THE BLOG
09/14/2015 09:59 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2016

The Rubik's Cube of Roma Rights

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Many European organizations, the Open Society Foundation among them, have put a great deal of money and energy into addressing the issue of Roma. Some progress has been made. Roma parliamentarians, business people, journalists, lawyers, and academics have for instance pushed for equal rights for the Roma minority in their respective countries. They are the visible sign that policies of inclusion have worked.

And yet, for the vast majority of Roma, inclusion remains a distant goal. More than 70 percent of Roma live in poverty, and at best only 29 percent graduate from secondary school.

Larry Olomoofe is the racism and xenophobia advisor for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization of Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Warsaw. After working on Roma issues for many years, he likens the challenge to a Rubik's Cube. There are a lot of working parts, and it requires considerable coordination. You can make progress up to a certain point, and then it just seems impossible to get any further.

"I'm one of the biggest critics of 'Romanomics.' It's an industry," Olomoofe told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013. "We pump so much money into the situation, and all it does is privilege a few, the ones who know our rules and play our game."

"If you do a rough estimate of how much money has been pumped into the Roma issue over the last years, let's just say it's a billion euro," he continued. "That's a conservative estimate at the time I wrote the piece, in 2007-8. And there are 15 million Roma in Europe. They could have given 25-30,000 euros to each Roma! Even if they squandered it, at least it would have been them. Whereas the representatives of the Roma have access to these funds, and it has had no impact on their community."

We talked about an incident that happened around the time of our discussion in the Hungarian city of Ozd where the mayor shut the water supply to the Roma community. It took place during August when the temperatures had exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

"How is that not part of the Roma discourse that people can still treat "Gypsies" this way?" Olomoofe said. "At the same time, they can lecture me or Roma in the city center to keep quiet? I saw this guy once screaming loudly at a Roma woman for speaking on the metro. Roma rights? The prevalence of Roma discrimination continues. People feel that they can act with impunity, whether it's ordinary citizens, government officials or neo-Nazi groups that march through their neighborhoods. This process of Roma rights is just a self-propagating mechanism to empower people who are the messengers not the people down below. That's why it's like a Rubik's cube."

The Roma Decade of Inclusion is set to run until the end of this year. It's unclear what will happen next, although the various stakeholders have "supported the option of continuing the Decade but in a revised and streamlined form." That will likely mean less money and less country-level buy-in.

Olomoofe recommends a different approach with the funds allocated to Roma inclusion. "The funds should have been used very differently to create infrastructure in the Roma community," he concluded. "I'm not talking about housing. That's still the state's responsibility in terms of quality of life. But if you want to create a representative system, you have to find a way to get the people involved. I've always suggested that there should be more community-based activities. And that's not to say that it should be politicized. Instead we should create what we call citizen advisory roles in the community itself. There should be a building in the community that does Roma rights at the local level. How you harness that energy is another matter. There are 15 million Roma across Europe: how do you best gain access to those Roma? Instead of creating a structure that pretends to have that access, there should be an organic development, rather than something imposed."

The Interview

John Feffer: There was a period of time, which to a certain extent still continues, when a lot of resources went to address the economic and political disparities between Roma and non-Roma as well as persistent discrimination. Have you noticed any significant improvement over that period?

Larry Olomoofe: I'm one of the biggest critics of "Romanomics." It's an industry. That's one reason why I left my old organization. It used to be dynamic. It used to pioneer, push boundaries, and establish jurisprudence on Roma rights in the European court system. It was akin to the Legal Defense Fund in the United States. The strategies are the same. After doing a training on Roma in 2008, I came back and wrote a piece I called "The Rubik's Cube." It talked about the problematic of Roma rights. Have you ever completed a Rubik's cube?

JF: No.

LM: Neither have I. I could get three sides, but then I was blocked over the last few squares, so I never got it done. I used this as an analogy for the Roma rights situation. We pump so much money into the situation, and all it does is privilege a few, the ones who know our rules and play our game. During this training for the community, I kept on meeting the same people I'd met over the last five years.

If you do a rough estimate of how much money has been pumped into the Roma issue over the last years, let's just say it's a billion euro. That's a conservative estimate at the time I wrote the piece, in 2007-8. And there are 15 million Roma in Europe. They could have given 25-30,000 euros to each Roma! Even if they squandered it, at least it would have been them. Whereas the representatives of the Roma have access to these funds, and it has had no impact on their community.

You were in Budapest last weekend, right? You heard what happened in Ozd. The local authorities disconnected the water supply to the Roma ghetto at the hottest time of the year. How is that not part of the Roma discourse that people can still treat "Gypsies" this way? At the same time, they can lecture me or Roma in the city center to keep quiet? I saw this guy once screaming loudly at a Roma woman for speaking on the metro. Roma rights? The prevalence of Roma discrimination continues. People feel that they can act with impunity, whether it's ordinary citizens, government officials or neo-Nazi groups that march through their neighborhoods. This process of Roma rights is just a self-propagating mechanism to empower people who are the messengers not the people down below. That's why it's like a Rubik's cube."

