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For Hungary's Gypsies, self-governments boost development

Cornell University

An example of local minority government influence. Here, the government provides seed potatoes on credit to local Gypsy families. In turn, these families plant them and either pay the minority self government back or return an equivalent amount of potatoes. With the rest of the potatoes that are grown, the families are free to store them, use for next year's seed stock, sell them, or trade them. Photo by Kai Schafft/Cornell UniversityCopyright © Cornell University
ITHACA, N.Y. -- In post-socialist Eastern Europe, tension has been high between national and ethnic minorities. To avoid these kinds of strains, Hungary passed Act 77, a progressive Law on National and Ethnic Minorities in 1993. This law allows the Gypsies and other national minority groups to establish their own forms of self-governance parallel to the Hungarian government.

Cornell University rural sociologists studying the impact of Act 77 found that many Gypsy minority self-governments are driving forces in local development efforts, and although they differ in their level of effectiveness the local, social networks greatly influence activities and accomplishments of local governments.

"Historically, the Gypsies have been the most disenfranchised group in the region," says Kai Schafft, a doctoral candidate in rural sociology from Silver Spring, Md. "When the Hungarians passed Act 77, it allowed representatives from minority communities -- within municipally defined boundaries -- to be elected at the same time as municipal officials. Once formed, the role of the local minority self-government is to act as a government liaison and an advocate for its minority constituency."

The Cornell rural sociology survey found that local minority self-governments forged important political links with Hungarian governmental and nongovernmental institutions, while initiating and developing a wide range of social, agricultural-support, educational and media programs. "There is evidence that these projects in many cases benefit not only the Roma (Gypsies), but other ethnic Hungarians as well -- strengthening intracommunity social ties and networks as they improve local socio-economic conditions," according to the report, "Social Capital and Grassroots Development: The Case of Roma Self-Governance in Hungary," in the journal Social Problems (May 2000), authored by Schafft and David Brown, professor of rural sociology in Cornell's New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Brown and Schafft surveyed 420 known local minority self-governance (LMSG) groups in the spring of 1998. About 57 percent of the LMSG groups responded, and the sociologists found that about nearly 80 percent of the groups were involved in providing social welfare and that about 60 percent were providing cultural, educational and agricultural program support. Nearly 45 percent of LMSG groups organized local media (print and electronic) programming, and about 42 percent reported providing business start-up and economic enterprise help.

One major insight found in the survey was that impact of Roma local governance groups varied. To a small degree, local economic conditions influenced the impact of the minority self-governments. However, the researchers found that local, social relationships and institutional networks improved the Roma minority government effectiveness.

Says Brown: "Hungary has distinguished itself by passing, arguably, the most progressive minorities policy in the region, and minority self-governance offers considerable promise for the construction of a more pluralistic, democratic society."

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