Creative accounting: State spending on programmes for Roma in Hungary

15 August 2001

Ernő Kadét1

The Hungarian Government claims to have spent 7.2 billion forints (approximately 28 million euros) on programmes for the Roma in 2000.2 This total, however, comprises mainly expenditure on universal programmes, nevertheless accounted for as "ethnic spending"; Phare programme contributions that were not even spent; supplementary allocations which often perpetuate the segregation of Romani children in school; and a plethora of studies and surveys.

Although the Hungarian state in the years following 1989 to a certain extent supported Romani organisations and various Romani initiatives, it is only since 1997 that there have been comprehensive measures "to improve the living conditions of the Gypsies," with responsibility for the related steps being allocated to individual ministries. Collectively these are known as the "Medium-Term Roma Action Programme".3 The action plan approved under the government of then-Prime Minister Gyula Horn was taken over by the present administration in 1999,4 and subsequently revised. The package primarily provides for the establishment of targeted programmes in education and employment. Exactly how much money is required for the activities included in the Medium Term Roma Action Programme is a matter of much debate. It is a fact, however, that the present government is contributing more to "the improvement of the living conditions of the Roma" than its predecessors. The Horn government spent around 3 billion forints (approximately 11.7 million euro) yearly, while according to an April 2001 government report, the sums earmarked in 2000 for programmes in the medium-term package of measures amounted to 4.86 billion forints (approximately 19 million euros). An additional 2.4 billion forints is spent under earlier programmes, as well as on items such as the operational costs of the local and national minority self-governments.5 When taken together, this brings the total figure for Roma-related state spending in 2000 to 7.2 billion forints.

In April 2001, various ministries had to provide accounts of how they had assisted the social integration of the Roma in the year 2000. These reports were submitted to the Interdepartmental Committee on Romani Affairs (ICRA), which co-ordinates the government bodies' various Roma programmes, and meets at least twice a year. While in previous years the committee received only a few pages from the ministries by way of information, the latest reports are considered to be the most thorough to date, running in some cases to hundreds of pages, often with a detailed, county-by-county breakdown of information.6

The report by the Ministry of Economic Affairs is perhaps the most detailed. Following the reallocation during 2000 of programmes from the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs, it is also the Ministry of Economic Affairs that spent the most on the "medium term" package - more than 2 billion forints (approximately 7.7 million euros) were reportedly spent on re-training programmes, public works labour projects and subsidies for the long-term unemployed. However, most of the expenditure is on programmes that are open to all persons, not just Roma, with the Roma-related spending being calculated on the basis of the estimated number of Romani participants. For example, out of the 7.7 billion forints (approximately 30 million euros) which the Ministry spent on public labour programmes for the long-term unemployed, 750 million forints (approximately 2.9 million euros) was deemed to have been spent on Roma and was therefore treated as expenditure under the medium-term package. This calculation was based on an estimate that 8-10 percent of the participants in the labour programmes were Romani. This estimate was arrived at despite the fact the participants' ethnic origins had not been recorded, and that the recording of such data would in any case be illegal according to the government's interpretation of Hungary's data protection law. The inaccuracy of any such calculation has been recognised by the Ministry; their report to the ICRA acknowledges that, "essentially we can rely only on experimental data in respect to persons of Gypsy ethnicity [...] when calculating the amounts of various active Gypsy-related subsidies".7 Yet, despite this recognition of the inaccuracy of their figures, the Ministry is nevertheless prepared to claim that this money was spent on Roma.

By applying similar calculation methods to the various retraining programmes, the Ministry was able to identify a further 200-300 million forints' worth of "ethnic-related expenditure." For example, according to the Ministry's report, labour centres offer extra subsidies to place long-term unemployed persons in jobs. The Ministry estimates that 2-3 percent of the participants in this programme were Romani in the year 2000 (accounting for expenditure of 70-100 million forints). The Ministry's report on Csongrád County explains this low figure by stating that "even when offered the maximum rates of employment subsidy, most employers still do not want to take on Romani employees".8 According to Julia Székely, Deputy Secretary at the Ministry with responsibility for employment, the fact that expenditure on Romani participants on these universal programmes is treated as a Roma-related expenditure should not be a cause of concern, since the labour centres pay particular attention to maximising the number of Roma assisted by the programme.

