A friend just sent me a statement about a recent visit to Bulgaria by a UN official to see what Sofia is doing to improve the miserable lot of the country’s Roma. Even people who care a great deal about this could be forgiven for being tempted not to read it. After all, how many times can you hear yet another condemnation of an Eastern European government by a human rights watchdog for letting some of its people languish in filth and illiteracy – and still maintain the illusion that maybe that government cares?

But this release is more pointed. You can hear Gay McDougall, a minority issues expert for the UN, straining at the confines of diplomatic language while trying to express disgust and frustration after a week in Bulgaria.

Sofia might say the right things, but it does little, McDougall essentially says. “Many policies seem to remain largely only rhetorical undertakings aimed at external audiences – official commitments that are not fulfilled in practice. … [D]iscussions with the responsible agencies, such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, revealed a shallow commitment with little evidence-based programming, benchmarking, monitoring or evaluation, the Independent Expert said.”

The government too often lets someone else do the heavy lifting:

The initiatives that have been undertaken to transport children daily to attend mixed schools outside Roma ghettos and to provide school meals and support services to the students, have been implemented largely by a small number of poorly resourced Roma non-governmental organizations, the lion’s share of whose funding comes from international sources matched by a small percentage of government contributions. These NGOs bear much of the burden of implementing de-segregation policies that the Government endorses but fails to fully lead or fund in practice.

Even the local officials whom McDougall praises for trying to improve the lot of Roma and other minorities within their communities are often hamstrung by a lack of funds or support from Sofia.

It should be irrelevant, I know, but Gay McDougall is a black woman from the United States. According to her Wikipedia biography, she was born in 1947 in Atlanta and “was chosen to be the first black student to integrate Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.”

There is something striking about the way she described the darkest days of the Jim Crow South in a 2008 interview that appears on the website of the University of Virginia’s law school:

We believed then that our situation was uniquely tragic,” McDougall said. “We often looked to the international community with the hope that somehow the world beyond this country operated on different rules. … We were both right and wrong.

It hasn’t been that long that people in McDougall’s (and my) native country felt free to make the types of remarks about black Americans that many people now make about Roma: that they’re criminals, not clean, not interested in education, better suited to labor or trades, etc.

About her trip to Bulgaria, the statement reads, “The Independent Expert was deeply concerned by comments, for example, from some high-level officials that strongly indicated their view of Roma communities as predominately a criminal element in Bulgarian society.”

I’ve been taken into the confidence of plenty of white people from Eastern Europe who felt free to share with me the ugly “truth” about Roma (and probably will feel compelled to do so in response to this post). But that used to happen to me in the States too. I’m white, so it was assumed I would agree. McDougall isn’t white, but she’s not a Rom, so maybe that’s what mattered to the “high-level officials” she refers to in Bulgaria. But whom did they think were talking to? What of this woman’s “people” only 50 years ago? She was a living, breathing history lesson staring them in the face, if they had been quick enough to see it.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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