Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
Between 1990 and 2010, according to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide was cut in half. This dramatic achievement, which was actually a major Millennium Development Goal, happened several years ahead of schedule. The reduction in extreme poverty varied from region to region, with great gains made in Asia and not much progress achieved in Africa. In East-Central Europe, the drop was roughly comparable to the global average.
There is, however, a statistical anomaly in the data for East-Central Europe. For the 10-12 million Roma living in the region, the overall economic situation has gotten worse over this period of time. Since 1990, Roma have experienced catastrophic increases in unemployment and discrimination. In Serbia, for instance, 60 percent of the Roma population lives in extreme poverty, in Albania 40 percent. In Romania and Hungary, the poverty rates for Roma are far higher than the majority population. There has been little if any improvement in the last decade.
This gap in poverty alleviation results between Roma and non-Roma communities has been the subject of intense discussion in governmental and civil society circles. For the last two decades, American foundations, European charities, and the European Union have all poured money into attempts to rectify this situation. One of the first and most important institutions in the region to translate these funds into successful projects on the ground was the Autonomia foundation, founded in 1990 by Andras Biro.
In 1993, I interviewed Anna Csongor, who was a program officer with Autonomia. She described the successes and failures of Autonomia’s revolving loan program, based on the Grameen Bank example, as well as the innovative project monitoring system.
When I returned 20 years later to re-interview Anna Csongor, she had already been serving for many years as the executive director of the organization and was just then preparing to leave the job. Hungary was now part of the European Union, and its social welfare institutions were considerably more developed. But Autonomia, and the Roma community in Hungary, faced many of the same challenges as before, in part a legacy of the government’s failure in the first years of transition to address the disproportionate cost of economic dislocation shouldered by Roma. “It was a tragedy when so many Roma people were kicked out of jobs,” she pointed out our conversation in her office in Budapest last May. “Everybody lost their jobs, but it was Roma first. By the time the system was able to do something about poverty and unemployment they were already five years unemployed.”
Autonomia was dedicated to involving Roma in the process of creating their own economic enterprises. Csongor remembers a project to grow watermelons. “There were periods when it collapsed when the market was bad, but they learned how to cultivate something else such as tobacco,” she told me. “They got practice, and they built up their self-confidence. And the majority population developed a different attitude. They saw that the Roma weren’t just waiting for welfare but were actually producing something. There were lots of similar projects, mostly agricultural. Those continued until the welfare system developed into a structure in which income generation was no longer possible.”
As Hungary developed its social safety net, Autonomia shifted its focus. With European funding, it began to provide capacity-building trainings and workshops. “We provided support to an organization that set up an after-school operation,” she told me. “We provided support for the first mentoring after-school operation in this northeastern village. It was quite good. It was so well marketed that in the second round of these projects, it became world famous. They created a network. Of course, we were lucky because they had the skills. But they were lucky because they had our mentoring support. They could absorb a lot of money and deal with 450 children. That was a really positive investment.”
In the end, Csongor has come full circle in her thinking on what can make a difference in Roma communities. “I started with education and thought that education was everything,” she related. “I went along different paths and now, again, I think education is everything. In between I thought it was a complex issue and you have to take into account economy and local structures. But lately, I think if you don’t do anything with education or you make a mistake with education, then anything you do in the field of economics won’t make a difference. When we made the interventions in the wage-earning or income-generation life of people, we thought, ‘Okay, now everything will change and the children will go to school and they will have a better chance in the local structure if they have more income.’ That’s okay. But still, if there is not solid education at school, nothing will change.
We talked about her experiences as a social worker during the Communist period, her research into Roma education, and her belief in the urgent need for all Hungarians to sit down and discuss their perceptions of Roma and themselves.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I must have been at home. I think I was watching TV. I remember the enthusiasm, the common feeling, but I don’t know whether it was just the moment or the moments after and the discussions. I think I was with friends at the time. It was a time when we used to get together a lot, sharing this sort of experiences even if it was on TV.
What were you doing in those days in 1989? Were you a student?
I was born in 1951, so I was quite an adult. I used to work in an institute set up for educational research. I was a sociologist. By then I was divorced. I lived with my son near here.
As a sociologist, you focused on education?
Yes, the education of Roma children.
When did you start that work?
My son was born in 1981. Until then, I was a social worker. It was quite enjoyable work, unique, and I loved it. But then I had to end it, because I had my own family, and I couldn’t take care of other people’s families. I was at home for a year or so, and then this institute was set up and I was invited to go there around 1982.
When you were a social worker, you worked in Roma communities?
What motivated you to work in Roma communities?
That’s a very long story. I don’t know if you want to spend time on it.