The calculation methodology of the Ministry of Economic Affairs has been adopted by other government departments. The Ministry of Social and Family Affairs, in co-operation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, is organising a continuation of the social land programme in 2001, with a budget of 220 million forints (approximately 860,000 euros).9 It is estimated that 38% of the families currently participating in the programme are Roma, but the report diplomatically omits to mention that the programme has been held up for years, mainly due to delays in the amendment of the law on land, and so in practice no new applications can be handled. Yet the allocated money is considered as having been "spent", falsely inflating the real level of spending. The Ministry of Social and Family Affairs also funds public work creation programmes. Out of last year's total spending of 2 billion forints (approximately 7.8 million euros), 800 million forints (approximately 3.1 million euros) were reportedly spent on employment for Roma. This figure is again based on estimates, or - according to László Kovács, the Ministry's rapporteur for Romani affairs - relying on participants' own declarations.

A dash of colour is provided by the Ministry of Youth and Sport, which, like an over-eager student, sent in its end-of-term report despite not even having a defined role in the medium-term programme. Csilla Papp, Office Manager at the Secretariat of Youth Affairs, informed the Roma Press Center, however, that it was precisely the Ministry of Youth and Sport to which the interdepartmental committee had turned in 2000 with a request that, if possible, 150 million forints (approximately 584,000 euros) worth of support should be provided for young Roma. It is understood that there was concern that the reported target of 7.2 billion forints would not be met, and a scramble began to find Ministries and programmes that could claim to be spending more. The Ministry of Youth and Sport could not quite manage 150 million forints, but despite having no programme specifically for Roma in 2000 or in 2001, the Ministry still claimed to have spent 80 million forints. This "spending" apparently represents the total expenditure on all of those programmes within the Ministry in which there were any Romani individuals or organisations amongst the successful applicants. Although the Ministry of Youth and Sport is also planning long-term cooperation with the National Gypsy Self-Government, there is, as yet, no agreement setting out concrete details.10

However, there are also items within the total 7.2 billion forints which do relate to programmes specifically for Roma. For example, as part of the medium-term package, the Ministry of Education earmarked almost 700 million forints (approximately 2.7 million euros) to promote Romani education. Very little of this was spent, however. Only in this year (2001) will the 150 million forints (approximately 583,000 euros) to provide reserved spaces for Roma in dormitories be received by successful applicants.11 One of the dormitories is at the Tiszavasvár School, which gained notoriety and lost a court case over its segregated graduation ceremony for Romani students.12 Nor has the 250 million forints (approximately 970,000 euros) of European Union Phare Programme contributions been spent yet.13 The often-mentioned scholarship programme is certainly for educational purposes, but the funds do not all come from ministerial sources. Last year the state achieved a manifold increase in the number of Romani students receiving scholarships. While the number of primary, secondary and college students supported is often given as 8000, the precise figure is actually 7580 and the 235.5 million forints (approximately 913,000 euros) being allocated to this programme in this academic year represents only 3 percent of the total expenditure on the medium-term package, despite the major publicity surrounding this initiative in Hungary.

Less heralded by the government is the so-called "supplementary ethnic allocation", despite the fact that it far exceeds the scholarships programme in terms of budgets and indeed accounts for one quarter of all of the "Roma money". The allocation is intended to be spent primarily on bringing Romani children up to the educational level of the majority via so-called "catch up programmes", and on programmes to raise Romani children's awareness of their cultural identity. Some schools have already received their share of the total 1.7 billion forints (approximately 6.6 million euros), but in the case of many schools, the sums are doomed to be lost in budgetary deals at the local council level, in which the local councils simply deduct from their contribution the same amount as the schools receive in subsidy. Morever, many educational experts believe that, in many cases, these funds contribute to the segregation of Romani children, and ultimately to a lower standard of education for Romani pupils. Last year, a research project on school segregation, funded partly by the Ministry of Education, confirmed experts' earlier opinions.14 For example, last year Bogács Primary School received almost 2 million forints (approximately 7750 euros) in state supplementary allocations for its Romani students. Bogács Primary School became notorious for the complete segregation of Romani children from their peers and the lower standard of teaching Romani children received. Until the visit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Ethnic and Minority Rights, who subsequently published a report on the school in Bogács, Romani children were frequently called "Bushmen" by their non-Romani peers, a racist slur which went unpunished, and were made to eat separately from the non-Romani children. The use of the money available under this scheme is currently being investigated by the National Public Education, Evaluation and Examination Centre at the request of the Ministry of Education.

