Integrating Eastern Europe's Roma

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Communism failed to do it - can capitalism do any better? So far, the answer is not clear. I'm referring to the integration of the Romani minority into the mainstream of eastern Europe's transition countries. For those not familiar with this topic, 'Roma' is the polite term used in place of the more common 'Gypsy'. (The words themselves are laden with baggage - in English, Gypsy is tied to the pejorative verb "to gyp", while the Slovak version 'cigan' is tied to the verb 'ciganit', which means "to lie.") The approach of the authorities in most communist countries in the 1950s was to forcibly sedentarize the population, a nice term for shooting their horses and burning their wagons and most of their possessions. Many Roma were then forced into new industrial settings - for instance, thousands of Slovak Roma were required to move to northern Bohemia to work in factories. As an experiment in social engineering, it was a failure; social integration did not result.   

Yet the transition to capitalism has not done much better, at least not so far. One of the most notorious examples comes from one of the biggest successes of the transition, the Czech Republic. Known as the Gypsy Ghetto, Chanov is an almost entirely Roma enclave in an industrial Czech city. These photos speak for themselves.

But it's not just the Czech Republic where there is a problem. Most eastern European countries face this issue - a report from the UN in 2003 estimated that 70 percent of the Roma population gets its income from state transfers. Many have advocated on moral grounds that something ought to be done about this state of affairs. The European Union's Decade of Roma Inclusion was just such an effort, and the results were underwhelming. A new article in Transitions Online takes a very different approach. S. Adam Cardais points out that there is a Pocketbook Argument for Integration:

Indeed, Roma exclusion has significant economic costs that should be shouted in arguments supporting integration. It might be a cynical approach, but it might also have the political legs that moral considerations seem to lack. The costs start with jobs. Either because of discrimination or lack of education or skills, Roma unemployment is disproportionately high in Central and Eastern Europe, reaching 70 percent in some countries. At the same time, majority populations are advancing toward wheelchairs faster than tricycles. Labor markets will be short tens of thousands of workers in the coming decades, so smart governments should be trying to capitalize on their inexpensive, available Romani work force. But most aren't. Instead, countries such as the Czech Republic are recruiting foreign workers to fill the gaps.

Clearly, the markets are not particularly efficient when foreign workers are being recruited when there is plenty of unemployed labor. (And I am not particularly sympathetic to the notion of the Roma as "work-shy" since in many countries they are the original small entreprenuers - itinerant merchants who sold their wares from village to village. The communists, of course, managed to put an end to this habit.) This creates a real opportunity. Many support programs have focused on social integration as an end in itself. While many are necessary and laudable - particularly efforts to integrate Roma students into mainstream schools - they are not sufficient. Tying these support programs to additional programs focused on economic integration may be just the spur that is needed to help catalyze integration. Then, perhaps, the market system will help achieve what communism manifestly failed to do. 


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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