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Charity From Above: George Soros and the Anatomy of Roma Rights Activism

Over the course of spring break, I co-led a group of six Yale students through Central Europe to study the Roma people’s most pressing challenges and their attempts to build strong communities amongst themselves. Over the course of meetings with activists, professors and politicians alike, we reached an impasse on the latter aim.

Our group discovered that most well-known development NGOs are not run by the Roma themselves, but rather by outsiders who, despite their good intentions, will never fully understand the discrimination Roma face. This was odd to me. I cannot name a single successful human rights movement not led by the population affected by the abuses. Thus, I spent most of the trip attempting to deconstruct what civil society means for Roma rights.

Almost all conversations on this topic led back to George Soros, billionaire hedge fund manager and chairman of the Open Society Foundation (OSF). Soros has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Roma rights and community-building, most of which was spent on the Decade of Roma Inclusion. The Decade, which was a collaboration between the OSF and the World Bank, intended to close the gaps between Roma and non-Roma populations in terms of health, education, employment and housing between the years 2005 and 2015.

Our group spoke with Roma rights advocate Gwendolyn Albert, on the Decade’s efficacy. Albert is an American who arrived in Prague on her Fulbright year in 1989. She has done significant advocacy work on human rights abuses against the Roma, including campaigning for compensation for Roma women who were forcibly sterilized.

“I am not aware of any outstanding successes,” Albert said of the Decade in an interview with The Politic.

In its final report, the Decade’s secretariat questioned whether the initiative should be labeled a “lost decade,” given its spectacular failure in achieving substantial improvements in any four of its objectives: education, housing, employment and health.

Still, many Soros supporters point to positive outcomes as evidence that the Decade had some impact. Some, including Soros himself, say that the National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS)—which were mandated by the European Union in 2011were a direct result of the Decade.

Martin Martinek, Head of the Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs in Czechia, told The Politic that he appreciated the Decade for giving people a forum to share best practices for Roma integration. But critics, including Romanian activist and Special Representative of the Secretary General to the Council of Europe Valeriu Nicolae, are quick to counter.

Nicolae explained to our group that any country can have a strategy. The issue, he told us, is in the implementation (or lack thereof). Agencies often develop obsessions with buzzwords instead of substance. Too many initiatives, he said, like to mention terms like “stakeholder involvement” because funders demand participation from the Roma community, but do not commit to truly involving the Roma.

Nicolae rejected crediting the Decade for the creation of NRIS. He explained that the ideas and framework for NRIS existed long before the Decade was ever announced. At the time, he said, people thought he was crazy for suggesting that every country should take some sort of written responsibility for improving the conditions of Roma populations.

At the least, the Decade was part of a normalization process during which Roma rights became an issue that every Central European government felt they had to commit to. From this perspective, it is easy to see how an idea rejected before the Decade would successfully be incorporated into policy after its completion.

The people we spoke to were also divided on Soros’ impact on Central European NGOs. Nicolae claimed that civil society in the region was artificial; that is, people who worked for NGOs did not actually care about the problems they were addressing. He claimed that because Soros funded the creation of easy, well-paying jobs, his campaigns attract bureaucrats content to carry out superficial tasks.

In a different vein, Martina Horvathova, a Czech Roma rights activist, complained that the current NGO climate appropriates Roma experiences.

“It is fashion to work with Roma women now,” Horvathova told The Politic.

Her criticism raises the question: In a year or two, will people still care about these issues when the funding has gone elsewhere?

The answer to this might disappoint. Numerous Soros-funded NGOs in Hungary that work on Roma rights issues have shut their doors over the last few years. In the past, they were almost solely dependent on Soros and the Norwegian government for funds. When Hungarian government agents raided the offices of NGOs who distributed such funds in 2014, they set off a wave of fear among other NGOs that they would be targeted by raids and rigged audits.

At the same time as the Hungarian government’s crackdown, new leadership at OSF wanted to expand the organization’s scope to other parts of the world. As a result, prominent organizations like Romaversitas and the National Ethnic Minority Legal Defense Office have closed as Soros-associated funding ran out. Their directors have expressed their anger and confusion at the Open Society’s decision to, in their perspective, abandon the Roma. Romaversitas, in particular, was also angry that the OSF has concentrated its efforts on other Soros-affiliated programs—like scholarships for Roma students at Soros-founded Central European University.

On the other hand, someincluding the director of Autonomia International, an NGO that runs education programs in Hungarian Roma communitiesstill consider Soros to be a hero for Roma everywhere. These champions of Soros’s goodwill remain, however, largely non-Roma. While visiting a segregated Roma settlement in Bag, Hungary, our group asked adults and children at a primary education center what they thought of George Soros. No one had heard of him.

This experience cemented our perception of Soros as remaining detached from the circles he has most tried to help. Soros is a philanthropist for the Roma elite, but not for the many more who have not yet attempted to leave their communities. Instead, it was the non-Roma directors of NGOs in Budapest who told us that they were proud members of Soros’ Army.

The fates of the NGOs that remain in Central Europe are still uncertain. Soros and organizations associated with him are currently in the midst of a second wave of attack. The Hungarian national government has recommended that NGOs which receive foreign funding be shut down over concerns about “terrorism” and “money laundering.” The targeted groups, which include OSF and other organizations like Amnesty International Hungary, view it as an attempt to brand human rights groups as dangerous “foreign interests.”

Central European University is the first on the chopping block. The Hungarian government believes that the university, which is also accredited in the United States, has an unfair advantage over Hungarian universities. In April, around 70,000 people gathered outside the Hungarian Parliament to protest, citing the decision as a troubling example of government oppression. Aaron Demeter, Amnesty International Hungary’s campaign manager and human rights expert, explained that if Hungary falls to this repressive legislation, Slovakia and Poland could quickly follow. This threatens to recreate an Eastern block of authoritarian right-wing populism.  

In every meeting we had, I asked what activists, researchers, and professors thought of George Soros. For the most part, answers were black or white. Either people were self-styled members of Soros’ Army, or they were vehemently critical of his and the Open Society Foundation’s work for the Roma.

Perhaps this article perpetuates the problem. By focusing on Soros, the OSF, and other NGOs, I pay lip service to the human rights abuses that the Roma must confront every day. But this is the weak spot of much of civil society in Central Europe. Soros and the OSF have inserted themselves so far into the Roma rights cause that the issue has ceased to be one of human rights.

Because of Soros’s polarizing involvement, the Roma rights movement exists primarily as part of a larger political conversation. This distracts us from the unjustifiable violations of fundamental rights that continue to take place against the Roma people. Too often, Soros commands more attention than the issues he supports.

This piece is the second in a multi-part series on Roma Rights. For an introduction to the topic, see Megan McQueen’s photo essay