2015: George Soros looks back on the Decade of Roma Inclusion

16 December 2015

Interviewed by Margareta Matache

The launch of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2005 raised hopes, promised much, and disillusioned many. But was it a lost decade? Ten years on, in this interview George Soros looks back and notes that Roma still face shocking racism and remain “woefully underrepresented in international organizations, national governments, and municipalities”.

Margareta Matache (MM): Could you tell me what first prompted you to get involved in Roma issues?

George Soros (GS): I have been engaged with Roma issues since the beginnings of my philanthropy. The foundation I established in Hungary in 1984 drew my attention to Roma through its work to preserve and give prominence to Roma culture. After the collapse of Communism and the lack of a socio-economic safety net in many countries, it was clear that marginalized groups were losing out. No one was more marginalized than the Roma. Unfortunately, the expansion of the EU did little to improve matters for Roma; their living conditions have actually deteriorated since many of them became EU citizens. At the same time, the majority population’s attitude toward Roma has become more hostile almost everywhere in Europe. All across Europe, the Roma face tremendous racism and discrimination. This is truly shocking.

MM: What made you shift from a project-based civil society approach to seeking change in governments’ policies on Roma inclusion?

GS: My foundations pursue multiple strategies toward the same end. We continue to support the development of Roma civil society, the creation of a Roma educated elite, and inclusive education for all Roma children. But these things cannot happen without changes in government policies. Because governments are not always enthusiastic about changing their policies or bearing the political cost of inclusion, it was key to promote a pan-European effort and encourage European institutions to do their part. Hence, my support for the Decade of Roma Inclusion.

MM: Realistically, what did you hope to achieve by the end of the Decade of Roma Inclusion in 2015?

GS: I did not expect to reverse the impact of hundreds of years of structural poverty and discrimination in a single decade, but I hoped that participating governments would see it in their collective interest to address these problems. While governments did take some steps during the course of the Decade of Roma Inclusion, they are far from sufficient enough to have an impact.

MM: What do you think are the main gains of the Decade? What about its weaknesses?

GS: The Decade succeeded in raising the political profile of Roma exclusion throughout Europe and the world; there is much greater awareness today than there was ten years ago that the situation of Roma is untenable. The Decade also helped give Roma a seat at the table to talk to their governments about how to address the problems facing Roma communities. What the Decade did not do was to lift visible numbers of Roma out of poverty.

The one area where we can see the most progress for Roma in the past ten years is in the field of education. Decade governments are making some progress here, with the help of the Roma Education Fund, an important Decade initiative that my foundations network created and continues to support. Today there are more Roma children in preschool, more completing compulsory education, and more going on to university than there were ten years ago. The numbers are still inadequate but the trend is encouraging.

I believe that the biggest impact we can have is through the education of Roma young people to become the next generation of leaders. Educated Roma with pride in their Roma identity can act as role models, and help to break the stereotypes that block their acceptance by the majority population.

MM: The Decade motto was “nothing for Roma without Roma”. Did this happen?

GS: The Decade has done more than any other intergovernmental process to make sure that Roma civil society has a seat at the table. But, there needs to be much more engagement of Roma in all stages of inclusion: from policy and program development to implementation. Unfortunately, Roma are still woefully underrepresented in international organizations, national governments, and municipalities. This must change in order for that motto to have real meaning.

MM: What is your view of the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies?

GS: I am happy to see the advent of the EU Framework, which is, in many respects, a copy of the Decade and an expansion of it to all EU member states. I am also pleased to see that, in partnership with my foundation network, the EU is providing support and leadership to a new initiative called Roma Integration 2020, which will focus on enlargement countries.

EU engagement is critical for several reasons: first, the prospect of EU membership remains a strong incentive for enlargement countries to address Roma exclusion. The more the EU can reinforce the necessity of taking concrete steps to bridge the gap between Roma and non-Roma as the price of admission, the better the chance of meaningful change. Second, the EU has vast resources that it can make available to promote inclusion, through structural funds for member states and pre-accession assistance to the enlargement countries. But governments have to take up the challenge to use those funds effectively for Roma inclusion. For the most part, they have not done so yet.

MM: Finally, what needs to be reformed to achieve Roma rights and Roma empowerment?

GS: Achieving real inclusion, including rights protection and empowerment, is a complex task. Education by itself is not enough. Housing won’t help if Roma lack the means to pay for it. A lasting solution requires Europe to build a Roma working class with meaningful employment opportunities. All of these things require the strong political will of governments, engagement of Roma communities, the support of the majority population, funding and technical expertise from the EU and others, and engagement by the private sector.

Note: This text is adapted from A lost decade? Reflections on Roma inclusion 2005-2015, written by Bernard Rorke, Margareta Matache and Eben Friedman.

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