Romania’s Fraying Social Safety Net

Romania is near the bottom of all social indicators in Europe. If you live in Denmark, you have approximately a one in seven chance of growing up in poverty – or what Brussels calls AROPE (at risk of poverty or social exclusion). But if you live in Romania, at the other end of the EU spectrum, the odds are a much more sobering 50-50. When it comes to the elderly, only Bulgaria has a worse AROPE rate than Romania.

Even for able-bodied adults, the situation is not so good. The unemployment rate in Romania is rather low — 7.3 percent – considerably lower than the current EU average. But Romanians are not getting paid very much for their work. The country ranks last in the EU in terms of individual wealth.

One of the reasons why such a large portion of the Romanian population remains mired in poverty is the relative indifference of the government to the needs of the poor.

“In 23 years, Romania only mentions economic reform. There’s no public speech about social reform,” observed Mihai Florin Rosca, a long-time NGO worker in the Transylvanian city of Cluj. “Romania will do economic reform without regard to human resources, social investment, social change. Everything else does not count. It’s just economics. There’s no mention of morality, ethics, social planning, nothing.”

As Romania prepared to join the European Union, it did what was necessary to bring its social policy in line with EU standards. But after accession, the government went back to ignoring at-risk populations. In an ideal world, EU funds would have at least partially compensated for the government’s indifference. But the government failed to take full advantage of those funds – the absorption rate has been the lowest in the EU – and the rules governing NGO access to EU money make it almost impossible for all but the largest organizations to participate in the programs.

“NGOs have suffered more after 2007 when Romania entered the EU,” Rosca noted. “International organizations withdrew from Romania. USAID withdrew three months after accession even though they still had projects going on. I think it was a surprise for them that Romania entered the EU in 2007. ChildNet, which was USAID funded, actually cancelled projects during the implementation phase. The same was true for European-funded projects. These international organizations with representation here closed because of Romania’s new status. It became a full member of the EU, which changed the perception of Romania even if it didn’t change the actual situation here.”

It’s one thing for NGOs to disappear. But the impact on all the beneficiaries has been nothing short of heartbreaking. Rosca told me that “many good projects have been interrupted, and no one has taken responsibility for the beneficiaries, such as people with disabilities or children in special needs kindergartens where they’ve been helped to communicate, to socialize, to prepare for school. Too many projects have disappeared.”

He cited the example of a kindergarten called Bethania that worked with children with disabilities. “They were funded in the early 1990s by a Dutch organization that left in 2007,” he recounted. “In 2008 or 2009, they closed completely. This project had transported 60 children by minibus from their homes to this kindergarten where they had a rehabilitation program and a curriculum imported from Holland – all in a place built with Dutch funds. The place must have cost over a million euro to build, with specific equipment for disability rehabilitation with teachers who had studied in Holland how to do that rehabilitation. Everything was swept away. That organization tried to keep 10 or 15 children in the project by opening the kindergarten to a population who could pay for the service. From this income generation, they could keep it going for 10 or 15 disabled children. It worked for a year. But then it collapsed again.

We met in his office in Cluj at the Romanian Foundation for Children, Community, and Family. Rosca  has been working with NGOs from the earliest days of the changes in Romania in December 1989. In fact, he was a founder of one of the first Romanian NGOs, Asklepyos, which was organized to distribute all the goods that donor countries sent as soon as word went out that Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife had been driven from power.

We talked about those early days of hope and confusion in Cluj, the rise and fall of Romanian NGOs, and the sad state of adoption in the country.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I do remember. But I was not thinking so much about it. I had no idea that anything was going to follow. Looking back, we see the importance of that moment. But at the time there was not much said, and not much said officially. Only those listening to Radio Free Europe heard about that event, with not much interpretation.

 

You were here in Cluj?

 

I was a student. I was studying medicine. I’m a medical doctor. At that time, students were children, socially speaking. For a long period of time young people had a kind of status in Romania, more than elsewhere, of not being very socially involved. They were dependent on their families, who offered accommodation. So they were like children. Even though I was 24 or 25 years old at the time, I also was still a child.

 

Did you grow up very quickly in December 1989?

 

Yes, it was a jump: from childhood to adulthood.

