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Lessons from Catalonia on Implementing Roma Policy

There seems to be a general consensus throughout Europe that Spain is an example to follow when it comes to the integration of Roma. There are numerous reasons for this. It is a fact that Spain has been implementing specific Roma-related policies for more than 20 years, and has been a pioneer in acts of institutional recognition of Roma culture. It is also a fact that comparatively the Spanish Gitanos may live in relatively better socio-economic conditions than some Roma communities in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, the situation of Gitanos in Spain is still far from idyllic.

Social housing for Roma still leads to the ghettoization of peripheral districts, the life expectancy of Gitanos is far below those of the general population and illiteracy levels are extremely high (7 out of 10 Roma above the age of 15 are functionally or completely illiterate in Spain). Educational performance is disastrous, with high drop-out rates (especially among girls) and cases of school segregation still happen throughout Spain. Only 25 percent of the Roma population has completed some type of obligatory education, and not even one out of 10 Roma completes at least secondary education. Finally, Gitanos are still the most discriminated-against community among the Spanish non-Roma population, well before other immigrant communities.

Spain’s comprehensive social welfare system and the numerous Roma strategic regional plans or individual projects have not, it is clear, delivered proportionate to the funds invested. As a consequence, the breach separating the Roma community from the rest of the population continues to grow. 

The Comprehensive Plan for the Gitano Population in Catalonia (PIPG), among one of the first comprehensive plans in Spain to combat the inequalities suffered by the Roma based on an explicit, ethnic-targeted and participatory approach, is worth reviewing.

At first glance, the PIPG seems to have it all: ambitious measures divided into 16 thematic areas, a comprehensive approach that involves different departments, local administrations and other social agents, institutionalized Roma participation through an advisory board and working groups, and finally, a generous budget estimated between 2.5 to 3.5 million euro annually.

Lost in Action, the evaluation of the Comprehensive Plan for the Gitano Population in Catalonia (PIPG, implemented since 2005) presents the development and implementation of Roma-targeted policy in Catalonia. The evaluation identifies its strengths and weaknesses, successful projects and failed initiatives, and points out the dynamics and factors which impact the effective implementation of Roma policies in general. The study had two primary motivations: to generate quality evidence about the way in which Roma-only policies are put into action and to investigate Catalan Roma civil society concerns about the lack of visible results from the Catalan Plan. Although the hugely significant symbolic importance of PIPG cannot be questioned, the Plan gradually became an object of harsh criticism due to its lower-than-expected impact on the lives of Roma, and for organizational, conceptual and management shortcomings. The study aimed to investigate these criticisms.

Poor implementation, lack of transparency, limited results and impact and general disappointment surround the PIPG. The consequences are far reaching. The general enthusiasm and high expectations among Roma initially triggered by the plan have been replaced by a sense of disillusionment and a growing distrust towards the public administration responsible for the implementation. The relationship between Roma organizations and their local communities have also worsened caused by distrust of those community leaders who participated in the process.

The PIPG might be considered a perfect example of a good plan gone bad. The study reveals weaknesses which numerous Roma-related policies have committing in the past and which should be avoided in future. Too often the objective of public policies is the mere implementation rather than generating actual impact. In a similar way, establishing mechanisms for Roma participation often aims at merely legitimizing the policy rather than at empowerment and creating Roma decision-making potential.

Genuine political commitment should be translated into effective action that brings change, not one that aims at providing yet another service. This is impossible to accomplish without continuous revision, evidence-based evaluation and a pinch of self-criticism. Monitoring mechanisms, a vibrant and independent civil society capable of quality participation and criticism when necessary as well as the involvement of Roma professionals are also indispensable ingredients.

The fate of this plan for the Roma people in Catalonia carries important lessons for others in Europe. Today 26 European Union member states as well as non-member states have adapted the National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS). This historical development in Roma-related policies generates high expectations—namely, that governmental efforts will finally be translated into genuine transformation and full-scope inclusion of Roma communities throughout Europe.  

Despite the overall enthusiasm, numerous questions arise: how is this to be accomplished? How can the efficacy and visible impact be guaranteed? Will the money and efforts invested be proportional to the change they will potentially generate?

Despite the fact that an immense number of individual projects and actions aimed at Roma inclusion have been implemented Europe-wide, a comprehensive, strategic and Roma-specific approach is a novelty to many European Union countries. The uncertainty about the implementation of National Roma Integration Strategies is therefore understandable. In this context, the experience of Spain and its autonomous regions provide valuable lessons to other European states.

Spain has a long history of implementation of Roma-related projects; many regions have been acting on such strategic plans since 1994. Critical and evidence-based analysis on the ways these policies have been implemented and what outcomes they produced are of the utmost importance for sharing and learning. This evaluation impacts not only Spain but also how other countries think about and execute their National Roma Integration Strategy. Without those elements identified as lacking in the Comprehensive Plan for the Roma People in Catalonia, the National Roma Integration Strategies may be bound to repeat similar mistakes to those which happened in Catalonia.

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