Building Roma

23/06/2008 | Andrew Begg

Vivid meets Leslie Hawke, the co-founder of Ovidiu Rom, a prominent Romanian charity that aims to see every child in school and on the path to high school graduation by the year 2020

Present day Romania sees an inverse relation between child literacy and school abandonment, with literacy continuing to fall and school abandonment tripling for some age groups in the last five years.
– Picture: Johannes Kruse.

Vivid: You recently wrote a white paper report you titled, Learning from America’s Mistakes: A Proposal for Closing the Education Gap between children of Roma descent and the National Averages in the European Union, starting with Romania. That sounds pretty ambitious.

Leslie Hawke: Well, I’ve always felt there were many similarities between the situation of Roma here and that of blacks in the US given the history of slavery in both countries. There are many lessons we can transfer because a lot of data has accumulated over the past fifty years. We should import their best practices and avoid implementing programmes and strategies here that failed there.

So does that imply your programmes are only for Roma?
That question comes up a lot. The short answer is: absolutely not. My intention was never to help Roma to the exclusion of other needy people. My intention was to help end child begging and life-cycle poverty. But the fact is, abject poverty is much more pervasive among people of Roma descent than among people of ‘Dacian’ or Magyar descent. That’s just reality. Do we exclude children in extreme poverty who are not of Roma descent? Of course not.

The irony is that some Roma NGOs resent us because we are not exclusively focused on Roma, and some ethnic Romanians resent us because most of our clients are of Roma descent. Ovidiu Rom’s work is not about „Roma” or „non-Roma”, it’s about eradicating multi-generational poverty in Romania.

But the fact remains that the average educational attainment of Roma is six grades in school – and the national average is eleven grades. I feel strongly that Romania must face the fact that the lower level of schooling among Roma children is a national crisis in the making, and therefore, it’s really everybody’s problem. It is completely unrealistic to expect Roma NGOs, the Soros network, and the Ministry of Education to solve such an enormous constellation of issues all by themselves.

What ARE the current literacy trends? I recall you saying they were actually worsening, but that was some time ago.
The literacy rate continues to decline, and the school abandonment rate has doubled for the primary grades and tripled for the middle grades (up to grade 8). When you consider that one out of four children in Romania is of Roma descent, you realise it is inevitable that the problem will reach crisis proportions if we don’t make systemic changes now.

Wait a minute. You say one in four children in Romania is Roma? That’s pretty hard to believe.
We calculate it to be about 23 per cent, which yes, is almost one in four. And every year it increases slightly since the birth rate for Roma is higher than the national average. This fact should be a wake-up call to corporate and private foundations – and should encourage them to support early childhood education and lobby the government to address the gap, not to focus exclusively on pre-university and higher education.

Of course, I’m in favour of helping kids go to high school – and Ovidiu Rom has a scholarship programme for the special cases that make it that far – but there are a lot of poor kids out there, both rural and urban, who can’t qualify for high school because their early education was so poor. We have got to start at the beginning, not in the middle, if we really want to raise the education level.

It’s no mystery how you raise a country’s education level. But it is expensive and complex and it takes a generation to see significant results. Sadly, international aid organisations don’t seem to have the stamina to undertake 20 year social programmes – so there are a lot of failures out there, and a lot of jaded aid workers.

Basically, to turn the tide, you have to provide impoverished children with the things that affluent parents give their own children. Things like healthcare, beginning at the prenatal stage; decent living conditions, and nourishing food; early stimulation in the home followed by early formal education; the personal interest of competent teachers; and parental involvement. You’ll notice I didn’t mention new schools or scholarships for the gifted and talented. Those things are nice to have, but they will never make up for nutritional and intellectual deprivation in early childhood.

The good news is that Romania is the size of Oregon – and has a population equal to the greater New York area. If Romania really wants to reverse this downward spiral, it certainly has the capacity to do so, especially with the influx of EU structural funds.

