Sunday, May 15, 2011


Roma as Active Citizens: Closing the Gap between Political Elites and Local Communities

By Catherine Messina Pajic,
Deputy director of programs for the Central and Eastern Europe region at National Democratic Institute (NDI)

09/05/2011 -

Victimized by violence, segregated in settlements, deprived of education, healthcare, and jobs, and routinely denied their rights as citizens, Roma are also excluded from the political arena where they could attempt to address these problems. As a result, many Roma no longer seek to participate in politics or civic life at any level, persuaded that it is a losing proposition. This reticence is seen by some in the majority population, as a simple, and false, solution to ―the Roma problem:‖ if they are ignored, eventually they will go away.

However, the impact of the Roma’s disaffection is immense. Countries with large Roma populations, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe, court social instability and enormous economic costs as these impoverished communities grow larger and more distant from the state apparatus. Last year’s expulsion by France of Bulgarian and Romanian Roma migrants suggests that even established European democracies - and the European Union as a whole—are ill-prepared to grapple with this growing population that is living not as part of the state but parallel to it. These events have shown that until Roma, as a community, become active, participatory citizens who can use the political process to resolve issues, secure resources and obtain services, democracy in Europe will remain an unfulfilled promise.

Despite myriad assistance strategies to improve their legal and material conditions, little effort has been made to position Roma to help their own cause through political participation. Roma must organize their communities to gain effective political representation and hold governments accountable. It is in everyone’s interest for Roma to amass this power to solve their problems peacefully before violence and extremism take hold.

Active Citizenship: What is it?

Citizenship implies a relationship between people and their government that includes a set of rights and responsibilities, including the right to participate in decisions that affect the public welfare. Citizens are essential to democratic governance. They give life and meaning to democratic principles and to the institutions designed to create accountability and set limits on government power. Without the active involvement of citizens, government power can be abused to benefit only a narrow segment of society.

Citizen activism is a democratic right and responsibility that can constructively influence state behavior and socioeconomic development. To exercise this right, Roma must first understand and embrace the concept of citizenship. They also need knowledge to make decisions about policy choices, along with the skills to voice their concerns, act collectively and hold public officials accountable.

Civil society is a vehicle, like political parties, through which Roma can aggregate their interests, voice their preferences and exercise the power necessary to affect change. Civil society can amplify citizen voices and bridge the divide between Roma and the state. Civil society organizations come in various shapes and sizes, from large, urban-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to small, community-based social groups. Among these are organizations that interact extensively with citizens and, more often the case with Roma, those with very limited interaction, even though they may claim to be working on their behalf. Political decisions on complex socioeconomic challenges.



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