It seems that our naive trust in and human respect for our partners, has not been a bad investment.

Acceptance speech – András Biró / Hungarian Foundation for Self-Reliance

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.

Andràs BirÑ
Hungarian Foundation for Self-Reliance
Logodi u. 9
1012 Budapest