Marginalized Perspectives from South-East Europe: Between/Beyond Poverty and Empowerment?

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Julia McClure and Julija Sardelič *

In November 2017 a wokshop in Slovenia encapsulated the possibilities that can develop from the exchange facilitated by the Max Weber Programme of the European University Institute. The workshop was a collaboration between the former Max Weber Fellow Dr Julia McClure and Dr Julija Sardelic. It was part of a project that builds upon the discussions developed during a previous workshop funded by the Max Weber Programme.

The workshop was hosted by the Cultural and Informational Centre in Kamenci, a Roma settlement in the north east of Slovenia. This was one of five workshops being held around the world for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project ‘Beyond Development: Local Visions of Global Poverty’. The project is part of the poverty research network (a cross-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration based at the University of Warwick and the University of Glasgow). ‘Beyond Development: Local Visions of Global Poverty’ aims to use the insights and methodologies of the arts and humanities to critically analyse constructions of poverty and narratives of poverty alleviation (especially ‘development’) within a cross-cultural and diachronic framework. Studies of poverty have often been dominated by econometric approaches, which can be flattening and do little to increase our understanding both of the multi-dimensional nature of poverties around the world and how ideas of poverty and its solutions have been conceptualised in different times and different places. Further, quantitative approaches to poverty have not offered insights into the ways people have experienced poverty. The project is a collaboration between history, law, and sociology, and considers the way in which history can be used as a tool of social justice regarding poverty alleviation, subverting mainstream narratives by indicating how they are historically constructed.

The format of the workshops contributes towards finding new methodologies in poverty studies. In an attempt to de-centre the loci of enunciation, workshops have been held outside of UK universities, in universities in Bangladesh and Brazil, at a Roma settlement in Slovenia, and in an indigenous language centre in Mexico. Reports of these workshops have been produced by people living and working in these contexts. Academics, activists, and people who are normally the object of discourses of poverty have been invited to participate. The aim of the workshops is to bring these different actors together outside ‘ivory towers’ and give voice to the perspectives that are often marginalized.

The workshop in Slovenia, ‘Marginalized Perspectives from South East Europe: Between/Beyond Poverty and Empowerment?’, was organised by Dr Julija Sardelić, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the KU Leuven International and European Studies Institute (LINES). The title of this workshop struck at the core of the project’s aims, to investigate processes of power and narrativity in relation to poverty.  One of the aims of the workshop was to explore how global narratives of poverty and empowerment echo in the specific context of South-East Europe, an area struck by armed conflict two decades ago and which also had multi-layered experiences with marginalization(s) and forced migration. Through the lived experiences of some members of the local Roma community, intertwined with presentations made by academics and representatives of international organizations, the workshop contextualized both the discourses on poverty and empowerment in the region.

We began with a tour of the museum at Kamenci, presented by Mr Ludvik Levačić, the informal leader of the settlement, and President of the NGO Romano Pejtausago (which means Romani Friendship in the local Romani language). The museum was developed as one of the projects by the NGOs in the beginning of the 2000s and has been visited by many people, including contemporary Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg, former Slovenian President Milan Kucan and many other international political representatives who supported the efforts of multiple NGOs and local authorities in the development of Kamenci. Beginning with this tour of the Roma museum at Kamenci was an excellent way to physically, emotionally, and intellectually experience how history can be used a tool of social justice. The museum shows that history is not monopolised by academics based in universities but is a malleable resource. The museum also aims to signal something important: outside academia, history should not be only in the hands of museum curators, who aim to reconfirm the greatness of national heritage, but it should also show counter-narratives brought by people and communities, who the state positions as marginalized minorities.  This museum showed not only the value of history for communicating cultural heritage and gaining recognition for different communities, but also the importance of historical narratives as a tool against oppression.

On the wall in the museum is a picture of Tito; Mr Levačić recounted his experiences of being part of a Roma community in Yugoslavia and the discrimination that intensified in the breakup of this state that, officially, had a multicultural discourse in its Constitution. The museum captures the values of the community and its objects are testament to the layered meanings of what it meant to be positioned as Roma in the Yugoslav state and also in states that were established on its territory afterwards.

