It is important to engage young Roma and support cooperation between diverse stakeholders

The new Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, Andrea Bučková, was interviewed by Elena Gallo Kriglerová

6th August 2020

You took office at a very challenging time, during the COVID-19 pandemic. What did you find there?

I’ll start with what I didn’t find there. The problem I found was a non-existent strategy for the integration of Roma after 2020 since the current government strategy is in place until the end of this year. It is a complicated situation for two reasons – first of all, the existence of such a document is a condition for drawdown of the EU funds and, at the same time, it is, of course, necessary to have a well-designed mechanism establishing the direction of Roma integration policies in future. 

When I was working in the Office in 2012-2016, I realized how very challenging it was to set up all measures and activities funded by the European Social Fund and the European Fund for Regional Development. At that time, we managed to set up a unique, multi-functional operational programme with two priority axes focusing on improving living conditions in municipalities where marginalized Roma communities lived. We were able to do it because we had involved many different actors, especially non-governmental organisations in the process. And, it was a well planned and long-term process we started in 2012 and finished in 2014, when the operational programmes were designated. 

So, the thing I didn’t find in the office when I came back was a clear vision of where we wanted the future interventions to go or which programmes to promote. A reflection or analysis of the continuity of five national projects currently implemented by the Office was missing, too.

And how did it work in relation to the pandemic?

In the state of emergency, there was no crisis management. It was important to me to set up a crisis management team because no representative of a state institution can be physically present everywhere and coordination is needed also due to various authorities at regional level. The infrastructure was poor  – I mean things like participation of our regional offices, a clear course of action, the structure of monitoring or systematic data collection. Exchange of information among the individual units was insufficient. 

Could the situation be helpful in terms of developing and speeding up certain coordination processes? 

It certainly could. It is important not only in the state of emergency, but that kind of system was in place when the former plenipotentiaries, Klara Orgovanova, and later Peter Pollak held the office. However, the pandemic was a very unusual situation. It is important to mention, though that the Office has served as a coordinating body or has been an important actor during various emergencies because emergencies occur quite frequently in Roma communities – for example, a residential building burns down or there’s a flood. Therefore, it’s very important to improve the interventions and coordinated approach in future with a view to maximizing the use of capacities and authority of the Office.

Can we say that you managed to set up these mechanisms in the first few months?

I can say that I managed to set up a team that communicated very well despite being in a situation no one had enough experience with, especially in the field of crisis intervention. I think we did well; my colleagues started to cooperate effectively because the Office was represented in the permanent crisis management team and we were also a part of regional, district and local response teams. So, I think we did a good job.

If new cases of COVID-19 started to occur again in Roma communities, what would you need to make it work even better?

Not everything is up to the Office. What’s important is the willingness and cooperation of the local and regional municipalities – everything must fit together and it can happen when the municipalities have crisis management plans and take strategic steps in order to eliminate hysteria and unconsidered or ill-considered steps resulting in deepening the conflicts and increasing the tension. So, there’s still a lot to do. The situation of the five communities that were under quarantine provided a good opportunity for self-reflection. To put it simply, people in the regions need better knowledge in the field of crisis intervention, mediation and other necessary skills.

What do you think are the biggest challenges Roma people in Slovakia face nowadays? 

It varies considerably and we could talk about it for a long time. It depends on the specific conditions people live in including the impact the COVID-19 pandemic  has had on their lives. Let’s take the example of employment – in Dobsina, I met women who had travel history because they worked as home nurses in Germany and Austria. They were very worried because they didn’t know if they’d be able to provide for their families and cover all the household expenses. These were women who had managed to get out of their bad financial situation doing hard work and literally move from a shack to an apartment. They’d found a job and had secured a better housing for their families and were concerned whether they’d be able to keep it all if the pandemic lasted longer or after the crisis was over. This is something many people living in Roma communities may be worried about now. 

Also, the fact that many Roma people still don’t have access to basic infrastructure such as water, sewer system or access roads. We communicate these issues to the public and all of us who have worked in this field long enough know that the biggest issue is settlement of land. We’ve been going around in circles in this area even though there are positive examples of several towns where the situation is developing well.  However, the social and economic impact of the pandemic can cause them to go backwards and start all over again.

What would you say has been achieved in this field in Slovakia in the last 10 years?

Higher rate of involvement and direct participation of Roma as representatives of the civic society, public administration institutions and organizations they have represented in the process of planning, developing, monitoring and evaluating public policies from the local level up to the EU level. 

Many Roma organizations and businesses have established themselves as important actors in the area of Roma communities development.

Thematic and more complex analyses have provided a three-dimensional view on the whole agenda. 

I believe that ten years of systematic effort, including the contribution of the Office, has brought our society to the point when no one questions the fact that this issue needs to be dealt with in a complex manner and across all priority areas. 

A lot has been achieved, but we need to maintain the continuity. Our efforts need to focus on monitoring, evaluation and setting up various mechanisms to ensure the measures we take are effective.

What are the priorities for your term of office? How would you like to leave the Office?

I want to focus on short-term goals because it can help establish a good framework for a long time – four or eight years or even longer. Setting up a good strategic document and action plans binding for individual institutions in terms of making them meet their obligations under the Government Manifesto or to even go beyond its limits. 

I want the Office to report directly to the Government Office and be a part of its structure. My ambition is to change its statute so that it can be an intermediate body for allocation of EU funds. We have enough expertise to set up the mechanism, to allocate the funds and to coordinate the process. I want to ensure that the calls for proposals that are planned also get carried out.

I’d also like to see that the different platforms established over time are really working and are effective. I consider it crucial that young Roma people with potential get involved and get support for their civic engagement.