 

Describe to me where you were on December 21 and how those events affected you.

 

I was moving out from where I was staying at that time in a student dorm to my wife’s parents’ house. I saw the army on the streets. They got out of buses at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon here in Cluj, exactly where we had to cross the street. So we saw them, but there was not much news about that. We heard afterwards about what was happening. The neighbors started telling us about the revolution, about the demonstrations in the street and the people who had gathered in the main square in Cluj. Then everything was extremely accelerated on the 22nd. When I went to the shop, I even saw a body in the yard. People were going to look at the body, which had been shot. But then we realized how this might be a risk, to be seen looking at the body. We went home, and that was it.

I wanted to participate, be more active. But my wife, and my wife’s parents, stopped me. But then on the news came this very alarming news about terrorists attacking children in hospitals. So, on the 24th, Christmas Eve, my wife and I went to the children’s hospital in Cluj to defend it from the terrorist attacks. I had claws for cutting gypsum that I was going to use against the terrorists who probably had weapons and who knows what else and were trained to kill — if the reports had been true. I was quite naive. But I was very enthusiastic, with a desperate hope and ready to make sacrifices. We thought it would be a dream come true.

Those days were extremely active. On the 25th, we met other colleagues in the rectorate of the university. Some students had already left because they were from outside of Cluj. We were from Cluj, so we were here. Convoys of aid were already arriving in Cluj. Lorries were waiting to be unloaded in the big sports arena in the city. We went there to help. We were not wanted. So we went to the cultural house of students. Another lorry wanted to deliver things for young people, who were supposed to be the people who organized the revolution. The news said that the young people made the revolution. So they wanted to give things to young people. But there was no structure organized to distribute these goods to the young. So we established a structure. We put a Red Cross flag on the culture house and convoys started to stop there and ask what this flag meant. We entered into relationships with international welfare organizations and heard for the first time about NGOs. From that time, I’ve been with NGOs.

 

Did it turn out that terrorists had attacked the hospitals?

 

Nothing has been confirmed. There was a film shown on TV – people with weapons wearing camouflage uniforms. But these were the only images, and there was no other explanation afterwards. They just disappeared: no identification, no follow up. There were other stories on TV. We were told that poison had been poured into the water system here in Cluj. We were told that terrorists were attacking from the direction of the airport, that they were using helicopters and tanks and a well-equipped army. Nothing has been confirmed. But the news had a big influence on our behavior and our interpretations.

 

Did you finish your medical degree?

 

Yes. I graduated that summer, in 1990.

 

You went directly into work in NGOs? Did you do some work as a doctor?

 

I did both at the same time. I continued my studies as an assistant medical doctor — that was the system at the time — for three more years until 1992. And I was also leading an NGO called Asklepyos. I was called the president, but we were all unpaid volunteers. We came up with a system of redistributing goods donated to Romania. We created a pharmacy where drugs were sorted out and given out against receipt to the population here in Cluj. We were working with families with many children and low income, distributing to them clothing, shoes, furniture, whatever was given. We also had lorries to distribute goods to the rural area. And we had a system for poor villages to distribute goods that were necessary or what we thought was necessary at the time.

 

Were you wrong?

 

It was debatable. Sometimes the goods were necessary but they created a lot of animosity inside the community because they were not equally distributed. We experienced a lot of fighting over goods inside the same family, by brother and sister, and you didn’t know whether you did good or not by distributing the goods. The goods were necessary. On the other hand, they entered into the community without accomplishing what was hoped for. So, maybe the system for distribution was wrong, not the goods themselves.

 

Where did most of the material come from? From neighboring countries or from further away?

 

Everywhere. Mostly from Austria and Germany. But also from England, France, Holland, so quite far away in distance. Also, from the States by air or over the sea. The Baptist Church and other churches organized missionary activities, and many families were involved.

It was just because of TV. Everyone heard about Romania, and there was a real movement at the beginning of the 1990s. It was pity, sympathy. People were touched by the situation of children, the situation in Romania, and wanted to help. They believed the news on TV and were delighted to be involved. That probably lasted until mid-1990. Afterwards, they started to question how it was possible to see those events on TV, who actually filmed it and why, who won the first elections, what were the objectives of the reform, and so on. When they started thinking about it, a lot changed.