If it’s an interesting story!
For me, it’s interesting! I come from a family that is intellectual. My grandfather was a lawyer; my other grandfather was a judge. My parents went to university. My mother, for instance, had received a doctorate and was a linguist. Everyone in the family expected me to be a scholar. I went to university to be an English teacher, because my mother was originally an English and Hungarian teacher and then became a linguist, so that was a family tradition. However, already in high school, I had some experience in sociology. We had very special teachers who took us to the villages and made sociological surveys and provided an immersion experience, which was unusual at the time.
While I was at university, I joined an illegal activity, criticizing existing socialism from the Left. We had an understanding in my group, among my friends, that somehow the system wasn’t practicing what it preached. We had this F category for physical workers. At school, either you were either an F or a P as a peasant. There was also a third category, and that was me — not a worker or a peasant. But when we went to university we realized that there were very few pupils from peasant and worker families, and we thought that was totally unjust and we should do something about it. We put together a project. I wouldn’t call it catch-up courses because it was much more than that. It was playing democracy and teaching high-level things and having very special teachers with us, sharing what we had access to with those we thought didn’t have such access.
After a short period, I also moved into a commune, which was quite fashionable in intellectual circles at the time. We did a lot of extra learning — reading books and discussing books. That’s a leftist sort of activity: living together and talking a lot. By the end of university, I thought I would be a teacher of English or a scholar in literature somewhere. I was interested in medieval English drama. I wrote my thesis on this. But still I thought that this was totally boring. I imagined that all my life I would be in an office and a library, reading books and writing books and maybe teaching other people English drama. This was interesting but still…
Then everything changed, and I decided to go to the countryside. I was living in the commune, and I left the commune with a new lover. But I couldn’t move home. My parents said I couldn’t do that unless I was married. Okay, so we didn’t marry. Instead we went to a village. This was my first husband. We started to teach mostly Roma. It was a very attractive situation because we were the only real intellectuals in the village, and we loved the children, and the children loved us. It was very romantic.
What were you teaching?
I was teaching almost everything. You can imagine the situation: a small school and a shortage of trained teachers. They were very happy to get somebody with a university diploma. My husband was an economist who also taught Russian. We taught almost everything that was needed there. That’s how it started. And we learned lots of new things like political economy. In those days, there was a lot to learn about: for example, the real history of the workers’ movement or the real history of the Soviet Union. This was called the flying university.
There was one in Poland.
Yes, I think that was the model. Somehow we remained in touch with these circles. Then we decided to leave the village because it became unbearable. If we had stayed, we would have become the directors sooner or later because this was the second half the 1970s, and the situation wasn’t so harsh. This would have happened if we had behaved. But we did not behave. We did things that were quite innocent but were provocative for the locals, like allowing children with no bathrooms at home to come to our flat and have a bath there.
You did things for Roma that were provocative for non-Roma?
No, no. In a school where the basic value is discipline, then you don’t have the children in your home. In our school, the headmaster walked down the corridor listening to make sure the classes were quiet, and my classes were never quiet. We played dramas and such things. I was the new generation of teacher. It was embarrassing for him, maybe even challenged his authority. The whole place was rather feudal. We could have stayed. But an issue came up where we had a fierce debate, and it was decided. He wanted to persuade me to stay and my partner to leave, because he thought he was always going to cause problems in the future. Anyhow, we came back to Budapest.
I didn’t think about going back to university, to literature and so on. It was quite a coincidence that someone asked me if I was interested in helping with a survey of Roma. The survey was made by Ottilia Solt, one of the leading figures of the opposition. A philosopher and sociologist, she was employed by a research institute and made a survey of Gypsy children in Budapest. I participated in the survey and fell in love with it. She was not only a researcher, she was also a politician in the sense of putting into practice what you learn from your research. She also arranged, in some of the districts in Budapest where many Roma lived, for the local government to employ someone like a social worker. Officially, there were no social workers at that time, but someone took responsibility for maintaining contact with these Roma families and ensuring their wellbeing. So, a local consulting instituted employed me to work with families on educational issues and what to do with their children. I worked there for ten years. This was in the 20th district of Budapest. There is no such a thing as the best part of life. But really, this was the best part of my life.
It was the best part of your life because you enjoyed working as a social worker and you enjoyed the interaction with the families.
Both. And I was totally free. I have been totally free all my life, never having a boss. Even here at Autonomia. There was a boss who was a psychologist and a very nice woman. She liked what I was doing but didn’t totally understand what the whole thing was about.
