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Does the Czech Human Rights Minister grasp the purported dispute between the "ethnic" and "social" approaches to inclusion?

3.6.2015 17:35
Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier (PHOTO: Repro ČT 24)
Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier (PHOTO: Repro ČT 24)

Two important events took place recently that may fundamentally influence the approach to Romani integration policy and combating socially excluded localities for a long time to come. A new report on socially excluded localities was presented by the GAC company, and several hours later, Czech Human Rights Minister Dienstbier announced that the new director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion will be Radek Jiránek.

On both occasions, the clash between the "ethno-emancipatory" and "social" approaches to Romani integration has been discussed. For some this dispute is rather a myth, while for others it is a determining axis around which the clashes over the Romani integration concept are based.

Social exclusion and social poverty

The research by GAC demonstrates that in socially excluded localities the number of Roma has relatively declined even though they continue to form a clear majority of the inhabitants of such places. Representation of impoverished majority-society people, primarily senior citizens, has increased in these neighborhoods.

Their lives are now approximating the lives of the Roma in the "ghettos". The previously sharp borders between these "ghettos" and the areas around them are becoming blurred.

Ivan Gabal, the sociolgist who established GAC, says that "there is a greater overlap between social exclusion and societal poverty", which could result in an "enhancing of the social dimension and a reduction to the ethnic dimension" of the approach to excluded localities. Karel Čada, the head of the team that produced last year's survey, has indicated that there is no consensus on this question, not even inside GAC.  

"These categories of 'ethnic' and 'social' are, if I were to speak in a Klausian manner, 'false categories'. They are linked, but this debate about the dispute between them is setting us 10 years back," he says.

New director of the Agency and the "social" approach

Speaking at a press conference where Dienstbier introduced him as the new director of the Agency, Jiránek responded to the results of the GAC research as follows:  "This group of socially excluded people is changing in terms of ethnicity, the number of ethnic Roma in it is declining. The Agency really will be acting generally, in a cross-cutting fashion, and it will not focus purely or solely on one or two ethnic minorities."

I then asked Dienstbier the following question:  "The GAC results demonstrate that the problems of social exclusion are being transformed into problems of societal poverty and the ethnic element is playing less of a role. Doesn't that contradict what you said at a recent meeting with journalists, that the dispute about the 'ethno-emanicipatory' and 'social' approaches was a factor that played a role in the removal of the director of the Agency? Today it seems the Agency was right to emphasize the 'social' approach."

Dienstbier and the "social approach"

The minister responded that the formulation of my question was incorrect and that there was no such dispute involved with respect to the dismissal of the former director. "I have emphasized this repeatedly, including to you personally," he said.

"I have supported the Agency in its approach and I have never demanded any indication that it would change. What has been at issue is the question of monitoring impact. The dispute you are referring to here never existed," Dienstbier said.

The minister has probably forgotten what he said at a meeting with journalists on 5 May. News server reported what he said as follows and has never received any response from him about this characterization: 

"The instrument for ascertaining that actual effect is supposed to be a newly-introduced monitoring process. According to Dienstbier, Šimáček refused to even discuss the Agency performing such monitoring. Dienstbier says the director claimed that to do such monitoring would mean combining the 'ethno-emancipatory' and 'social' approaches to combating social exclusion. The minister admits that the dispute over these two approaches is a longstanding one that has been part of the discussion about the future of the Agency and its work for years. 'In the past I have even defended Šimáček's 'social' approach,' the minister said. 'On the other hand, it is a fact that the excluded localities are 80 % - 90 % Romani, so to reject the factor of ethnicity in their social exclusion is absurd. Moreover, the European Commission is insisting on a connection with the Romani integration concept, with a focus on the Romani community. Without that, it will not be possible to draw any monies from the EU funds.' "

It's hard to make sense of the minister's words. It's also hard to know whether any dispute at all is actually playing out here and if so, what its nature is.

Does this dispute even exist?

The dispute between the "ethno-emancipatory" and "social" approaches is interpreted differently by different people. Some consider it to be more of an artificial construct, some more of a political one that is only raised when needed, as the former director of the Agency has done.

Others -  such as, for example, Romani activist Karel Holomek - consider this distinction to be fundamental and the Agency's lack of mastery of the "ethno-emancipatory" approach to be its main failing. For Karel Čada, it is a bit of a useless academic exercise.  

Ivan Gabal views it as a variable that should be dependent on how demographic data develop. Academics such as Marek Jakoubek and Jaroslav Skupnik are tempted by it as a substantial dispute.

Then there is Dienstbier, who views this dispute one way on one day and another way on another. Irrespective of these various interpretations, of course, a certain problem remains:  In the eyes of some leading Romani figures and groups, the Agency is unreliable because it does not employ Romani people and does not know how to communicate with them - it essentially isn't "counting on" them.

The European Commission is demanding a focus on Roma and conditioning the drawing of money from the Structural Funds on that. Whether this dispute is more or less important, or more or less real, it continues to be raised around the Agency and around the existence of two government concepts, the Romani Integration Strategy and the Strategy to Combat Social Exclusion.

The best thing, therefore, would be for this dispute to be clarified in a calm fashion. It should be reviewed in detail and openly, with the participation of everyone involved, in direct discussions.

This might not be such a complicated thing to do. Until it happens, though, the dispute will undoubtedly continue to be used (and perhaps abused) both as a political and as a tactical weapon. 

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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