08 Jul 2011 / 13:38

Little to Celebrate Halfway through Europe’s ‘Roma Decade’

Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Despite high expectations, the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 initiative is yet to make its mark and significantly improve the lot of Roma communities, say activists and campaigners.

Little has changed for Europe’s impoverished Roma (Photo: Nadezhda Chipeva)

“I cannot count any achievements except the fact that we have a new ‘sentence’ in our language: The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015… the level of expectations was high back in 2005, but I really believe that the decade is a failure,” says Gelu Duminica, executive director of the Impreuna Agency for Community Development, a Roma organisation based in Bucharest.

He is one of the young Roma leaders who spent ten days in Washington back in 2003 discussing the idea of a decade of Roma inclusion.

As one of those who originally thought and wrote about what such an initiative should achieve, today, halfway through the decade, Duminica declares himself “very disappointed”.

Duminica says that the decade initiative has had no effect whatsoever in European Union member states, and while its has been used as a tool by NGOs to better lobby and advocate for Roma issues in non-EU states “even in these cases, the impact of the decade is limited”.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 is a Europe-wide initiative to help impoverished and segregated Roma better integrate into countries with a significant Roma population. The initiative was launched when eight countries signed the 2005 Declaration of Roma Inclusion in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, with four more countries joining later.

The initiative was designed to encourage national governments in their efforts to improve the lot of their Roma populations, particularly in education, employment, health and housing, but also in terms of collating reliable and meaningful data about Roma communities.  The initiative is led by representatives of the country currently holding the rotating presidency.

The Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015

Twelve countries, all with sizeable Roma populations who are economically and socially disadvantaged, are taking part in the initiative.

They are: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain. Slovenia has observer status.

Roma Decade partner organisations are the World Bank, the Open Society Institute, the UN Development Programme and the Council of Europe.

Source: Roma Decade of Inclusion 2005 – 2015

Place factbox one here – it is at the foot of this story

The decade’s secretariat, based in Budapest, coordinates events, helps presidency representatives and organises activities. It serves as a database of initiatives, programmes, projects, practices and reports based on national and international experiences.

At the moment, the secretariat staff totals two full-time officers, who work closely with other three employees from the national governments, including the state holding the presidency.

The decade’s secretariat was founded by the Open Society Foundations in 2008 with funds for the first year of its operation, amounting to €138,000 (approximately US $200,000), provided by the Open Society Institute.

The annual budget must cover salaries and the costs of meetings, liaison and dissemination of information to stakeholders. Its yearly budget, still paid for by the Open Society Institute on a yearly grant basis, remains at around €140,000.

This is a modest budget by anybody’s reckoning. While expectations may have been high, the reality is that the Roma decade initiative does not provide extra cash. Signatories are expected to “reallocate resources” and align “plans with funding instruments of multinational, international and bilateral donors”.

“It is a voluntary association of the states that pledge to take action,” says Robert Kushen, executive director of European Roma Rights Centre. “It is not binding. It represents political commitment.”

Kushen underlines that the Roma decade initiative has no powers to compel states to implement particular policies.

States Responsible for Roma

Adem Ademi, a programme coordinator at the Decade of Roma Inclusion’s Secretariat Foundation based in Budapest, stresses national governments themselves are responsible for bringing changes into effect. They play the most important role in the initiative. The decade initiative is simply there to provide a platform for knowledge sharing and appropriate target setting.

Any successes, or failures, of the Roma decade initiative should be measured by “the commitment of the governments to implement the action plans they prepared themselves and the implementation of those policies,” says Ademi.

NGOs also underline that the decade is a political commitment and the national governments must themselves fight the social and economic exclusion of Roma within their countries.

Magda Matache, executive director for Romani CRISS, a Roma human rights group based in Bucharest, says: “I think it is quite obvious that the heart of this initiative was the Open Society Institute, when it comes to the available amounts of funds to the initiative they were supposed to be implemented by the governments who committed to it.”