When I had that job, I had the impression that I was having an impact, that something was happening. I was like a relative who was not living with them but they could turn to me. I was 23 when I started. You can imagine that this was a very big challenge. I don’t know how I even dared, but I dared because I didn’t really think about it. It was an important experience. There were a lot of interactions, and I was quite successful, I don’t know why or how. When my son was born, I felt that emotionally I couldn’t share myself. I spent a lot of time with them. I drank with them. It was my life. It was my identity. It was not a job. When you don’t have any other responsibilities, it’s easy to be part of it. That was until 1981, and in 1982 I went to work at the research institute on education.
Can you give me an example of what it meant to be successful in that social work?
For example, if a family lost their housing, then I could fight for it and the housing was restored. When a child was taken into custody, I could make arrangements for the child’s return. In those days, the offices I had contact with were full of people who might have been racist or anti-poor. But still they could be touched. And the system was not very well organized. So if you argued for each case in an emotional way, then in most of the cases you could be successful. By now, there is a welfare system, with lots of requirements and paperwork that you have to fill in and do this and do that before the system decides whether you are eligible or not. This was the case during socialism as well, but there were special cases. It was not just using family connections. It was easier to make the bureaucrats understand the human side. Of course this was a limited sample. But they were not bad people. They were just part of the system. They said, for instance, “You have to queue up if you want a council flat, and you’ll have to wait five years.” My clients — or my partners or my people — they were so poor and so neglected that it was obvious that they needed help.
In my first year when I went there, I understood that some of the children very much need preschool courses. I was not trained for that, but I did a lot of reading and made contact with an old preschool teacher, and we put it together. It was a total success. We made quite a long course for young Roma children. Maybe it was not professional, but it was very enjoyable and quite efficient. It had something to do with the ownership. I worked in a local structure where everything was owned by local council. I used the premises of the local cultural house, which was a council space, and I used the knowledge of a woman who was a teacher who didn’t charge anything because she too was a council employee. Nothing cost money. It was just human resources and premises. Somehow it was easy.
Then you left the social work and worked for an institute, which focused on educational research.
The education of Roma children. Those with whom I started the research in 1974, we sort of grew up together. We still had our groups for discussion. That’s why I’m telling you that when the Berlin Wall fell, I must have been in one of my circles, which is very different from what it’s like now. We had a lot of informal gatherings. People just dropped in. It was a loose period. And we were young.
Before you left the commune and moved off to the village, did you have any contact with Roma?
It’s interesting that you ask this. A friend of mine and I were just discussing this issue: when we met Roma in our life. I went to school in this district, which was a mostly intellectual and middle-class neighborhood. However, all this middle-class housing had these backyards where the less fortunate people lived. I had classmates who didn’t have a window to the street but only a window to the yard. Some of them were really poor. They didn’t have cake but only bread with jam on it. Those were my earliest memories of children being poor. But I don’t think we had any Roma classmates. I might have met Roma people in the secondary school — when I went to these villages to do sociology. The style of these camps was that we also danced and played together. If I had pictures from that time, which I don’t have, there might have been Roma children. But it wasn’t real contact. I also remember seeing Gypsies selling things on the road, but here again there was no real contact. They were rather exotic. They were outsiders.
Of course I had contact with Roma when I was teaching in the village, and later when I was a social worker, I remember a girl about my age who was totally black. She was very ambitious, but she was totally depressed. She felt that being black meant that she was surrounded by prejudice and couldn’t go anywhere. This wasn’t a shock for me on the cognitive level because I knew about this prejudice. But I had never directly encountered this sort of feeling before. She married someone and went abroad because she said that she couldn’t do what she wanted in Hungary. This was in the 1970s. So, the 1970s for her were different than for me. Then I had to admit that life is not so nice for some.
In my family, to be sure, everybody wanted me to have a doctorate. But there was also in my family a belief that you have some social responsibility for those who are not so lucky. It was not a direct way of educating children — that you should give money to those begging on your way home from church. We didn’t go to church, and it wasn’t like that. My mother, when she finished being a linguist because she was on a blacklist, began teaching. I heard stories about her supporting some of the poor children with boots and other kinds of physical support.
When you did research, you were doing research nationally on Roma education at all levels?
You were looking at disparities in educational achievements and also what was available in terms of infrastructure?
Both: achievements and conditions. And it was very easy because the disparities were so obvious.
Was there anything surprising that you learned during the research?
I wouldn’t call it surprising. I would rather call it a tension between the structural issues and personal attitudes. For example, I was sure from the very beginning that segregation was not good, that separation was not going to help anyone in the future. This was a structural issue: you shouldn’t have separate Roma classrooms. On the other hand, we met with many very committed and devoted teachers who were working with very neglected Roma children. These very nice teachers were doing something very good. It was not a burden for them: it was something that they wanted to do. They didn’t want to get rid of it, either, because if these children participated in mainstream education they would have been rejected. These teachers were also marginalized, as if they had been infected through contact with the Roma. They were a separate class among the local teachers.
