The confusion between charity and a welfare utopia within the Romani community

by Ramón Flores

A few days ago I received the report on the situation of Roma in Spain prepared by the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF). In spite of everything, I read it.

I say in spite of everything, because the ERTF lost all credibility many years ago.

For those who do not know, the ERTF began operations in 2005 and was founded in collaboration with the Council of Europe and 6 other international organisations. Another of its founding organisations is the Forum of European Roma Young People (FERYP), which I have the honour to chair. Seven years later, FERYP had no choice but to resign as a founding and full member of ERTF due to its lack of transparency, advancement and usefulness to the public.

But let us now consider the report in question. This report offers a summary of the situations of discrimination and social exclusion suffered by Roma in Spain. This is nothing new, but from the third page a sense of disenchantment and despair seems to fall over the text.

This happens when one gets to the paragraph which says, “Discrimination is a major barrier to social inclusion of Roma, especially in the fields of education, housing, health, access to adequate services and the right to work, in spite of the fact that Spanish Roma are well integrated and enjoy improved access to all these social rights”. Besides the statement of the obvious fact that discrimination is a barrier to inclusion, the phrase “Spanish Roma are well integrated” screeches and is hurtful to the eyes.

The ERTF itself, which boasts of representing the Romani community institutionally in Europe, continues to say that Roma are integrated or that they must be integrated. Bad start. It keeps forgetting that the ultimate goal of integration is not to achieve equality, but to maintain the status quo of the powerful over the weak.

To continue hurting our eyes and our mental health, the report goes on to cite a 2005 study by a pro-Roma entity that claims that 70% of Roma older than 16 are completely or functionally illiterate. That is, if 10 Roma are gathered in a square 7 will be illiterate. Amazing.

The problem is that the study mixes absolute illiteracy in with functional illiteracy. They may sound similar but are far from being the same and should not therefore be grouped into the same category.

For those not versed in statistics and population studies, particularly those dealing with education levels, the classification of ordinal variables (in this case, level of education) sorts the categories from the highest to the lowest, from the best to the worst, or from the first to the last. Within the categorisation scheme of this study, it is not at all unusual to find the “completely illiterate” and “functionally illiterate” variables grouped into a single category.

We must clarify what functionally illiterate means. According to UNESCO, it refers to people who may be able to read and write simple sentences but have not mastered the art of reading and writing, meaning they are unable to use these skills for their own benefit or in benefit to their community. Along with writing and reading, UNESCO also includes basic numeracy within its definition.

The Centre for Sociological Research and the National Institute of Statistics have categorised educational levels as follows: illiterate, primary education not completed, primary education completed, secondary education with and without a graduation certificate, secondary and post-secondary level vocational education, high school and university degrees.

But of course, if we put illiterate people in the same category as those with incomplete primary education, the figures will be higher. Of course. And they will appear to be much more tragic.

It is the same as saying that the Spanish Romani population is between 500,000 and 750,000, or that it is 1,000,000. It does not matter. And this has been said since the late 1980s. But let us examine the population and applied statistics analysis.

Beyond the mass of figures, we should not forget that they are not official data. And as pointed out in the unofficial Spanish translation of the ERTF document (excellently done, by the way) by the Study Team of the Asociación Nacional Presencia Gitana, these figures have not been scientifically rendered by the legitimate, competent and responsible body, the National Statistics Institute (INE). The figures used are therefore accommodative estimates, with no solid foundations and from sources that have not been approved or supervised by the INE.

The ERTF report itself lacks solid foundations or realistic and achievable proposals. Found at the end of this document are general recommendations on education, which enlighten us by saying that the government should “commit” to improving the conditions of Roma students. In regards to employment, the ERTF’s messianic recommendation says that the government should “redouble its efforts” and also mentions other clichés and overworked phrases that Romani organisations have incorporated into their daily vocabulary.

They also propose that the Spanish government should introduce a criminal law provision that expressly includes racial motivation as an aggravating circumstance for any crime. It seems that the ERTF has not learnt that Article 22, Section 4 of Spain’s Criminal Code already defines discrimination based on the victim’s ideology, religion, beliefs, ethnicity, race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity as a crime. Another thing is for this law to be properly enforced, but in terms of whether it even exists, it does.

