Of Enthusiasts and Sharks

After the end of communism foreign human aid in Eastern Europe experienced a real boom. But even though there are enough willing hands, ideas and initiatives a lot of NGOs face paradox problems.

1. Drohobycz., Western Ukraine: The young volunteers camp in the garden of a local teacher. During the coming two weeks, they are going to visit elderly members of the local Jewish community. They want to offer help with repair work in the old peoples? apartments, which are often in bad repair. In their eyes, painting windows and fixing broken water taps is a pragmatic and useful way to demonstrate their concern for the fate of the last remaining Jews of Galicia.

Sevchenko-street Nr. 9, Apt. B is the first working spot for Piotr, Robert, and Anna, three of the young volunteers. It is an old tenement building from the times of Austria-Hungary. The apartment owners, Mr. Jozef and Mrs. Olga Karman, are of a similar age as the building in which they live. In 1941, when the Germans took over the city from the Soviets, the Karmans fled along the withdrawing Soviet army. They survived the war in Siberia. Today, they live from a minimal pension, which is too little for covering even the most needed things. Somehow they manage to survive. When the young people explain their wish to help, the elderly couple is confused and charmed at the same time. First of all, they are invited to have a coup of tea.

2. After 1989, Eastern Europe became an Eldorado for dedicated people, organisations and foundations from the West. Many returned soon after loosing their romantic illusions, while others succeeded in making a difference. On an individual level, this might also be true for our three volunteers. On a much larger scale, it is powerful foundations such as the European Union’s PHARE program, the British Know How Fund, or George Soros’s Open Society Fund that have been investing billions of dollars into the revitalisation of civic society in post-communist Europe.

Does the outcome justify these investments? Asked this question, a French human-rights activist who works in the Czech Republic for a Roma-NGO, is somewhat pessimistic: "The growing awareness for Roma issues led indeed to more money and more projects. But I can’t say whether it really reaches those whom we want to help. So far, my impression is that these programs have mainly the effect that more and more Roma find employment as social workers. They are paid for dealing with those who continue to be unemployed. But as long as being a social worker is the only career option Roma have, I am sceptical if this will bring about any real changes."

Of course, successes and failures differ greatly from project to project. Due to the lack of domestic sources, many important and successful projects wouldn?t survive without assistance from abroad. Being often completely dependent on the gratitude of donors, many of these organisations never know whether there will be money in the coming year. This makes it hard to work on a continuous basis. In the critical eyes of a Czech NGO activist, this has also to do with the way most donating organisations like to spend their money: ?Donors are very reluctant to finance projects on a long-term basis. They expect that projects will explore other sources after a time. In our case this is entirely counterproductive. We know what we want to do: to give advice to refugees. However, the donors force us to waste our time with developing ever and ever again new names and new wrappings for this.?

3. Drinking tea in the Karman apartment on Sevchenko-Street. After some expositions of rather general character (age, country of origin, field of study, the friendship between the nations and the tragedy of totalitarianism), the volunteers direct the conversation to the need of repairs in the apartment. To their disappointment, Mr Karman reacts reluctantly:

"Well, we have problems with the water installation. But I doubt that you have the skills for that. I am an engineer, so I could easily repair it myself. However, I lack the money for buying the parts. Everything is now so expensive."

During the following weeks, the young volunteers often experience similar situations.

"Do you want us to paint this wall?"
"Well, it needs to be painted. But my son can do it. If we could only afford the paint."
"What about your windows? They really need some paint."
"Oh, this is dirty work. I don’t want you to do that. You came from so far. I think you should use your time for seeing something more from our country. It is a beautiful country, even if we are poor. Maybe you could just give us some money, so we can buy the paint."

4. Due to the dependency of donors, a successful NGO has to learn the language of those who give money. Sometimes this means that only those will have a chance who are able to fill out an application in English. Needless to say English proficiency is not always the best criteria for finding the project which would most deserve to be supported. In fact, English is only the top layer of the problem. The writing of applications is an art for itself, which can be a great hurdle for someone who never did it before, even in his native language. As a result, very practical projects are sometimes harder to find support for. The other side of the same trend is the appearance of application sharks, who invent jobs for themselves as researchers, co-ordinators and managers by writing seductive applications.

Photo by Clemens Habicht, Berlin

But even in when there is a good project and also someone who knows how to write what foundations like to read: not everything sells well. Providing poor children with school lunches might in some cases be the most needed contribution to their successful education. Maybe needed, but alas, not very sexy! Every foundation has a limited budget. Thus it might be hard to sell the school lunch project to an ambitious foundation, if the foundation could for the same money link its name to the introduction of a new teaching method (preferably imported from the foundation’s country of origin).

The result of such preferences can be visited in the way foundations and governments tackle the Roma question. According to a Czech governmental official, about 90 per cent of donations dedicated to the Roma minority in the past few years were used for the organisation of conferences and the writing of reports. Not all of these meetings and reports are useless, but the number shows clearly that there is something wrong. Thirteen years after the beginning of the transformation, almost too much has been written and said about the conditions Roma face; too little has been done to change these conditions. The flow of money for seminars and studies nourishes an often corrupt elite of Roma representatives, who discovered human right policies as an attractive source for income and attention. Due to the fear of reinforcing popular stereotypes, there is not much to read about this.

Florin Cioaba, self-appointed ‘King of Roma’ in Sibiu (Romania) is a good example for the mutually beneficial relationship between often dubious Roma representatives, the country’s political elite, and the European Union. The ‘king’ spares no moment to praise Romania’s president Iliescu and his "great concern for the fate of the Roma citizen". The king’s benevolent (and for sure well-rewarded) words might secure Iliescu and his post-communist party some votes from the Roma community. Maybe more important, the king’s approval of Romania’s official minority policy is a useful counter-argument in negotiations with the European Union, which had been criticizing Romania in every accession progress report because of discriminations against Roma. Yet what do people like Florin Cioaba do to improve the fate of their poorer ethnic kin? There is no general answer to this question. Yet it is obvious that many foundations and probably also the European Union, would be happy to by-pass corrupt Roma representatives in their attempt to tackle the Roma problem.

However, this is often not possible. It is impossible to help the Roma minority without the participation of the Roma. Without the availability of alternatives, corrupt local leaders are often the only ones who have access to people and information. And, somewhat paradoxically, despite the wide-spread sarcasm and hatred among ordinary Roma for the flourishing of the ‘Gypsy Industry’, they are usually the ones accepted as leaders among their ethnic kin.

5. For our young enthusiasts in Galicia, the old people’s reactions lead to a dilemma. They sacrificed their vacation to improve the life of the poor and old in a country that is poor and often inhumane to its senior citizens. Now they are confronted with the fact that this help seems in many cases less needed than they thought. After many discussions and two phone calls with the Berlin headquarter of the NGO which organizes the summer camp, group leader Christoph makes it clear:

"Our organization’s budget is very limited. Our aim is voluntary work. I am sorry to say, but we can only buy material for repairs that are done by our group."

It is not easy to explain the logic behind this decision to the people in their rotten apartments. However, for the old people in D., it is not the first time in their life that they find a decision irrational. They like the young people with the good hearts and empty hands. They like to show them their knowledge of languages, which they have learned in a different time. And to avoid further disappointments, they even find some walls which really need some fresh colour.


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