Monday, July 28, 2008

TOL Article: Pocketbook Argument for Integration

This article from TOL (
has been sent to you by M. Ahrn.



Are Central and Eastern European countries so rich they can afford to marginalize millions of people?

by S. Adam Cardais

Posted on 28 July 2008

PRAGUE All too often in Central Europe the desperation of the region's Romani population remains shamefully removed from public scrutiny in ghettos hidden far outside capitals such as Prague or Bratislava.

But travel south through the Balkans to Podgorica, where near-toddlers clutch at the arms of tourists and beg for change, or Sarajevo, where shrouded, frail Romani women circulate with their children – hands extended – through the cafes in the Turkish Old Town. This screams the despair of joblessness, poverty, and illness rampant among Central and Eastern Europe's approximately 4 million Roma. The same despair countries such as the Czech Republic try to marginalize – if not cloak – through what one Prague-based human rights worker calls "tacit apartheid."

The near total societal exclusion of Roma – often referred to as Gypsies – in Western and Eastern Europe has received much attention recently, most notably from the "Decade of Roma Inclusion" initiative launched by nine central and southeast European governments in 2005 to foster integration. Yet, as any traveler through the Balkans would easily see, Roma are hanging on the desperate margins. Furthermore, Italy's recent decision to begin fingerprinting Roma after protests earlier this year reveals the depth of subterranean anti-Roma sentiment in Europe.

Given the considerable attention, and the billions of euros in European Union aid money at the "Decade of Roma Inclusion's" disposal, why so little progress? It's not a lack of ideas or funding, say Roma integration experts. It's not even that Roma are work shy, an oft-espoused theory among inclusion skeptics. No, experts say, the problem is weak political will.

Yet keeping Roma in the depths should be unacceptable in modern Europe. Not only is it unjust and immoral – it's bad economics.


"Poverty is expensive," says Gwendolyn Albert of Peacework, an international human development organization. "That's what most people don't realize."

Indeed, Roma exclusion has significant economic costs that should be shouted in arguments supporting integration. It might be a cynical approach, but it might also have the political legs that moral considerations seem to lack.

The costs start with jobs. Either because of discrimination or lack of education or skills, Roma unemployment is disproportionately high in Central and Eastern Europe, reaching 70 percent in some countries.

At the same time, majority populations are advancing toward wheelchairs faster than tricycles. Labor markets will be short tens of thousands of workers in the coming decades, so smart governments should be trying to capitalize on their inexpensive, available Romani work force. But most aren't. Instead, countries such as the Czech Republic are recruiting foreign workers to fill the gaps.

"To bring people from Mongolia to northern Bohemia or northern Moravia, where you have a lot of unemployed Roma, is absurd," Albert says.

Especially so when considering that joblessness lands most Roma on social welfare. A 2003 report by the UN Development Program found that up to 70 percent of Roma in Central and Eastern Europe derive their income from state transfers such as child allowances and unemployment benefits. This social dependency is costly, clearly, but then consider that many low-income Roma don't pay taxes to support these programs and the costs of exclusion are clear: countries lose workers, public money, and tax revenue.

Measuring these costs is difficult because reliable figures on Roma are scarce. The UNDP's are the most recent, and they cover only Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. But economists Luchezar Bogdanov and Georgi Angelov have calculated Bulgaria's exclusion drain.

In a 2007 study for the Open Society Institute's Sofia office, the researchers found that over 10 years Bulgaria would gain the equivalent of 7 billion to 16 billion euros from full integration and that the return on investment would outweigh the cost by a ratio as high as 3-to-1.

The path to realizing the ambitious goal of "full integration" throughout the region has to start with structured, coherent policy reform that leaps beyond mere awareness to improving education and health care in Romani communities, experts say. Gabriela Hrabanova, a member of the Czech government's Council for Roma Community Affairs and half Romani herself, says the Roma Teacher Assistance program, which trains teachers to better work with Romani children, is a model project.

Unfortunately, she and others says, both Brussels and regional governments' integration efforts are unfocused, with more emphasis placed on drafting action plans than building meaningful grassroots programs. The EU Roma Policy Coalition, a grouping of advocacy organizations, came to a similar conclusion regarding the EU's 2 July agenda for tackling exclusion, saying it laid the onus on member states while failing to propose a single meaningful European strategy.

The coalition is hoping for real progress at the EU High Level Conference on Roma in September. Many arguments for Europe walking the talk on integration will no doubt be made there.

Maybe someone will swallow the attendant cynicism and make the economic argument. It might just prod leaders into action.

S. Adam Cardais is TOL's Market Values columnist.

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