When I rule the world (and surely it can only be a matter of time), four hour sessions at meetings and conferences will be outlawed. They run way beyond anyone’s ability to concentrate and absorb and process information. I’m not the only one who thinks so, though I’m honour-bound not to name names. That said, the session on Roma inclusion threw up a number of interesting discussions. The session was divided into two parts: the first a presentation by the World Bank on the economic effects of Roma inclusion and a roundtable on speaking to EU institutions and stakeholders; and the second on what foundations can do to assist the process. The irony is that, as many participants pointed out, Roma are seldom included on initiatives towards Roma inclusion.
As necessary background, the session was convened by the EFC Forum for Roma Inclusion whose task, session chair Christian Petry remarked, is to make a distinctive contribution to Roma inclusion and to mobilize funds to play a catalytic role in this. It brought together – especially noteworthy in view of the underlying concern of the week to reach out to European officials – EC officials Belinda Pyke, Alexandros Tsolakis and Hywel Jones, in addition to Costel Bercus of the Roma Education Fund, and Ivan Ivanov of the European Roma Information Office and Krist Poffyn of the municipal authority of Ghent.
Roma are unable to participate fully in the labour market, costing countries billions in lost productivity and taxes. The productivity loss in Romania alone is estimated at 887 million Euros, while the fiscal loss across the four countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and the Czech Republic runs at an estimated 1 billion Euros in total. Governments should therefore invest in quality education for Roma. This was the upshot of the findings of World Bank report presented by Dirk Reinermann of the Bank’s Brussels unit (the report, The Economic Costs of Roma Exclusion, is to be finalised later this year). Investment in education is not only right – that was non-negotiable – it makes economic sense and this, he suggested is an argument that would fly with ministers.
However, as more than one participant pointed out, even of well educated Roma are often passed over for jobs because of entrenched prejudice. It was also noted that, while initiatives might be taken at the level European Commission, there was still the task of inducing individual states to take them up. One of the main vehicles for doing this was the structural fund but often the effect of this was limited: local authorities and NGOs lacked the necessary capacity to absorb or use structural funds, not to speak of the much-touted complexities associated with the fund. Ivan Ivanov pointed to the need for awareness-raising campaigns, not only for local authorities but for NGOs working with Roma and Roma communities, too – which brings up a point whose importance can scarcely be overstated. It came up again and again. Roma needed to be included in any initiatives taken for Roma inclusion and they seldom are.
A number of delegates also stressed the importance of working at local level, among them Lisa Jordan of the Bernard van Leer Foundation. Others mentioned specific projects at local level. Krist Poffyn talked about the work of integration there, including the use of mediators in schools, something which was happening quite independently in other parts of Europe.
So what part could foundations play in the resolution of this issue? Lisa Jordan moderated the second part of the session which looked at this issue and various foundations discussed their own incipient or well-established initiatives in this regard. The session functioned partly as a brainstorming and partly as a pitch. The ERSTE foundation, for instance, wants to develop very locally-based responses in Central and Eastern Europe and sought advice and suggestions; Boris Bergant of the South East Europe Media Organization wants to establish a network to collect and analyse examples of Roma broadcasting, to bring together the scattered experience of this under one roof, so to speak, and to set standards and determine good practice – the Organization needs money and advice to do so.
The need to bring together and learn from isolated experience was a theme which others returned to. Mediators were active in many parts of Europe, observed Christian Petry of the Freudenberg Foundation. At the moment they were scattered islands. What was needed, he argued, was a good European programme to bring them together so they could learn from each other. Again, Alexandros Tsolakis of the Directorate General on Regional Policy said that the cumulative impact of projects is missing.
Above and beyond supporting individual initiatives, there was work that foundations could do more generally: they could the kinds of awareness campaigns that Ivan Ivanov was talking about; they could help extend the mediator model to cities through the structural fund and they could provide the matching funds the structural fund required, and they could pilot projects in the short term that structural funds could the come in and develop if successful.
They could also, as Lisa Jordan pointed out, act as a clearinghouse for experience and expertise in dealing with Roma issues. She told the following story to illustrate the point. Her foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, which was centrally involved in the Forum, had received a desperate call earlier this year from the Northern Ireland Community Foundation. Twenty six Roma children had suddenly turned up at a Belfast primary school. The teacher was at a complete nonplus. Moreover, given the tensions latent in the Northern Ireland community, the addition of another minority to the existing mix was potentially explosive. The teacher had contacted the Community Foundation, they had contacted van Leer, knowing of their experience in the area and van Leer had been able to pass on to them very quickly materials from similar, if less dramatic, circumstances in other parts of Europe which had helped them to cope with a novel and very difficult situation.
So, what to do, asked Lisa Jordan? The following were urged: use online communities to reach; invest early in early childhood; don’t neglect the parents – they are the primary educators of their children and unless you can get to them, you’re likely to miss your mark; look at housing (and in general the problem is multi-faceted – make sure you don’t address it only one front); fight prejudice and stereotypes; build the strengths of the people and communities themselves (reliance on institutions particularly in the current financial climate was misguided); use knowledge learned and avoid the mistakes that are being made and – again and above all – involve Roma themselves in whatever initiatives are taken.
Summing up, chair Christian Petry remarked the need to practice more visible to political circles and to look for holistic, local, evidence-based practice. /the media will be crucial to overcoming prejudice and discrimination, so their support must be enlisted as far as possible and finally, he said – which set many heads around the room nodding – we must overcome the division between west and east Europe. Roma inclusion is a matter not only for all Europe, as the EC now acknowledged, but for all Europeans.