Romania civil groups make up for government's failings

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Bucharest (AFP)

Tired of waiting for authorities to act, civil groups in Romania -- one of the EU's poorest members which takes over the bloc's presidency in January -- are taking matters into their own hands and drumming up cash for new roads and hospitals themselves.

"When I saw around 30 children with cancer and their families having to queue outside a single toilet in a Bucharest hospital, I was so disgusted that I said to myself: 'Something's got to be done'," said Oana Gheorghiu from the charity Daruieste Viata (Give Life).

She co-founded the charity with Carmen Uscatu. And in December 2017, the two women started fundraising for a new hospital for child cancer patients in Bucharest.

"Within three weeks, we'd received four million euros ($4.6 million). It was a social phenomenon, an unprecedented outpouring of empathy and common action," Uscatu told AFP.

A year on, dozens of workers have started building what will be Romania's first hospital financed exclusively through private donations -- "a slap in the face for the state", as Gheorghiu puts it.

- Parents' despair -

In another part of the capital, volunteers from the MagiCAMP charity are putting the finishing touches to a building to house families of child cancer patients.

Many children are sent to the capital because of the lack of oncologists elsewhere. But their families often have nowhere to stay.

"I felt the parents' despair, how tired they were after sleeping on park benches or train stations for months on end," says MagiCAMP's Melania Medeleanu.

More than a million individuals, and many businesses, donated money and materials for the renovation.

"It's remarkable that so many people joined in," said Medeleanu.

However, "if the state had done its job, there wouldn't have been any need for our charity," she added.

MagiCAMP had previously used an apartment to house parents, but it quickly became overcrowded. It has also organised holiday camps for more than 500 sick children.

Although cancer survival rates in Romania are among the lowest in Europe and the infant mortality rate is twice the EU average, the country's health spending is less than a third of the bloc's average as a proportion of gross domestic product.

In 2014, authorities promised to build four regional hospitals, paid for in part by EU funds. But four years on, not a single brick has been laid and the start date has just been pushed back to 2022.

The current left-wing government raised eyebrows by saying that the use of EU funds would be "too expensive" -- even though the cash is made available free of charge -- and that the hospitals should be built via public-private partnerships instead.

For one European source, that was just a way to escape EU scrutiny over how the money is spent, in a country where dozens of politicians have been convicted in recent years for the misuse of EU funds.

- Incompetence and indifference -

While Romania might appear reticent to use EU money in some areas, it has pressed for more of the bloc's cohesion funds, aimed at stimulating development in poorer member states.

Nevertheless, of the 22.5 billion euros ($25.7 billion) allocated to Romania for the period 2014-2020, only 3.1 billion euros have so far been spent.

The left-wing government complains that the EU's conditions for the funds are "discriminatory", even suggesting that Brussels wants to hold back development in the country.

"Lots of countries wouldn't be happy to see Romania criss-crossed with roads," Darius Valcov, a senior economic advisor to the government, said recently.

The health ministry insists that construction of the four regional hospitals "remains a priority".

But Vasile Barbu, head of Romania's Patients' Association, said he has ceased to believe in official promises.

"The state will never build a regional hospital because they're not capable of managing that sort of project," he said. "The authorities aren't concerned about patients' lives."

It is not just in the health sector that citizens have given up on state provision.

The residents of the northern village of Trestia, for example, complained of what they saw as the authorities' incompetence and indifference in the construction of a road linking it to two other villages.

And with the government only managing to build 24 kilometres (15 miles) of motorway in the whole country in 2017, the villagers ended up paying for the road themselves.

"Romania is the country where you're constantly told: 'That's impossible'," says Uscatu.

"But we, an NGO, are showing that it's possible to get things moving".