A large part of the spending on Romani issues is made up by government contributions to EU Phare Programme projects. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs jointly elaborated a project entitled: "The social integration of disadvantaged young people, with particular attention to the Romani minority". With a budget of 9.6 million euros (approximately 2.5 billion forints), of which just less than half is contributed by the two ministries, the project has primarily educational aims: consortia can apply for funds to reduce school drop-out levels of Romani children, provide support to pursue secondary education, or support young people's social integration. Although the ministries earmarked funds for these purposes last year as well, so far the contracts have not yet been signed, so the successful bidders - whose identity was still being kept secret as of July 2001 - will only receive the first instalments of their funding in the final quarter of this year. Yet, again, the allocated sums are reported as money which was spent in the year 2000. 

Slum clearance

For years, the development and/or removal of Roma shanties, with their third-world living conditions, has been a priority — at least on paper — for Hungarian government programmes on Roma. As early as 1965, there was a government decision to clear these slums, but the so-called  “reduced comfort flats”, which were built in their place, were of such poor quality that after a couple of years they had deteriorated back to the level of the shanties. At that time, 222,000 people lived in such settlements, and according to research by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, 96,000 still live in inhuman conditions today in the country’s 538 Romani settlements. A third of these settlements are more than half a kilometre from the nearest paved road, and even a public telephone booth is an unobtainable luxury. Moreover, in almost one half of the rows of shacks there is no drinking water, and rubbish tips operate directly beside around 9 percent of them. Consequently, the conditions in these settlements create a heightened risk of epidemics.

The Ministry of Agriculture, identified as a responsible instance in the 1997 Medium-Term Roma Action Programme, has only recently, after a delay of four years, succeeded in preparing a draft decree on the clearance of the shanties. According to the Ministry’s plans, local councils should oversee clearance of the settlements, although they will receive organisational, professional and financial support from county councils and the central government. The programme would primarily be based on the existing system of state support for housing, with local councils assuming the burden of the “self-funded share” — the proportion of the costs that the family would normally have to contribute. The local councils will receive funding for this expenditure from the county area development councils.

The local councils could already have acted to do away with the shanty settlements, although, of course, in the case of many Romani families, they would not have had help with the “self-funded share”.  As Endre Miklóssy, the Ministry’s chief advisor points out, the social housing programme offers the possibility for the submission of proposals to rehabilitate settlements. According to the data of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which oversees the housing support system, not a single local council has made use of this opportunity.

The Ministry of Agriculture proposal — which in fact was drafted without the input of the local councils, the area development councils, or even Romani representatives — has an estimated cost of 50 billion forints (approximately 194 million euros), which does not appear in either this or next year’s budget. The Ministry’s plan specifies that families would not become the owners of the newly built houses, but that they would receive the houses as social rented accommodation, with the possibility that later on they might be able to buy them on favourable terms. The plan states that: “The settlements can only be regarded as being cleared if all the families living there have had their accommodation needs met, and if the unsuitable dwellings have been demolished.”  At the same time, many experts consider that the programme is doomed to have the same results as the efforts of the 1960s, since it will not be coupled with job creation and improvements in education, and it will not bring an end to the housing segregation of Roma in Hungary.

Béla Berkes – Roma Press Center

Another Phare project that finances various programmes for Roma, including computer and other training courses and legal protection, comes under the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities and has a more modest budget. It is currently at the tendering stage for its sub-programmes. Many of these EU programmes are the object of criticism in professional circles. It is argued that the programmes have no underlying strategy and that there is no effective system for evaluating them. It will be difficult to assess, for instance, how courses on the guarding of agricultural land, or the installation of showers in schools, will further the education of young Roma.

Another programme of targeted support is the Roma flat-building program promised by the Prime Minister, which, according to plans, will start this year with funding of 300 million forints (roughly 1.2 million forints). The implementation is to be entrusted to the public utility company of the National Gypsy Self-Government (NGS), despite the fact that this organisation only partially finished an earlier similar project.

Much expenditure goes toward research. For example, the Ministry of Health allocated 43 million forints (approximately 167,000 euros) last year for health programs for Roma, but spent more than half the money on research. The Ministry also calculated its Roma-related spending according to the estimated percentage of Romani participants in its universal screening programmes, which cost hundreds of millions of forints.

