Community development: Changing living conditions from below

Oct 17, 2014


On the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, marked on October 17, Roma settlement Kuršanec in Medjimurje County hosted educational workshop “Plans and goals for future” aimed at encouraging discussion within community about different forms of poverty and the ways in which individuals and society can overcome them. Workshop was led by Centre for social welfare Čakovec and young Roma and non-Roma living nearby were encouraged to talk about their future dreams and how to achieve them.

“I realized today that it is possible to go out from poverty”, said Nino, one of the participant to the workshop, after hearing the two stories of young Roma people who have found their places in society through education and self-employment.

This is the first in a series of workshops to empower from bellow Roma community organized by 23-year old Darko Balog, UNDP’s community development worker, and in cooperation with local institutions, City of Čakovec and Medjimurje County.

While Roma poverty represents a combination of numerous factors from unemployment, lack of education to prejudice and discrimination, one thing is crucial: community development and mobilization are necessary to overcome them. This includes various processes, strategies and practices which promote sustainable, people-centered development and establish or re-establish structures of human community within which new ways of organizing social life become possible.

Recognizing this in dialogue with Roma communities, the United Nations Development Programme offers support to engage individuals like Darko who are motivated to mobilize members of their communities to act upon their interests.

As a community development worker, Darko seeks to actively engage the Roma community in making sense of the issues which affect their lives, setting goals for improvement and responding to their problems and needs through active participation.

Through his work in 12 Roma settlements of Medjimurje County - Croatian region with the highest ratio of Roma to the general population, Darko Balog motivates Roma to define their interests, empowers them and links them directly with public services such as health, welfare, housing, economic activities, education and training, and employment opportunities.

He also engages representatives of public and non-governmental service providers, bringing them in the same room to discuss many ideas Roma formulate and want to realize. He is in a daily direct contact with the poorest of the poor individuals explaining them their rights and helping them to fill in administrative forms for access to health insurance, social assistance scholarships, writing job applications, and so on.

National and local institutions in Medjimurje County have soon identified UNDP’s community development worker as a source of information and advice as a focal point for easier and more effective communication with the Roma community. This is implicit acknowledgment of public servant’s lack of time and skills to engage in permanent dialogue with Roma communities. Thus, he relays on his power of communication to convey authentic messages, and in the process is educating public servants as well. Balog is also particularly active in identifying ideas of the Roma community and supporting their elaboration into proposals for funding small community actions like workshop mentioned above.

“Community empowerment practices enable Roma to move from the role of objects to subjects, with the capacity and power to define and voice their own needs and objectives to achieve social justice,” emphasized Jasmina Papa, Programme Officer at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Croatia.


Interview with Darko Balog, UNDP’s community development worker in Međimurje County

What was your main motivation to work with communities?
The main reason why I am trying to support communities related to the general situation of Roma in Međimurje County. Roma still don’t have enough formal education to know about their rights and obligations. Thus the community needs people like me to help them in terms of social and economic inclusion. Also, the knowledge and experience I have gained during my education enables me to provide the necessary assistance to the community in administrative matters and to connect local governments with Roma representatives.

What do you want to achieve through you work?
I hope to strengthen Roma cooperatives, associations and NGOs, which unfortunately do not often cooperate between themselves. This is not beneficial for anyone and they need to unite in order to achieve any progress so that the community is accepted within society.

How does a day in the life of a community worker look like?
A usual day in the life of a community worker begins with a visit to one of the 12 settlements in the county, followed by a discussion with the respective Roma representatives. Then we pay a visit together to those citizens who are in a very difficult financial situation. I always try to find at least a temporary solution, which means that I write requests for financial assistance through which they can manage to survive from month to month. At the same time, we discuss options for longer term solutions. Unfortunately, these are far few and between. It is a good thing that the Welfare Center in Čakovec has contracts with different stores, which provide purchase orders for those in need so that they can buy the most urgent supplies.

What is your main task?
My main task is to identify the issues that the population of the Roma settlements is facing and, in collaboration with the local government, try to find a solution which is beneficial for both sides. Also, I am always looking for initiatives and hence try to support writing of project proposals for open EU or national calls.

Has there been any progress since you started working as a community worker? What has been your main achievement?
Ever since I started working, progress has been visible. Some institutions which used to ignore requests coming from Roma are now beginning to collaborate with the community. This is largely due to the fact that once they see I work for UNDP Croatia, their approach changes. So I think, being a community worker, I am really able to help the community. I cannot tell you about my main achievement yet, but solving requests that contribute to the community is a great success for me and I think that my fellow citizens share this opinion about me.

What are your hopes for the Roma community in the near future?
I hope that there are going to be more educated Roma with a university degree. I also wish that we get the chance to be also educated in our native language.