The recent debate on the EU Roma strategy makes this question very actual. Someone not very familiar with the situation of Roma in Europe might ask why NGOs should represent Roma and not other institutions. This is a valid question as the representation function of the NGOs is not a primary function. They are not subject to regular public scrutiny, the leaders of NGOs are not elected by those that they claim to speak on behalf of and few NGOs might claim that they have the resources and expertise to participate in policy making. The critics of Roma NGOs might even say that most of these organizations were set up for personal reasons as an opportunity to get prestige, that they are rather family oriented and lack any constituency. There are numerous examples when Roma leaders have used their positions as heads of NGOs to seek personal gains.
The dispute on the legitimacy of the Roma NGOs to speak on behalf of Roma is mostly based on the democratic theory of representation. The argument is that the leaders have no mandate to represent the Roma people, that there was no delegation of sovereignty from the people to these leaders through an adequate electoral process. Thus, NGOs do not have a constituency and their voice does not represent the voice of the people. While these points make sense from the theory of democracy, there are still some aspects to consider before denying any role that Roma NGOs should play in policy making.
There is a large consensus that those concern with an issue should have a say once decisions are made on that specific issue. International organizations and national governments agree with this principle. This principle was among the ten principle announced by the European Commission as regards Roma inclusion. The participating governments in the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 have underlined the importance of Roma participation in the policy making affecting them “Roma participation can make or brake the Decade”. The principle is stated in numerous international documents as regards national minorities rights.
In spite of these provisions and agreement, in practice the principle is disregarded or is applied partially in its letter and spirit. The process of adoption of a EU framework strategy for Roma embrace in a very limited manner this principle. The EU institutions and policy makers ignored the lessons learned from previous attempts to improve Roma situation. The limited success of the national strategies/programs for Roma and of the Decade of Roma Inclusion could be partly explained through the degree of Roma participation.
There is no recipe for improving the situation of Roma that is valid anytime, anywhere. The context is crucial in determining what measures should be taken to address issues faced by Roma. While Roma communities are facing similar problems all over Europe, it does not mean that the priorities are the same everywhere. For example, there is a large consensus that education is a precondition for improving the situation of Roma. However, this does not mean that education should be the top priority everywhere. In a given community maybe that TBC is an acute problem and that should be the top priority of the authorities. Moreover, the priorities are so much connected and interdependent that addressing just one issue will not lead to significant improvement of the situation of Roma. The comprehensive approach and the cooperation among government branches and agencies responsible for different sectoral areas were real challenges as regards policy making towards Roma.
There is no recipe for ensuring Roma participation. Often official are asking for a partner to negotiate and work together in improving the situation of Roma. Well, there is no such partner entrusted by Roma themselves. Working with Roma is not an easy task. In fact, one might be challenged and ask to re-think some rules, requires consultations with numerous groups from which one might get contradictory views. There might be conflicts among Roma leaders and different interests asserted by Roma groups. As a result policy makers would feel uncomfortable in making decisions on issues that they feel are not going to satisfy all Roma. However, they have to act as issues are burning out or there is a constant pressure on them from international organizations or other governments.
As some authors indicate, there was a constant practice among governments, international organizations and also donors to invite to their table only those Roma representatives that did not challenge them. The examples provided by Jud Nirenberg ( Jud Niremberg, Romani Political Mobilization from the First International Romani Union Congress to the European Roma, Sinti and Travellers Forum, in Nando Sigona and Nidhi Trehan, Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe: Poverty, Ethnic Mobilisation, and the Neoliberal Order, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) are eloquent for the results achieved so far regarding national strategies/programs for Roma as well as Decade of Roma Inclusion or other international initiatives. The policy makers preferred to work with specific groups of Roma for other reasons such is: English proficiency of Roma activists, their knowledge of administrative and bureaucratic procedures, ability to use modern communication infrastructure and did not take into account that too often these Roma activists had no constituency. The involvement of Roma activists was most often individual in character than institutional. Those Roma activists that did not meet the criteria for participating in the discussion, although having support in their communities, were gradually removed from the negotiation table. One has also to mention that some Roma leaders are corrupt or corruptible and the governments preferred to work with them because they could control their “working” partner. At the end of the day, those that lost were Roma and the society at large.
While there are high expectations from Roma to organize themselves and to participate in the democratic process and policy making, authorities ignore the historical past and lack of such traditions among Roma communities. With few exceptions, mostly during the inter-war period, Roma had no models of organizing and expressing their interest in society in a similar manner like other groups. As a vulnerable group that faced severe exclusion through out their history, the Roma develop specific survival strategies and institutions adapted to the context in which they lived. Thus, expecting of Roma to be able to develop representative institutions similar to that of other groups in society is not only unrealistic but also indicated lack of knowledge and understanding of Roma situation.
In the last 40 years, especially after the fall of communism in Central and eastern Europe, Roma set up political parties, non-governmental organizations or joined mainstream organizations, political parties or churches. Mainstream political parties failed to incorporate Roma interests among their programs. Mainstream organizations work on Roma had an impact on Roma communities. However, there are often objections among Roma to the work of these organizations questioning their commitment to improve the situation as they were seen as the “Gypsy industry”. The mainstream churches, with the exception of the neo-protestant ones, paid little attention to Roma and their vulnerability. As these religious groups were themselves in minority and often marginal, their capacity to put on the public agenda issues faced by Roma was very limited. Roma political parties were unsuccessful in attracting the Roma voters and playing a role in the political arena in whatever country in Europe. Thus, the only partner left for policy makers are Roma NGOs. Irrespective of the objections brought to these representation, NGOs are the institutions developed by Roma that might claim they represent the voice of the Roma, that they “represent” the Roma. This is the main reason why policy makers should take into account these voices and should invite them to the negotiation when designing and deciding policies towards Roma. There is a need for a long term program to transform these organizations in representative and knowledgeable partners for the governments and international organizations. This might be challenging as it seems no government, donor or international organization is directly interested in such a long term project. At least, none has this as a priority in their plans of actions for Roma.