One of the narratives about Roma in the region is the reversal that took place after 1989. The employment rate for Roma in the region was rather high under Communism, and that reversed after 1989. The educational system followed a similar trajectory. You saw a deterioration in general of the situation for Roma. But hearing you, I realize that the educational situation for Roma before 1989 was not so good either.
No, it wasn’t.
Would you say that there was a sharp decline from that low level before 1989 or merely a continuation of an already bad situation?
That’s not an easy question. On the one hand, the situation was totally absurd. Under the socialist condition there was the same free obligatory education. But there was also a group of people who didn’t get that education or got it at a low quality. These families were shown the place of their children in the school. After a while, the parents said, “Okay, my child has a place in the special school where the mentally handicapped children are, and that’s it. That’s our school. Now, leave me alone.” They didn’t even think of fighting against it.
There was an exam system for children before they entered the first class – for children that the kindergarten had some doubts about. This happened in the places where I was working. I saw kids that were bright and fantastic. But still I suspected that they were not going to be approved by the school because of their test scores. So I cheated. I gave them a higher grade so that they could go to a better school.
A kind of affirmative action.
Yes! But after a while, in spite all the good will and efforts, the school system somehow figured out who was eligible for mainstream schooling and who was not, and that was quite typical for the system.
Still, I don’t want to say that during socialism it was okay. It was not okay. But if the father was an unskilled worker, then for the children the position of semi-skilled worker became possible. The child could go on to work at the factory with non-Gypsy coworkers. If it worked well and he could assimilate, then he could go on to the secondary labor market and make some more money. Somehow he could slowly be part of the system. When he became part of the system, his children could go a little further. I can’t say that it was an open system, but there was a possibility of mixing. And maybe those were who ambitious enough and lucky enough to live where there were good places to work available could advance. If the stars aligned, then you could make it. The factories were full, the kindergartens were full — somehow it all looked positive.
But in the second part of the 1980s, everything was over. It was a tragedy when so many Roma people were kicked out of jobs. Everybody lost their jobs, but it was Roma first. By the time the system was able to do something about poverty and unemployment they were already five years unemployed. The educational system didn’t change, and families didn’t trust the educational system at all. The teachers got frustrated, and the school administrators got frustrated. Within a very short time, the Roma and poor children found themselves at the bottom layer of education. At the other end, the school system opened up with lots of private schools and a big market for education. The talented and well-to-do families could do anything.
Also the talented and well-to-do Roma families?
The sociological surveys on Roma are blamed for not recognizing the talented and well-to-do families. The definition of Roma is quite loose. The only real survey I consider okay uses the definition that Roma is anyone considered Roma by the neighborhood. That’s a relative concept. Those who don’t look like Roma or act like Roma are not considered Roma in the surveys.
And they don’t self-identify as Roma?
No, they don’t. On the other hand, a Roma intellectual movement started in the second half of the 1970s, a group that was not going to assimilate. They were involved in music and art and so on. That might have been a very thin layer. But I saw them and made friends with them, and they were part of my life. I wonder if they are now part of the political system, whether they’re still visible.
Let’s talk about your current position here at Autonomia. How did Autonomia view itself as intervening in the Roma situation after 1989?
I left my job, well, I was kicked out. It was a funny story. Before 1989, I was under police control. I had one-year contracts, and at every end of year, there was a discussion whether I could stay or not. I wouldn’t say that I was an important part of the opposition, but I was part of it. That’s how it happened: a guy would come to the institute and sit down with the HR person and discuss who could stay and who could not. I had very strange discussions with the director, but I made it through. I was really not expecting any change. Then in 1992, my contract was cancelled, and I still don’t know why.
Yes, in 1992! It was like a delayed action. Our director, who was also a researcher, was in America when the transition took place. He entered the Hungarian Democratic Forum and felt it was important to take a stand. It was an exciting atmosphere at that time. People were joining the new parties and the new trade unions. Everyone wanted to be part of something. And those of us who were part of the old opposition were somehow pushed aside, forgotten. So, there was a mixed feeling about what was happening. A lot of my friends went into parliament as part of the new parties. Of course, they quite soon got disappointed and left politics. But all of us had a shared belief that something was happening.
But I had a bad feeling that this was not going to be a safe time. With the new market orientation, you could no longer afford four years of research — you had to have the results within one month. I’m not that type. I like to go there, get used to it, sniff around, read. I’d gotten used to that lengthy process. That was the other reason why I was not needed. On the other hand, lots of my colleagues stayed on at the institute. I don’t know. In 1992, when I lost that job, I was 42 and I had a list and I was desperate.
