Voices from Eurasia

Don’t quit – go underground!


Photo: UNHCR/L. Taylor

This month, Roma activist Valeriu Nicolae posted an explosive blog stating his reasons for quitting Roma inclusion work. The reaction below comes from my own similar experience.

Valeriu, your frustration about Roma inclusion work, the missing results and the role of “beggars” imposed on people doing real work is perfectly understandable. However, it does not necessarily mean that you should quit.

The experience you describe is illustrative of the Law of Diminishing Funding Opportunities. It states that a project’s chances of getting funded are reversely proportional to the level of its meaningfulness and the successful track record of the applicant.

In other words, the better the work, (the more tangible, accountable and cost-efficient results you produce), the lower the chances of getting resources.

Why is that? Because too many people around us are selling nice-but-hollow words instead of something “real”.

What matters is that, unfortunately, they dominate the Roma inclusion “business” and have a vested interest in keeping things vague. When something is vague, one might easily sell anything fake as a “result.”

Why do they dominate? Because it is extremely difficult for one individual to combine two types of competencies – in substantive field work and in administration.

While you were doing your real work with real communities, others were making progress in the corridors of power that are the (un)public space of public resources redistribution. In a few years, you will end up in two different universes, speaking two different languages.

One is the language of real results and desire for change, a meta-narrative structured around the question “Why not?!?”

The other is the language of procedures, regulations and the desire for a nice report, a meta-language structured around the question “Is it in line?” Both have their own rationale but almost never overlap.

Of course, there are vested interests and corruption associated with the “development business”. But I think they are secondary. The bitter truth is that even if there was no corruption, the results related to real inclusion would still be depressingly modest because too many people administering too much money have spent too little time doing real work.

They know all the procedures we need to be following – but rarely know what actions at the community level that should be in line with those procedures.

This is nothing new. One of my favorite movies (relevant to the topic) is Milos Forman’s Amadeus. It’s not Salieri who killed Mozart (in today’s poverty reduction professionals’ language – a talented doer achieving superb results); it’s mediocrity that killed him – and continues killing many doers like you.

That’s how (wo)mankind has been working from time immemorial and is still working now.

That’s the context in which we have to do our work (I say “our” because we are in the same boat although, apparently, on its opposite sides).

So what can we do to achieve real results without constantly begging? One option is to go underground. You could start writing vague proposals with all the right buzz-words to help you get funding, and then use creative accounting to disguise the meaningful work that you will be doing undercover.

Another way is to team up with other ‘doers’ scattered throughout administrations, bureaucracies or in the field who have similarly gone underground.

You will have to establish alliances and horizontal networks with people who are similarly frustrated and are looking for ways of doing meaningful work.

Actually, both approaches overlap. You cannot have the first without the implicit support of other doers; you can not have the second one explicit either, because then you might expose your allies.

Civil society (both Roma and non-Roma) has a critical role in all this. However, what role and, most of all, what civil society – will be the topic of my next blog post. Stay tuned!

Blog post Europe & the CIS Human rights Rule of law Roma

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