András Biró / Hungarian Foundation for Self-Reliance

(1995, Hungary)

...for their resolute defence of Hungary's Roma (gypsy) minority and effective efforts to aid their self-development.


The Hungarian Foundation for Self-Reliance (HFSR) is the English name of Autonómia Alapitvány (literally, the Autonomy Foundation). It was founded in 1990 by András Biró, who had returned home to Budapest five years earlier after an international career as a journalist and UN consultant.

Contact Details

András Biró
Hungarian Foundation for Self-Reliance
Logodi u. 9
1012 Budapest



HFSR initially set itself the goal of reinforcing the overall process of democratisation in Hungary by supporting activities concerned with (i) the environment (and sustainable development), (ii) minority rights and the alleviation of poverty, focusing particularly on the Roma (gypsy) community, and (iii) the promotion of civil society and democratic processes at grassroots level. These were seen as key areas of need in the aftermath of 40 years of totalitarian government.

HFSR can best be described as an intermediary NGO and an agent of change. It has so far given about 400 grants to grassroots organisations. It has been instrumental in the establishment of two separate organisations: an environmental NGO called the Partnership Program, supported by a consortium of US foundations, which has now largely taken over HFSR's environmental work; and the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities, of which Biró is also the president. The latter aims to provide legal representation for gypsies who have increasingly become the object of racist attacks or whose rights have been infringed in other ways. In its first year, the Legal Defence Bureau handled over 100 cases.

The Foundation has now taken a leadership role with regard to the Roma within the East European region, and has received visits from delegations of Roma leaders from Bulgaria, Romania and the Slovak Republic. HFSR is now being funded to co-ordinate a four-country programme for the Roma. In each country this will provide for a Roma radio station, social leadership training and a legal defence system on the lines of that already operating in Hungary. HFSR will identify local partners for this programme. For example, the Association of Romanian Lawyers for Human Rights has agreed to create a special bureau for the Roma, who comprise about 15 per cent of Romania's population, compared with 5 per cent in Hungary.

What is unique about HFSR's work with the Roma is both its methodology and its choice of income generation as its main focus, an orientation which was determined by rapidly growing unemployment among the Roma. In the past, any assistance to Roma communities has been limited to cultural/folk programmes and educational or social assistance. SR has pioneered the idea of helping them develop their entrepreneurial skills so that some, at least, can acquire know-how, self-reliance and resources which will help their communities as a whole. The Foundation has provided grants or interest-free loans to more than 200 Roma projects. Also, around 100 Roma leaders have participated in an intensive 'Entrepreneurs Training Project' to acquire managerial skills either for non-profit or private enterprises.

Another initiative of HFSR has been 'The Tolerance Prize', awarded each year since 1992 to the representative of the Hungarian information media judged to have made the best contribution to ethnic harmony and the interests of minorities.

András Biró was born in Bulgaria of Hungarian-Serbian parents in 1925. He later lived in Budapest until the uprising of 1956, after which he went to Paris and worked on a business journal before becoming the founding editor of the FAO magazine Ceres  (1967-75). After that, he was the founding editor of the environment journal Mazingira. In 1978 he moved to Mexico, where he did consultancy work for UN agencies and with Mexican NGOs. Biró returned to Budapest in 1985 and continued this work until the collapse of Communism gave him the opportunity to found HFSR in 1990.

In 1996, András Biró retired from the directorship of HFSR and took up the chairmanship in the board of NEKI- MASSAG ALAPITVANY, a legal defence bureau acting in defence of the human rights of the Roma Community in Hungary. Recently he has taken up consultancy and advisory as well as evaluation tasks for international NGOs in the field of Roma projects in the region and in the Ex-Soviet Union.


Acceptance Speech by András Biró

December 8th, 1995

Madame Speaker,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A sense of astonishment and unworthiness hit me when the news of receiving the award reached Budapest. This feeling only grew when reading the names and deeds of my colleagues from Bosnia, Thailand and Indonesia, who act under conditions of extreme hardship and physical danger. I was asking myself how deserving were we for this honor in doing our job surely, - under the difficult conditions of the transition of our society, - yet in a state of law, democracy and peace. Whatever the reasons of the jury in awarding our Foundation, please receive our warmest thanks for this important recognition and be assured that the prize will be used to further our goals.