While NGOs acknowledge that the Roma decade initiative succeeded in raising the political profile of Roma and at least pushed governments to the point of expressing willingness to tackle Roma issues, they say that is all that has been achieved.

“The decade is the first initiative to bridge experiences between countries,” says Adem Ademi

Ademi, however, underlines that it is simply the first step in sharing knowledge and establishing Europe-wide goals: “The decade is the first initiative to bridge experiences between countries. And civil society is involved in all stages.”
And observers do point to some change. According to the Open Society, there has been some progress in Spain with integration of Roma in Córdoba and the rest of Andalusia, while more Hungarian Roma have access to affordable housing and more Romanians Roma go to school.

The EU’s Roma Task Force, established to assess Member States' use of European Union funds, published its first findings in its social inclusion report in December 2010. It also pointed to some progress in the integration of Europe’s Roma into mainstream society.

These successes included: effective coordination of policies within national governments and between the national, regional and local levels in Hungary and Spain; participation and consultation policies in Romania and Slovenia and reliable data and evaluation of results in Slovakia.

However, it is not clear as to whether any of these achievements can be attributed directly to the work of the Roma decade initiative.

Poor Data Collection

“The participating countries could not even say what they have achieved or done because they had no data,” says Matthias Verhelst, a strategic advocacy officer at the European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network, ERGO Network.

Thus the independent Roma Activist Decade Watch reports do not measure outcomes because they are unable to. The statistics are just not available.

This dearth of data means it is almost impossible to monitor progress made during the Roma decade, and also hinders effective policy-making and responsible allocation of resources.

Besides lacking statistics, the Roma decade states have failed to put words into action on the ground.

“The stories that we hear from the decade coordinators are that they are given the responsibility of putting strategies together but no real mandate,” says Biser Alekov, network manager at the ERGO Network.

Fewer Roma children go to school or receive adequate healthcare (Photo: Nadezhda Chipeva

He points out that in Bulgaria and Serbia, the national coordinators have left and no replacements have been appointed.

National coordinators are appointed and paid by their governments. Their main role is to coordinate activities in their countries on implementation of the Decade Action Plans.

They coordinate, advise, comment and request specific ministries to act, reform, initiate, or cooperate on a given programme.

National coordinators represent the initiative at meetings of the International Steering Committee (ISC), a body that guides the planning of the decade targets and consists of representatives from Roma NGOs, participating governments and international donors.

“In the experience of the decade, we have national coordinators, who really coordinate the activities in their countries, and then we have coordinators who only represent the decade but are not aware of details except from the yearly briefings from the committees or Roma Councils,” says Ademi.

Milen Milanov was the Roma decade coordinator at the Bulgarian ministry of social affairs for a little more than one year, up until December 2010.

He says Sofia has set down master strategies for Roma integration that not only meet decade targets but add to them, such as preserving Roma culture and tackling ethnic discrimination.

“We have mastered pinning down the problems and giving directions, but there are no set budgets, deadlines or explanation as to how we will solve these,” he says.

Writing plans and strategies but not implementing them seems to be common in Romania as well.

“Almost nothing happened beyond documents,” says Daniela Tarnovschi, project coordinator at the Soros Foundation Romania. “The government should have implemented them, but it just did not.”  

According to Verhelst at the ERGO Network, the only difference between EU and non-EU countries is that there is more money available to the former. Despite this, the funds available are not fully spent.

Indeed, the European Commission recorded in April 2011 that up to €26.5 billion of EU funding is currently earmarked to support member states' efforts in the field of social inclusion, including Roma. Click here to read more on the commission’s report.

A year earlier, in April 2010, the commission called on member states to ensure that existing EU financial instruments, and especially the Structural Funds and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, were accessible to Roma.

In both cases, the commission reproached member states because those funds were hugely underspent as EU nations were making very limited use of them.   

Integration Excludes Roma

Perhaps one of the most damning criticisms of the Roma decade initiative is that while it is meant to include Roma, it actually locks Roma out of the decisions taken about their lives.