A list of people to call. I thought, “I’m 42, I’m not going to find a job.” That was in November. It was a very bad period. Then I heard that Andras Biro was looking for someone to join a Japanese project to sell Roma handicrafts in Western Europe with Japanese mentoring. Totally absurd! I was the traditional type. I didn’t like this type of challenge. But my friends told me I should call Andras Biro. The announcement said that they were looking for a project officer and the age limit was 40.
They were allowed to state an age limit?
It was still not illegal. I thought, “I’m not going to try, I’m too old for that.” But I did. You remember Andras. You can’t forget Andras. He told me that this was a Japanese project, and it involved Roma handicrafts, and I didn’t like the story at all. I saw that he was crazy. On the other hand, it was very interesting how he was looking at things. He’d just come back to Hungary.
From Latin America.
From Mexico, I think that was the last place. He was the guy who came back from far away. I was sort of irritated that someone coming back was blaming us — for being, in a way, collaborators. These people came back to Hungary and these questions just hung in the air: what have you been doing in those years, were you just sleeping? Anyway, it happened that I got attracted to this whole thing. He asked some things of me — how old is my son, how can I afford to go to the countryside. Then he called me two days later.
I said, “I need a week to think about it. I have other people on my list to ask.” There weren’t so many, to be frank.
And he said that I wasn’t telling the truth: why wasn’t I telling him who I really was? Because I didn’t have the opportunity! He was telling me about Mexico — he was very talkative. He said, “Let’s meet again.”
Then we met twice. Andras is the type of person who has a gut feeling. He said, “I don’t care, I trust you and I want you to be the director.”
I said, “No, Andras, that’s very flattering, but I’m not going to be a director. I used to be a researcher but I’m not one any more.”
“Okay,” he said, “then I will kick out the program officer and you will do the work on the Roma potato project.”
I didn’t feel good about someone being kicked out for me. It was a confusing period. But in two weeks time, I was in.
His idea was that there is a deficit among the poor, especially the Roma, in democratic thinking and practices. The only way to solve this – and we had to do this in order to have a democracy in the country as a whole – was to organize them so that they could be successful economically. I didn’t believe in it – and I don’t believe in it now either. But still the practice showed me how flexible this layer of society could be. They somehow saw the opportunity, and they gave up their old ways in a significant way. They realized that the ways they’d learned under socialism were not going to work, so they grasped the opportunity. Within two years, there was an abundance of Roma organizations, maybe 300. Again, I found myself in the same family atmosphere as when I’d been among the poor Roma in the village and I’d discovered that they could accommodate themselves to the new requirements. This was something very attractive to me, and I appreciated it very much.
I’m in a constant debate with people who say that this is giving up identity and doing something for the money. But I think it’s a survival game. If you’re in serious trouble, you can’t really say, “I’m going to be proud and I will die and that’s it.” From the very beginning, Autonomia was criticized by the Roma movement for destroying identity, pushing assimilation, attracting Roma into a trap. In a way, that was true. But we never could discuss it. And I don’t think we can ever discuss it. In the beginning of the 1990s, we quite soon became a big grant-making organization providing support for local Roma initiatives. We were quite unique. If it was not about identity issues, then it was about jealousy or about power.
Andras is two meters high with a white beard, and he possesses everything you need for a charismatic figure. He was challenged several times, and he was totally autocratic – even as he was preaching and believing in democracy. And yet I too fell into the trap: somehow I came to understand that this thing worked and I could attract people here from the university to work. At that time, in 1993, I started to teach social work and sociology at the university, so I could attract a lot of young people interested in development and Roma issues. We could make a really good non-profit foundation. The whole composition, thanks to Andras and his insistence on this crazy process, somehow worked.
Crazy in the sense of providing grants to local initiatives?
Nobody believed in it. Everybody believed that the Roma would steal the money. And they didn’t. Very little was stolen. The other unexpected thing was that they would play the democracy game and be economically successful. That’s a very high standard. I’m not quite sure whether there was real democratic decision-making. Still, there were meetings and issues were discussed. I don’t know if it overcame the democratic deficit. But anyway it was more than just the families. And it was more than the local power structure. At minimum, it might have been a second power structure, which is still better than just having one. The other thing we were criticized for was supporting the local chiefs.
Reinforcing the clan structure.