 

It became too complicated?

 

Or it became too simple. I know that for me, the first time I went to Bucharest and saw the government buildings where the biggest fighting took place, when I saw all those bullets only above a certain line and only that building destroyed and nothing else, that was the first time that I questioned what happened. When I saw the TV building, I asked myself, “If they were able to destroy the first story, how come no one shot the antenna?” If they wanted to interrupt the TV transmission, they could have cut the electricity or shot at the antenna. Romania experienced electrical cuts for five years. That was a reason that the revolution was organized: people didn’t have electricity or heating. The Securitate had those buttons at their little fingers — why didn’t they shut the transmission?

 

Have you gotten any answers to your questions?

 

No. I’m still asking those questions. Nothing is clear enough about those days. Everybody has their own version. There’s no official version. Iliescu and the others don’t dare mention what happened. Those who organized it are still in charge of running the country. The only people who don’t believe that are the ones who refuse to believe it.

 

How long did Asklepyos function?

 

It still exists. But it doesn’t do much any more. I was leading it until 1992. In 1992, I accepted employment from it and retired from the leadership. I worked on a project in cooperation with a British organization that needed a little more structured functioning and therefore offered me a job. In 1992, I finished my medical training and had to go work in a small village in northeast Romania. My wife, being a student at the medical university, still had three years to go. I had to decide whether to practice in the village or be employed by this charity in Cluj.

I was employed by Asklepyos until 1998 when we established this new structure. I left Asklepyos to function here as the leader of this organization, with the same relationship with the British charity. Asklepyos continued to do projects until 2003-4. As an entity it still exists, but it’s not delivering services any longer.

 

NGOs had a very high status in the region in the early 1990s. But when I returned, for instance to Bulgaria, I discovered that NGOs didn’t have that status any longer. What’s the situation here in Romania in terms of perceptions of NGOs?

 

I don’t think there is a perception or an understanding of NGOs. I’ve suffered because of that. I am completely disillusioned about this form of organization in society. I’ve been trained by Americans and British, and I’ve been in contact with people who teach about NGOs in America and the UK. One cannot call NGOs a third sector in Romania. It’s not a sector. It’s not understood here how NGOs should function or what they should represent. This concept was imported in 1990. It was a model imposed by international bodies, but it’s not specific to this part of the region. Not even NGOs know what an NGO actually is or how it should function. Too many NGOs in Romania are owned by the leader — it’s a one-man show with the leaders dictating policy.

I don’t think anybody today thinks about NGOs here. They are no longer in the newspapers. Until 2007, Romania was conditioned for its accession to the EU. One of the conditions for accession was child welfare and children’s rights. Those who delivered services for child welfare were mainly NGOs. Therefore the topic was extremely appealing for the newspapers and in the media at the time, and NGOs were more visible. But after 2007, the pressure to change the social system in Romania has diminished or disappeared completely, so you don’t hear any longer about children’s rights in Romania and the NGOs have again dropped in importance and are not mentioned any longer. NGOs are sometimes mentioned on environmental subjects, mainly the Rosia Montana and the mining corporation that wants to reopen gold mining, and sometimes related to elections — but that’s about it.

NGOs have been mentioned when it comes to criticizing how Romania accesses the EU’s Social Fund. NGOs are blamed for being corrupt, for being incapable of delivering or implementing projects. They’re mentioned but not in a good way or to explain what they do – simply to blame them without any reasons connected to how they conduct business. NGOs are not mentioned in the laws; there’s no policy related to NGOs. There is one initiative today aimed at convincing the government to have a public policy on NGOs. It’s run by dinosaurs of the NGOs, representing the Center for Assisting NGOs in Bucharest and another organization in Timisoara. They are trying to have a law on NGOs and to convince the parliament to deliver a policy related to NGOs.

I don’t think enough is said about NGOs in Romania or in the region: about their value, their role, and their necessity, if they have one.

In 23 years, Romania only mentions economic reform. There’s no public speech about social reform. Romania will do economic reform without regard to human resources, social investment, social change. Everything else does not count. It’s just economics. There’s no mention of morality, ethics, social planning, nothing. Therefore people leave. Why should they stay? It’s obvious what is happening. But Romania has also gone from its childhood to being grown up, and I don’t think it handled that process very well. It was without a big sister or big brother. The only country with a big brother was the GDR, and it managed well. The others were lucky or not lucky enough to have better or worse leadership. We were not lucky.