When we started more than five years ago the activities of Autonómia Alapitvány, the Hungarian Foundation for Self-reliance, it was with the idea in mind that the most precious goals of the bloodless revolution, pluralism and the establishment of the rules of law and democracy, would remain fragile as long as a healthy and active civil society did not become its guarantor. The more so, that the previous forty years had made a parody of both democracy and civil society, and the preceding thirty were not much better in this respect. Thus the citizen, the backbone and also the energizer of democratic practices having been impeded in exerting his or her rights for three to four generations, had to be offered opportunities to recover his or her sense of dignity and power.

Civil society in its totality being too great a chunk for our small foundation to take on as a goal, it was decided to fine-tune our objectives and we ended up with three specific areas which seemed to be the most demanding of action: the environment, a degraded heritage the previous regime had left; poverty and ethnic minorities, intimately linked in the case of the Roma/Gypsy community and the Third Sector per se, which lacked democratic management principles as well as practices.

After formulating our goals - with the help of a board of trustees composed of personalities with demonstrated democratic and professional credentials - we established some principles which still guide our action:

Firstly, our partners (recipients) are exclusively grass roots organizations of the three areas whose genuine plans of action should be supported only if a real partnership could be established, i.e. if their contribution (voluntary work, organizational backing, etc.) and our grants would create a whole. This represented a radical change from the 40 years of paternalism which corrupted the citizens, condemning them to eternal dependence.

Secondly, our grants should be modest, and in case of income-generating projects, interest free loans should represent the bulk and non-repayable donations the rest. In order to underline the partnership aspect, the foundation signs mutually agreed contracts with the local organizations, whose leadership then does the same with the participating members. All this is done in order to enhance the sense of rights and responsibilities of the contractual parties, the need of planning, and public accountability. The practical experimentation by our partners in self-reliance and citizenship is the goal.

Thirdly, from the start dialogue and respectful intervention is the answer to the 'how' of the relationship between 'donors' and 'recipients'. No imposition of conditions external to the community but continuous contact and dialogue with the objective to reveal internal reserves and provoke autonomous decision making. Thus a team of young monitors is trained to realize this exchange of opinion with the proviso: only ask questions, never give answers! Answers should be the result of internal reflection and provoke growing awareness of assets and deficiencies thus contribute to a better self-knowledge, the first step in inducing positive change. In short, Autonómia is not a simple money disbursing foundation, but a development agency as well.

With time, a certain shift occurred in the proportion of efforts and funds spent in relation to the three objectives. Environmentalism grew so fast, that an independent foundation was established. The crisis of the transition created a catastrophic situation for the Roma/Gypsy, a matter which required our full attention and practically all of our financial and human resources.

The only truly European ethnic group, the Roma/Gypsy, present in all countries of the continent, appear as a colorful curiosity at the best and a migration problem at the worst for the West. In our parts of the world to the contrary this community appears as a global social phenomenon. Their sheer numbers, five percent of the population in Hungary, ten or more in Rumania, and their dramatic exclusion create one of the most painful problems of the transition period and carry more and more visible points of contention between majority and minority.

Settled for two centuries in Hungary - Joseph II, the husband of the empress Maria Theresa, who even learned Romanes and started this process  - the Roma/Gypsy faith changed radically with the extensive industrialization of the country since the 1950s. Except for the musicians, they lived then for the most part on the outskirts of villages and contributed with their traditional trades to the local division of labour. Although excluded from society before the last War, they were treated more with a condescending paternalism than with hatred by the majority until the brutal exterminations of thousands of Hungarian Roma/Gypsy during the Holocaust.

The brutally induced social mobility brought about by the previous regime did not spare this community either. Instead of importing guest workers, the Roma/Gypsy work force was immediately available for the growing need of unskilled labour. In the late 70s full employment of the males was almost the rule. But at the slightest sign of the economic crisis, even before the change of the regime, the first to be sent back to unemployment were the Roma. So in two generations their traditional livelihood and social fabric were radically destroyed and replaced by a faith of urbanization and semi-proletarization. In the meantime the natalist policy of the government and their genuine love for children brought  their demographic growth close to that of the of the Third World whereas the majority showed negative growth.

Two supplementary and interlocked phenomena worsened the situation since 1990. The re-establishment of free speech was exploited by the racists to give free vent to the expression of their pathology and the hardening competition for the few unskilled jobs created a tension which expressed itself in physical violence and even mini-pogroms against the Roma/Gypsy. The worst picture you can observe today is that of idle Roma men sitting in the bars of the villages giving up the hope of any chance of employment.

