Will the Renewal Plan improve the situation of Roma?
The Plan for Renewal of Slovakia titled Modern and Successful Slovakia was introduced to the public on 5th October (hereinafter „the Renewal Plan“)1. This long-awaited document’s ambition is to define reforms that could catapult Slovakia to a higher quality of life; to meeting objectives that may seem unattainable to us today.2
As for the evaluation of quality of life, the document uses OECD data, according to which Slovakia needs to deal with challenges especially in the field of health care, education and housing.3 In health care, it is due to low and unevenly distributed life expectancy; in the field of education, it is not only the overall low quality of education, but also uneven education results and in the area of housing, the challenge is to address inequalities manifested by a high ratio of people living in crowded households and by inaccessibility and unaffordability of housing. It is probably fair to openly say that people living in marginalised Roma communities are much more affected by the inequalities than the rest of population.
Although Slovakia has been making economic progress in the recent years, it has not had a visible positive affect on the status of Roma people; when compared to the majority, Roma people are still in a worse position in many areas of life.4 Their chances to be employed have probably increased as the demand for labour rose before the pandemic. There have also been a few successful programmes and projects (such as the civil patrols, Healthy Regions, field social work or community centres). They have, however, brought about only partial improvement and have not achieved a system change and overall improvement of the situation of Roma people.
Since the Renewal Plan promises a qualitative leap for our society, we have taken a closer look at the document to see whether it could achieve a significant improvement of the situation of Roma.
As for the specific areas and measures in relation to marginalised Roma communities, we can find them defined in the Renewal Plan mostly in the chapters focusing on labour market and social sustainability, education and health.5
From activation work to actual active labour market policy
Measures concerning labour market and social sustainability focus on improving employment of disadvantaged groups, including people living in Roma communities.6 Low participation of disadvantaged groups in the labour market means an overall lower employment rate when compared to other countries (including countries with similar age structure). As for marginalized Roma communities, the Renewal Plan concludes that employment of people in these communities reaches only one-third of the employment rate of the majority population. At the same time, people from marginalized Roma communities participate in the measures of active labour market policy very little except for activation work. Taking into consideration their lower levels of education and discrimination they experience from employers, people in marginalized Roma communities (hereinafter MRCs) are largely dependent on the material need benefit, which is, however, so low that it makes people from MRCs one of the groups most at risk of poverty and social exclusion.7
The Renewal Plan proposes several measures to improve the situation of people living in MRCs. Firstly, it wants to strengthen the position of the Office of the Plenipotentiary for Roma communities and to adopt the Roma Integration Strategy. Also, the already tried programmes (e.g. the civil patrols, Healthy Regions, field social work, community centres and other) should continue and new programmes should be introduced (e.g. field janitors programme) and they should be introduced in all villages where marginalized Roma communities live. The system of early childcare for children aged 0-3 should be another measure, in MRCs, the Omama programme should be promoted and implemented for this purpose.8
The plan proposes to change the way programmes in marginalized Roma communities are managed and implemented so that the workers involved in the programmes are employed by a single managing agency rather than municipalities. The government thus seeks to overcome the reluctance of some municipalities to participate in the existing programmes.
The Renewal Plan also aims at improving employment services that should place more emphasis on the individual counselling for disadvantaged applicants in the labour market, their retraining and further education.
The shift from placing Roma people in the activation work scheme towards increasing their human capital through retraining and further education can certainly be seen as positive because activation work held no added value for them. However, what is also needed is some support to make sure that, after finishing an education or retraining programme, they will actually be able find a job. The Renewal Plan does mention discrimination of Roma people by employers, but it does not propose any measures in this area.
Measures for improving housing in Roma communities are unclear
In the field of housing, the plan is to adopt the State Housing Policy Conceptual Framework until 2030. This framework should define tools leading to the increase of rental housing ratio. At the same time, such housing should be more affordable for the most vulnerable groups of inhabitants, for instance by introducing the obligation to reserve a certain number of flats build within development projects as flats with regulated rent (especially in bigger cities).
The government also wants to develop a conceptual framework to tackle homelessness and to support the „housing first“ programme in the regional capitals. However, the improvement of affordable housing for people living in MRCs is not specific enough. The prosed tools are supposed to solve affordability of housing in the cities while many MRCs are in the regions, in rural areas where these tools cannot be used despite the fact that most people living in crowded households and struggling with poor hygiene standards, inaccessibility of housing and homelessness live there.