 

You said that you felt that there was no history or culture of NGOs here before 1990, and this model came from outside. Do you think that there might have been some other path? Or was it inevitable?

 

It was inevitable. The last years of the Ceausescu regime meant destroying trust. People did not trust one another here. You can’t have NGOs or a civil society among people who basically didn’t trust even their own family. We were told that every third person worked with the Securitate, and it was probably true. Nobody dared being too open with neighbors, friends, even family.

The law regarding associations and foundations was still not abolished during Communism. It was passed in 1921. So when we registered Asklepyos, that law still existed. We were allowed to register an association with 21 founding members, the minimum allowed by legislation. We registered on January 24, 1990. I think it was the first or the second NGO registered in Romania. There was one registered on the 23rd in Craiova. A lawyer from a company dealing with forests knew about that law and said that we could register using the old law. The association of foresters existed under the Ceausescu regime and had been registered before the war. It had not been completely destroyed. When we registered our NGO, it was done based on a statute designed in one night with the help of an Austrian who came to Cluj with an aid convoy. He had with him both the statutes from the evangelical church in Austria and Caritas. We compared the two of them, we looked at the Romanian law, and we established a very bizarre and not very democratic set of statute for Asklepyos.

When the convoys came, we asked them who they were and who they represented. We saw Caritas and the signs of many other international organizations. We understood that it was a revolution, a disaster, and it was necessary to react. But what do you do in your daily activity? That’s when we understood that people in other countries sometimes care about their neighbors and help people with disabilities and people with social needs. We never heard of that before. In a Communist state, everything was taken care by the state. There was no private business or private initiative. One or two people were allowed to carbonate water and sell this mineral water. There were shoemakers and watch repairers, and that was it. Nothing else was private. And 1990 was a moment when people representing NGO came to Romania with huge donations. They were giving things away for free, and they were responding to needs. People wanted to recreate this system here by creating our own NGOs. But I’m sorry to say, we didn’t have a culture of how these NGOs should function. The state did not help. It didn’t regulate NGOs because it wasn’t interested in NGOs. When the international NGOs left, everything collapsed. #

 

Describe to me what happened with Asklepyos when the NGOs left. You no longer had aid coming in but you could partner with other NGOs. But you operated in a situation without much trust. It must have been very challenging.

 

Asklepyos was collapsing because of the internal life of the organization. The relationship with the exterior world was quite good. But it collapsed because its internal structure couldn’t guarantee the correct redistribution of goods. The partnerships ended because Asklepyos couldn’t handle the projects.

NGOs have suffered more after 2007 when Romania entered the EU. International organizations withdrew from Romania. USAID withdrew three months after accession even though they still had projects going on. I think it was a surprise for them that Romania entered the EU in 2007. ChildNet, which was USAID funded, actually cancelled projects during the implementation phase. The same was true for European-funded projects. These international organizations with representation here closed because of Romania’s new status. It became a full member of the EU, which changed the perception of Romania even if it didn’t change the actual situation here. The donor community found it difficult to accept the decision to work in a member state of the EU. So, many withdrew.

Everyone thought that Romania would take over some of the projects. But the disaster was that this did not happen. One type of funding disappeared, and nothing else came to fill that gap. This is how so many NGOs have disappeared. It’s a pity for these NGOs, but the big disaster is for the beneficiaries. Many good projects have been interrupted, and no one has taken responsibility for the beneficiaries, such as people with disabilities or children in special needs kindergartens where they’ve been helped to communicate, to socialize, to prepare for school. Too many projects have disappeared.

 

And the government didn’t step in.

 

No. Even today the government here doesn’t have a strategy to deal with what’s going to happen.

 

The absorption rate in Bulgaria for EU structural funds was very low. Is that the situation here as well?

 

It’s similar in Romania, and I don’t understand why. We’re not the first country to access structural funds. We’re the last ones. Why didn’t the government here ask Ireland, Portugal, or Spain how they accessed funds? Portugal is always given as an example of how they absorbed funds from Europe. They had been one of the successful countries, like Ireland. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel! Go there and ask people how to do it and do it in the same way.

