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Analysis: Major Effort To End Romany Exclusion Launched In Sofia

Romany women learning to read in Romania The leaders of eight East-Central and Southeastern European countries -- Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia -- met in Sofia on 2 February to officially launch an ambitious program aimed at overcoming the social exclusion of ethnic Roma.

The idea for the program, called the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, emerged from a conference on the situation of the Roma in the expanding Europe held in Budapest in June 2003. The main sponsors of the new program are the World Bank and the Open Society Institute (OSI). Both World Bank President James Wolfensohn and OSI Chairman George Soros lauded the launch of the Decade for Roma Inclusion as a real change in the international efforts and a major step forward in tackling the problems of the estimated 7 million-9 million Roma, who make up roughly 2 percent of the population of Europe.

The concept of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is quite simple. Each of the participating governments will set goals for improvements in four key areas: education, employment, health, and housing. The main bodies of the Decade of Roma Inclusion -- the International Steering Committee, which is made up of government representatives, Roma from each country, and international organizations -- will help plan those efforts. The program will also provide a framework for monitoring the improvements on the national levels.

At present, a large majority of the Roma in the participating countries is trapped in a vicious circle. Marginalized and often discriminated against by the majority populations, Roma often lack the elementary education that would qualify them for jobs to help overcome poverty. Recent studies by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Labor Organization, and the World Bank also show that the lack of qualification is -- at least in part -- also responsible for the poor health of many Roma. Higher-than-average birthrates, high infant mortality, and a low average life expectancy are only part of this problem. The studies also indicate that the shortcomings in the education of Roma also resulted in their lagging participation in politics.

The new program can indeed be a major change for the better if the governments involved fully and conscientiously implement the goals set by the programs and their national action plans. The fact that the European Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the UNDP, the Council of Europe, and other international organizations are participating in the program as partners gives grounds for optimism.

Over the past 15 years, there have been numerous efforts and programs aimed at improving the situation of the Roma in postcommunist countries. Such programs have sought to improve their qualifications, improve infrastructure and housing conditions, and tackle discrimination, for instance. The EU, the World Bank, the UNDP, NGOs, and charities all sponsored such projects. There was, however, little coordination among all these programs, with the exception the Informal Contact Group of International Organizations on Roma, Sinti and Travellers, where representatives of the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and the OSCE met on a more or less regular basis from 1999.

Apart from coordination, earlier efforts to improve the situation of the Roma also lacked a sober assessment of their effectiveness. One such assessment was commissioned by the European Commission. The "Review of the European Union Phare Assistance to Roma Minorities," published in December, examined EU-sponsored programs for Roma in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. This report showed clearly that much Phare assistance was spent on education or education-related programs. However, it also demonstrated that a large share of EU assistance was spent on infrastructure projects that had little or no impact. Health programs and health information together made up only about 1.2 percent of all the projects.

In a way, the Decade of the Roma Inclusion is also the result of a growing political consciousness among the Roma themselves. Not only were Romany representatives actively involved in drafting the program; they will also be involved in their respective governments' efforts to implement national plans to improve the social inclusion of Romany minorities. This can prove difficult, however, in light of the fact that a number of Romany NGOs from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have already criticized their governments' lack of cooperation with representatives of the Roma.

"Some governments are demonstrating fundamental misunderstandings of the Roma Decade as a political process," the Prague-based Dzeno Association warned in a written statement on 2 February. "During the next 10 years, the countries involved in the Roma Decade will simply continue in the same policies that were started before the Decade. It doesn't seem that the Decade will increase the participation of Roma in the decision making process.... At least in the Czech Republic, the government has failed to make the ideas of the Decade publicly known and really to involve Roma in the preparation process for the so-called Roma Decade Action Plan."

An open letter to the Bulgarian government by Roma NGOs stated on 8 February, "We don't take part in the decision-making concerning us in any way," adding, "And when the decisions are made by others, the responsibility is also not ours."

On an international political level, the coordinating and monitoring functions of the Decade of Roma Inclusion is mirrored to a certain extent by the recent foundation of the European Roma and Travellers Forum (ERTF), which will serve as an umbrella organization representing Romany interests on the European level. After its official launch in December, the ERTF was recognized by the Council of Europe as a partner organization, and it plans to become a partner organization of the EU as well.

The official launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion and the formation of the ERTF suggest that the Roma might one day be accepted as equal among equals in Europe. But in his speech on the occasion of the signing of the agreement between the ERTF and the Council of Europe, Rudko Kawczynski, the ERTF's interim president, warned on 15 December that this will take time.

"I am well aware that we are only at the beginning of a long journey, and that 700 years of prejudice and exclusion of our people cannot be abolished overnight," Kawczynski said. "But with the path we started to pursue today, we have come decisively closer to that goal."

No wonder, then, that George Soros on 2 February warned: "It will require strong and persistent efforts to overcome [the exclusion of the Roma]. Together, we must make sure that the lofty goals announced today do not turn into empty words."

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