Helping the Roma in Bulgaria: Recommendations to the Board of the America for Bulgaria Foundation

Ron Haskins

The Roma people, the largest minority group in Europe and in many European
countries, trail other ethnic groups in almost every characteristic that defines well-being.
Perhaps of greatest importance, the Roma are less educated than other ethnic groups. But
they also suffer from excess health problems, high unemployment, poverty, and political
weakness. The Roma population of Bulgaria is certainly no less disadvantaged than the
Roma in other countries. An especially poignant example of Bulgarian Roma
disadvantage is that the death rate among children under age 1, a prime indicator of
children’s health in any nation, is 25 per 1,000 for Roma children as compared with 9.9
for children of Bulgarian ethnic origin. The mathematics of death almost before life gets
started is a symbolic indicator of the Roma burden in Bulgaria. Similarly, research
conducted for UNICEF by the University of York shows that the poverty rate among
Roma children in Bulgaria is 92 percent, perhaps the highest poverty rate for any ethnic
group in Europe. By contrast, the poverty rate among children of Bulgarian heritage is
less than half as high at 43 percent.

It is not surprising, then, that over at least the past decade, the European Union
(EU) and most European governments, joined by the Open Society Foundation, the
World Bank, and other organizations, have created important initiatives to address all
these problems. It is possible to think that now is an historic moment in which European
governments and dominant ethnic groups, after eight or nine centuries of the most
pernicious types of discrimination against the Roma, are finally, albeit often reluctantly,
admitting the problems facing their Roma populations and their own role in creating and
sustaining these problems. Equally important, most of the Central and Eastern European
(CEE) governments, where discrimination against the Roma has been and continues to be
particularly intense, are gradually adopting policies to address the problems.

To the extent that the moment of Roma opportunity has arrived, perhaps the most
important force moving Bulgaria and other CEE nations in the direction of integration
and inclusion is the EU. In the period leading up to the ascension of Bulgaria and other
CEE nations to membership in the EU, all the new member states were required to meet a
host of conditions required by the EU as the price of admission. Among these conditions
were laws outlawing discrimination and requiring equality of educational opportunity.
The CEE nations complied with the EU directive to pass such laws, but implementation
of the laws in Bulgaria and other nations has been something less than aggressive.

Nor is EU ascension the only force driving the CEE nations to reduce
discrimination against the Roma and other minorities. The Open Society, the World
Bank, and a number of other private organizations, including several Roma nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), have initiated a sweeping program to promote
inclusion of the Roma in the civil society of the CEE nations. Called the “Decade of
Roma Inclusion” (2005-2015) the initiative is notable for getting all the CEE nations
(plus Spain) to participate, to commit themselves to activities designed to promote
inclusion and nondiscrimination, and to make a financial commitment to a fund
administered by the World Bank to promote the initiative. As a part of the initiative,
Bulgaria and the other participating nations originated ten-year action plans. The
Bulgarian action plan, the purpose of which is to create a set of goals and activities that
will promote Roma integration, includes proposals for education, health care, housing,
employment, discrimination and equal opportunity, and culture.

An important part of the Decade program was the establishment of the Roma
Education Fund in 2005. Eight nations (Canada, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovenia,
Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK), as well as several international agencies including the
Open Society, pledged a total of 34 million Euros to support Fund activities during the
Roma decade. The major goal of the fund is to “support policies and programs which
ensure quality education for Roma, including the desegregation of education systems.”

By joining the EU, Bulgaria and the other CEE nations brought themselves into a
well-developed culture of inclusion and a complex system of interlocking laws and
agencies that not only outlaw exclusion and discrimination, but provide funds to
implement inclusion policies and to monitor the extent to which EU nations are
aggressively implementing these laws. The laws and directives include the EU Charter of
Fundamental Rights, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the
Racial Equality Directive, and several others. It would be a mistake to conclude that
every EU member, even the original 15 EU nations with relatively more advanced
economies and longer histories as democracies than the CEE nations, faithfully
implement every component of the various legal requirements of being an EU member.
Even so, EU requirements and funds have initiated both profound legal changes and a
host of programs to increase the social, economic, political, and cultural inclusion of the
Roma as well as studies and evaluations that bring some light to the actual situation of the
Roma and other minorities in member nations. Given the all but inevitable distance
between the laws on inclusion and discrimination the CEE nations passed in order to join
the EU and the actual implementation of those laws, studies commissioned by various EU
agencies and NGOs illuminate the gaps between policies and implementation.

An excellent example of such illumination is a 2006 study commissioned by the
Economic and Scientific Policy program of the European Parliament. The report is a
hard-hitting assessment of the status of Roma throughout Europe with regard to their
legal status and socio-economic conditions. The latter category includes assessments of
Roma exclusion from employment, education, social services, health care, and
community integration. The upshot of the report is that although there may be some
progress in these important areas of integration, the Roma are still a second-class group
throughout the CEE nations. Seemingly, good laws have not yet produced good results.
Laws may be changed, but changing human behavior and culture takes longer.