What I do know is that structural funds are very specific in the way they are disbursed. The funds actually reimburse, rather than fund directly, and Romania was not ready for that. The structural funds did not function the way the contract promised. We implemented such a project funded from structural funding. We were promised pre-funding and a specific process for reimbursement. The state, our partner in this project, has not respected any of the clauses of the contract. Everything was extremely abusive and completely unpredictable. It was a big disaster for us as an NGO. The way Romanian authorities handled these structural funds has bankrupted us. Even today, they don’t know how these structural funds function. They should come up with a method of advancing the money so that organizations can spend it and then provide receipts for reimbursement.

We had a project of over 2 million Euros. How can we as an NGO spend 2 million to deliver a project and then wait a year to receive the money back? No one in Romania has this kind of money! World Vision and Save the Children have this kind of money, but not Romanian NGOs. Such a system can’t function. I’ve heard the prime minister say that he won’t allocate one penny for any project that can be funded through the EU. But again, they are reimbursing funds not giving them in advance. They should allocate 15 percent of the budget to that project and allow the project to function for four months. Then the organization submits the reimbursement form, and the same amount of money will come back and be used for the next four months, and so on. But this did not happen. Since the structural funds budget started in 2007, the proportion of funds used has been 11-14 percent. Even if it were 25 percent, it would be so small. Billions of Euros have been left unused. Our 2 million euro project, because the funds did not flow as they were supposed to, we only used 60 percent of that figure. So, 40 percent is lost forever.

 

Can you give us some statistical or anecdotal evidence about the impact of all this on the beneficiaries?

 

There’s a kindergarten called Bethania where they had children with disabilities. They were funded in the early 1990s by a Dutch organization that left in 2007. In 2008 or 2009, they closed completely. This project had transported 60 children by minibus from their homes to this kindergarten where they had a rehabilitation program and a curriculum imported from Holland – all in a place built with Dutch funds. The place must have cost over a million euro to build, with specific equipment for disability rehabilitation with teachers who had studied in Holland how to do that rehabilitation. Everything was swept away. That organization tried to keep 10 or 15 children in the project by opening the kindergarten to a population who could pay for the service. From this income generation, they could keep it going for 10 or 15 disabled children. It worked for a year. But then it collapsed again.

This is just one example. But there are so many. In October, we had eight daycare centers for children with a high likelihood of dropping out of school. We hired houses in the communities where children could receive a meal and were helped to go to school and at least continue compulsory educational system. We worked in four districts in Romania with these eight centers targeting children from families with very low income. These were kids in the fifth grade who didn’t know the days of the week, the months of the year, who had difficulty writing their names. We closed seven of these centers in October due to lack of funding. Now we are active only in one center, which has funds from a bank, not the state.

We constantly go to the authorities and tell them that in Romania 18.5 percent of children don’t finish compulsory education. Basically, one in five children doesn’t finish 10 grades. Of those who finish, probably half decide not to continue education. Of the,half of that half who continue to university, at least half will go to other countries to study or work after graduating. So, who’s left? Who will be the future lawyers or doctors?

 

What future do you see for your work here? And is there anything positive on the horizon?

 

Frankly, today, for the first time in 23 years, I don’t have any plans with the organization. I still have hope that something will change, that belonging to the EU will finally mean importing some of the social policies and some of the EU functions. But I don’t know when and if this organization will last that long. I was much more confident two or three years ago. I speak to colleagues in Bucharest and elsewhere and see how many of these organizations have closed or have financial difficulties. Not many will continue, given that very big organizations like Save the Children have had to suspend programs for three months and laid off 140 people for three months. They’re waiting for funding. It’s something structural. It affects every organization. So it’s not about the management of a particular organization. The entire NGO community has to be somehow included in legislation. If that doesn’t happen, then maybe one or two or three will continue. But it won’t be a cluster. There will only be individual exceptions.

The future is not that dark. Economically it doesn’t seem like it’s too bad, and economics do play an important role in this. It’s just slower than I ever imagined.