In relation to the situation of people dependent on material need benefits, the Renewal Plan aims at designing a system of material need aid so that it reflects the real costs of households. The activation benefit for people who are retraining should increase and the current housing benefit will be taken out of the material need benefit and the criteria for granting it will also change. At the same time, it should be linked to the size and the composition of families, as well as costs related to housing.
Measures focusing on education promise better inclusion
We can say that education in Slovakia reproduces social inequalities and pupils’ education results have worsened in general. The Renewal Plan proposes measures also for this area. For example, a change of regional schools management system together with optimization of grammar schools network is planned, as well as the curricular reform and the market with textbooks should open to achieve more diversity.
In relation to Roma children the government considers it important to improve inclusiveness of education process, to increase availability of early childcare and the number of children in pre-school (not only 5-year-olds, but also children aged 3-4), and to promote eligibility of a place for a child in kindergarten. At the same time, it promises to strengthen support teams at schools, as well as education at secondary schools in subject fields offering better opportunities for students to find a job.
The Renewal Plan’s ambition is to deal with the chronic problem of education system – exclusion of children with disabilities into a separate education stream – to special schools. A part of special schools should be transformed, and another part should be integrated into mainstream grammar schools. The process of diagnostics needs to be reworked so that it is more complex and long-term to prevent disproportionate placement of pupils in a separate education stream. Apart from that, pupils with mild intellectual disability will be able to study at all types of secondary schools (something they cannot do now).
Even though the Renewal Plan does address desegregation, it does not mention grammar schools or classes with almost exclusively Roma children. The Plan should help schools not to segregate children in mainstream schools (as it happens now) by, for example, providing financial and methodical support since working with children from marginalised Roma communities is very challenging for both schools and teachers.
In the area of inclusive education, the government wants to adopt the Strategy for Inclusive Education (until the end of 2021). It wants to significantly reform school counselling and prevention centres (CPPP and CŠPP). Schools will be eligible to funding for support teams (consisting of a special pedagogue, a psychologist, and a teacher assistant). Children with their mother tongue other than Slovak will be entitled to learning Slovak as a second language. In addition, a system of early warning should be developed in case of pupils at risk of ending compulsory school attendance prematurely. The Renewal Plan also includes a plan for gradual removal of barriers in all types of schools (including information and communication technologies).
Promoting inclusive education is undoubtedly important and it is the right way to ensure inclusion of children with special needs to mainstream grammar and secondary schools. However, the proposed measures imply that if a school decides to become inclusive, it can get a support team and maybe a subsidy for removing barriers. It would be advisable to consider also other measures such as reducing the number of pupils in classes, financial motivation of teachers who have children with special needs in their classes and other. It seems that the system of early warning will draw attention to the pupils at risk of ending the compulsory school attendance prematurely, but it does not address another chronic issue in the field of educating Roma children from MRCs – the disproportionately high rate of pupils repeating school years. When we examine the indicators for inclusive education, they make us wonder whether the proposed measure will be implemented at all since the government is proposing measurable indicators such as the number of cases of premature ending of compulsory school attendance, results from PISA testing, number of supporting staff and schools without barriers. We would, however, expect the government to focus more on the number of desegregated schools, classes and pupils.
Roma children can certainly benefit from the above-mentioned set of measures in the field of education, but the part on digitalization shows how „blind“ different measures often are in relation to children from poor background or socially disadvantaged children. Measures in this part focus on improving the access of schools and teachers to digital technologies so that each teacher has a computer, a package of technologies and skills for using them also in situations such as the current pandemic when children need to be taught online. The fact that there is a big group of children who simply cannot learn online because their families cannot afford to provide the necessary equipment or support to them, so they will not benefit from the proposed measures at all (see also the article by Elena Gallo Kriglerová on educating children at the time of the pandemic in this issue of Minority Policy).
Measures in the field of health care
Various indicators in the field of health show that people living in MRCs are doing much worse and have a lower life expectancy; they suffer from different diseases more often; there is also a higher rate of infant mortality and health care services are less available to them. Measures focusing on improving health of people from MRCs include higher availability of health care through financial incentives for doctors and education of health care workers, better prevention, regular monitoring of health of people in MRCs and their access to health care.
A closer cooperation of Regional Public Health Offices with Healthy Regions field social workers, promoting studies in health care courses among people from MRCs and reducing the additional charges for drugs for people at risk of poverty. Reducing the infant mortality rate and increasing participation of people in preventive check-ups are some of the main indicators set in this area. The proposed measures can be seen as positive. Nevertheless, there are no measures for improving the quality of housing, hygiene standard or access to drinking water, which are also factors closely connected to health of people living in MRCs.
