Since the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Roma activists and groups such as the International Romani Union and Roma National Congress have worked to transform the scattered Roma into a cohesive political force. Nevertheless, the Roma remain fragmented and continue to face social exclusion, extreme poverty and discrimination. In 2005, the human rights organization Open Society Institute (OSI) teamed up with the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and other groups to launch the Decade of Roma Inclusion, encouraging national governments and international organizations to come together to create a comprehensive approach to Roma integration. Since 2007, the European Commission (EC), the executive body of the 27-state European Union, has set aside $37 billion for Roma programs. To receive the money, however, countries are required to submit a detailed program to the commission aimed at helping Roma in four areas: education, job creation, health care and housing.
Much of the EC money is unspent, with a few notable exceptions including Bulgaria, which has a successful work training program for the Roma, and the United Kingdom, which runs support services for the Roma. “What has really been preventing major progress is lack of political will,” says Matthew Newman, an EC spokesman. “Many people like to talk about how nothing is being done, but then when it comes to coming up with actual programs, they are less enthusiastic.” Bernard Rorke, of Open Society Roma Initiatives, says the situation is more complicated. “At a local level, I do see political will,” says Rorke. He believes that politicians are daunted by the application process.
International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits, often in conjunction with OSI, have also stepped in to aid the Roma. The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, a law-oriented version of Doctors Without Borders, launched its Roma Rights Program in 2010 to bring hands-on, pro-bono law services to neglected Roma communities. Through grassroots outreach and in tandem with local Roma leaders and NGOs, the group helps Roma secure identification cards and other important documents and dispenses legal advice. The American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative also creates opportunities for Roma leaders from across the Balkans to come together and build transnational networks. “Read with Us,” a Hungarian education campaign funded by OSI, is aimed at the Roma as well as other underprivileged communities. Similarly, Equal Chances Against Cancer, a joint project of OSI, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and others, provides breast cancer screening and other low-cost health care to disadvantaged Roma and non-Roma alike.
Although the Roma are known to have little interest in national politics, Rorke is heartened by the reaction to a recent voter registration project: “We did a Roma voter drive in Serbia, and more than 47,000 Roma registered to vote to make their voices heard,” says Rorke. “This is quite a significant number.” There are 108,000 Roma in Serbia according to the 2002 Serbian census, but unofficial numbers by NGOs and international organizations place the total Roma population between 450,000 and 500,000. “These people may not have been educated, but they were very articulate about their families’ and children’s needs. The politicians were taken by surprise.”
This and other initiatives, however, are only a start in the right direction, says Ian Hancock, professor of Romani Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center. The EC projects that by the year 2040, 40 percent of the entrants to Hungary’s labor market will be Roma, but will have difficulty finding work because of their lack of education and skills. The situation of Roma women, especially, has been slow to improve. Gender inequality, attributed to deeply rooted paternalistic attitudes and practices in Roma society, is of growing concern. Women often face double discrimination, first from within the community and second from outside of it.
These and other obstacles to improving the economic status and integration of the Roma are overwhelming, says Hancock, who himself is Roma. “I don’t think we’ve accomplished a great deal,” he says. “It’s a disappointment. We have to think of the glass being half full and hope we can make some advances in the next five years.” Despite the challenges, Rorke is hopeful. “Mainstream political parties are waking up to the fact that these issues must be addressed,” he says. “Nobody can afford complacency about the Roma anymore.”