Major Effort To End Romany Exclusion Launched In Sofia

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Sep 19 12:27:41 UTC 2006

Analysis: Major Effort To End Romany Exclusion Launched In Sofia

The leaders of eight East-Central and Southeastern European countries --
Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia
and Montenegro, and Slovakia -- met in Sofia on 2 February [2005] to
officially launch an ambitious program aimed at overcoming the social
exclusion of ethnic Roma. The idea for the program, called the Decade of
Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, emerged from a conference on the situation of
the Roma in the expanding Europe held in Budapest in June 2003. The main
sponsors of the new program are the World Bank and the Open Society
Institute (OSI). Both World Bank President James Wolfensohn and OSI
Chairman George Soros lauded the launch of the Decade for Roma Inclusion
as a real change in the international efforts and a major step forward in
tackling the problems of the estimated 7 million-9 million Roma, who make
up roughly 2 percent of the population of Europe.

The concept of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is quite simple. Each of the
participating governments will set goals for improvements in four key
areas: education, employment, health, and housing. The main bodies of the
Decade of Roma Inclusion -- the International Steering Committee, which is
made up of government representatives, Roma from each country, and
international organizations -- will help plan those efforts. The program
will also provide a framework for monitoring the improvements on the
national levels. At present, a large majority of the Roma in the
participating countries is trapped in a vicious circle. Marginalized and
often discriminated against by the majority populations, Roma often lack
the elementary education that would qualify them for jobs to help overcome
poverty. Recent studies by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP),
the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank also show that
the lack of qualification is -- at least in part -- also responsible for
the poor health of many Roma. Higher-than-average birthrates, high infant
mortality, and a low average life expectancy are only part of this
problem. The studies also indicate that the shortcomings in the education
of Roma also resulted in their lagging participation in politics.

The new program can indeed be a major change for the better if the
governments involved fully and conscientiously implement the goals set by
the programs and their national action plans. The fact that the European
Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the
UNDP, the Council of Europe, and other international organizations are
participating in the program as partners gives grounds for optimism. Over
the past 15 years, there have been numerous efforts and programs aimed at
improving the situation of the Roma in postcommunist countries.  Such
programs have sought to improve their qualifications, improve
infrastructure and housing conditions, and tackle discrimination, for
instance. The EU, the World Bank, the UNDP, NGOs, and charities all
sponsored such projects. There was, however, little coordination among all
these programs, with the exception the Informal Contact Group of
International Organizations on Roma, Sinti and Travellers, where
representatives of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and the
OSCE met on a more or less regular basis from 1999.

Apart from coordination, earlier efforts to improve the situation of the
Roma also lacked a sober assessment of their effectiveness. One such
assessment was commissioned by the European Commission. The "Review of the
European Union Phare Assistance to Roma Minorities," published in
December, examined EU-sponsored programs for Roma in Bulgaria, the Czech
Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. This report showed clearly that
much Phare assistance was spent on education or education-related
programs. However, it also demonstrated that a large share of EU
assistance was spent on infrastructure projects that had little or no
impact. Health programs and health information together made up only about
1.2 percent of all the projects. In a way, the Decade of the Roma
Inclusion is also the result of a growing political consciousness among
the Roma themselves. Not only were Romany representatives actively
involved in drafting the program; they will also be involved in their
respective governments' efforts to implement national plans to improve the
social inclusion of Romany minorities. This can prove difficult, however,
in light of the fact that a number of Romany NGOs from Bulgaria and the
Czech Republic have already criticized their governments' lack of
cooperation with representatives of the Roma.

"Some governments are demonstrating fundamental misunderstandings of the
Roma Decade as a political process," the Prague-based Dzeno Association
warned in a written statement on 2 February. "During the next 10 years,
the countries involved in the Roma Decade will simply continue in the same
policies that were started before the Decade. It doesn't seem that the
Decade will increase the participation of Roma in the decision making
process.... At least in the Czech Republic, the government has failed to
make the ideas of the Decade publicly known and really to involve Roma in
the preparation process for the so-called Roma Decade Action Plan."  An
open letter to the Bulgarian government by Roma NGOs stated on 8 February,
"We don't take part in the decision-making concerning us in any way,"
adding, "And when the decisions are made by others, the responsibility is
also not ours." On an international political level, the coordinating and
monitoring functions of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is mirrored to a
certain extent by the recent foundation of the European Roma and
Travellers Forum (ERTF), which will serve as an umbrella organization
representing Romany interests on the European level. After its official
launch in December, the ERTF was recognized by the Council of Europe as a
partner organization, and it plans to become a partner organization of the
EU as well.

The official launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion and the formation of
the ERTF suggest that the Roma might one day be accepted as equal among
equals in Europe. But in his speech on the occasion of the signing of the
agreement between the ERTF and the Council of Europe, Rudko Kawczynski,
the ERTF's interim president, warned on 15 December that this will take
time. "I am well aware that we are only at the beginning of a long
journey, and that 700 years of prejudice and exclusion of our people
cannot be abolished overnight," Kawczynski said. "But with the path we
started to pursue today, we have come decisively closer to that goal."

No wonder, then, that George Soros on 2 February warned: "It will require
strong and persistent efforts to overcome [the exclusion of the Roma].
Together, we must make sure that the lofty goals announced today do not
turn into empty words."

(RFE/RL, by Ulrich Buechsenschuetz) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


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