02/25/2014 09:29 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Romania's Fraying Social Safety Net

Romania is near the bottom of all social indicators in Europe. If you live in Denmark, you have approximately a one in seven chance of growing up in poverty -- or what Brussels calls AROPE (at risk of poverty or social exclusion). But if you live in Romania, at the other end of the EU spectrum, the odds are a much more sobering 50-50. When it comes to the elderly, only Bulgaria has a worse AROPE rate than Romania.

Even for able-bodied adults, the situation is not so good. The unemployment rate in Romania is rather low -- 7.3 percent -- considerably lower than the current EU average. But Romanians are not getting paid very much for their work. The country ranks last in the EU in terms of individual wealth.

One of the reasons why such a large portion of the Romanian population remains mired in poverty is the relative indifference of the government to the needs of the poor.

"In 23 years, Romania only mentions economic reform. There's no public speech about social reform," observed Mihai Florin Rosca, a long-time NGO worker in the Transylvanian city of Cluj. "Romania will do economic reform without regard to human resources, social investment, social change. Everything else does not count. It's just economics. There's no mention of morality, ethics, social planning, nothing."

As Romania prepared to join the European Union, it did what was necessary to bring its social policy in line with EU standards. But after accession, the government went back to ignoring at-risk populations. In an ideal world, EU funds would have at least partially compensated for the government's indifference. But the government failed to take full advantage of those funds - the absorption rate has been the lowest in the EU -- and the rules governing NGO access to EU money make it almost impossible for all but the largest organizations to participate in the programs.

"NGOs have suffered more after 2007 when Romania entered the EU," Rosca noted. "International organizations withdrew from Romania. USAID withdrew three months after accession even though they still had projects going on. I think it was a surprise for them that Romania entered the EU in 2007. ChildNet, which was USAID funded, actually cancelled projects during the implementation phase. The same was true for European-funded projects. These international organizations with representation here closed because of Romania's new status. It became a full member of the EU, which changed the perception of Romania even if it didn't change the actual situation here."

It's one thing for NGOs to disappear. But the impact on all the beneficiaries has been nothing short of heartbreaking. Rosca told me that "many good projects have been interrupted, and no one has taken responsibility for the beneficiaries, such as people with disabilities or children in special needs kindergartens where they've been helped to communicate, to socialize, to prepare for school. Too many projects have disappeared."

He cited the example of a kindergarten called Bethania that worked with children with disabilities. "They were funded in the early 1990s by a Dutch organization that left in 2007," he recounted. "In 2008 or 2009, they closed completely. This project had transported 60 children by minibus from their homes to this kindergarten where they had a rehabilitation program and a curriculum imported from Holland -- all in a place built with Dutch funds. The place must have cost over a million euro to build, with specific equipment for disability rehabilitation with teachers who had studied in Holland how to do that rehabilitation. Everything was swept away. That organization tried to keep 10 or 15 children in the project by opening the kindergarten to a population who could pay for the service. From this income generation, they could keep it going for 10 or 15 disabled children. It worked for a year. But then it collapsed again.

We met in his office in Cluj at the Romanian Foundation for Children, Community, and Family. Rosca has been working with NGOs from the earliest days of the changes in Romania in December 1989. In fact, he was a founder of one of the first Romanian NGOs, Asklepyos, which was organized to distribute all the goods that donor countries sent as soon as word went out that Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife had been driven from power.

We talked about those early days of hope and confusion in Cluj, the rise and fall of Romanian NGOs, and the sad state of adoption in the country.

The Interview

NGOs had a very high status in the region in the early 1990s. But when I returned, for instance to Bulgaria, I discovered that NGOs didn't have that status any longer. What's the situation here in Romania in terms of perceptions of NGOs?

I don't think there is a perception or an understanding of NGOs. I've suffered because of that. I am completely disillusioned about this form of organization in society. I've been trained by Americans and British, and I've been in contact with people who teach about NGOs in America and the UK. One cannot call NGOs a third sector in Romania. It's not a sector. It's not understood here how NGOs should function or what they should represent. This concept was imported in 1990. It was a model imposed by international bodies, but it's not specific to this part of the region. Not even NGOs know what an NGO actually is or how it should function. Too many NGOs in Romania are owned by the leader -- it's a one-man show with the leaders dictating policy.

