Europe: Bring the Roma in from the Cold

The following article originally appeared in New Europe.

It was a cold Christmas in Tiszabura, an impoverished village situated in northeast Hungary where 80 percent of the population is Roma. On December 13, the heating was turned off in the school, medical center, and all public offices in the town. Tiszabura was the last stop in 2010 for the campaign "Equal Chances Against Cancer," run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee–Hungary and the Open Society Foundations.  As the local resident health visitor explained:

The heating in the municipality was cut off already, and the winter school-break started a week earlier here: the Breast Cancer Screening and Health Day was the last day in school. When the last awareness discussion finished, the kids were let go, and the heating was cut off. Apparently the electricity will also be cut off in January. We have no idea what will happen after that. The kindergarten was already shut down, and it looks like the school is also in danger.

The Hungarian government made the launch of an EU Framework for National Roma Inclusion Strategies a key priority as it assumed the EU presidency on January 1. Beyond the scheduled April launch, the real challenge lies in making a difference in Tiszabura, and all the other towns, villages, and urban ghettos across the new EU member states, settlements mired in poverty and deprivation.

In a report submitted to the European Parliament, Hungarian Roma MEP Livia Jaroka drew attention to the geography of social exclusion, and the concentration of disadvantage within underdeveloped micro-regions. She warned of increasing polarization as much of this exclusion remains "invisible" to European statisticians, commission officials, and policy makers. Jaroka called for a Europe-wide crisis map to survey those micro-regions where communities are hardest hit, and reiterated her demand for fewer bureaucratic obstacles and more policy and funding coordination from the EU.

While it is true that national governments bear primary responsibility for the rights and well-being of all of their citizens, the European Commission cannot afford to be disinterested in how EU member states spend EU monies. When reports surface in the New York Times about how one Slovak ministry in the former government siphoned off €600,000 earmarked for Roma education and gave it to two soccer teams, it must be ceded that the time is right for closer monitoring, more rigorous impact evaluation, and a less timorous brand of intervention from Brussels. A recent EU report confirms that "member states do not properly use EU money for the purpose of effective social and economic integration of Roma." The report notes that a lack of know-how and capacity to absorb EU funds is compounded by weak inclusion strategies and bottlenecks at national regional and local levels.

The consequences of bottlenecks, no know-how, and weak capacity are felt most keenly in places like Tiszabura.  As the health visitor put it:

Children are in a bad way, they starve a lot, especially now that the public kitchen has closed down. The public kitchen provided three meals a day for every child. However, the kitchen was operated by an entrepreneur, the municipality accumulated such a debt that the entrepreneur had enough, upped and left…  Winter is especially difficult. In December, you can see people walking in the snow in summer sandals, because they have no other shoes … Heating is a problem.  Families tend to heat only one room in the house and use wet wood which makes unhealthy smoke. I know families where 30 people live under the same roof, all of them clustered in one heated room—imagine if only one of them is ill or smokes a cigarette.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared, "By the end of the Hungarian presidency, the European Union will have a Roma policy."  Such a policy needs to combine a rights-based approach with clear development goals for social inclusion, which guarantee equal access to basic services necessary to lead a life with dignity. A Roma policy needs to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty and disadvantage which poses grave challenges for the future cohesion and well-being of entire societies. And such a policy needs to shine a light on villages like Tiszabura, to banish despair, to restore some semblance of hope for a better future, and to bring our Roma fellow-citizens in from the bitter cold climate of social exclusion.

1 Comment

Hi Bernand,

Thank you for opening up the discussion on this topic,

Indeed, we need a Roma policy. But that, I think you would agree, would be just the starting point. Sustainably lifting Roma out of poverty would be the ultimate outcome of a long chain of elements that needs to be aligned with that policy.

Several issues are critical here. One is the issue of responsibility. Any strategy should be worded carefully so that it doesn’t create the impression that Brussels is taking over the issue of Roma inclusion from the national and local authorities in individual member states, where the issue belongs.

The second is about the philosophy of overall intervention. It’s important to address Roma exclusion as a human development challenge. By this I mean the availability (or, rather lack thereof) of choices and freedoms for people to live the life that they have reason to value. Providing Roma with opportunities to develop their talents and make free choices of their own should be at the core of Roma inclusion.

The third is about the target. Instead of ‘including Roma’ the target should be including all who are excluded. Not all Roma are excluded and not all excluded are Roma. Those Roma who are excluded, should be distinguished from those who are educated, successful professionals. Otherwise, we replicate and reinforce the stereotype of Roma as a uniform ‘underclass’. And we keep doing that with taxpayers’ money!

The fourth issue is the very meaning of ‘inclusion’. It needs to be clearly articulated. What does in mean for Roma ‘to be included’? What does ‘including Roma’ mean for non-Roma? The answers to these questions are very likely to be different.

The acceptable price each side is willing to pay is another element of the chain. I don’t mean financial aspects here, I mean answering the question “What are you willing to sacrifice for the common benefit stemming from Roma inclusion?” It’s common because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it’s not just the Roma who benefit – it’s all of us. This awareness however has not been translated into understanding – and approaching – inclusion as a complex interaction in which each party gets something but also sacrifices something. It’s a two-way process but it is often being presented (and perceived) as a unilateral set of changes that need to happen on the side of the majority only without any change expected from Roma. I doubt it can work that way.

A strategy is also a ‘golden opportunity’ for defining the dos and don’ts of Roma inclusion that further can be reflected in policies and project level interventions. The 10 Common Basic principles of Roma Inclusion endorsed by the Council on Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs during the Czech Presidency of the EU in 2009 are a good starting point and could be elaborated further. For example, projects shouldn’t encourage dependency; they shouldn’t be exclusive by ethnic principle and should have clear exit strategies; should be using robust progress indicators that account for outcomes, rather than for inputs, etc.

Priority should be given to area-based development approaches to Roma inclusion that would give a role and responsibility both to Roma and non-Roma living side by side. Involvement in joint endeavors improving local livelihood is the best way of bringing different communities together. This is just a sample of a broader list that needs yet to be formulated.

To achieve the ultimate objective of an inclusive society, towards which the Roma Policy is one (important) step. I trust we will have it adopted this year. And then comes the difficult part – implementing it. I suppose for that we would need to
• understand and reach agreement on the issues outlined above,
• communicate them to our partners,
• persuade the skeptics,
• find people who are willing to take up real work in the field (and not just write policy papers),
• identify among the latter those who can deliver results (and not just nice reports),
• trust them to try and fail but learn, and
• understand and make effective use of the wealth of ‘post-failure experience’.

It feels like a long way to go, but I think we can do it.

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