Where are anti-discrimination measures and measures to ensure inclusion and participation?
The Plan for Renewal of Slovakia is an important conceptual document not only because it aim is to seta a framework for utilizing a not small amount of money, but also because it should introduce a vision and solutions for many, often long-term, issues with a view of making our society more resilient and more ready for challenges we will face in near or more distant future.
The status of Roma in the society is one of the serious, long-term issues. In order for the proposed measures to be effective in bringing about a real change for Roma minority, it is necessary to get off the beaten tracks, think outside the box and have a different perspective on the situation.
Such perspective tells us that it may not be enough to improve the social and economic status of Roma. If they continue to live separated from the majority; if their children go to segregated schools; if they go and find jobs in countries where bias against them is not so wide-spread and if they continue to be seen as inferior, their situation will certainly not improve.
Roma people should not be held accountable for the current situation („they are not trying hard enough“). The majority and its institutions are responsible for it to a large extent since Roma people experience hatred, rejection, discrimination. In addition, there is a wide-spread attitude that it is not important what Roma people think (not even for policy makers).
We do not need to go far to find inspiration for a different approach to this issue. The European Commission offers such inspiration. On 7th October 2020, the new EU Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation9 has been adopted. Even though there have been other important conceptual documents adopted by the EU in the recent years, the European Commission concludes that only limited progress has been made in the integration of Roma in the past 10 years.10
One of the reasons is the fact that the policies and measures implemented have primarily focused on the social and economic empowerment of Roma. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that the situation of Roma will not improve without their real integration in the society. In its new framework, the European Commission defines seven important areas of measures while emphasizing three horizontal areas: equality, inclusion and participation. According to the new framework, these three areas are crucial in achieving a more significant and faster improvement of the situation and the status of Roma.
The proposed Renewal Plan acknowledges that Roma in Slovakia are discriminated against in certain areas (especially in access to employment or health care). However, it does not introduce systemic measures to ensure they have equal access to many services and valuables. In fact, the Renewal Plan only repeats the already existing approach to Roma, which is considerably limiting even if implemented with good intentions. The reason is that such an approach overlooks and fails to address the real causes of the unfavourable situation of many Roma. We can only hope that the new Roma Integration Strategy the government is planning to adopt next year will reflect the recommendations of the European Commission more since the Renewal Plan has not used its full potential in this field.
- Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic (2020), ´Modern and Successful Slovakia´, available at: https://www.mfsr.sk/sk/financie/institut-financnej-politiky/strategicke-materialy/ine-strategicke-materialy/
- Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic (2020), ´Modern and Successful Slovakia´, available at: https://www.mfsr.sk/sk/financie/institut-financnej-politiky/strategicke-materialy/ine-strategicke-materialy/, p. 2
- Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic (2020), ´Modern and Successful Slovakia´, available at: https://www.mfsr.sk/sk/financie/institut-financnej-politiky/strategicke-materialy/ine-strategicke-materialy/, p. 15.
- Educational Policy Institute (2020), Review of expenses on groups at risk of poverty and social exclusion, available at: https://www.minedu.sk/revizia-vydavkov-na-skupiny-ohrozene-chudobou-alebo-socialnym-vylucenim-2020/
- Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic (2020), ´Modern and Successful Slovakia´, available at: https://www.mfsr.sk/sk/financie/institut-financnej-politiky/strategicke-materialy/ine-strategicke-materialy/, p. 76.
- Specifically, the document lists the following groups as disadvanatged in the labour market: undereducated people, long-term unemployed people, people from marginalized Roma communities, women with children under 3 years of age, and people with disabilities. Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic (2020), ´Modern and Successful Slovakia´, available at: https://www.mfsr.sk/sk/financie/institut-financnej-politiky/strategicke-materialy/ine-strategicke-materialy/, p. 43.
- Ministry of Finance of the Slovak Republic (2020), ´Modern and Successful Slovakia´, available at: https://www.mfsr.sk/sk/financie/institut-financnej-politiky/strategicke-materialy/ine-strategicke-materialy/, p. 43.
- European Commission (2020), The new EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/new-eu-roma-strategic-framework-equality-inclusion-and-participation-full-package_en
- European Commission (2020), EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion and participation for 2020 – 2030, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/union_of_equality_eu_roma_strategic_framework_for_equality_inclusion_and_participation_en.pdf, p. 2