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Prime ministers from eight Central and Eastern European countries meet today in Sofia to start the most ambitious international program ever to attack the illiteracy, discrimination and exclusion that affect Roma, Europe's largest minority. The meeting is the symbolic launch of what is being called the "Decade of Roma Inclusion." The participants in Sofia expect to adopt a declaration committing to plans to reduce Romany segregation in schools and housing, and to improve their health care, reduce illiteracy, and fight discrimination.
Prague, 2 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The number of Roma in Eastern and Central Europe -- somewhere between 8 million and 12 million -- is larger than the populations of some of the region's countries.
The World Bank -- which along with the Open Society Institute is the main sponsor of the program -- says Roma tend to be among the poorest and most disadvantaged residents in each country where they live.
They have more children per family than does the population at large but also a higher infant-mortality rate. Life expectancy for Roma is 10 to 15 years shorter than that of their countrymen. Romany children frequently are sent to schools for the mentally and physically disabled -- when they go to school at all.
Those Roma who have not become too discouraged to seek work typically lack the education and skills to get desirable employment; and potential employers customarily discriminate against them when seeking to fill those positions for which they might be qualified.
World Bank President James Wolfensohn says governments in Eastern and Central Europe have been slow in seeking solutions for the problems that plague their Romany citizens.
"What I have learned since I have been involved in this issue is that it has been quite difficult to get governments to tackle the problem of Roma," Wolfensohn said. "They see it as a problem. They don't see it as an opportunity. And therefore it's quite difficult for governments to address this question because they think it's too hot to handle."
Planning for the "Decade of Roma Inclusion" began nearly two years ago, with Romany leaders participating from the start. The founding countries -- Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia -- all signed on to the plan at a June 2003 conference in Budapest.
Each country agreed to set a limited number of measurable national goals for improvements in priority areas to increase social inclusion and improve the economic status of Roma.
The European Commission, the United Nations Development Program, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the Council of Europe Development Bank pledged support.
At a conference in December 2004, donors pledged more than $42 million to expand educational opportunities for Roma.
Dena Ringold, a senior World Bank economist based in Washington who specializes in the bank's Romany programs, said each of the participating countries has come through with the promised action plan.
"Each of the countries has developed its own specific action plan, which includes the goals that it aims to achieve in the priority areas of the decade -- which are education, health care, employment and housing," Ringold said on 31 January from Sofia.
Roma were among the biggest losers in the transition from communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Various former communist countries have sought to improve the lot of Roma in the years since, but with little progress. Ringold said a significant difference with the "Decade" program is that the countries will fortify and monitor each other and exchange data on what works and what does not.
A second all-important difference, she says, is the role of Romany leadership.
"The other really important part of the decade, which I feel is also unprecedented, is the critical issue of Roma participation," she says. "The idea of the 'Decade' was kicked off with Roma involvement and interest, and Roma themselves have been involved in all of the preparation meetings and the international and country levels."
What is at stake, Wolfensohn said recently, is resolution of what he called "one of the great moral issues facing Europe today." He said that the "Decade" program provides an opportunity to turn the tide of history.