After so many years, we have still not learnt any lessons or from our mistakes. Spain is a hodgepodge of contradictions and patchwork solutions. As I wrote in my last article in El Desván del museo, Spain has gone on saying for many years that it is an “example of best practices in regards to Romani integration”. It is nonetheless capable of admitting that 70% of the Romani population over the age of 16 are illiterate. And yet we remain calm. Does anyone understand this?

The problem is that we still confuse charity and welfarism with equality. Civil society members who voice “demands” to the government insisting that the Romani community must integrate, and that governments should make “efforts” to improve the welfare of the Romani community are also part of this confusion.

Justice and equality must be carefully distinguished from charity, which are so often confused. Like justice and equality, charity is cited as a solution to a social ill. Charity presupposes a relationship of inequality where the strongest and richest voluntarily give resources or services to weaker or poorer individuals. We end up in an unalterable relationship of inequality. The strongest retain their position of dominance relative to the recipients. The weak position of being recipients is openly acknowledged, as recipients must accept handouts from others in order to survive. At the same time, it leaves recipients in a position of long-term dependency (Mattern, 2006).

And this is what we have been doing since time immemorial. We demand measures to help Roma integrate, ignoring the fact that we are also asking them to maintain a status of inequality and total dependence.

We have been led to believe and also encourage the belief that the solution to discrimination against the Romani community will entail making poverty and inequality into things that are comfortable. The European Union, national governments and civil society have spent years fighting to eradicate discrimination and promote the integration of the Romani community, while also worrying about keeping millions of people within the same status quo for decades. Welfarism does not enhance social welfare and reduce inequality: it institutionalises them.

So which will it be? In the end, I am going to have to accept that Spain is a good example of best practices with regards to Romani integration if we understand integration as maintaining levels of inequality and social injustice towards that community.

In order to meet the needs of the Romani community, and ensure that citizens’ rights are recognised and enforced, civic and political participation in our society is of crucial importance. Not being mere passive actors in the design and implementation of policies affecting Spain’s Romani community should be the main duty of our civil society. The same could be said for generating opportunities, capabilities and leadership so that Roma may benefit from a basic, yet relatively unknown right such as political and civic participation.

As we see Spain immersed in a second political and social transition, Romani movements (not to be confused with Romani associations) need to refresh their content, ideas and forms of participation. Civic commitment, which does not necessarily have to be political, can also contribute to the well-being of our communities and of society at large.

The development of the capacities of young people in public and political life, for example, has proven to be most effective in the presence of continuous efforts, as opposed to isolated events driven by third-party actors. Young people who have always been active in their communities are more likely to become informed and engaged citizens.

The importance of the active participation of Romani citizens in politics in order to build new forms of democratic participation must become the focal point of debate amongst the new generations and amongst policy makers focused on this recent renewal of Spanish democracy.

Let us not forget that political participation is at the heart of democracy, and new forms of citizen participation have become a key tool for citizens to make their voices heard in the political sphere.

We must be aware of how dangerous it is for the Romani community to have below average rates of political participation. The motivation of governments and civil society to include the Romani community in the decision-making process or to reflect their needs has been too low for too long. If we go on at this pace, this level of apathy and acceptance of patronage and charity will mean that instead of moving towards full citizenship, the Romani community will be less willing to become part of such processes and to participate in politics and thus become even more dependent and vulnerable.

In this context, it is important to emphasise that working with Romani youth can and should play an important role in building cohesive societies. This work should particularly focus on personal development and promoting the values of social equality, cultural diversity, active citizenship and fostering a peer-to-peer environment based on respect and tolerance.

Beyond making vague recommendations to governments in which we practically beg them to please take the Romani community into account, and writing lengthy and beautifully thought-out strategies for “Romani integration”, Roma citizens must become aware of the tools and opportunities for participating actively in public life. We should not be mere spectators to the titanic efforts of governments and civil society organisations to “integrate” us only later to come across laughable and unbalanced statistics claiming that 70 per cent of us are illiterate.

In such a scenario, the need for a Romani think tank in Spain becomes more and more evident.