGOs implement their projects and mobilise other funds; authorities continue to manipulate the Roma communities, particularly when there are election campaigns to be fought; and the Roma in the communities act as victims because it is easier for them if others provide them with social services and care.

However this is a short-sighted approach, trapping the Roma in a cycle of social dependency rather than ensuring they become partners and citizens. The price to be paid in years to come from this mismanagement will be much greater than the small gains currently being made by the few.

An Empowerment-based approach for Roma inclusion


Roma need policies that help them to overcome poverty. However, policies and projects that are not accompanied by measures to empower Roma will keep them in the trap of dependency, which undercuts their ability to shape their own development strategies. As long as the Roma condition remains the one described herein it will be useless to develop inclusion policies and strategies. The power holders will continue to prioritise their personal and/or organisational interests. In this context Roma are easily manipulated, their votes are easily bought, and the stereotype of their social parasitism will be perpetuated by extremist and populist politicians.

There is no alternative open to Roma other than mobilising communities to seek political and civil power. The change that needs to be generated is in the attitude of the people, namely shifting from being passive to active citizens who become masters of their own destiny. If they work together, they will be recognised by others as political entities and owners of some significant political and civic power at the local and central level.7

Moral reform

The inclusion of Roma should be a moral pursuit. Hope, proper management and critical reflection are ingredients that, if connected in a moral framework, can bring real inclusion. The actors involved in the inclusion of Roma should understand development as a moral process relation and engage in it beyond our ‘job description’ or procedures and routines of development agencies, policies and programmers.

All the stakeholders are so involved in action and preoccupied with pleasing the mighty donor that they forget about reflecting on their actions. Therefore “the reinvigoration of Roma inclusion” requires efforts to reconnect the worlds of action and reflection, to build bridges and cross borders, “keeping pace with or even anticipating changes in the nature of criticism and reconstruction of development.”8

The failures to socially include Roma are caused mainly because we have forgotten to look upon and participate in the field of development as a relationship and as a quest for a shared responsibility, which brings the self and the other together. Development is supposed to provide hope for better human opportunities but it has lately become a hegemonic application where there is a gap between developers and people that need development. The challenge that the practitioners face at this moment is to intervene, taking into account that the inclusion of Roma is a shared responsibility - a sharing which binds the agent and the recipients, the developed world and the developing one, in a bond of shared destiny.

According to Alasdair Macintyre, seeking internal satisfaction makes us feel more like human beings. The motivation of all those involved in Roma inclusion is “to help others” but what is interesting is that this motivation can be rooted in our very own sense of helplessness as we react to a needy, complex and often angry world. And that world is as much a part of who we are on the inside as it is a part of our environment. In other words, in most cases we seek internal satisfaction because we need to feel good about ourselves. Social development is a field oriented towards others for their benefit and this makes us special and gives us the internal satisfaction that make us “more human” than others.9

Roma human resources

Years of policy development have also produced Roma with expertise in Roma inclusion. Some of them are working internationally, others in state institutions and many in the NGO sector. At the local level we have experts on Roma issues, health mediators, school mediators, facilitators, and teachers. These human resources can play an important role in the process of development. Although some will say that these experts have moved from communities into offices and that they are not in a decision-making position, they still represent human resources, which may be activated if the right opportunity presents itself.

Roma as a young population

According to the World Bank study Achieving Roma Inclusion in Romania – What does it take?, 40 % of the Roma population of Romania is under the age of 15, which is in stark contrast to the fast-ageing non-Roma Romanian population. This ageing population is a demographic problem not only in Romania but also in the rest of Europe. In this context policies that create opportunities for young Roma to access the labour market are not only moral but also a smart economic approach. In supporting this approach another study of the World Bank from 2008 noted that “equalizing labor market earnings in Romania for Roma could result in potential economic benefits ranging between 887 million Euro and 2.9 billion Euro annually, and fiscal benefits ranging between 202 million Euro and 675 million Euro annually”.10

Revivalism of Romanipen

Attempts for inclusion of the Roma without taking into consideration their socio-cultural background are doomed to fail. There are many projects aimed at the inclusion of Roma as a vulnerable population which contribute to the assimilation of Roma. These projects are run not only by gadje institutions or gadje NGOs but also by Roma NGOs. In order for the Roma to become full citizens they need first values and benchmarks that define them as human beings. It is true that Roma cultural values, generally known as Romanipen (the fundamental law of Roma identity), are less and less part of daily life but, as a Roma nation we need them, and therefore a revitalisation of them is required.

