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October 24, 2020



Renata Berkyová: Should the Czech Gov't Agency for Social Inclusion have been more "Romani"?

24.4.2015 21:33
Renata Berkyová
Renata Berkyová

Over the last few days, Martin Šimáček has become a popular face in the media in connection with his dismissal from the post of director of the Agency for Social Inclusion. The entire Agency staff and a noticeable portion of the public have protested the decision of Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier to remove him.

In addition to discussions of this unexpected dismissal, the reasons for it, and the future of the Agency, a topic has been raised about which the Agency has been criticized from the beginning. It seems that the decision to ignore this issue may now partially be impacting its very existence.

"Once again, this is about us without us," Romani people are saying. "Large sums of money flow through the Agency to help impoverished Roma. How many of them, in all this time, have managed to integrate?“

Etc., etc.  These complaints and others like them may seem oversimplified, they may seem to lack any deeper knowledge of the Agency's focus and work, but we should not take them lightly.

The work of this department, from the beginning, has followed two tracks and has not exactly been clear when it came to focusing on a target group. On the one hand there is the so-called general "fight against poverty and social exclusion", and on the other hand, the Romani people who are the most afflicted by social exclusion.    

People ordinarily place an equals sign between these two factors. Why, then, were Romani people more or less never invited to join the discussions and perform the work of the Agency itself?

Should Romani people have been invited at all? Many believe they should have.

Essentially, this never happened. The Agency says in its defense that it has at least partially been represented by Roma.

However, to give the example of Jan Balog, who was Deputy Director back in 2009 (and who among other things was a former staffer of the People in Need NGO, just like Šimáček) is just an attempt at an alibi. The same goes for the evidence demonstrating that some staffers are familiar with Romani culture and language even if they are not themselves Roma.  

The Agency's claim that there is a lack of educated, experienced Romani people also seems to be a bit of an excuse. Why does it work in other institutions and organizations to employ Romani people with the requisite educations, people who at the same time are able to offer something more in the form of their personal experiences and knowledge from within Romani society?

Is the acceptance process at the Agency so demading that none of the potential Romani candidates could handle it? I am not claiming that Romani origins alone predetermine a person's ability to execute the Agency's work, which does require certain qualifications, but it is a shame that its leadership did not put much effort into taking advantage of the potential that Romani experts might have contributed to the effective work of the Agency.  

It is also a shame that the Agency never adequately responded to this constant criticism of its failure to include Roma. Some have defended the Agency against this criticism of its "lack of ethnic representation" by saying the Agency works for everyone afflicted by social exclusion, whether Romani or not.  

However, none of these defenders are able to avoid taking an ambivalent position when they then begin to speak of "people around the Roma", of impoverished Roma, and of Romani elites - the unequivocal fact is that the vast majority of the populations of excluded localities are actually Romani. Since his dismissal, Šimáček has been making no secret of his hypothesis that, in addition to other matters, representatives of the Romani elites are even behind his dismissal.  

Some Romani people naturally have their own interpretation of his claim:  Aha, so the Roma are to blame! Certainly, this is again an oversimplified deduction by people who have criticized the Agency from the beginning.

I myself suspect some of these critics of a personal ambition just to be near power and of exploiting their Romani origin to do so. Even the former director believes the elites are behind his dismissal, but I am of the opinion that it was completely unfortunate that he uttered his allegations and generalized accusations to the media, because it has not helped.

On the contrary, this pits the Agency against Romani people. Many don't trust the Agency per se anyhow, which might also be why they don't want to work for it.

The Agency is now undergoing a big change. It is clear that this is not just about a director whose removal might mean the department ceases to exist.

I believe that both the minister and the former director of the Agency wanted it to run effectively and well, even though each had his own ideas as to how that should be implemented. Even though a large number of people outside the Agency have backed Šimáček - people who are proof of a job well done - everything indicates that his return is not in the cards.  

It would be very irresponsible to abandon or to demonstratively give up on the work that is underway because of this. That's why I believe that the earthquake the Agency has undergone - which has brought to light once more a criticism that it has permanently attracted from the outset - might just be a positive thing.

Now what matters is who carries on. Most importantly, it is about how they will carry on.

Renata Berkyová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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