I don't think anybody today thinks about NGOs here. They are no longer in the newspapers. Until 2007, Romania was conditioned for its accession to the EU. One of the conditions for accession was child welfare and children's rights. Those who delivered services for child welfare were mainly NGOs. Therefore the topic was extremely appealing for the newspapers and in the media at the time, and NGOs were more visible. But after 2007, the pressure to change the social system in Romania has diminished or disappeared completely, so you don't hear any longer about children's rights in Romania and the NGOs have again dropped in importance and are not mentioned any longer. NGOs are sometimes mentioned on environmental subjects, mainly the Rosia Montana and the mining corporation that wants to reopen gold mining, and sometimes related to elections -- but that's about it.

NGOs have been mentioned when it comes to criticizing how Romania accesses the EU's Social Fund. NGOs are blamed for being corrupt, for being incapable of delivering or implementing projects. They're mentioned but not in a good way or to explain what they do - simply to blame them without any reasons connected to how they conduct business. NGOs are not mentioned in the laws; there's no policy related to NGOs. There is one initiative today aimed at convincing the government to have a public policy on NGOs. It's run by dinosaurs of the NGOs, representing the Center for Assisting NGOs in Bucharest and another organization in Timisoara. They are trying to have a law on NGOs and to convince the parliament to deliver a policy related to NGOs.

I don't think enough is said about NGOs in Romania or in the region: about their value, their role, and their necessity, if they have one.

In 23 years, Romania only mentions economic reform. There's no public speech about social reform. Romania will do economic reform without regard to human resources, social investment, social change. Everything else does not count. It's just economics. There's no mention of morality, ethics, social planning, nothing. Therefore people leave. Why should they stay? It's obvious what is happening. But Romania has also gone from its childhood to being grown up, and I don't think it handled that process very well. It was without a big sister or big brother. The only country with a big brother was the GDR, and it managed well. The others were lucky or not lucky enough to have better or worse leadership. We were not lucky.

You said that you felt that there was no history or culture of NGOs here before 1990, and this model came from outside. Do you think that there might have been some other path? Or was it inevitable?

It was inevitable. The last years of the Ceausescu regime meant destroying trust. People did not trust one another here. You can't have NGOs or a civil society among people who basically didn't trust even their own family. We were told that every third person worked with the Securitate, and it was probably true. Nobody dared being too open with neighbors, friends, even family.

The law regarding associations and foundations was still not abolished during Communism. It was passed in 1921. So when we registered Asklepyos, that law still existed. We were allowed to register an association with 21 founding members, the minimum allowed by legislation. We registered on January 24, 1990. I think it was the first or the second NGO registered in Romania. There was one registered on the 23rd in Craiova. A lawyer from a company dealing with forests knew about that law and said that we could register using the old law. The association of foresters existed under the Ceausescu regime and had been registered before the war. It had not been completely destroyed. When we registered our NGO, it was done based on a statute designed in one night with the help of an Austrian who came to Cluj with an aid convoy. He had with him both the statutes from the evangelical church in Austria and Caritas. We compared the two of them, we looked at the Romanian law, and we established a very bizarre and not very democratic set of statute for Asklepyos.

When the convoys came, we asked them who they were and who they represented. We saw Caritas and the signs of many other international organizations. We understood that it was a revolution, a disaster, and it was necessary to react. But what do you do in your daily activity? That's when we understood that people in other countries sometimes care about their neighbors and help people with disabilities and people with social needs. We never heard of that before. In a Communist state, everything was taken care by the state. There was no private business or private initiative. One or two people were allowed to carbonate water and sell this mineral water. There were shoemakers and watch repairers, and that was it. Nothing else was private. And 1990 was a moment when people representing NGO came to Romania with huge donations. They were giving things away for free, and they were responding to needs. People wanted to recreate this system here by creating our own NGOs. But I'm sorry to say, we didn't have a culture of how these NGOs should function. The state did not help. It didn't regulate NGOs because it wasn't interested in NGOs. When the international NGOs left, everything collapsed.

Describe to me what happened with Asklepyos when the NGOs left. You no longer had aid coming in but you could partner with other NGOs. But you operated in a situation without much trust. It must have been very challenging.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.