Education: A Way Forward

The following was delivered at the Second European Summit on Actions and Policies in Favour of the Roma Population, held in Cordoba, Spain.

I am pleased to be here for the Second Roma Summit. These meetings often begin with noble statements and end with lofty declarations. Echoing Commissioner Reding, I would like to see something practical come out of today's summit.

We are all here because we know what a serious problem we face and recognize that we urgently need to find a solution. Up to 12 million Roma live in Europe today, primarily in the East. Eastern Europe enjoyed tremendous economic growth over the past two decades until the recent financial crisis. For most Roma, however, life is worse than before. Under communism, they were assigned housing and jobs. But the factories in which many worked have gone out of business. Seventy percent of Roma are unemployed and many live in appalling conditions.

These economic woes are compounded by social tension. In every country where Roma live, the general population is hostile toward them. Despite court rulings ordering reform, Roma are regularly denied equal access to housing, education, and healthcare. In some countries, Roma children are automatically put into classes for the mentally disabled, simply because they are Roma. In others, they are shunted into separate and inferior schools or classrooms set aside for Roma.

This violates the law of the European Union. Just three weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights ruled against EU candidate Croatia for segregating Roma children into separate classes. In 2007 the Court ruled against the Czech Republic for segregating Roma children in the town of Ostrava, but three years later the Czech Republic has made almost no progress toward ending this shameful practice. In Slovakia, a recent study by the Roma Education Fund documented systematic segregation of Roma children into schools for the mentally disabled.

The situation is not so bad in Western Europe because fewer Roma live there, but the influx from the East is encountering social resistance. In Italy, the Roma are actually persecuted by the state, in violation of European law. Spain has done much better in making sure that Roma are equal members of society, but even here, many Roma children are relegated to separate schools.

In a Europe of falling birthrates, the Roma are one of the few fast-growing groups. According to recent estimates, by 2015 roughly 25 percent of people in Hungary entering the workforce will be Roma. Demographic trends are similar in neighboring countries. The well-being of the Roma children who will be the European workforce of the future is therefore not just a question of human rights, but economic necessity.

Truth be told, the Roma and the majority population are caught in a vicious circle. Reality and stereotype reinforce each other in a reflexive fashion. This vicious circle needs to be broken.

I came to Cordoba today because I believe that this is within our grasp. The key is to educate a new generation of Roma who succeed in society but do not seek to melt into the general population and retain their identity as Roma. Educated, successfully integrated Roma will shatter the prevailing negative stereotypes by their very existence.

I speak from experience. Twenty-five years ago my Open Society foundations recognized that the Roma suffered the single worst case of social exclusion on the basis of ethnicity. My first Open Society foundation was set up in Hungary in 1984 followed five years later by the foundations in the rest of Eastern Europe. These foundations made the education of Roma a priority. The result is a small, well-educated Roma elite that is now making an important contribution to the emancipation of Roma, both in their own countries and on the European level. These leaders have blazed a trail for future advocates, but there are far too few of them.

With their help, we launched the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005. The Decade brings together governments and civil society in order to remove the barriers to Roma in education, employment, healthcare, and housing. I will return to the Decade later in my remarks.

Concurrently with the launching of the Decade, my foundation joined forces with the World Bank and transferred our Roma educational programs to a newly established Roma Education Fund. This Fund has made good progress in developing ways to provide decent education to Roma children and prepare them to make their way in the world. Its approach emphasizes tutoring, mentoring and outreach to family and community.

Having fully tested its programs, the Fund is ready to scale them up. This is beginning to happen, and the Roma Education Fund has won a tender under the Structural Funds of the European Union.

Instead of a few hundred, there will be several thousand students tutored and mentored. The projects will be implemented through Roma community organizations and 80 percent of the personnel involved are Roma.

The Fund also works with governments advising them on their education policies, particularly on desegregating schools.  

Last year, the Fund directly assisted 30,000 Roma children and 800 university students. It also provided advice and support to the public education systems of the member countries. The Fund plans to double its activities to 70,000 in the next five years, but this is not enough. There are more than a million Roma children in need of decent education. Given the magnitude of the problem the Fund ought to expand its activities as fast as humanly possible. Already EU member-states are contributing, but the Fund is working with a miniscule budget of €7 million in 2009 of which my foundation contributed €4 million. Its budget should grow ten-fold so that many more Roma children can benefit. To do that, the member-states should rapidly increase their contributions.  

OSI's work on Roma education has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that, given the opportunity, Roma children want to and can be educated. It is now up to the European Union to provide the opportunity. 

While education per se is outside the purview of the European Commission, social inclusion and integration of marginalized groups are very much within the EU's competence. For the Roma, education is the key. I therefore call on the Commission to dedicate significantly more effort and resources in the future to education for the Roma, especially through the European Social Fund, starting with early childhood.

To avoid a permanent underclass in Europe, the Roma must be better educated. But education is not enough. Many other things need to be done with regard to the Roma minority and the non-Roma majority. This brings me to the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

Although the EU was present at the Decade's creation, its involvement until now has been minimal. The Decade covers 12 countries mostly in Eastern Europe, half of these are EU members. The other half are prospective members. But the problems facing the Roma are of concern to all of Europe.  

The Decade of Roma Inclusion is now at its halfway mark. The European Union should draw on the experience of the Decade and develop its own comprehensive long-term Roma strategy. Because the integration of the Roma will take more than one decade, this strategy should be covered by the EU budget.

The Decade has many useful features that the EU could integrate into its own comprehensive framework: for example, it brings together governments and civil society; it engages the member states with a rotating presidency; and, most importantly, it keeps Roma on the agenda.

So far, the EU has spent some €400 million on Roma projects, without a comprehensive strategy. It is crucial that Europe develop its comprehensive strategy aiming at a single goal goal: alleviating the poverty of the Roma. The Commission's Communication issued yesterday on the social and economic integration of the Roma is a good step forward. The "model approaches" it introduces need to be strengthened and developed. I realize that the EU has come a long way in the last four years in using the Structural Funds as a driving force. Now it is time to move to a much larger scale.

The EU also needs to improve the absorption of the funds it has made available for Roma. Those who most need the money allocated under the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund are least able to access it because the Commission's procedures are so unwieldy.

Late payments can bankrupt civil society organizations. Local municipalities are often reluctant to use the money to help the Roma. For this reason, my Open Society foundations launched the initiative "Making the Most of EU Funds for Roma" to build capacity at local level and overcome cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. The lessons learned from this initiative need to be at the heart of future policy, and the European Union should establish a supplementary fund to ensure the effective use of the European Social Fund.

I congratulate the Spanish Presidency for convening this summit. Now the fine words uttered here in Cordoba must be translated into action. This summit's success will depend on its conclusions being endorsed by the European Council in June—so that the heads of state and government commit the EU at the highest political level to a comprehensive EU strategy for Roma inclusion.

I respectfully request the Spanish Presidency to submit a set of recommendations to the European Council. The centerpiece should be a long term European strategy, building on the pioneering work of the Roma Education Fund and the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

To conclude, I have four specific recommendations. First, the European Social Fund should give priority to education, starting with early childhood development as a tool for social inclusion under the Europe 2020 strategy. Second, the EU has recently endorsed the principle of "explicit but not exclusive targeting" in funding for the Roma, particularly in housing. This principle should be applied in education, health, and employment as well. Third, the EU should use its leverage with member-states to engage their political commitment at national and local level. I look for Commissioner Reding's commitment to this cause. Fourth, the EU must use its leverage with future members to ensure that no country is allowed to join until it treats all its citizens equally.

Thank you.

Learn More:

Add your voice