At the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the framing of the resolution on the clearance of shanty settlements - which would affect around 100,000 people - has dragged on for years. The plan has recently been completed, and if it is accepted, over the next five years close to 50 billion forints (approximately 194.3 million euros) will be allocated to improve or clear shanty settlements. To date, these have been excluded from the system of infrastructure development. It is possible to undertake smaller-scale investments even now, however: last year the Ministry released 200 million forints (approximately 777,000 euros) to the NGS to be used to supplement the contributions of those applying to the governmental Area Development Fund for support.15 According to the evaluation, the NGS programme worked well, although it "needs to be better monitored." The report states that a representative of the Ministry should attend every relevant meeting of the NGS.

Although a large proportion of the billions spent on the medium-term programme is spent on research, it appears that many of the results are not taken into account during the preparation of the government programmes affecting Roma. The researchers frequently stress that the social, educational, health and employment disadvantages that Roma face are the result of decades of both open and covert discrimination. Such advice is regularly ignored, however, and government programmes still contain very few concrete anti-discrimination measures. The Ministry of the Interior, which had the lowest spending of all on the medium-term package in 2000, at least attempted to tackle these problems, primarily by working to improve relations between the Romani community and the police. It organised joint programmes with the NGS and introduced Romani studies into police training at the secondary and college levels. It might be worth extending this initiative to provide Romani studies for decision-makers as well. The need for such education is well demonstrated by the following quote, taken from the 2001 report of the Ministry of Social and Family Affairs:

"It is no harder to make the Roma work than it is to make the non-Roma work. They must be organised into their own separate work gangs, and the work gang leaders should also be chosen from within this 'small community'. They are perfectly suitable for unskilled work and they complete the work allocated to them well and on time." 

planned budget
Education Ministry 697.5  
(410 will be spent in 2001)  160.8  
Ministry of National Cultural Heritage  129.2 105
Ministry of Social and Family Affairs  2300  
(largely transferred to Economic Ministry)  1720  
Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development 330 400
Health Ministry  171.6 159
Economic Ministry  260 2150
Ministry of the Interior  15 25
Ministry of Justice  100 200
Ministry of Youth and Sport  80 (only in part spent on Roma) 160
Office for National and Ethnic Minorities (mainly Phare contributions) 170 (100 will be spent in 2001) 176
Public Foundations and the support for investments in the Gandhi High School  698.5 (134 will be spent in 2001) 901
Mainly support from the almost 750 local minority self-governments and the National Roma Self-Government  635.5 706.5
Supplementary support for the education of minorities (calculated on the basis of the number of Roma children in nurseries, primary and secondary schools)  1700 2395.4
Total  7287.3 9258.7

Source: Office for National and Ethnic Minorities, April 12, 2001. Sums in millions of forints.


  1. Ernő Kadét is a journalist working for the Budapest-based non-governmental organisation Roma Press Center.
  2. The government official uses the term "cigány", which translates roughly as "Gypsy". Many Roma consider the term pejorative.
  3. The programme is now officially titled, after a 1999 revision: "Government Resolution No. 1047/1999 (V.5.) about medium-term measures to improve the living standards and social position of the Roma population". The resolution is available in full at:
  4. The current government is that of the Alliance of Young Democrats, headed by Viktor Orbán, in office since 1998.
  5. Under the 1993 Minorities Act, Hungaryás thirteen officially recognised minorities may establish "minority self-governments" to act as advisory bodies to local and national government.
  6. "Report of the Ministry to Interdepartmental Committee on Romani Affairs", April 12, 2001.
  7. Report of the Ministry of Economic Affairs to the Interdepartmental Committee on Romani Affairs, April 12, 2001.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The social land programme is a programme designed to assist poor families while at the same time improving the state of the nation's agriculture; it involved the distribution of land, seeds and agricultural equipment to poor families and has been running since 1992.
  10. The National Gypsy Self-Government is an advisory body to the Hungarian government established under the 1993 Minorities Act.
  11. Some schools in Hungary operate dormitories for commuting students, and in some cases dormitories are provided for local pupils. These follow models proposed by Hungarian pedagogues whereby Romani children should be assisted in learning by being removed during the week from often overcrowded housing, where families may lack the facilities to support children in fulfilling the demands of schooling.
  12. For more information on the Tiszavasvár school case, see
  13. The Phare Programme of the European Union is the "main channel for the European Union's financial and technical cooperation with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe." Information on the Phare Programme is available on the Internet at:
  14. Education Research Institute (OKI), Gypsy Segregation Research 2000; an extract was published in Beszélő, November 2000.
  15. Individuals and local authorities may apply to the Area Development Fund. However, they must provide a certain percentage of the money themselves; the grants provided to the NGS are intended to cover the individual contributions for Romani applicants.


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