Yes. I remember from my social worker experience that if you see a family where the mother or the father is in power and they are distributing all the resources and everything depends on them, but the child is in a very bad position, you have to support the child to develop. That means directing resources to the child. It’s the same with these local structures. On the one hand, you can rely on the local power structure, the local boss, to identify the needy beneficiaries. On the other hand, we understood that this power structure had to be challenged. The leaders were just sitting there getting stronger and stronger and suppressing the young people who were coming up. We had some leadership trainings — which I don’t like personally — but the Roma were very happy with these trainings. We called them together and provided lots of information, and Andras also liked the discussions with them. So, even if the work was unrealistic, something happened, and it allowed people to work or move into a different structure.
You mentioned two projects — the Japanese craft project and the potato project. What happened with them?
The craft project was dropped after we realized that it wasn’t working out. Andras knew nothing about such things. I knew better, but I thought maybe I don’t know about Roma crafts. But in the end it didn’t work. We had contacts with the Sasakawa Foundation. They were quite active in the region, in Hungary and Slovakia. Later on we undertook a journalist training sponsored by the Japanese, but it was a marginal project. So the Japanese part dropped away.
The potato project was our agricultural work. We put an ad in the paper: if you have an agricultural project, come to us and we’ll support you with a combination of grants and loans. That was the idea, based on what Andras wanted to do after visiting the Grameen projects in Bangladesh. He also had some ideas about women’s circles. I don’t know if it was his idea or the idea of the foundations. Early on we had contact with the Ford Foundation, the Mott Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Somehow it was in the air that this guy was doing something with the poor, and you just have to trust him. There is a whole mythology around the thing. Andras had the feeling that you can’t just give grants, you have to give loans because you hare humiliating people with grants. With a loan a partnership relationship develops. And it worked. People were leaving the factories and going back to the villages, and the rest of the family was cultivating the garden and the livestock. It was a total collapse of their lives — not just the elimination of income but the structure of the family. The only wage earners were the ones cultivating the garden — the wife and the children. So, the husbands couldn’t find their way in the family. Of course there was black market and black labor, for a while, but not for long.
What Autonomia offered, which was really a good thing, was an opportunity to discover something out there. It was a very good exercise. We told them that if they had an initiative, they should come to us or we would go there and discuss. And it was not just asking for money. They had to also negotiate with us.
Can you give any successful examples from that period?
For example, we had a broomstick-making project. People there knew how to do this somehow from their previous lives. The name of the organization was the Dolphin Club. I don’t know how a small village in northeast Hungary decided to name their organization Dolphin Club! They started to make broomsticks, and they were quite successful. But after a while they discovered that they couldn’t sell the broomsticks. They were very good at broomstick making but you have to sell the product — otherwise, why make broomsticks? Of course, there was a suggestion that Autonomia should buy the broomsticks and sell them here or there, but the project seemed to be dead. From this experience, we found out that we must stress the marketing side as well, the importance of business plans. So, that was a learning process.
Ten years later, I had a call from the same village. Someone told me that I should tell them to stop making broomsticks. But I no longer had any contact with the Dolphin Club, which didn’t exist any longer. We’d forgotten about them. They didn’t come back to us, so we though they weren’t interested any more. But I learned that they were still making and marketing broomsticks. And the people there were making trainings too. Somehow, the locals who wanted to enter the broomstick-making market thought that the success of the enterprise came from Autonomia. So, we still have this power.
There was also a project on watermelons that was very successful. There were periods when it collapsed when the market was bad, but they learned how to cultivate something else such as tobacco. They got practice, and they built up their self-confidence. And the majority population developed a different attitude. They saw that the Roma weren’t just waiting for welfare but were actually producing something. There were lots of similar projects, mostly agricultural. Those continued until the welfare system developed into a structure in which income generation was no longer possible.
You couldn’t qualify for welfare if you were involved in income-generation programs?
That’s it. When we started these projects, there was no welfare system, or the rules were very vague. But after a while, as the welfare and unemployment benefit system was built up, it became illegal to have another income. If you were eligible for welfare, you had to prove that you weren’t going to get income from anywhere else. It made people rely solely on welfare. This change in society introduced the necessity of social safety. And Autonomia couldn’t provide social safety or social security. That was another part of Andras’s ideology — that we were not going to support the state. We were only going to support the people in their initiatives.
I always challenged Andras by saying, “What will happen if they have an accident? What if someone is hurt in the forest when using a chainsaw?”
And he said, “We’re not going to mother them. It’s their risk.”
That, ultimately, was a change in Autonomia’s attitude. Income is nice, and so is self-employment. But then we started to think of employment and safe situations. Andras was gone by then. He probably doesn’t like this change at all. He’s a person of adventure. He likes initiatives and ideas and new things. He’d think it was boring that now we have to plan with social security and taxes. He’s an anarchist. He doesn’t like the state. But we had to put this into our calculations because our local people were defenseless.