Mr Levačić explained that in its early conception socialist Yugoslavia had a different perspective on freedom of movement and hence the state did not control movement to such a great extent, compared to control in later years. Levačić felt that he, and also other Roma, had much more freedom in Yugoslavia and were also very respected, despite being a non-territorial minority.  He emphasized that the non-territoriality did not come from the sense of non-belonging, but from the different connection to the territory that is non-ownership of the land.  This perspective is similar to those of some other indigenous tribes around the world. The display in the museum emphasises the importance of connection with the environment, displaying collections of local botanical products that have traditionally been used in local medicinal practices. The museum, and many aspects of Roma history, were brought to life by Mr Levačić’s lively tour.

The first presentation was given by Dr Julia McClure, who introduced the project and her own work on poverty and charity in the making of the Spanish Empire. McClure highlighted how there was a shift in attitudes towards poverty and strategies of poverty alleviation in the sixteenth century, which resulted in increasing criminalisation of poverty and its association with social disorder and contagion. New methodologies for managing the poor were advocated by humanists, such as Juan Luis Vives, who developed new models of ideal societies based upon the invisibility and exclusion of the poor. These humanists were the policy writers of their day and advocated new forms of poor relief based upon the institutionalisation of charity, and greater discrimination of who could receive this charity. Divisions between the deserving and undeserving poor developed, and these were linked to the capabilities of the bodies of the poor, especially their capacity to work. There was also a dramatic shift in the emphasis on caring for neighbours, the poor of local communities, and not strangers. Inclusion of citizens into new systems of charity were measured against multiple exclusions. Los Gitanos, as Roma communities in the Hispanic world are still known today, increasingly found themselves excluded from the forms of citizenship that were taking shape in early modern Spain, losing access to systems of poor relief that were increasingly linked to these notions of citizenship. McClure also summarised how the legal category of the poor facilitated the construction of the Amerindians as colonial subjects, the theme of her current book project Poverty and Charity in the Making of the Spanish Empire. This historical example from sixteenth-century Spain provided a framing for the AHRC project’s aim to conduct cross-cultural and diachronic analysis.

The following presentations were given by a range of specialists on marginalised minorities and migrants in South-East Europe, especially the Roma community and including experts from the Romani community itself.  Samanta Baranja, a PhD Student in Romani Linguistics at the University of Ljubljana, as well as the former President of Roma Academic Club and Project Manager at the Centre for School and After School Activities, spoke about the projects for reducing educational inequality between Romani children and their non-Romani counterparts. We discussed the problems with discourses of integration and the empowerment of Roma and the need to address the structural discriminations faced by Roma minorities. This raised lively debates about the limitations of welfare state models of social assistance, and the way in which discourses of charity have been re-conceptualised by NGO projects. One of the questions raised by Baranja’s presentation was this: why is it that Romani intellectuals are usually pushed to work with Romani populations and often do not get an opportunity to take their knowledge beyond this, where it can carry valuable lessons for the whole population? The reasons why Roma do become marginalized do not come predominantly from the Romani community itself, but from the way the broader society positions them.

Dr Paul Stubbs, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economics Zagreb, began his presentation by engaging with the ‘local-global’ framework of the AHRC project. He noted how the local and the global are not two distinct or distant levels but that, in fact, the two coordinates are often in dialogue. He used the example of Kamenci, which might be thought of as a hyper-local location but, instead, intersects with global discourses and institution. The building we sat in was built with international funds, and the money of the UK’s AHRC had brought us together. Stubbs then turned his example on its head to describe how we need to see the sites of global discourse, such as the World Bank, as villages. This perspective would enable us to construct ethnographies of international institutions, to assess how normative behaviours and narratives emerge. Stubbs then used this position to reflect upon the narrative that has dominated global discourse, including trans-national approaches to poverty in the form of ‘development’, since, it could be argued, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Development discourse has been underpinned by neoliberal economic theory, which is grounded in a notion of trickledown economics and sees the state as something which interferes with economic growth. Stubbs highlighted the narrative of de-growth, the need to increase equality and reduce poverty without increasing production, which endangers the planet, and the need to acknowledge the limitations of the formal labour market to provide the means of existence for all. This led to a lively debate on the future of the Universal Basic Income Movement and the future of welfare states.