The literacy rate continues to decline, and the school abandonment rate has doubled for the primary grades and tripled for the middle grades (up to grade 8).
– Picture: Johannes Kruse.

To what extent has the government bought into your recommendations?
I think in theory the government is in complete accord. Ovidiu Rom certainly doesn’t claim to have a patent on the solutions. The things we do – recruiting and preparing poor children for success in pre-school and the primary grades, involving parents, providing basic resources, are all things that the government believes in too. Unfortunately, there is something of a disconnect between what the government does and what the government knows it should be doing. I started out in Bacau in the year 2000 with the goal of demonstrating that integrated services to severely impoverished families would result in their children attending and succeeding in school.

I am proud to say that over the past eight years we have shown that integrated services, teacher training, and collaboration with local authorities really do work. We have refined our methodology, and now we have started to ‘take our show on the road’ so to speak. We are focusing on providing teacher training, consultation to local authorities, policy advocacy and public awareness.

I don’t want Ovidiu Rom to be perceived as some kind of social service ‘boutique’. In the first place, it’s very difficult to maintain adequate funding for long-term self-contained projects due to „donor fatigue” and secondly, isolated projects don’t fundamentally change anything. I’m very pragmatic. If I’m going to spend my life trying to increase opportunities for poor children to rise out of abject poverty (and that IS my goal) I want to be working for real, widespread, long-term results – not just a few phenomenal success stories for the newsletter.

What’s the hardest thing about your work?
For me, it’s raising the money to keep us going. I’d much rather be designing and overseeing programmes. I love doing that, and it gives me energy – because it puts me in the field – where the need is so visible, and results can be very personal and immediate. However, our organisation, like most NGOs, lives hand-to-mouth. So I spend most of my time at my computer and meeting with prospective sponsors.

What about the poverty you see in the field. Doesn’t that get you down?
Well, when you spend all your time trying to raise money, you don’t see a lot of poverty! Seriously, when I get close to the day-to-day lives of our clients I get mad – and being mad is highly motivating.

Speaking of fundraising, the Halloween Ball has become the event of the Bucharest social calendar year, bar none. It must be an awful lot of work, but it really is the closest thing Bucharest has to a grand community effort.
Yes, I myself am amazed by it. And it’s all to the credit of the young women on our staff who put it together. The first year I managed it myself, with the help of three indispensible volunteers, your own Andrew Begg, Alexandra Tinjala, and Tara Anderson. The second year we transitioned from predominantly volunteer to predominantly staff management, and last year they were telling me what to do! We use lots and lots of young professionals as volunteers – both with the planning and with the actual execution. If I say so myself, it’s a brilliant way to get young people involved in community service.

To what extent did the Halloween Ball represent a realisation that the Romanian corporate sector would become your prime source of funding? Because prior to that, you looked to the US for funds.
Today we raise approximately 70 per cent of our operating budget from the corporate sector. Most of those contributions revolve around the ball. But it’s more than just attending a one-time event. „Major Investors” make a multi-year commitment to donate at least 30,000 euros annually. They get two tables at the ball and identification on the materials we use in projects – on things like student workbooks, teacher’s manuals, and pubic service announcements. Major Investors are also invited to attend our Advisory Board meetings. The idea is to genuinely involve them by giving as much access and input to our work as they care to have. My hope is that they will feel a real sense of ownership in our mission. So I think of the Halloween Ball as a kind of „Annual Meeting of Investors” and we try to make it informative as well as fun and fund-raising.

So, Leslie Hawke, are you as optimistic about Romania as you were in 2004 when Vivid first interviewed you?
I think Romania is currently suffering from a bad case of adolescent awkwardness. Its features no longer fit its face and its actions are sometimes curiously clumsy. One can easily jump to the conclusion that it is not going to be very attractive when it grows up. But I have faith that it will outgrow the awkwardness and that Romania will eventually become a wonderful place to live and work – and drive.

More about Ovidiu Rom can be found at www.ovid.ro, and Leslie Hawke can be reached at hawke@ovid.ro