Following up Jeremy Druker’s post on manufactured “truths” about the Roma, I’m pitching in with some thoughts on the problem of establishing reliable facts.

How can you help a deprived group if you lack reliable data on such basic indicators as population, not to mention health and education?

How can you adapt a system designed to build up trade and commerce for the purpose of improving the lot of a deprived group?

These two not entirely separate questions can together partly say why the European Union’s initiatives to help the Roma are going so haltingly. The latest of many complaints to this effect comes from one of the primary sponsors of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, which though not strictly an EU scheme relies on the prestige of the European Commission as a crucial participant. As regular TOL readers know, the Roma Decade was launched by George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the World Bank in 2005 with the goal of publicizing, co-financing, and monitoring national programs to help improve the lot of Europe’s largest and poorest minority. A dozen EU and non-EU countries are members; the United States joined as an observer not long ago. (Disclosure: Transitions has received a number of grants to fund articles and training from OSI’s Roma programs.)

Last week, Bernard Rorke of the Open Society Institute blogged that even though the Decade has only three years to run, most participating countries are far from meeting the milestones they set out in the National Roma Integration Strategies submitted to the European Commission. Rorke’s comments, amplified in a February OSI report focusing on the integration programs of five Decade member countries, can be read as a warning that this ambitious project risks petering out into a mess of poorly thought-out schemes crippled by underfunding and unmet promises.

A common thread running through the criticisms of the national Roma programs is the failure to take full advantage of available EU funding.

The problem of “absorption capacity” of EU funds in the newer EU countries goes well beyond their Romani integration efforts. There are a myriad reasons why EU money gets diverted from its intended targets, or sits untouched for years while national bureaucracies figure out how to spend it. Considering that bureaucrats like to spend money, and that governments really, but really like spending the EU’s money rather than their own, it’s clear that that the system of EU funding for the newer and poorer members isn’t working very well. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania has been able to absorb more than 10 percent of the funds available in the current budget cycle. In a time when countries are closing agencies to save money, Romania set up a new ministry specifically to tackle this problem.

Let’s take for granted that Romani integration programs, and many other social and economic programs, have been underfunded partly because of the complexity of applying for EU funding and the sheer burden of extra work imposed on officials. Fraud, too, plays a role, I’m sure.

Another piece of the pie relates to the second question I posed up top. People who spit on the EU as a “socialist” organization might be surprised to hear it, but the union’s guiding principles are as individualist and market-friendly as you please. The union’s founding fathers may have entertained dreams of political union, but their prime goal was to tear down barriers to interstate trade and commerce, first of all to ensure that companies had enough coal and steel to keep houses warm and factories humming during the difficult postwar years. The union’s legal base has always rested on the principle of non-discrimination – not, at first, as a fundamental right but as a tool to smooth the movement of goods, capital and labor across national borders.

Take for instance some famous precedent-setting cases heard in the European Court of Justice. The right of producers in one country to compete on a level playing field throughout the union was established in a ruling on the import of French Cassis liqueur into Germany. The limits of “freedom of expression” were tested by the U.K. in two spicy cases – in turned out the Brits could ban the import of porn magazines, on grounds of public morality, but an attempt to put a quota on German sex dolls was overturned because it discriminated against a single member country.

To cut a long story very short, EU legislation is not well designed for social or cultural purposes, although it has moved away from its economic beginnings, notably in the Lisbon Treaty, which incorporates the European Convention Human Rights into EU law.

Another consequence of the EU’s economically rooted legal system has been especially problematic for minorities, especially one with as little public sympathy as the Roma. EU law and institutions until recently were almost exclusively based on individual rights; the only major “group” singled out as deserving of equal treatment is women. Minority communities have been treated as outliers in this system; in fact, the EU’s legal core takes virtually no notice of any interest groups except economic ones. “Minority” has been more a less a synonym for “immigrant,” and in this framework needy “historical” minorities like the Roma have been given short shrift.

But enough theorizing. Rorke offers one concrete suggestion on how to more quickly and effectively channel money toward integration programs. Reliable statistics on the Roma are notoriously hard to come by. The two main reasons for this are the fact that many people prefer not to self-identify as Roma in official documents, and the restrictions many countries impose on gathering “ethnic” data, on grounds that it violates the right to privacy. OSI issued an entire report devoted to this knotty problem.

On the second point, numerous ways exist to gather useful data on ethnicity and other social indicators within the bounds of national law. The Czech authorities have been reluctant to gather such data, but this hasn’t prevented official agencies collecting detailed information on, for instance, the number of Romani students enrolled in schools for the mentally handicapped.

The first point is more difficult, ethically (or ethnically) speaking – because anyone has the right to declare whatever ethnic allegiance they like, or none. Ethnicity is not fixed, nor is it an either-or quantity. Sadly, these truths tend to be muddied, not only by ethno-zealots but by the media, which often seem to treat “minorities” as though they can be identified by a blood test, or nose shape.

The OSI report on data collection gives some suggestions as to how to persuade people that self-labeling as Roma can only benefit them in the long run (my emphasis):

● “National statistical agencies should explore various census methodologies, such as allowing respondents to choose both primary and secondary identification as a national or ethnic group, providing multiple identity categories to help improve the chances of Roma self-identifying, and using ethnically neutral markers such as traditions, language, etc., as proxies to help determine ethnicity.”

● “National statistical agencies should include Roma in census activities as data collectors, as they have much greater access and credibility in Roma communities, which can result in more Roma self-identifying and responding to the census. Data collectors should also inform the Roma community about basic terminology when filling in the census forms, e.g., understanding the difference between “nationality” and “ethnicity” to help improve the accuracy of data collected during censuses, and encourage members of the Roma community to declare their Roma identity.”

So long as the Roma are drastically under-counted, they will remain drastically underfunded, but as these examples show there are relatively simple ways to rectify this.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email:

More Posts