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Eastern Europe: Report Calls For New Life For Roma Through Economic Focus

  • Don Hill

The World Bank has put its prestige behind organizing the highest-level conference since the fall of Soviet communism to address the problems of Roma. A central event of the conference, which takes place in Budapest today and tomorrow, is to discuss a comprehensive new study of problems oppressing an estimated 9 million people in Europe. RFE/RL talks to the report's chief author and previews its findings.

Prague, 30 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dena Ringold, who may know more about the subject than anyone else in Europe, says the time has come to move forward from simply testing ways to help Roma rise from poverty.

Ringold is a World Bank economist and the lead author of "Roma In An Expanding Europe," a sophisticated assessment of the plight of Central and Eastern European Roma. She told RFE/RL that now is the time to shift the emphasis from pilot projects to full-blown national initiatives.

"I think there is an opportunity for a turning point which I have termed as moving from projects -- which I think the '90s have been about small-scale pilot [projects] to address specific local issues -- and now the time is right to scale up to national policies," Ringold said.

Ringold's findings and analysis are scheduled to be the centerpiece of a two-day conference that her employer, the World Bank, is sponsoring today and tomorrow in Budapest. Other sponsors are the European Commission and the Open Society Institute. Prime ministers or other representatives from seven Central and Eastern European countries -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and the Slovak Republic -- are due to attend.

The problems they will be addressing are deep and persistent.

Europe's Roma have been locked in poverty and oppressed by violence and discrimination throughout history. After World War II, most socialist nations of Eastern and Central Europe sought to forcibly assimilate them into the general populace, suppressing their language, customs, and identity.

In many ways, things have only gotten worse since 1989, the beginning of these countries' transitions from socialist planning to market economies. Claude Kahn works for the European Roma Rights Center, which monitors the human rights situation of Roma and provides legal defense in cases of human rights abuses.

"I think, in many ways, some of these problems have been made significantly more complicated by the transition that many Central and Eastern European countries are going through at the moment, related to post-communism and also due to the significant economic hardships," Kahn said. "Many of the issues we see are Europe-wide, [so] I think the search for reasons often proves elusive and a more interesting and fruitful avenue of discussion has to do with measures for ensuring equal treatment and for improving the human rights situation of Roma."

In the words of the World Bank report: "While Roma have historically been among the poorest people in Europe, the extent of the collapse of their living conditions in the former socialist countries is unprecedented."

In the year 2000, 80 percent of Roma in Bulgaria and about 70 percent of Roma in Romania were subsisting with a purchasing-power equivalent to about $4.30 a day. In other countries, they fared only somewhat better.

Ringold of the World Bank says, however, that prospects are not all gloomy, especially in countries about to join the European Union. "Well, I think that there is a window of opportunity, particularly for the countries that are on the brink of accession to the European Union. The EU accession process has focused attention on the Roma issue and nearly all countries in Central and Eastern Europe have adopted national strategies for addressing Roma issues," Ringold said.

The EU has incorporated concern for the plight of Roma into the accession process. In 1993 at a conference in Copenhagen, the EU adopted attention to Romany issues as a criterion for EU membership.

The report itself takes a different look at lifting Roma from the pit of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and despair. It says that analyses to date have tended to approach the plight of the Roma as mainly a question of human rights. The Ringold report concentrates on the economic and social-development aspects.

"We hope that the conference will focus attention on the Roma issue as a poverty and economic development issue," Ringold said. "This issue has traditionally been looked at through the lens of human rights -- which is entirely appropriate -- but there are also key issues related to economic and social policy."

In the report, Ringold and her co-researchers argue for a nuanced and eclectic approach to breaking the downward spiral to which Roma seem condemned.

Both segregation and assimilation, for example, can be classified as coercive policies. Segregation can mean placing Romany families in isolated housing, their children in separate schools. Assimilation, at its extreme, can mean what the socialist governments of Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria did in their attempts to erase ethnic distinctions -- forcibly breaking up Romany communities, outlawing their language and traditional dress, even forbidding them to marry other Roma.

The report calls instead for policies of integration and minority rights. These would include drawing Roma into the broader community through incentives rather than force, promoting tolerance toward language and cultural distinctions, protecting children from unwarranted assignments to substandard "special schools," and providing underprivileged children with early childhood education programs, meals, clothing, and school supplies.

Kahn of the European Roma Rights Center said: "The issues facing Roma in Central and Eastern European societies are strongly related to racial discrimination against Roma. Roma suffer discrimination in access to education, health care, housing, social services, employment. There are also disturbing issues of violence by state actors, as well as by vigilantes, and, in general, there is an issue of anti-Romany racism to be addressed throughout Europe."

In the report and in talking to RFE/RL, Ringold makes the point that drawing Roma into the national economies and societies is not desirable only for the Roma. A great bloc of people trapped in poverty is burdensome for individual countries, as well as for the impoverished people themselves.

She said she thinks this is "an opportunity for countries to consider what they can do proactively, in terms of their economic and social policies that can improve living conditions and the situation of Roma, but that also affect their entire society and facilitate social inclusion and other objectives."

World Bank President James D. Wolfenson said of the Budapest conference that it may mark a turning point for Europe's Roma. He said that what he called "the complex cycle of Roma poverty" has become one of the most critical remaining issues on the EU accession agenda.

The report can be accessed on line at http://www.worldbank.org/romaconference. It contains individual chapters on Roma in Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Spain.

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