Helping the Roma people to climb out of poverty is not only the right thing to do, but also makes economic sense for Europe
It was an impressive group of young men and women who gathered on Europe Day in May at the World Bank Group's office in Bucharest. The young professionals, who live in many central and eastern European countries, had gone from university to jobs as lawyers, IT specialists, architects and entrepreneurs.
They had two things in common. First, they had overcome the social stigma and challenges of growing up as one of Europe's estimated 12 million Roma, and second, they had benefited from the Roma Education Fund, started in 2005 by the World Bank Group and the Open Society Institute.
These young scholarship recipients represent a marked contrast to common negative stereotypes of ‘gypsies'. Instead, they represent a vision of a Europe that nurtures the talents of all citizens, and they are proof that when they have opportunities to develop their talents, Roma people can achieve remarkable results.
While the headlines in Europe focus on the eurozone's short-term economic issues, the long-term goal of integrating the Roma people slowly simmers in the background, largely forgotten but still one of Europe's greatest challenges.
The Roma people are one of Europe's poorest but fastest-growing communities. Three out of four live in poverty, one in three goes to bed hungry at least once a month, and almost half live in segregated communities.
Partnering with Europe's Roma so that they climb out of poverty is not only the right thing to do – it is smart economics for Europe. The labour force in central and eastern Europe is shrinking rapidly while the Roma population is growing. In Bulgaria, Roma are expected to make up 23% of new labour-market entrants by 2020. Clearly, much of the future competitiveness of countries in the region may depend on how rapidly they integrate Roma.
The reality is not encouraging. Only half of Roma men and a quarter of Roma women in Europe have jobs.
Europe needs a European-wide focus on Roma integration. If Roma are to take part as equals in European prosperity, they need opportunities, training and acceptance, starting at the pre-school age. Enabling more Roma children to attend pre-school and mainstreamed primary schools can equip them with the skills needed to participate fully in the labour market. With more Roma children in school and university, everyone succeeds: countries will improve their work force, which attracts businesses, which creates jobs. That is a smart investment.
There are signs of hope for Roma. In 2005, the World Bank was joined George Soros's Open Society Institute, the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation and central and eastern European governments in launching the ‘Decade of Roma inclusion' aimed at highlighting the need to integrate Roma. And policymakers in Europe have made Roma inclusion a priority, as seen with the EU's framework for ‘national Roma integration strategies up to 2020'.
Meanwhile, the World Bank Group is partnering with the European Commission and the EU states in central and eastern Europe to support Roma. We are also working with Bulgaria and Romania on early-childhood education for Roma, improving the delivery of local schools in Serbia, boosting school outcomes in FYR Macedonia, and supporting land registration in Romania.
Much more can be done. Centuries of prejudice must be overcome by consistent leadership. First, central and eastern European countries have a historic opportunity to take advantage of the next seven-year EU budget for the less-developed members of the EU to improve Roma integration. The funds are there – they just need to be put into action. Second, the rising young Roma professionals should join with the older Roma leaders to make change happen.
We heard from a dozen of those potential young leaders last month in Bucharest. But we need to support so many more young Roma. It is not only the right thing to do for this beleaguered community – it is also smart economics for Europe's future.
This article first appeared on June 27, 2013 on EuropeanVoice.com