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Will the Czech Gov't Agency for Social Inclusion survive its director's departure?

17.4.2015 20:40
Martin Šimáček. (PHOTO: Lukáš Houdek)
Martin Šimáček. (PHOTO: Lukáš Houdek)

On Thursday, 16 April, Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier removed Martin Šimáček from his post as director of the Czech Govenrment Agency for Social Inclusion. 

Šimáček said in an interview for news server Romea.cz that what lies behind the change is a law on state service that is about to take effect.    

The former director claims that on the basis of that new law, the ministry wants to divide the Agency into two separate departments of the Human Rights Section at the Office of the Government. Will this mean the end of the Agency?

The following is our review of the work to date of the Agency and Šimáček. The just-removed director is a graduate of Charles University in Prague who has spent his entire professional life focusing on the topic of poverty and social inclusion.  

Šimáček has completed a great deal of coursework about social inclusion and about consultancy in the Czech Republic and other European countries with respect to the issue of social inclusion, consultancy and the European Structural Funds. He began his career as an interpreter for asylum seekers in Great Britain and worked for eight years for the People in Need organization, most recently as the director of its Social Integration Programs for its Central Bohemian regional branch, as well as working as an external consultant to the nonprofit organization Partners Czech o.p.s.

He has also worked with the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport as the coordinator of a National Individual Project on the Center for the Support of Inclusive Education and with the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry as coordinator of a National Individual Project on the Education of Child Welfare Protection Staffers. He has been director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion (also known as the Department of Social Inclusion at the Office of the Government) since 2009.

Šimáček was chosen over 14 other competitors, beating out Radek Jiránek, who made it to second place, and Jozef Baláž, who made it to third place. He was appointed by then-Human Rights Minister Michael Kocáb.

His vision was to provide socially excluded citizens with access to education and the opportunity to access employment and housing proportionate to their income. He rejected repressive procedures that might enhance conflict and tensions between the majority and Romani people.  

Some of his critics questioned his ties to the People in Need organization, which provides services in socially excluded localities. After the removal of Monika Šimůnková as Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner and as director of the Human Rights Section at the Office of the Government on 15 October 2013, Šimáček was also entrusted with serving as director of that section.    

The Agency - recipe for a ghetto

The birth of the Agency itself dates back to 2007, when then-Human Rights and Minorities Minister Džamila Stehlíková began to push for it. The Agency was supposed to 
help areas with ghettos by teaching local governments, associations, schools, Labor Offices, the private sector and the residents of troubled localities themselves what to do so such localities would either disappear or transform themselves into regular neighborhoods.

Stehlíková also saw big economic potential in the Agency and emphasized the enormous savings to the state budget that its integration work would generate, particularly in the area of support for employment. The Agency began its work in March 2008 when it became a department of the Office of the Czech Government.  

For the next two years it functioned as a pilot project in 12 localities. Marek Podlaha became its director, but was removed by Stehlíková after less than a year.

At that time, the Agency faced sharp criticism from the Office of the Government itself over its financing and from Romani activists, who believed the Agency had completely failed to meet its aims. In 2009 the new Minister for Human Rights and National Minorities became Michael Kocáb, who was expected to attempt to jump-start the Agency.

Šimáček was then chosen as director. Currently the Agency is working with 36 municipalities, and Šimáček's plan was for it to offer support to more than 70 by the end of 2019.

Better coexistence? Gradual steps

The Agency's work has had its backers and its critics. When faced with people's doubts about the effectiveness and real impact of the Agency's work to improve the situation of Romani people in the Czech Republic, Šimáček has argued that the Government itself delayed and did not begin to involve itself with this issue in a more systematic way until around 1997.  

He believes progress has occurred during the past six to eight years, both at the level of the ministries and at the level of municipalities, many of whom he believes have begun to solve this problem thanks to the Agency's aid. He has been a critic of those politicians who abuse the situation of the excluded localities and the topic of the Romani minority in a populist way in order to score political points.  

Šimáček believes better coexistence between the majority and the Romani minority can be achieved through gradual steps and that the current situation has been determined by many years of historical developments. He has particularly pointed out the consequences of the Romani Holocaust during the Second World War, during which most Czech Romani people were murdered, the massive immigration into the Czech lands of Romani people from Slovakia, the unsystematic approach taken by the communist regime to these issues, the assignment of Romani children into what were called "special schools" prior to 1989 and what are today called "practical schools", and the state's failure to address the situation at the start of the 1990s.    

A large number of Romani people live in socially unsatisfactory conditions, and there is a dispute in the Czech Republic over whether this is primarily conditioned by Romani people's ethnic difference or whether it is simply part of a larger social problem. Šimáček is a backer of the social explanation.  

The People in Need organization tends toward that approach as well, in contrast to some pro-Romani or Romani NGOs, in particular, the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno. During the summer of 2012, the Agency changed its name from the "Agency for Social Inclusion in Romani Localities" to the "Agency for Social Inclusion". 

bau, min, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Agentura pro sociální začleňování, Jiří Dienstbier, Martin Šimáček, odvolání



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