I’d like to leave the Office with the same feeling I had when I was leaving the post of the director of one of its units – at that time, we left here an operational programme with 2 priority axes embedded in it including allocation of funds for both of them. Project proposals within the so called take away package had been elaborated and were in the process of consultation and commenting. There was also a good team of people who were really dedicated to the cause. 

Is there political will now to make the changes you described to stabilize and further develop the Office? Do you think you will have political support for the changes you are proposing?

I believe I will now. This is a crucial moment. The Ministry of Investment, Regional Development and Informatization of the Slovak Republic will identify the intermediate bodies because, it seems there will be one operational programme now – Slovakia – so we’ll see. 

The way the office will be designed is one issue, the other thing is the topics you would like to address. 

There are four topics that have been communicated for a long time – education, employment, housing and health. However, it is also important to focus on the cross-sectional issues such as non-discrimination (tackling prejudice, hoax and hate speech) and gender equality. 

These are issues that can’t be neglected, and they will be addressed. I’m interested in involving all relevant actors in these efforts at the national, regional and local levels. 

You have mentioned that the Office should co-operate with different institutions at the national, regional and local levels. Who do you think are the most important actors to work with if you want to meet your priorities?

At the national level, the important actors are the individual ministries because it’s a well-known fact that all the above issues are cross-sectional, they’re interlocked, and they need to be tackled simultaneously. Clearly, it’s impossible to deal with everything at the same time, but we shouldn’t neglect anything either. Then, there are regional organisations such as the self-governing regions and local municipalities. In addition, there’s the academia and umbrella organisations like the Association of Towns and Villages of Slovakia, the Union of Towns and Cities of Slovakia, SK 8 and other. 

Do you think the individual institutions are becoming more willing to co-operate?

I’ve only had few meetings so far, but if I was to judge based on these meetings, I would say there’s goodwill. The question is what attitude the individual ministries will have to the tasks initiated by the Office. Their current declaration of the willingness to cooperate is a good sign. I’m planning to travel to regional municipalities; I’ve already been to Presov Self-governing Region and I’d like to continue visiting other regions.

The European Commission has allocated funds for dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Do you feel that a part of the funds should go to Roma communities?

We’re in talks with Brussels, of course. We’ve had several discussions and the representatives of the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund stressed that when planning the distribution of funds, it’s important to make sure they go to marginalized communities. But, even without their notice, we consider it important and we are active in the process of planning. We receive a call to propose and identify measures to be taken every day. I suppose the hectic pace won’t slow down during summer vacations and we’d like to be  of service to every ministry having a mandate to address the issues the Office focuses on. 

Segregation of Roma children in education is another long-discussed issue and Slovakia is now facing infringement. What is the current situation and how do you communicate it to the Ministry of Education?

Shortly after the change of government, I met the State Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Ms. Filipova, who’s responsible for the inclusive education agenda. We had a discussion about the remedial measures and how  the Ministry wanted to address them. The Commission has called upon Slovakia to amend the very vague document elaborated by the previous government. The ambition was to design the individual steps in a way that would also allow their implementation so that they really remedy the situation. We then received the document for comments and the final version has been sent to the Commission. We’re waiting for them to respond.

I’ve also had a meeting with the Minister of Education; we discussed the infringement, as well as the new law on compulsory pre-school education. 

As for segregation, I’d say that if Slovakia really wants to deal with it effectively and with dignity, it’s necessary to do so at all levels of our education system. That means also at the level of high schools. We have many field offices, a lot of fields of study with very low rating, many schools situated outside of municipalities’ infrastructure. It needs to be addressed in a complex and responsible way.

Who should be primarily responsible?

Apart from the Ministry of Education, it should certainly be municipalities. Let me give you the example of Richnava municipality, which is a serious precedent. There’s a state school because the municipality wasn’t willing to address the situation effectively and the state had to step in. Last week, I went to Richnava and saw that any idea or solution proposed by the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Education gets immediately rejected by the municipality and its residents. 

Increasing civic participation and political representation of Roma has been one of the positive developments in the past 20 years. Why would you say it is important?

If we want to change something, it is necessary to have representation aware of its status and able to articulate problems and push for changes. At the same time, visibility of the Roma men and women’s representation is important. We are a part of this country; we have enough people who have expertise and who can adequately and equally justify their positions. And, it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the field of the Roma minority agenda. However, unless there’s a significant turn, it’s important to focus the energy on this issue. The decision is, of course, up to every one of us and it’s great if Roma people establish themselves also in other areas. Nevertheless, it is encouraging if Roma men and women are involved in the Roma minority agenda because the situation isn’t changing as fast as we’d like to see it change. 

In the past, there were many programmes helping Roma to establish themselves, to learn to advocate; they created space for „our“ generation and it’s brought about results. We’ve met recently and have concluded that it’s had a positive effect because we’ve been able to utilize what the programmes offered to us and maybe, it’d be good to focus energy and resources to develop skills of Roma in the field of strategic planning, communication and fundraising again. 

If I remember it well, these programmes were always initiated and funded by NGO sector or various international foundations, but not that much by the state if at all…

No, they weren’t initiated or funded by the state at all. All the funds we received came from abroad – from OSI, OSF and other similar structures. Embassies were active, too – the Canadian and the U.S. Embassies or the Embassy of the Netherlands. These funds helped invest  significantly into the Roma men and women‘ s potential. More than a hundred Roma have asserted themselves at home or abroad. 

The state should be more active in this area. Raising civic awareness and developing key competences is crucial and we won’t make progress without it. I would really welcome more support and engagement from the state in this field. 

Elena Gallo Kriglerová is a founder and a director of CVEK. She studied sociology in Bratislava and took part in numerous groundbreaking research projects concerning the situation of Roma and foreigners in Slovakia. She focuses on integration of foreigners, inclusive education, social cohesion and trust.