CEE governments and their defenders are reluctant to admit the lamentable lack
of progress in Roma integration. In part for this reason, the European Commission, based
on extensive evidence from evaluations, surveys, and news reports of often ferocious
discrimination against the Roma, felt the need to publish “An EU Framework for
National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020” in April 2011. The need for a new
framework is a clear signal that the EU Commission believes the CEE governments in
general and Bulgaria in particular are not achieving the results the EU hoped for when it
approved these nations for EU membership and is therefore trying to push the
governments of these nations into further action.

Following publication of the Framework, the Open Society released one of the
most thorough and provocative reports on the situation faced by the Roma in Europe and
strategies that should be adopted to attack the wide range of Roma disadvantages.
Appropriately entitled “Beyond Rhetoric,” the Open Society report includes entire
chapters on two issues that I will examine in more detail below.

First, the Open Society strongly recommends that nations collect ethnically
disaggregated data. Logically enough, the report holds that it is impossible to document
the effects of policy initiatives on the Roma and other groups unless outcome data,
including measures of health, education, housing, employment, income, and death rates
by age, are collected for individual ethnic groups. So important are ethnically
disaggregated data that the report goes so far as to recommend that, if necessary,
governments should change their statistical systems to “incorporate ethnic data
components into regular statistical surveys.” A second recommendation that deserves
special attention is the report’s emphasis on early childhood education and care. Virtually
every report about the Roma emphasizes the vital importance of education in fighting
Roma exclusion, but the Open Society report strongly recommends that nations
implementing the EU Framework should “give urgent consideration” to establishing an
early child development fund to “support innovative early development programs and
allow for scale up of what works.”

Beyond these specific recommendations, the Open Society report emphasizes that
the EU Commission stated explicitly in its Framework document that “member states do
not properly use EU money for the purpose of effective social and economic integration
of Roma. As if this judgment, which seems to represent the views of many EU
agencies, the World Bank, the Open Society, and many Roma groups themselves, needed
additional reinforcement, a United Nations expert on minority issues visited Bulgaria this
summer and called upon the government to “turn its policies on Roma integration into
concrete action.” She went on to give what seems to represent the views of all these
groups on the flaws in the Bulgarian government’s approach to fighting Roma exclusion:
“Many policies seem to remain largely only rhetorical undertakings aimed at external
audiences – official commitments that are not fulfilled in practice.” The result, according
to the UN expert, is that “all the evidence demonstrates that Roma remain in desperate
circumstances at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder.” In particular, she
mentioned that the access of Roma children to quality education “remains
overwhelmingly unfulfilled.”

If CEE nations are now entering a period in which governments will be working,
often ineffectively or at a very modest pace, to improve the conditions of the Roma,
judging by the efforts of other nations to reduce discrimination against minority groups
and by the stately rate of progress so far in the CEE nations, it can be assumed that the
fight for Roma equality in Bulgaria will be measured in decades. In the U.S., for
example, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was largely successful. By
the mid-1960s, vital court decisions had dismantled major parts of the system of legal
discrimination against blacks and the federal government had enacted programs to ensure
voting rights and other fundamental rights to blacks. To enhance the legal war on poverty
and discrimination, the federal government also initiated an army of social programs
designed to boost the education, health, employment, housing, and political participation
of the poor in general and blacks in particular. Yet today, nearly half a century after
achieving legal rights and the initiation of large-scale government inclusion programs,
blacks (and Hispanics) still trail whites by large margins in education, income, housing,
poverty levels, and health. Although achieving significant progress against
discrimination may require decades or generations, discrimination will not diminish until
strong legal, economic, and social forces are mobilized against it. Expecting a long
struggle cannot be a reason not to begin.

If the history of making substantial progress in overcoming ethnic discrimination
in the U.S. can serve as a rough comparison to the situation of the Roma in CEE nations,
several factors are going to be vital in the fight of the Roma to overcome discrimination
and exclusion in Bulgaria and throughout Europe. These factors include an antidiscrimination
plan, aggressive implementation of the plan by all levels of government,
leadership by the Roma themselves, educational progress by Roma children and young
adults, political activism by the Roma people, a media committed to accurate reporting
and fairness, and a civil society that reflects underlying public opinion favoring
integration and opposed to discrimination. Most of these factors appear to be present in
Bulgaria, often in rudimentary and brittle form, but present and in many cases moving in
the right direction nonetheless. The progress that is just now beginning can be greatly
enhanced by the efforts of groups that have the resources, the will, and the vision to roll
up their sleeves and help promote Roma inclusion.