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Equal Opportunities for Europe’s Roma

Stehlikova Katsu Roma Oped

By Džamila Stehlíková and Shigeo Katsu

BRUSSELS - Marek, a 16 year old Roma boy in Ostrava in the eastern Czech Republic, is unemployed and his chances of finding a job are slim.  Like many of his Roma friends, Marek was only allowed to attend a special school for children with special learning disabilities. So after completing nine years of poor education, he left class and, due to his lack of skills, has not been able to find work.  His next stop - the Labor Office to get support in finding a job while his parents receive social welfare benefits on his behalf. 

Marek’s story is similar to that of the close to nine million Roma across Central and Eastern Europe – the poorest citizens on the continent. In the region’s increasingly prosperous countries, most Roma remain left out – excluded from the benefits of growth, from public services and from the chance to work to make a decent living.  At the same time, Europe is deprived of a workforce in its midst that could meet the demand for jobs currently being filled by foreign workers.

The European Commission and the French EU Presidency should be commended for calling this week’s EU Roma Summit in Brussels aimed at seeing how Europe can improve Roma integration. For our part, the Czech Government, which will assume the EU Presidency from France next January, and the World Bank welcome calls from across the EU for a policy on Roma inclusion at the EU level.  We are especially pleased about the involvement of countries that are not yet member countries of the EU, such as in the Western Balkans.

This week’s Summit should build on the initiative of the Decade of Roma Inclusion launched in 2005 as a forum to exchange know-how and critically review international policy experience to create a consensus for action – across all of Europe.  Providing equal chances for Roma requires political commitment and institutions and approaches that work for Roma. We believe that real change will only materialize once the issue of their exclusion moves from the margins of social debate to the center of policy-making.

How can Roma take part more in Europe’s growing prosperity? 

First, we need to overcome both bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers that keep Roma out of mainstream society by ensuring that public policies and services work for Roma.  Unless we view education, health and employment policies through the lens of Roma exclusion, stand-alone projects will be only effective at the margin.

Second, Roma need skills that will enable them to take part in society.  As a forthcoming joint study of the World Bank and the Czech Government shows, the Czech labor offices remain unprepared to place socially excluded Roma into employment. The barriers are many. Almost half of Roma adults living in marginalized localities can barely read or write, meanwhile the demand for those workers with elementary skills in the country has been very low and falling.  The result is a mismatch that leaves Roma out in the cold.

Third, parents must be given incentives to keep their children like Marek in school until they acquire the skills needed in the labor market.  Many countries around the world, from Mexico and the United Kingdom to places like New York City, have been utilizing Conditional Cash Transfer projects that give parents a monthly stipend if their children stay in school.  The children gain by attending class and the society benefits by building a better skilled workforce. It is time we examine the usefulness of this approach for Roma in Europe.

There are signs of promise.  Launched in 2005, the Roma Education Fund has built up good knowledge on how best to promote access of Roma to education – from kindergarten to universities – knowledge that should be used by Europe’s policymakers. And in the Czech Republic the government recently launched a Social Inclusion Agency to work at the local level in developing integrated inclusion services for Roma by fostering partnerships between municipalities, the labor offices, schools, civil society organizations and others. It is essential to evaluate the effectiveness of these and other policy and institutional innovations.  But monitoring how Roma are faring and evaluating whether programs are making a difference in their lives require having access to data. Unfortunately, the current state of data is woefully inadequate to monitor progress.  We would encourage that a European policy on Roma inclusion adopt measurable indicators and targets and thereby provide a strong impetus to data collection and monitoring and evaluation.

To make progress on Roma integration, leaders will need to summon the political will, capable institutions, and know-how needed in the years to come.  Already, there is substantial funding available through EU structural and pre-accession funds but efforts at the national levels have often been sporadic and dispersed.  The World Bank is committed to contribute its global expertise in the design of social inclusion policies in support of effective policy solutions.

The EU is a union of common values. The principle of equal opportunity for all is at the core of these values, and Europe is proud that it has gone further than most countries around the world in providing equal opportunities to its citizens.  Yet we know that many Roma in Europe, like Marek, remain left out. It is up to the EU as a whole – governments, European institutions and citizens – to work further towards making the common value of equal opportunities a reality.

Džamila Stehlíková is Minister of Human Rights and Minorities of the Czech Republic and Shigeo Katsu is Vice President for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank

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