Autonomia still gives out loans to local initiatives?
No. And yes. This loan giving was quite successful until the late 1990s when two things happened. The big American foundations started to pull out because they believed that we now have democracy and we don’t need them any more. Also, the legal-fiscal environment changed in a direction that made giving loans totally impossible for Autonomia. We asked for a ministry opinion if we can provide loans or not. We were told yes, we can provide loans but only in cases in which they wouldn’t be paid back. That was contrary to our ideology — we give loans precisely so that they are given back. We didn’t want to make a profit on this, but we didn’t lose money either through these revolving funds (if you pay back, you can get another loan). We provided loans though another institution for a while but then stopped that as well.
Then the European money came in. There were two fears: that there wouldn’t be enough money and that there would be too much money. And the last situation is still the case. The money can’t be absorbed. Especially the sort of money targeting the Roma and marginalized and poor people. There is an absorption problem. For the last five years, Autonomia has been providing different sorts of support to local Roma groups that apply for European funds.
It is very complicated to apply for European funds. Everyone needs help, not just Roma.
Yes, it’s a general problem. If you look at the map at where the money goes, you see that it doesn’t go where it should go — because they don’t have the human resources and capitals and ideas there. That’s what we’re doing – making it possible for locals to access European money. Which is also dangerous. If a big chunk of money falls on your head, even if you are prepared, it’s going to change you totally. So, that’s what we’re fighting with now.
Are there any broomstick examples from this current period?
When we started to apply for funds together, Autonomia was a leader of a consortium. We applied for European moneys to set up workshops and trainings and employment for Roma. On the one hand, it was a very good example and you can find it written up that Autonomia did a great job — we set up a carpentry workshop, a smithy workshop, a workshop for roof makers. And the whole thing was really wonderful. But. But it is very vulnerable. You bring money and tools, you educate the brains, you make the connections, and you think that you’ve taken care of everything. We had a brigade that made roofs and was employed by a local entrepreneur, and they were quite popular. We even made a film about it. Everyone was very happy. Until in the other part of the country, in a pub, a Roma person killed someone who was famous, maybe he was a sportsman, I don’t remember. It was the butterfly’s wings. Suddenly those who asked for the services of these roof makers said, “Don’t bring Roma anymore to our houses because they are going to kill us.” It’s this kind of vulnerability. You try to prepare for everything, but you can’t prepare for such a thing.
I’d like to give you a positive example. There’s a wood factory that creates windows and doors for housing. It’s a good example, because it’s not providing a yearlong job for everyone. But still they find their ways. They make wooden benches for a local church, and the priest is satisfied with the work. I believe that they will somehow find their niche in the market.
We also provided support to an organization that set up an after-school operation. We provided support for the first mentoring after-school operation in this northeastern village. It was quite good. It was so well marketed that in the second round of these projects, it became world famous. They created a network. Of course, we were lucky because they had the skills. But they were lucky because they had our mentoring support. They could absorb a lot of money and deal with 450 children. That was a really positive investment.
It’s not just Autonomia. These are cooperative actions. In the first part of the 1990s, it was just us and the locals. Now, a lot of others contribute.
Looking at the Roma situation, despite all the money that has come in, there’s an absorption problem. We’ve also seen a rise in anti-Roma sentiment. And there’s less contact between Roma and non-Roma communities. What should have been done or what can be done from this point on to change the situation beyond what you’re doing? If you had more money or more access to policymakers — if you had all the power you needed, what would you do?
That’s quite a challenge! I can’t answer this question in a direct way.
Because you don’t think one person can do it all?
Yes. There has to be a real political commitment, not just words but a real commitment that can be felt all the way along that these people are fellow human beings, that we have to live together and trust each other. This should be our mantra. This is the only solution. What is happening in Hungary today – the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic sentiment — we can deal with that. Then there’s the doublespeak of the government talking about integration and catching up but the officials still use a language that is anti-everything that makes life livable. This is not a joke, not something to play with. We need time to sit down and discuss these issues.
My students have in themselves mixed feelings and they are afraid and don’t know how to talk about it. They need the time to discuss and ask the questions that bother them. When I am teaching Roma issues, a girl in the class says that her brother is a local policeman in a village and I should believe her that the Roma are horrible. We need time to speak about it. But we don’t seem to have the time.
I was talking with Robert Braun and his argument was that we shouldn’t talk about Roma but we should talk about inequality, because talking about just Roma feeds into this notion that they are separate, but talking about inequality somehow brings people together across ethnic lines.