This is particularly important given the reality of stigma and social exclusion and its consequences, which leave many Roma with low self-esteem. How can inclusion take place if Roma have a problem with their identity? In this context Roma need to capitalise and revitalise Roma cultural values. As Nicolae Gheorghe pointed out “Equal priority should be given to human rights activism and cultural preservation or better revivalism concentrating on Roma language, their heritage of traditional occupations or family structures”.11

As Nicolae Gheorghe said, the policies and projects addressing Roma issues should be connected to Roma values. For example in Romanipen there is the concept of Phralipe (brotherhood), which may be equivalent to solidarity in the civic world. Another example is Pakiv (trust), which can be identified as transparency. “Understanding how Roma utilise social and cultural capital is crucial if there is an intention to reorient their use for inclusion into mainstream society.”12

Roma are survivors

Over centuries Roma have suffered exclusion, extermination, slavery and assimilation but they have always found survival techniques. Roma have for centuries used cultural capital to generate economic capital. They used their traditional occupations as a way of living, adapting their skills to what was required by the market. This proves the capacity of Roma to adapt to different contexts. Policy and project makers should make use of and encourage the capacity that many Roma have developed. Also, the entrepreneurs and organisations can make use of the capital generated by kinship ties in implementing social entrepreneurship projects.


Over the last twenty years various opportunities have been created for Roma, which may continue in the future decade through the EU. This is an opportunity for Roma to find their way and take an active part in bringing about social change. Combating discrimination and concentrating on providing social services for Roma communities is not enough to achieve a viable solution. What we need is real moral reform. We need to work with responsibility, accountability and with genuine care for others.

Recently a trend has started that encourages empowerment and if realised, will lead to the redistribution of power, and democratisation of previous hierarchical relations. However “the social movements at the same time need to cultivate within themselves a self-critique of the telos of power so that a politics of empowerment does not become an end onto itself and does not degenerate into another system of exclusion and oppression”13 dynamics as well as scholarly reflections on social movements as harbingers of new beginnings in the world of Roma inclusion.

Moreover, in order for the Roma communities to be empowered, other stakeholders need to give up power. They will not give up power willingly so Roma will need to take it for themselves. In order to do so we need leaders with know-how and commitment towards their communities, ready to empower and mobilise others in the Roma community to participate as active citizens.

Reinvention of Roma values is not only a force for mobilising communities. The genuine cultural patterns, known as Romanipen, can serve as resources that will support adaptive strategies.

These are a few positive aspects that if used properly, will bring a change in Roma communities. There are many other issues specific to each Roma community but despite the diversity and plurality of Roma communities we should not lose our hope that things will change in the future.


  1. Operational Programme for Human Resource Development, available at: http://www.fonduri-ue.ro/posdru-2007.
  2. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (London: Versus, 1993)
  3. Andras Biro, Nicolae Gheorghe, Martin Kovats et al., in: From Victimhood to Citizenship - The Path of Roma Integration, ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 2013).
  4. Ananta Kumar Giri, Philip Qarles Van Ufford, A Moral Critique of Development: In Search of Global Responsibilities. (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 29.
  5. Presentation of the National Agency for Roma, 5 October 2009, available at: http://www.osce.org/odihr/83544?download=true.
  6. Nicolae Gheorghe, „Choices to be Made and Prices to be Paid”, in: From Victimhood to Citizenship: The Path of Roma Integration (Biro, Gheorghe, Kovats et al), ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Publishing Corporation, 2013), 43.
  7. Biro See: Željko Jovanovič, “Values, Leadership, Pover“ in: From Victimhood to Citizenship: The Path of Roma Integration (Biro, Gheorghe, Kovats et al), ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Publishing Corporation, 2013), 197-203.
  8. Kumar Giri, Qarles Van Ufford (eds.), A Moral Critique of Development: in search of global responsibilities (London: Routledge for Eidos, 2003), 3.
  9. Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, (United States: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 228.
  10. Ramya Sundaram, Ulrich Hoerning, Natasha de Andrade Falcão, Natalia Millán, Carla Tokman, and Michele Zini, Portraits of Labor Market Exclusion, (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank, 2015), 243.
  11. Nicolae Gheorghe, „Choices to be Made and Prices to be Paid”, in: From Victimhood to Citizenship: The Path of Roma Integration (Biro, Gheorghe, Kovats et al), ed. Will Guy (Budapest: Kossuth Publishing Corporation, 2013), 81.
  12. Ibid., 62.
  13. Ananta Kumar Giri, Philip Qarles Van Ufford, A Moral Critique of Development: In Search of Global Responsibilities. (London: Routledge, 2003), 15.


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