The Roma Access Program is a necessary program, but not an end in itself. Some people see it as an end in itself because Roma go to the Central European University, get their robes, put their stuff on Facebook, and they're done. We wanted to create a sense of self-belief in Roma, even a sense of arrogance. Then they could go out and promote themselves and Roma issues. But the problem is that it was internalized as an end in itself. You don't get people promoting. You get exceptions, not the rule. After 12 years of investment, the 18 year olds are now 30. And all they think about is their own development and progression. That's the saddest thing.

JF: Where did you want to publish it?

LM: My former organization put out a magazine. And it was the first time that one of my articles had been rejected. It wasn't a matter of ego or pride. I have other platforms where I can publish. But it's what was said: "I don't think we're the best place to publish this." After 15 years of doing this kind of work, if they're not best place to publish it, who is?

And that's why this thing in Odz affects me so much. After all of this, on the doorstep of many Roma organizations in Budapest, something like this can happen, and all these organizations do is send out a communiqué? Other people did a Facebook campaign to compel the authorities to switch the water back on.

JF: As you said, you were critical of your former organization even before it became a shadow of itself. What could have been and what should be done in terms of avoiding this Talented Tenth approach to Roma rights issues? Would the legal strategy be simply part of a larger strategy?

LM: I worked with the human rights education department. I didn't actually litigate. But it made me look at strategic litigation as part of a strategic approach. At the time, in 2008, we had the case DH and others v. the Czech Republic, a case on structured discrimination. They were sequestering Roma kids in special schools. We won at the European Court of Human Rights. At the time, we had a new executive director, and she said, "What are we going to do with this?" She thought we had to focus our efforts in the Czech Republic and the Czech Republic alone. And that overlooked the strategic aspect of using the European Court. The European Court case became a precedent that you could apply across the member states. And that was the point. To go to the places where you could find a similar pattern of sequestration or segregation and say to them, "This took place in the Czech Republic. If we take you to court, we'll win because of this precedent. So let's work together and try to change it." That has been the strategic approach.

My job as a human rights trainer was to go into these countries and capacitate judges and government officials so that they could become more congruent with international standards. The directorship at the time thought it better to concentrate energies. We had a falling out at the staff meeting. She asked, "Why would anyone else take this case seriously?" Because they do the same things in their countries! Orsus and others v. Croatia came out later, based on the same result. There was a knock-on effect. If we had to position ourselves properly during the intervening time, things might have changed. Minority Rights international and Amnesty International used this as a catalyzer.

But they didn't have the grassroots connections that my former organization had, through the internship program, through OSI. And they just let those connections fritter away, or evolve into something else. Now it's become a token. They've lost the momentum. When the strategy was strategic litigation, it included advocacy, research, publishing. We had country reports. And capacity-building. It was a multi-pronged approach that used litigation as a catapult into European society. I saw that the organization was losing its import.

To come to the Talented Tenth part, I used to teach the talented tenth - in internship programs, summer workshops, trainings. They get the positions because they are qualified. The young people will say that they're the leaders of the Roma movement because they're educated. And I remind them that many people who were leaders of movements were not educated in a formal way. A person that I look up to on a regular basis is Malcolm X, and he had a checkered history. But he was not formally educated. Education is useful but it's not always necessary.

JF: Sometimes it can be an impediment!

This is how Roma rights looks like to me today. [A Roma panhandler comes up to us] I don't give. This is ironic. After all these years of doing this work, we still have this. This is what people still see as Roma. They'll get kicked out aggressively. But I won't make that contribution any more.

I was recently talking to a former Roma intern. People who were trained several years ago are now in government positions in her country. She went to one of them and asked for a job. And he said he'd give her a job if she slept with him. This is what Roma rights has come down to. We're contributing to that.

I've always had a problem with creating the Talented Tenth. When DuBois was talking about the Talented Tenth, he was talking about an organic development, which wasn't necessarily about education per se. It could be different talents -- schoolteachers, administrators, provocateurs -- in the Black community at the time. He was in the South trying to implement this educational system. What facilities were there? So, people have misapplied this particular theory. Roma rights is a testing ground for all these social engineering projects that didn't work in the past, so let's try these new techniques here. The Talented Tenth to do what? They're supposed to have a purpose.

JF: Let's take the two extremes -- the billion dollars given to Roma NGOs and just giving every Roma $25,000 to do with what they want. If you had a billion dollars as an administrator, is there a different option?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.