Beyond Poverty, Beyond Europe
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SAIS Review 25.2 (2005) 181-185



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Beyond Poverty, Beyond Europe

Roma in an Expanding Europe: Breaking the Poverty Cycle, by Dena Ringold, Mitchell A. Orenstein and Erika Wilkens. (Washington, DC: World Bank Publications, 2005). 350 pages. $30.00.

First off, this is an excellent book. Following an introductory overview, Ringold, Orenstein and Wilkens examine in its seven chapters the situation of Romani populations in four European countries, concluding with a final chapter on "The Road Ahead." Each chapter is accompanied by highlighted boxes scattered throughout the text—26 altogether—providing quick-reference summaries of specific points raised in the main text. In addition, the book includes copious tables and figures.

The book's overview stresses the point that the Roma have been particularly negatively affected by the transition away from socialism that began in 1989, calling the collapse of their living conditions "unprecedented." Poverty rates for Roma now reach as much as ten times that of the majority population, and the increasing birthrate for Roma contrasts with the decreasing birthrate among the majority populations. In one of the new E.U. countries, one in three school-age children is Romani; in Hungary, the ratio matches that between African-American and non-African-American children entering U.S. schools for the first time.

Following the overview, the surprisingly short section entitled "Who are the Roma?" is weak, however, and, in light of our current knowledge, outdated in its statements. It is not true, for example, that "Roma have no historical homeland." India is the homeland of the Roma. The problem is rather that Roma have no present-day homeland in a Europe preoccupied with issues of national territory. Nor is it true that Roma "live in nearly all the countries in . . . Central Asia." The only Asian country with a substantial Romani population is Turkey; "Gypsy" peoples in Central Asia, such as the Nawar or the Luli, have quite separate histories and are not Roma. On the other hand, between a quarter and a third of the entire global Romani population does live in North and South America, though this fact is not acknowledged. There is also no evidence that the ancestral populations moved out of India in a succession of "waves" as the book claims, nor did they leave there as early as the 9th century. Vagueness and even ignorance regarding who [End Page 181] and what Romani people actually are is extremely widespread, and a more detailed examination of this topic would have been welcome, particularly in a book designed to serve as a practical resource for teachers and administrators. After all, lack of familiarity with the facts of Romani history and identity underlies much of the negative attitude toward Roma that is evident in various institutions, including administrations and the media.

The subsequent subheadings address "Roma poverty" and "Why are the Roma poor?" The authors attribute this specifically to poverty being "rooted in [the Roma's] unfavorable starting point at the outset of the transition from planned to market economies."1 While this is undeniably true in the short term, the causes stem from deeper history, and these are not addressed. Also, the authors do not adequately deal with the reasons for the intensity and pervasiveness of anti-gypsyism, a major factor contributing to Romani poverty today. They mention that "stubborn stereotypes of Roma and non-Roma breed mistrust and reinforce preconceptions on both sides," but later in the book state that "the roots of such sentiments are difficult to trace."2 In truth, they are not at all difficult to trace and have been dealt with in numerous published works—and they need to be overcome before Roma will ever be able to function on a level playing field.

The book acknowledges the pan-European presence and identity of the Roma and beneficially includes a chapter on a Western European country (Spain) by way of contrast to the Eastern European cases. I would also have liked to see a section dealing with those post-1989 Roma who have come west to the United States and Canada to escape poverty...


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