Its slogan is ‘Nothing for Roma without Roma’ - something that NGOs say is far from reality. Ademi from the decade initiative acknowledges this, but says that nation states are responsible for involving the Roma.

“Local Roma communities are not aware of the decade efforts and often do not feel the results on the ground,” says Ademi. “Many believe that the Decade Action Plans are mainly focused to reach already involved and already aware citizens.”

Back in Bulgaria, Milen Milanov points out that the initial idea was to consult the Roma and their leaders on all decisions to be taken.

“But nothing of that kind happened,” he says. “No one ever asked for their opinion, no one ever included them in any decision-making process.”

Gelu Duminica has called for more dialogue between Roma communities and national governments

On top of this striking lack of consultation with the Roma, there are considerable difficulties in terms of implementation of programmes at local level.

“The well known programme for Roma health mediators in Romania, financed by the government, faced difficulties in the process of moving from national to local level,” notes Ademi.

Matache at Romani CRISS says the health mediator programme failed recently in many Roma communities because of inadequate decentralisation and lack of support.

“It is largely neglected, fewer mediators are hired and their professional quality decreases. The programme started in 1996, before accession [to the EU], being developed by Romani CRISS in partnership with the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development.

“It was one of the first breakthroughs of civil society in terms of fostering political will for national policies targeting Roma. Now further investment in its development has been lacking,” she claims.

It is not surprising then that the 2010 commission document The Social and Economic Integration of the Roma in Europe concluded that the plans and strategies adopted with regard to Roma inclusion by various governments need to start being put into practice.

In October 2010, following the high profile expulsion of hundreds of Roma from France, the commission established a new unit – the Roma Task Force – to assess EU member states use of EU funding with regard to the social and economic integration of Roma.

Many are watching to see how far the new task force – and the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies published in April this year - will progress the fight against Roma social exclusion within the EU at least.

The European Commission requested all 27 member states submit long-term strategies to raise Roma living standards that fit with the EU framework by the end of this year.

The strategies should detail improvements in four key areas, education, employment, health and housing, the very same target areas identified by the Roma decade initiative.

Many say that if the decade initiative was a success, there would be no need for such measures.

According to Kushen of European Roma Rights Centre, the decade initiative could have succeeded further if there had been stronger monitoring. However, he is careful to add: “The European Commission recognises the decade [initiative] as a player and will learn from it.”

Other activists also underline that any other Roma projects, including the EU framework strategies, are doomed to failure if they do not incorporate strong monitoring systems and effective means to encourage member states to put words into action on the ground.

“What we have witnessed so far is superficial, unprofessional, poorly-budgeted policies committed to Roma, with a lack of indicators and of interest by local and central governments to improve the Roma situation.

There have been less and less transparent consultations of the government with Roma civil society on policies development and implementation,” says Matache at Romani Criss.

“I am afraid that the European Commission is preparing its next big failure unless it is equipped with sufficient power to reject superficial national strategies and to monitor and pressure governments into action.”

Duminca of the Impreuna Agency for Community Development in Bucharest says any new initiatives cannot succeed without truly involving Roma leaders, noting: “The idea [of the decade] was to create a coherent system for Roma inclusion, encouraging dialogue between Roma and governments.”

While many, like Duminica, are disappointed in the decade results, perhaps it will be seen as a necessary stepping stone to the implementation of an EU wide-policy framework.

As Europe’s Roma decade moves into its final five years, there is much room to learn and fill in the gaps in order, together with the EU Framework, to succeed and finally lift the continent’s Roma out of poverty and create an inclusive community.

This article was produced by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative, established and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.

Fellow Bio


Nikoleta Popkostadinova

Nikoleta Popkostadinova from Sofia, Bulgaria, is a freelance journalist specializing in social affairs.  She has worked as a reporter for the Bulgarian weekly Capital and Transitions Online, and as an editor for the monthly magazine Vice

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