Jasmina Papa, a Social Inclusion Advisor for the United Nations Development Programme, gave an overview of her project on people’s narratives of the migration cycle. Papa gave insights into the new methodologies for thinking about narratives being designed and used by NGOs today. She used the programme ‘sense maker’ to turn the qualitative data of micro-narratives into quantitative data that can be used to inform future policy decisions. The participants offering their stories also engaged in the deconstruction of these narratives, a method called ‘framework analysis’. The data revealed the reasons why people migrated (and returned), and the obstacles they faced in terms of accessing basic resources. It showed that many people would have preferred not to migrate, but were forced by the extremely limited possibilities of employment in the formal labour market. It showed the problems people faced accessing resources, both in the places to which they migrated, and the places to which [some of them] returned.

In her presentation, Dr Julija Sardelić linked together the findings on Romani individuals who became forced migrants or legally invisible during the post-Yugoslav wars to her current Marie Curie research project on broader theoretical questions on the invisible edges of citizenship and Romani minorities in Europe. She argued that to look for causes of marginalization, the researcher should look in the broader societal constellations and not simply find a reason for it in the alleged isolation of the Romani community.

The final presentations reminded us again of the significance of the location of our workshop, in the Roma settlement of Kamenci, which is also the site of the two NGOs established by Agata Sardelič and Ludvik Levačić respectively. Agata Sardelič provided us with an oral account of the history of the settlement. It began as she became involved in designing the pathways for new cycle paths in the region. A. Sardelić had suggested that these cycle paths should not only take a tour around famous monuments, but should connect historically marginalised communities. With this in mind, she designed a project for regional cycle paths that included the Roma settlement of Kamenci, where she was met with the tremendous hospitality with which anyone who has visited Kamenci will be familiar. Lasting friendships were forged and the Kamenci NGO was established. A. Sardelić has now been dedicated to projects at Kamenci for nearly two decades. These projects have not only improved the infrastructure and cross-community relations, but established Kamenci as a global meeting point. The projects were co-designed and co-implemented both by the Romani community itself as well as the local authorities. Such an equal partnership has proven to bring the most effective results, not only in soft activities, but also in bringing the relevant infrastructure to the Roma communities and changing their image from a segregated ghetto to an international juncture where different people meet and also live. The workshop ended with the oral testimony of Levačić, who gave his own account of growing up in a Roma community, and of living through the transition of the breakup of Yugoslavia. He also reflected upon his experiences of the development of the NGO.

The workshop provided the opportunity to reflect on the structural dimensions of inequality, and the problem with empowerment discourses that don’t address the systemic issues that prevent poverty alleviation, especially the limitations of the formal labour market to provide a living wage, the construction of migration cycles that are as disadvantaging as they are advantaging, the prevalence of racism, and the problem of the obstacles presented by structures of citizenships. However, what proved to be the added value of the workshop was the multitude of different voices, including those that were previously silenced: that is, not just from academics and representatives of different organizations, but also the lived experience of individuals who found themselves in between the narratives of poverty and empowerment.


*Julia McClure (MWF at HEC 2014-15) is Lecturer in Late Medieval/Early Modern History at the University of Glasgow and specialises in the global history of poverty and charity, with a particular focus on the Spanish Empire. @JuliaMcClure

*Julija Sardelič (MWF at SPS 2014-16) is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the KU Leuven International and European Studies Institute (LINES).  Her research encompasses broader themes of citizenship and migration, but she focuses particularly on the position of marginalized minorities and migrants in Europe (such as Romani minorities, refugees and other forced migrants, legally invisible and stateless persons). @JulijaSardelic

The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows and former Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme