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Czech media reopen dispute over Agency for Social Inclusion's approach to aiding Roma

13.8.2015 21:07
Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier
Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier

Czech commentator Petr Holub has revived the discussion on the future of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion with an analysis published on news server Echo24.cz. Holub believes that Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier began a fundamental change in the Agency's approach to social inclusion with his dismissal of the previous head of the Agency in April.    

Holub also believes that change will result in "enlarging the gulf between impoverished non-Roma and Roma". Radka Soukupová of the Agency, however, is arguing that the department has not undergone and will not undergo any conceptual change.    

Squaring the circle:  Aid to Romani people that won't bother the majority

Holub states that the Czech social system functions well, as a consequence of which the country today has lower unemployment than Germany and the smallest number of impoverished people in the EU. "Integration into this new, capitalist society has only succeeded among Roma to a small extent and a significant portion of them have fallen into poverty in the new capitalist conditions. Aid to those in material distress alone will not assist them with making progress and at times of crisis, Romani people have even become the protagonists of the so-called excluded ghettos, where people live separately from the majority society and are dependent on welfare," he writes.

The commentator believes that the Agency, under the previous director, had become an excellent welfare state tool for overcoming this situation. "His people apparently implemented something like a squaring of the circle by managing to arrange for investment to aid the Roma that did not look like assistance to Roma and did not, therefore, bother white Czechs," he writes.

The Agency reportedly managed to collaborate with municipalities on the basis of the principle that its projects aided all socially vulnerable persons, not Roma in particular, and that they were assisting the entire community and entire municipality. According to Holub, Dienstbier is now changing this principle - future investments will not be for aid to excluded localities in general, but primarily their impact on Romani people will be followed.    

This will involve determining who is Romani, and targeting projects according to those findings. "Dienstbier's path is risky, because it earmarks Roma within the boundaries of the welfare state and distributes support on the basis of using a key to establish nationality that has never been tested before. By doing so, it will further separate this minority from the majority society - Roma will have no reason to integrate and the majority society will accept them only when they are accompanied by a subsidy," Holub concludes.

Soukupová:  No changes are planned

Radka Soukupová of the Agency has argued with Holub and said she does not understand where he is getting his information from. In her view, no change in the conceptualization of the Agency is planned - which Human Rights Minister Dienstbier himself has reiterated more than once.

"The work of the Agency for Social Inclusion in excluded localities continues to be implemented on the same principle, which is:  Aid is targeted to all occupants of these localities irrespective of ethnicity," she writes. While she admits that the Agency is not in an easy situation after 24 of its staffers quit recently, it is succeeding nonetheless to fulfill its obligations and is already making preparations for various projects in collaboration with new municipalities.

By the end of August the positions now open there should all be filled. "As far as matters immediately impacting the Roma themselves are concerned, it would be good if they could be involved in the work of the Agency to a greater extent. Ultimately that is one of the conditions of the EU. Romani occupants of excluded localities are not just objects of care, they are people who, on their own (just like anyone else), can get involved with the Agency's local partnerships. If Romani people could be found who can make it through the demanding selection process for new staffers at the Agency it would be better than good. It is not, however, possible, to reduce the requirements for being employed by the Agency," says Soukupová.

Something has happened

It's good that commentator Holub has returned in general to the tension between the "ethnic" and "social" approaches in the work of the Agency. Its new director, Radek Jiránek, has been in office a little more than two months and the deadline to begin drawing on the EU funds is approaching.  

It is evident, despite the claims of Soukupová - whose sincerity I have no reason to doubt - that something is actually changing both inside the Agency and around it. This is indicated by her somewhat strange remark that more involvement of Romani people in the Agency's work is "one of the conditions of the EU".  

Let's review what happened around the Agency since its previous director was dismissed in April:

- The dismissal was sudden - Dienstbier justified it by saying there had been misconduct in the conclusion of some contracts and problems in communication. The former director called those reasons pretexts.

- All employees of the Agency stood up for their dismissed boss, some of them later went on strike, and 24 of the 70 staffers eventually quit.

- Some members of the "Romani elite" had long criticized the Agency for its "social" approach, for ignoring Roma as potential coworkers and in general as a national minority. The director's departure was welcomed by these Romani figures, who do connect it to a new conceptualization of the Agency.

- In that context, and in the context of the Czech Government's newly-approved Romani Integration Strategy, the latent dispute between the "ethnic" and "social" approaches to social inclusion was revived.

- Dienstbier has actually repeatedly denied that this dispute was the reason for his dismissal of the director. He has also denied that he dismissed him because he wanted to change how the Agency operates, even as he has admitted that this dispute does exist, that it is serious, and that EU conditions for the provision of billions in subsidies are part of it.

- This dispute, in any event, does really exist, and sometimes it takes the form of an almost mutual hatred between the camps. Some Romani people and the activists or experts who support them consider the "social approach" to be all but racist, while some former Agency staffers believe asserting the principle of ethnicity in this policy to be something that will destroy their many years of work and that makes no sense in the conditions of a democratic, modern state.

The Agency is now, irrespective of its political declarations, operating in a new environment:  The former director and his colleagues knew how to constrain and keep under control this discussion of the "ethnic" versus "social" approach. According to their critics, of course, that meant they were abusing the debate in order to benefit their own opinion.

Neither Dienstbier nor the new management of the Agency can pretend this discussion does not exist now. Moreover, it is playing out in conditions under which the Agency is supposed to draw on billions from EU funds for the first time in order to promote social inclusion.  

It was the former director who managed most of those arrangements. Human Rights Minister Dienstbier has yet to clarify to what degree the conditions for drawing those funds are "ethnic".

In the context of dismissing the previous director, the minister spoke, for example, of "monitoring" impact on the Romani minority as a condition of drawing the funds. He also claimed the previous director refused to arrange for such monitoring.  

The former director objected to that characterization and said Dienstbier did not know what he was talking about. Pressure from the EU for the agenda of "social inclusion" to be more transparently linked to "Romani integration" is, of course, imaginable and probable.  

Can we have a successful discussion?

How this will all turn out remains an open question. It is possible the Agency will actually go down the "ethnic" path and that Holub's dark vision will come about.

It is also possible that the new management of the Agency will succeed to maneuver through the minefield of this dispute just as ably as the previous management did, and that nothing actually will change in the work of the Agency. Understandably, it is also possible that the "ethnic" approach might work.

It is also possible that the wounds caused by the previous director's dismissal will not be successfully healed, and that both the Agency and his former colleagues will gradually turn into a department that is not very important and gets lost in the Human Rights Ministry's larger agenda. Of course, what is essential is that this dispute - and in some cases the hatred it has provoked - still exists.  

It does not yet seem that we have moved toward a more open discussion of this topic. The discussion of the dismissal of the former director that begin this dispute around the Agency still revolves around mutual recriminations and obfuscation instead of taking the form of a discussion of the facts.  

This is quite symbolic:  What is at issue is aiding people in finding their way out of the ghettos. Many of those who are supposed to contribute to finding the way forward are instead fortifying themselves within their own "ghettos" of opinion - ones they seem unwilling to leave.  


Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Agentura pro sociální začleňování, Jiří Dienstbier, ministr pro lidská práva a rovné příležitosti, Nenávist, Radek Jiránek, Romani people



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