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Commentary: Is the fight over the Agency really about Romani integration?

17.5.2015 8:25
Striking workers of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion held a press conference on 11 May 2015. (PHOTO:  Jan Čonka)
Striking workers of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion held a press conference on 11 May 2015. (PHOTO: Jan Čonka)

The dispute between employees of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion and Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier began with the dismissal of the Agency's director Martin Šimáček. By now, however, it has completely grown beyond a mere clash over who will be director - although who that is going to be is still an important issue.

In the discussions now underway about the future of the Agency, basic notions about how the state should treat the Romani minority, how it should aid its emancipation and integration, are clearly part of what is at issue. The basic interest groups and different opinions clashing over the "Romani integration" concept are also clear.

Here I do not want to analyze the clash between the "ethno-emancipatory" and the "social" approaches to integration, or how to combat social exclusion. I also will not review the possible political connections at play here or various parties' interests in dividing up the 10 billion crowns set to arrive here from the EU funds.

We will return to all of those topics later. Right now I want to reflect, in this context, on the reasons that led the employees of the Agency to go on strike (or not).

Is this no longer about Šimáček?

The employees of the Agency emphasized at their 11 May press conference about the beginning of the strike that they are no longer interested in Martin Šimáček returning as 

director. They said that while that motivation has been repeatedly attributed to them, their concern is really one of principles.

This is not a completely believable statement. In their first reaction to the dismissal of the director, the employees clearly wrote to Minister Dienstbier that they stood behind the director and asked the minister to "revoke his decision" to remove him.

That's not the "attribution" of a motivation to them. According to their own words, the employees actually did want their director back.

That is at least what they were saying at the beginning of their battle with the minister. By now it is absolutely unrealistic to expect that Dienstbier might reverse his decision, and that is why the striking staffers have withdrawn from that point, for tactical reasons.

It's not clear why they are not openly stating this.  Moreover, the dismissal of Šimáček definitely remains one of their topics:  It seems that Dienstbier is incapable of clearly explaining the reasons for his removal and that Šimáček is probably correct to speak of the reasons given as just "pretexts".

There is no question that the cover-up of the actual reasons for his dismissal is an important component of the discussion of the future of the Agency. What the real reasons were will understandably be part of any eventual satisfaction for Šimáček, provided it can be proven that he was removed on the basis of some sort of behind-the-scenes manipulation and pressure.

Is there no conceptual dispute?

The strikers also sounded misleading at their press conference when they claimed that there is no clash between the "ethno-emancipatory" and "social" approaches and that this 

dispute was being raised as a distraction. This dispute does exist, it has existed for many years, and it makes no sense to deny it.  

We now have two Government concepts, the Romani Integration Strategy and the Strategy for Combating Social Exclusion (which is essentially the program of the Agency), and at a minimum, in the eyes of several enlightened observers, these concepts represent two different approaches that are difficult to coordinate. The Agency has long been a subject of criticism by some Romani activists and politicians precisely because of its purely "social" approach, which belittles the significance of the ethnic approach and the existence of the Romani nation per se.

This is reportedly the reason that there are so few Roma working at the Agency, as well as the reason why the Agency allegedly is not trusted by impoverished Romani people in the field. It is essential to research the degree to which this criticism of the Agency is justified, as well as to investigate whether both of these approaches and concepts can be coordinated somehow.  

Can consensus be found among the activists, experts and politicians involved? If one is not found, the result will be absolutely absurd:  A solidly functioning component of the Government's efforts to aid the poorest of the poor, most of whom are Romani, will be frozen due to unresolved disputes over whether it is even supposed to function at all.    

The dispute concerns whether the Agency is based on the wrong principles - but are there other principles available on which to base a different, functional policy? In any event it makes no sense to deny the existence of the dispute.

Can the Agency be apolitical?

The other arguments made for the strike sounded very logical:  The employees of the Agency want it to be an independent, expert unit, a think tank that will manage to implement the policy of combating social exclusion in the field. They want it to successfully arrange for continuity and expertise in national policy in this area.

At this moment, however, the Agnecy is the subject of political maneuvering, and as part of these everyday political struggles, it cannot simply fulfill what is asked of it. Of course, that would be the desired model for how a public administration should run.

What we are experiencing in our country is rather the opposite:  Ministers are exchanged very frequently, as are their closest subordinates, their cooperating experts, and policies. Our public policy lacks a long-term continuity and vision in general.

Rather, our policy is the victim of behind-the scenes negotiations, of clashes between the interests of individuals and narrowly-defined groups. Even on this point, however, the representatives of the striking employees were not convincing in their statements.  

Those on strike have not been able to clearly answer the question of whether it is correct for the Agency to strive for such a model at the very moment when it is part of the dispute over which concept will ultimately win. At a minimum, the Agency is in a situation where "national policy" has not yet been clarified.

In that case, does its expert team even have something to implement? Isn't the Agency's reference to "apolitical" expertise rather an effort to push through its own approach, which is a completely clearly "political" act?

Irrespective of the degree of ineptitude in the statements made by the strikers or the  ineptitude of their tactics, this clash over the Agency today is evidently where the political concept of "Romani integration" will now be clarified. The reasons the director was dismissed may be a pretext, and it is also possible that some of the arguments made by the employees to justify their battle with Dienstbier are pretexts also -  but this clash is essential in and of itself.

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Agentura pro sociální začleňování, Jiří Dienstbier, Martin Šimáček, odvolání, Strategie romské integrace do roku 2020



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