That makes sense. But you continue to come across the viewpoint, even among Roma, that “if I can make why can’t he make it? Nobody helped me when I was in trouble, so why should I help others?” Again this is about vulnerability. Those who are a bit better off or have made something of themselves, their achievements are questioned if we speak about inequality.
It’s a very American attitude.
Yes, but it’s quite widespread here.
When you think back to your perspective around 1989-90, has anything major changed in the way you look at the world?
I started with education and thought that education was everything. I went along different paths and now, again, I think education is everything. In between I thought it was a complex issue and you have to take into account economy and local structures. But lately, I think if you don’t do anything with education or you make a mistake with education, then anything you do in the field of economics won’t make a difference. When we made the interventions in the wage-earning or income-generation life of people, we thought, “Okay, now everything will change and the children will go to school and they will have a better chance in the local structure if they have more income.” That’s okay. But still, if there is not solid education at school, nothing will change.
The last three questions are quantitative. When you think back to 1990, and everything that has changed or not changed from 1990 until today, how would you evaluate that for Hungary on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale: but your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary over the next two or three years, with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
2. I think there are reserves, and they last for a while. But I think we are out of our reserves. We had hopes, and it looked like something was moving. But I heard on the radio this morning that a lot of people want to have changes, but still the present government is the most popular. Somehow this desire for change doesn’t appear in real-life decisions. That’s why I’m pessimistic.
Budapest, May 7, 2013
Anna Csongor works with the U.S.-funded and Hungarian-run organization Autonomia, which provides grants in three fields: civil society, environment, and ethnic minorities (primarily Gypsies). She works on Gypsy projects. Aside from PHARE, they are the only organization working on job creation in the Gypsy community (the Hungarian government focuses on education and culture, as does the Soros Foundation). Moreover, there are no comparable organizations that she knows of elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Autonomia provides two types of grants of up to $10,000: survival funds to buy land for food production and seed money loans (no-interest, payable after a year) for such projects as pig farming and herb-collecting. They have funded 70 such projects over 2 1/2 years. In the last two months, to improve the rate of success, they have begun a monitoring system including 2 young Gypsy monitors. A typical success was providing a loan to a community group in a small village to grow melons. After the season was over and the harvest was a success, the loan was paid back and the operation is expected to turn a similar profit the following year.
A typical failure was providing a large sum of money to support a buying and selling operation. The money was not accounted for, the operation was never set up, the loan never paid back. In order to counteract prejudices among local ethnic Hungarians, Csongor proceeds very carefully, contacting local governments and local organizations to smooth over any possible tensions.
They stay away from the politics of the national Gypsy organizations. Their priority regions: the Northeast around Szabolcs (agricultural) and Miskolc (heavy industry) as well as the South around Pecs (where the Gypsies have a rural tradition). The four priority needs she felt for the Gypsy community were, in no particular order: 1) bookkeeping; 2) basic socializing for living in a modern society; 3) democratic decision-making; 4) dealing with the “gadjo” or the non-Gypsy with greater sympathy.
Most organizations that have good intentions and want to work with Gypsies, she said, have failed because of mutual misunderstanding. In their work, Autonomia makes it clear that the arrangements must be transparent, that it is better for all concerned if loans are paid back, that the aim of the foundation is self-reliance and not charity. Still, it is difficult to build bridges with the Gypsy community. For even the Gypsy intellectuals and the Gypsy monitors are treated with a degree of suspicion — they have assimilated to a large extent into gadjo society.
Autonomia monitors meeting (1993)
I attended a meeting of the monitors of the Autonomia foundation. As I mentioned in the last report, I am quite impressed with this system. There are six or so monitors (including two Gypsies) who take stock of the various projects either already receiving funds or applying for grants. This meeting, informally held in a pub, involved two major reports: one on a herb-collection project, the other on two groups in one area both looking for money to start up a “social discount center.” The first project encountered numerous problems, the final one being the transport company not honoring its contract to deliver the herbs. The second project had problems of a different sort, since two groups were competing to build this center — a sort of retail warehouse with particularly deep discounts for the poor.
Out of the detailed discussion of these two projects, I drew several lessons: 1) beware of the political subcurrents that dominate virtually all Gypsy groups (one could say the same for most groups in Hungary of course) — there are frequently party allegiances at work that are not immediately apparent; 2) be skeptical of membership totals of Gypsy groups for even if accurate they may include children; 3) many Gypsy groups are little more than family structures with very rigid patriarchal lines of authority; 4) the promise of funds can have a fragmenting effect on Gypsy groups (again the same applies to other communities) as units will break away to attract funds just for themselves; 5) successful projects will have a strong demonstration effect — a social discount center in one area will produce proposals for similar projects elsewhere; 6) most proposals suffer from the lack of even the most basic accounting principles.