Commentary: Dismissal of Czech Gov't Agency for Social Inclusion director is bad news, and not just for impoverished Roma
At the end of last week, most of those "involved with Roma" were startled by the news that Martin Šimáček had been dismissed as director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. Voices were immediately raised in support of him by more than 50 employees of the Agency.
This group, however, is incomparably smaller that the amount of enemies the Agency has encountered during the course of its work. These have been mainly people whose toes the Agency has stepped on.
They have included municipal leaders in particular who have been profiting from "trafficking in poverty" and winning popularity with voters by uprooting Romani people, because reportedly there is no other way to solve the Romani problem. They have included Romani "ethno-businessmen" who, through their family nonprofits, have provided an alibi for the regular transfer of state subsidies by claiming to do something for the Roma.
They were joined by a part of the civil service, precisely that part that had social integration, variously conceived, as part of its job description. What the Agency indirectly did was to find those bureaucrats guilty of inactivity or their local projects ineffective.
We also cannot forget the not very large, but nonetheless visible, group of human rights activists and intellectuals who are disconnected from reality and who, in the throes of their ideological schemes about the "ethnic" (emancipatory) and the "social" approaches to this issue, have depicted the Agency as de facto anti-Romani. These people can all now finally relax, because the cutting off of the head of the Agency (no new director for it is planned) and the planned division of it into two departments essentially means the beginning of the Agency's eventual end.
As a management staffer of the Human Rights Section of the Office of the Government, I was able to closely follow, for several years, the conduct of director Šimáček and that of his critics. I was never his subordinate, nor was I one of the people whose businesses or careers he defeated.
I therefore feel sufficiently informed and, at the same time, sufficiently independent, to respond to some of the most-pronounced criticisms of him. I don't intend to review the official reasons for his dismissal communicated by Czech Human Rights Minister Dienstbier, as I am not familiar with the details.
The only thing I can say is that even smaller sins would certainly have been enough for his dismissal as long as the political will to dismiss him existed. However, the lapses reported need not have led to his dismissal at all if the minister had not been a priori determined to take this step for other reasons.
I believe Minister Dienstbier might have been a priori influenced to make this decision by some of the most frequent criticisms that were voiced about the Agency. The perpetually mistaken claim that the Agency had chosen a "social" approach to addressing inclusion instead of an "ethnic" one, i.e., that it ignored the "Romani-ness" of the socially excluded, is nonsense.
The Agency was well aware of the role played by the label of "Gypsy", given to the Roma by outsiders, and how it significantly accelerated the way into the ghetto for those concerned and similarly makes it difficult for them to leave it. Proof of this is, for example, the Agency's recently launched and intelligently-conceived "Hate Free Culture" campaign against racist and xenophobic prejudice.
Similarly, the Agency appreciated elements of Romani culture (mainly the Romani language) and history that might enhance Romani self-esteem. That was always obvious both from the personal opinions of Šimáček and of many of his staffers (some of whom know Romani culture and the Romani language very well) and from their policies, in particular, those aimed at the Education Ministry.
Another permanent criticism was based on the argument that the Agency employs too few Romani people. This was about the misguided conviction that the problems concerning a large portion of the people labeled Romani in the Czech Republic can only be solved by Romani people themselves.
This criticism was always popular because it pushed the Agency into a corner. There were the high professional standards of the Agency on the one hand, related to what was, for a state administration unit, an unusually demanding vetting procedure for hiring, and on the other hand a lack of educated, experienced Romani candidates.
Paradoxically, it was the Agency, led by Šimáček, that bitterly fought with every Czech Education Minister to change the pathological education practices that make it impossible for there to be a higher number of educated Romani people in this country. No one, however, had presumed during the birth of the Agency that it would, in and of itself, generate and then become some sort of École Nationale d´Administration for Romani people to the degree necessary.
Despite this, Šimáček did manage to reach out to several qualified Romani people and hire them. Ján Balog, for example, even worked for a certain time as his Deputy Director.
Resistance to Šimáček's change to the name of the Agency - removing the "in Romani localities" portion of its official title - grew out that same critical environment. This change, however, was not about throwing Romani people under the bus and losing the Romani identity of the Agency, but happened for much more prosaic reasons.
The "in Romani localities" appendage inadvertently predetermined the notion that it was any Romani place (even one inhabited by those who are completely integrated), that would be "their" localities, i.e., the ghettos the Agency should be combating. It also illogically labeled these efforts at integration as happening inside the localities themselves, instead of referring to the coveted integration of their occupants into the larger society of a particular municipality.
The second stream of criticism attacked the results of the Agency's work, which allegedly were non-existent. I was personally present during many such arguments during which the arguments made by the opponents of the Agency grew weaker while those defending the Agency described its work from the highest level of impact through to a description of the effectiveness of concrete projects.
It is very easy to fulminate about the deteriorating situation of Romani people overall when what is involved is the global economic situation, existing legislation, the policies of various administrations and municipalities, the media, and the activities of the private sector (e.g., those who run gambling establishments or who provide loans not connected to banks). In this complex web of social exclusion, the Agency, with its capacity to reach a few dozen cooperating municipalities, continues to be significantly limited.
Moreover, the Agency is only permitted to work with a municipality after it has been expressly invited by them to do so. The biggest sinners, however, usually are not interested in any of its advice.
From a longer-term perspective, I view the Agency as the only actually functioning project that has a chance of improving the position of the socially excluded - and not just the Roma - in the Czech Republic. It is the only program to thoroughly respond to the Bratinka report, today all but forgotten, which first described the situation of Romani people in our country in 1997.
To conclude, I would like to mention the unobtrusive barbs that could be frequently heard inside the Office of the Government with respect to director Šimáček. I daresay that this, too, could have played a significant role in Minister Dienstbier's recent decision.
Šimáček was perceived as a too-ambitious manager who was building up some sort of state within a state (or office within an office). It was necessary to clip his wings a bit so the Agency would be more similar in proportion to other departments within the Office of the Government.
It is easy to trace this back and recall that the original intention of the conception of the Agency was much more ambitious than what it has since become. Originally, it was only supposed to be temporarily housed at the Office of the Government while still in embryonic form.
At some point the Agency was supposed to become completely independent inside the structure of the state administration through the adoption of a special law. The temporary solution, however, became frozen in place, and director Šimáček then had to fulfill an extensive agenda according to the original plans while remaining buried deep within the Office of the Government.
Between Minister Dienstbier (who properly speaking was supposed to work hand in glove with the head of the Agency on this "temporary solution") and Šimáček as the department director there were two other levels of management (the Chief Director of the section and the Deputy Minister). This bureaucracy significantly complicated any essential decisions and Šimáček, in my opinion, had to show a good dose of humility and patience to work under such conditions.
It is paradoxical that a Social Democratic minister, who raised big expectations in the eyes of Šimáček and many of his staffers, has now killed off an essentially pro-social department. In its place he has proposed a conformist, socially populist move.
The conflict-generating, sharp edges of the Agency will be ground down by dispersing them within the framework of the Office of the Government. The bureaucrats have nothing to fear because their jobs will be preserved and their positions will be made even more secure.
The Human Rights Minister may be looking forward to the idea that the rebellious employees of the Agencys will soon shut their mouths and happily sit back down in their seats. The impoverished Roma, however, will evidently continue to grow poorer in the meanwhile.
The author has worked as Secretary of the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission for Romani Community Affairs and as the Czech Representative on the Ad hoc Committee for Romani Affairs of the Council of Europe. This piece was authored on 21 April 2015.
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