As soon as the existence and priorities of Autonómia were known by the local Roma/Gypsy organizations - 240 local, regional and national groups came into life lately - more and more applications for grants started to reach our office. Most of them came from rural Hungary, and were written by hands unaccustomed to the pencil. Our response was immediate and only the limited funds available constrained the number of projects we could support. With the growing generous help of our friends from overseas, the internationalist US private foundations, we financed over 200 local projects in the last 5 years. There were mostly income-generating projects reaching out to approximately 20,000 women, children and men in the rural areas. Today there is a team of 12-15 young monitors, a third of them Roma/Gypsy themselves, who care for the ongoing projects and maintain the ties between Autonómia and the communities.

Several other projects have been developed.

  • One of these was the establishment 4 years ago of a Tolerance Prize for Journalists of the three media, whose work has contributed to better public understanding of how minorities live and how they think of the majority. This Prize is evaluated by a distinguished jury and distributed each year on Human Rights Day. This afternoon, a similar but more modest, ceremony is taking place in Budapest handing over the Tolerance Prize to 10 deserving journalists.
  • Secondly we have launched a Legal Defense Bureau for Roma/Gypsy, in Budapest which has been very active for the past 2 years and has handled several cases in court.
  • Thirdly we have given intensive training of more than 70 Roma/Gypsy small entrepreneurs  contributing to the enhancement of their elite.
  • And there is the PHARE democracy program of the European Community,  which has entrusted our foundation with the coordination of a regional Roma/Gypsy program in Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia and Hungary. The objectives of this program are: a) the establishment or development of Legal Defense Bureaux, b) the training of  Roma/Gypsy radio journalists and c) intensive training of community leaders.

When starting our projects, the disbelief, even of our closest Hungarian friends, surrounded our initiative. We were considered fools to lend money to the Roma/Gypsy, without any collateral or guaranties. We can report today that, - after a painful beginning during which we started to doubt our own approach, so weak was the repayment discipline - today the systematic reimbursement of the loans by our partners holds up to any international comparison, and that the repayment ratio has grown yearly by 200-250% during the last 3 years. It seems that our naive trust in and human respect for our partners, has not been a bad investment.

There is a saying in Hungary: 'Plowing is not what Gypsy loves'. Our experience of a half decade proves to the contrary. Not only has he learned to plough, but does it sometimes with more love and care than the old hands.

Thank you for your attention and support.


FAQ about András Biró

Questions asked in 2005

1. What is the biggest misunderstanding about Romas?

  1. That their divergent culture is inferior. Main components: no work ethics; ignoring private property; lacking capacity to integrate in the majority society; that no change in behaviour can occur; etc.
  2. Denial by the majority of its racialist attitude vis à vis the Roma.
  3. Not having a historical/dynamic view on the reason for their social exclusion

2. What are the most urgent minority problems in Hungary?

  1. In Hungary, the only real minority problem is the social exclusion and discrimination of the Roma.
  2. They represent 6 % of the global population; their demographic growth resembles that of the 3rd World. As the majority numbers decline, in 20 years, in 50 % of the primary school classes the Romas will be a majority.
  3. Income, schooling (The only important progress during the last five years to notice is their inclusion in the educational system), equal opportunities.

3. How does HFSR's work differ from other NGOs?

  1. As a foundation the tool of intervention is loans (money),
  2. respect and trust in the local Romas' NGOs (no collateral for loans),
  3. systematic monitoring/dialogue during the project time,
  4. promoting empowerment by provoking constant decision making by our partners  - at all moments and levels,
  5. accountability training and requirement,
  6. contractual relationship - as formal expression of partnership.

4. Why do you deal with this topic, when you personally are not part of it?

Because the exclusion of a part of the Hungarian society, the Roma, is

  1. maintaining a tension inside society,
  2. ignoring the problem doesn't eliminate it.
  3. If you have much poverty and exclusion this minders the development of the whole society,
  4. because equal opportunities are the basis of a democratic development of the Hungarian society.

5. Isn't your effort superfluous, as no change can occur with these people?

  1. The fact that 75 % of the loans have been reimbursed shows that Romas - provided they are treated with respect and trust  - as any other human group, react positively to an adequate approach.
  2. Radical changes do not occur rapidly. It is important to deal with the most burning social and discriminatory problem of the country.

6. What effect has the RLA had on your work?

The notoriety the RLA gave to the organisation made it possible to inform the Hungarian public, not only about the work of the HFSR, but to have the Roma Topic treated publicly and broadly and to show concretely that solutions can be found.




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