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Funding Roma Autonomy

Between 1990 and 2010, according to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide was cut in half. This dramatic achievement, which was actually a major Millennium Development Goal, happened several years ahead of schedule. The reduction in extreme poverty varied from region to region, with great gains made in Asia and not much progress achieved in Africa. In East-Central Europe, the drop was roughly comparable to the global average.

There is, however, a statistical anomaly in the data for East-Central Europe. For the 10-12 million Roma living in the region, the overall economic situation has gotten worse over this period of time. Since 1990, Roma have experienced catastrophic increases in unemployment and discrimination. In Serbia, for instance, 60 percent of the Roma population lives in extreme poverty, in Albania 40 percent. In Romania and Hungary, the poverty rates for Roma are far higher than the majority population. There has been little if any improvement in the last decade.

This gap in poverty alleviation results between Roma and non-Roma communities has been the subject of intense discussion in governmental and civil society circles. For the last two decades, American foundations, European charities, and the European Union have all poured money into attempts to rectify this situation. One of the first and most important institutions in the region to translate these funds into successful projects on the ground was the Autonomia foundation, founded in 1990 by Andras Biro.

In 1993, I interviewed Anna Csongor, who was a program officer with Autonomia. She described the successes and failures of Autonomia's revolving loan program, based on the Grameen Bank example, as well as the innovative project monitoring system.

When I returned 20 years later to re-interview Anna Csongor, she had already been serving for many years as the executive director of the organization and was just then preparing to leave the job. Hungary was now part of the European Union, and its social welfare institutions were considerably more developed. But Autonomia, and the Roma community in Hungary, faced many of the same challenges as before, in part a legacy of the government's failure in the first years of transition to address the disproportionate cost of economic dislocation shouldered by Roma. "It was a tragedy when so many Roma people were kicked out of jobs," she pointed out in our conversation in her office in Budapest last May. "Everybody lost their jobs, but it was Roma first. By the time the system was able to do something about poverty and unemployment they were already five years unemployed."

Autonomia was dedicated to involving Roma in the process of creating their own economic enterprises. Csongor remembers a project to grow watermelons. "There were periods when it collapsed when the market was bad, but they learned how to cultivate something else such as tobacco," she told me. "They got practice, and they built up their self-confidence. And the majority population developed a different attitude. They saw that the Roma weren't just waiting for welfare but were actually producing something. There were lots of similar projects, mostly agricultural. Those continued until the welfare system developed into a structure in which income generation was no longer possible."

As Hungary developed its social safety net, Autonomia shifted its focus. With European funding, it began to provide capacity-building trainings and workshops. "We provided support to an organization that set up an after-school operation," she told me. "We provided support for the first mentoring after-school operation in this northeastern village. It was quite good. It was so well marketed that in the second round of these projects, it became world famous. They created a network. Of course, we were lucky because they had the skills. But they were lucky because they had our mentoring support. They could absorb a lot of money and deal with 450 children. That was a really positive investment."

In the end, Csongor has come full circle in her thinking on what can make a difference in Roma communities. "I started with education and thought that education was everything," she related. "I went along different paths and now, again, I think education is everything. In between I thought it was a complex issue and you have to take into account economy and local structures. But lately, I think if you don't do anything with education or you make a mistake with education, then anything you do in the field of economics won't make a difference. When we made the interventions in the wage-earning or income-generation life of people, we thought, 'Okay, now everything will change and the children will go to school and they will have a better chance in the local structure if they have more income.' That's okay. But still, if there is not solid education at school, nothing will change.

We talked about her experiences as a social worker during the Communist period, her research into Roma education, and her belief in the urgent need for all Hungarians to sit down and discuss their perceptions of Roma and themselves.

The Interview

Can you give any successful examples of Autonomia work from that period?

For example, we had a broomstick-making project. People there knew how to do this somehow from their previous lives. The name of the organization was the Dolphin Club. I don't know how a small village in northeast Hungary decided to name their organization Dolphin Club! They started to make broomsticks, and they were quite successful. But after a while they discovered that they couldn't sell the broomsticks. They were very good at broomstick making but you have to sell the product -- otherwise, why make broomsticks? Of course, there was a suggestion that Autonomia should buy the broomsticks and sell them here or there, but the project seemed to be dead. From this experience, we found out that we must stress the marketing side as well, the importance of business plans. So, that was a learning process.

Ten years later, I had a call from the same village. Someone told me that I should tell them to stop making broomsticks. But I no longer had any contact with the Dolphin Club, which didn't exist any longer. We'd forgotten about them. They didn't come back to us, so we though they weren't interested any more. But I learned that they were still making and marketing broomsticks. And the people there were making trainings too. Somehow, the locals who wanted to enter the broomstick-making market thought that the success of the enterprise came from Autonomia. So, we still have this power.