 

When you think back to your perspective in 1990, would you have done anything differently if you had a chance to do it again?

 

Yes, I think so. I had an offer to leave the country in 1990. And now I think I would, if given another chance. You only have one life. It’s splendid to be idealistic and invest in other people’s lives. But the effort to do it is sometimes a little bit too much.

 

You’re still relatively a young man — younger than me by a couple months. And your English is excellent. You could…

 

I don’t have a profession any longer. For 23 years I was working with no diploma, with no particular studies. What I have studied in the university — to be a medical doctor — is long gone. So, where to start? Nobody wants me. NGO people are thousands if not millions around the world. I’m not needed. My experience is in Romania, so what can I do? Nothing. I was hoping for a career in Romania in this field. But for that you have to have a business to run, and the business is not there.

 

So, your hope is that the EU will finally come through in some way.

 

Or that some NGOs from the EU will try to do something in Romania and look for partners. I’m not sure that the EU state or the Romanian state is today capable of looking at the individuals and the beneficiaries of special attention. This period of crisis is extremely difficult for so many families that don’t have the support they need. In this period the need is increasing, and the support being given is diminishing.

 

I went to a camp of “irrecuperables” in Gradinari outside of Bucharest. There was a lot of interest at that time in children in Romania, but some of that was related to a desire to adopt Romanian children. They were interested in the healthiest children, not the unhealthiest. Is that still a problem, where people interested in international adoption are taking the healthiest children out of Romania?

 

International adoption has been banned.

 

When did that happen?

 

2005.

 

Do you think that was the right decision?

 

No, of course not. Adoption is a mechanism for offering children a family. If it was corrupt, then intervene against the corruption. But don’t make it impossible for any child to be adopted internationally. Adoption is a recognized method. If you don’t find a family in the country of origin then international adoption is the last possibility. Agreements between states are possible. We live in an information world, so it should be easier than 50 years ago when you had to visit the family to see how the child is doing. It should be easier to have a decent, well-informed system of international adoption that puts the interest of the child at the center.

 

Did domestic adoption go up when international adoption was banned?

 

No. Even if it did, it would have been for blond, blue-eyed children. Those who adopted dark-skinned children from the Gypsy community were the Spanish and the southern Italians. They very much resembled the Spanish and the Italians. Romanians don’t actually adopt Roma children. Some of the international families, because they were so happy to receive a child for adoption, consented also to take a child with disabilities. There were cases of success with that — children who received operations and partial rehabilitation. Of course there was abuse. But it was a mistake to ban all adoptions because of these cases of abuse.

 

And how are the conditions in the orphanages?

 

Bad as always, if not worse. Nothing has changed structurally in the way that children are treated inside the orphanage. The material life has improved but not the curricula or the personnel or the internal life of the institution or the way that they are treated — these did not change enough. Some of the children who now exit that system are maybe even worse off than they were before. After they graduate at 18, they are on the streets on their own, with no support of family, with education that is very questionable, with abilities and capabilities that do not at all allow them to function as independent individuals. The number of those left in the system would be much higher if Romania had not been promising to reduce the number. So many of the families live in such bad conditions that actually, from a material point of view, it would be in the interest of the child to enter the institution!

But the surface is pretty. If you look around you see beautiful cars, beautiful houses, wealth. Probably 20-30 percent of the population is wealthy. They go on holidays abroad; their children might study outside of Romania. Unfortunately there is this discrepancy: 30 percent of the population is poor, with a level of poverty that is ridiculous in Europe.

 

And there is no tradition of charitable giving in Romania.

 

No. This tradition has to be stimulated, encouraged. If you see no tradition for charitable giving, then invent a law to make it interesting for people to give. In many countries, contributions are deducted from the income and exempted from taxes, but here in Romania to donate money does not bring you any material advantage. On the other hand, in Romania the state authorities have a monopoly on all social services, on the educational and health system, and it doesn’t want to give away any of that power. If they would liberalize the social services system, the competition between the state-owned and the private-sector-run social services would probably improve both systems and make them more efficient, to the advantage of the beneficiaries.

 

It’s a bleak perspective.

 

I look at the situation from the point of view of those who need social services. And it doesn’t look good from their perspective.

 

Cluj, May 16, 2013

 


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