In the town of Gjakova in western Kosovo, home to many Roma, Askhkali, and Egyptian minority families, the everyday struggle to overcome poverty and unemployment is all too familiar. In the small neighborhood of Kolonia, people lived in dilapidated homes, with thin walls painted with graffiti.
That was before a donor-funded project built new ones and provided basic infrastructure like sewage systems. The neighborhood was also recently connected to the internet by the World Bank’s Kosovo Digital Economy Project, which the residents see as a significant improvement to their lives.
“Most of us use the internet to talk to our family members who live abroad,” says Mergim Junik, a young resident of Kolonia. “We talk to them almost every day and it is important to have a good internet connection to be able to use the free phone call services like Skype, Facebook, or Viber.”
Mergim’s situation is not unique. Kosovo has a large diaspora, and it is estimated one in three live abroad. Remittances sent there are one of the main drivers of the country’s economic growth accounting for around 15% of Kosovo’s total GDP.
Kolonia has benefitted greatly from this development, but many other Roma still live in abject poverty. The Roma population make up the largest and most vulnerable minority group in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, where between 8-12 million live. Roma families cope with levels of poverty and hunger on par with the poorest areas of the world, and have suffered from racism for centuries.
The frustration and discrimination the Roma experience daily is but one example of the global wave of social injustice facing marginalized groups. From Afro-Descendants in Latin America to the Indigenous Peoples in Kenya, those who are most vulnerable continue to face significant challenges in accessing equal opportunities and access to basic services that are essential to lead dignified, prosperous lives. The disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have only highlighted these deep-rooted inequalities, limiting streams of income like remittances that Mergin’s community depend on.
“A lot of people lost their income, particularly those working abroad,” said a member of a Roma NGO as part of a rapid assessment survey in Romania. “They returned and have stayed at home only because they have been afraid of being placed in quarantine in those countries. But they can't wait to leave again as here it is hard to find even day laboring.”
The rapid assessment, which was carried out in 34 communities in Romania, illustrates how existing inequalities have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The effort to better understand how COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn specifically affects Roma has been supported by the Roma Sounding Board, a platform for civil society engagement on Roma issues that was established by the World Bank in 2017. The group is independent and its members, which include civil society organizations from across Romania, come together to develop their own vision, mission and objectives. The rapid assessment of marginalized communities that ran in four waves between April and July has pinpointed key issues Roma face in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, such as reduced pay and job losses.
“The biggest problem is that no one wants to hire dismissed Roma workers,” said a Roma councilor from a large city neighborhood. “Discrimination makes things even more difficult, as it is said, Roma people have remained the last to be hired and the first to be fired.”
Many Roma are employed in the hard-hit informal sector, meaning job losses have been disproportionate. Over half of communities said they were dealing with a fall in informal sector jobs with day laborers on farms and construction sites the most affected. As migrants return home, prioritizing their livelihoods over the risks to their health, there has been a decline in vital remittances.
Naturally, this means areas with larger Roma communities are more likely to battle hunger and food shortages, with nearly a third of respondents to the assessment survey saying they have less food because of COVID-19. Roma NGOs and experts have raised concerns about these communities missing out on food aid programs, even where they are available.
“I notified the authorities that the Roma are starving. I asked for support everywhere,” remarked another member of a Roma NGO. “Nobody listened or got involved, neither the mayoralty nor the County Council. When they hear that it is about Roma, they stop listening.”
This survey has been one element of the World Bank’s support for Roma inclusion, which has been priority for over two decades. Empowering communities and organizations to identify their own needs and solutions is a vital part of this work. The Roma Sounding Board is an example of how the Bank can support these efforts through engaging with civil society on the Bank’s operational portfolio. Roma can be the architects of their own recovery, if social cohesion and community involvement are promoted. Therefore, basic services like the internet in a community like Mergim’s are so important – it empowers the community to reach their own solutions.
The Environmental and Social Framework captures the World Bank's commitments regarding non-discrimination, by assessing social risks to set out the borrower’s requirements. Considering, mitigating, and managing Roma inclusion concerns helps task teams meet these, while promoting development and prosperity.
The World Bank aims to break the cycle of Roma exclusion in Europe, the Western Balkans and beyond, by adopting a coordinated effort that identifies vulnerable groups and their needs quickly. Actively reaching out to Roma communities is essential when intervening to stop discrimination and stereotyping. The goal is for the Roma people to become healthy and productive members of society who work and contribute to the country.
The economic recovery cannot leave the Roma behind. They are a young, resilient population and represent a growing percentage of new labor market entrants.