There was also a project on watermelons that was very successful. There were periods when it collapsed when the market was bad, but they learned how to cultivate something else such as tobacco. They got practice, and they built up their self-confidence. And the majority population developed a different attitude. They saw that the Roma weren't just waiting for welfare but were actually producing something. There were lots of similar projects, mostly agricultural. Those continued until the welfare system developed into a structure in which income generation was no longer possible.

You couldn't qualify for welfare if you were involved in income-generation programs?

That's it. When we started these projects, there was no welfare system, or the rules were very vague. But after a while, as the welfare and unemployment benefit system was built up, it became illegal to have another income. If you were eligible for welfare, you had to prove that you weren't going to get income from anywhere else. It made people rely solely on welfare. This change in society introduced the necessity of social safety. And Autonomia couldn't provide social safety or social security. That was another part of Andras's ideology -- that we were not going to support the state. We were only going to support the people in their initiatives.

I always challenged Andras by saying, "What will happen if they have an accident? What if someone is hurt in the forest when using a chainsaw?"

And he said, "We're not going to mother them. It's their risk."

That, ultimately, was a change in Autonomia's attitude. Income is nice, and so is self-employment. But then we started to think of employment and safe situations. Andras was gone by then. He probably doesn't like this change at all. He's a person of adventure. He likes initiatives and ideas and new things. He'd think it was boring that now we have to plan with social security and taxes. He's an anarchist. He doesn't like the state. But we had to put this into our calculations because our local people were defenseless.

Autonomia still gives out loans to local initiatives?

No. And yes. This loan giving was quite successful until the late 1990s when two things happened. The big American foundations started to pull out because they believed that we now have democracy and we don't need them any more. Also, the legal-fiscal environment changed in a direction that made giving loans totally impossible for Autonomia. We asked for a ministry opinion if we can provide loans or not. We were told yes, we can provide loans but only in cases in which they wouldn't be paid back. That was contrary to our ideology -- we give loans precisely so that they are given back. We didn't want to make a profit on this, but we didn't lose money either through these revolving funds (if you pay back, you can get another loan). We provided loans though another institution for a while but then stopped that as well.

Then the European money came in. There were two fears: that there wouldn't be enough money and that there would be too much money. And the last situation is still the case. The money can't be absorbed. Especially the sort of money targeting the Roma and marginalized and poor people. There is an absorption problem. For the last five years, Autonomia has been providing different sorts of support to local Roma groups that apply for European funds.

It is very complicated to apply for European funds. Everyone needs help, not just Roma.

Yes, it's a general problem. If you look at the map at where the money goes, you see that it doesn't go where it should go -- because they don't have the human resources and capitals and ideas there. That's what we're doing - making it possible for locals to access European money. Which is also dangerous. If a big chunk of money falls on your head, even if you are prepared, it's going to change you totally. So, that's what we're fighting with now.

Are there any broomstick examples from this current period?

When we started to apply for funds together, Autonomia was a leader of a consortium. We applied for European moneys to set up workshops and trainings and employment for Roma. On the one hand, it was a very good example and you can find it written up that Autonomia did a great job -- we set up a carpentry workshop, a smithy workshop, a workshop for roof makers. And the whole thing was really wonderful. But. But it is very vulnerable. You bring money and tools, you educate the brains, you make the connections, and you think that you've taken care of everything. We had a brigade that made roofs and was employed by a local entrepreneur, and they were quite popular. We even made a film about it. Everyone was very happy. Until in the other part of the country, in a pub, a Roma person killed someone who was famous, maybe he was a sportsman, I don't remember. It was the butterfly's wings. Suddenly those who asked for the services of these roof makers said, "Don't bring Roma anymore to our houses because they are going to kill us." It's this kind of vulnerability. You try to prepare for everything, but you can't prepare for such a thing.
I'd like to give you a positive example. There's a wood factory that creates windows and doors for housing. It's a good example, because it's not providing a yearlong job for everyone. But still they find their ways. They make wooden benches for a local church, and the priest is satisfied with the work. I believe that they will somehow find their niche in the market.

We also provided support to an organization that set up an after-school operation. We provided support for the first mentoring after-school operation in this northeastern village. It was quite good. It was so well marketed that in the second round of these projects, it became world famous. They created a network. Of course, we were lucky because they had the skills. But they were lucky because they had our mentoring support. They could absorb a lot of money and deal with 450 children. That was a really positive investment.

It's not just Autonomia. These are cooperative actions. In the first part of the 1990s, it was just us and the locals. Now, a lot of others contribute.

Looking at the Roma situation, despite all the money that has come in, there's an absorption problem. We've also seen a rise in anti-Roma sentiment. And there's less contact between Roma and non-Roma communities. What should have been done or what can be done from this point on to change the situation beyond what you're doing? If you had more money or more access to policymakers -- if you had all the power you needed, what would you do?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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