What has been achieved and omitted during the first half of 2022 in regards to Roma inclusion and educational integration?
What has been done or not done in terms of better education and integration of the Roma community in recent months? What results have been achieved and what has been missed?
The eight-month mandate of Kiril Petkov’s government has already become the subject of highly politicized discussions. The present analysis differs from similar ones for three reasons. First, it reviews what has been achieved and what has been missed, not in relation to the overall work of the government, but on a particular important issue – Roma integration and specifically Roma educational integration. Second, the analysis does not pursue any form of party-political objectives. Third, the overall context is not the government’s performance, but progress in implementing key public policies. Government performance is an important part, but not the only part, of assessing these policies.
In regards to Roma integration policies (educational integration in particular ), the past few months have been important due to the adoption of the new National Strategy for Roma Equality, Inclusion and Participation, the elaboration of the new operational programmes, the approval of the National Recovery and Sustainability Plan, as well as due to significant developments in the field of education. The above mentioned horizontal and specific (targeted) topics were in the portfolios of different institutions – the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Issues (NCCEII), the managing authorities of different operational programmes, the Ministry of Education and Science, etc.
NCCEII, its reform and the new National Roma Strategy
For years, the overall coordination of the implementation of policies towards Roma and other minorities, as well as consultations with civil society on this topic, have been the responsibility of the NCCEII. The Council has been chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Kalina Konstantinova since January 2022. She inherited a council that working Roma organisations had left back in 2013 and in 2017, making demands and proposals for fundamental institutional reform that were never addressed by her predecessors. Moreover, the overall environment for the NCCEII’s activities and for the implementation of Roma-oriented policies was “deeply embittered” in the previous years – especially after the extreme nationalist Valeri Simeonov was appointed NCCEII’s chairman in 2017 and after the then Deputy Prime Minister Krassimir Karakachanov tried to force the approval of the (anti)Roma strategy he had developed in 2019-2020. In the end, the government of Borisov – 3 did not accept this outrageous document and it was stopped in the NCCEII (chaired then by Tomislav Donchev). Despite the latter, there was practically no interaction between the National Council and NGOs.
In the end of 2020 and in 2021, when the elaboration of the new National Strategy for Equality, Inclusion and Participation of Roma started, the inability of the NCCEII to perform its coordinating and advisory functions was evident. The process has been running in parallel in all EU countries since the European Commission published its Communication “European Framework for National Strategies for Roma Equality, Inclusion and Participation” in October 2020. In March 2021, the Council of the EU further developed this framework and through its Decision obliged Member States to adopt updated National Roma Strategic Frameworks. The process in Bulgaria has started in December 2020 and has been initiated and steered by the NCCEII Secretariat. It did not involve political actors (Deputy Prime Minister, Ministers, Deputy Ministers) and was boycotted by most Roma and pro-Roma organisations.
On taking over NCCEII Kalina Konstantinova inherited a draft version of the new National Strategy and its Action Plan. Given the fact that the quality of both documents was low and that civil society organisations were making well-founded criticisms, the new Chair of NCCEII tried to open up a consultation process, even at this rather advanced stage. She organised an online discussion with CSOs in early February 2022. On 15th February 2022, she took part in a discussion organised by Amalipe Centre and Friedrich Ebert Foundation, together with MPs from all parliamentary parties and representatives of other institutions. Thus, at the end of March 2022, the National Strategy and its Action Plan were published for public consultation for the third time. As it turned out, no changes have been made to the strategy document; some changes have only been made to the Action Plan.
The main CSOs involved in the process reiterated their proposals. Those were the National Network of Health Mediators, Integro Association, Habitat Bulgaria, Trust for Social Achievement, Amalipe Centre and others. Their proposals were again not accepted.
The National Strategy for Roma Equality, Inclusion and Participation and its Action Plan were adopted by a Decision of the Council of Ministers on 05.05.2022. The document misses some of the main opportunities recommended by the European Commission and the Council of EU. It practically does not include the topics of combating anti-Roma racism and promoting Roma participation. These were not approved although the European Commission proposed that in countries with large Roma populations these should not only be horizontal priorities, but also specific chapters, and even though Roma organisations proposed specific texts for them. The chapter on ‘Equality for Roma women’ is only nominally included. It does not contain specific objectives and activities, despite numerous proposals made. It was never clear why these heuristic new points in the European framework did not find a place in the Bulgarian strategy.
The new strategy also gives way to one of the important achievements of the previous one – being approved by an act of the National Assembly. Although Roma organisations insisted on this until the last moment, the government will not propose the strategic document in the National Assembly. The formal argument is that the National Development Programme Bulgaria 2030 is also approved only by an act of the executive. This retreat has both a symbolic value ( it shows a weakening of the already poor political commitment to Roma policies) and concrete practical dimensions. For instance, the new National Strategy can be amended or even cancelled at any future meeting of the Council of Ministers. It can hardly engage institutions outside the executive, such as municipalities, the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the National Ombudsman and other bodies.
The approved action plan has low value. It is primarily a descriptive document that sets out the programmes and activities currently being undertaken by the institutions in relation to vulnerable groups. Its prescriptive value, i.e. the possibility to prescribe new activities and commitments, is practically reduced to zero. More information on the approved National Strategy and its Action Plan can be found HERE.
At a forum organized on the occasion of the International Roma Day – 8 April, the Chair of NCCEII committed to a comprehensive reform of the Council to reflect the proposals of NGOs. The commitment was received with hope by civil society organizations as Deputy Prime Minister Kalina Konstantinova succeeded in restarting the Council for Civil Society Development. In May, a process to reform the NCCEII was initiated by collecting actual proposals from institutions and CSOs. This process never came to any result due to the political crisis and the resignation of the current government.
New operational programmes
In the past few months the programmes co-financed by the European Social Fund in Bulgaria – Human Resources Development Programme and Education Programme – were finalised and approved by the Bulgarian government. The budget of both programmes has been significantly increased in the new programming period. In fact, the main elements of the programmes were already set out during the governments of Borisov and Stefan Yanev. A long way has been gone in terms of including the Roma theme in them in 2020. Initially, the governing bodies of both programmes followed a political decision not to include the specific (targeted) priority “socio-economic integration of marginalised communities such as Roma”, proposed by the European Commission – probably due to pressure from the IMRO (coalition partner in the government in 2020). This priority was included in the working versions of the programmes in the second half of 2020 after insistence from civil society organisations and especially from the EC.
The programmes approved by the government (they are expected to be signed by the European Commission soon) include a number of operations that will support social inclusion and inclusive education for all vulnerable groups. There will also be specific operations focusing on Roma and minorities, with the possibility for other Bulgarian citizens in similar situations to participate.
The following challenges will be likely:
- It relies primarily on the so-called “territorial approaches”: Community-led Local Development (CLLD) and Integrated Territorial Investments (ITI). These approaches are well conceived at European level and there are numerous examples of well-functioning Local Initiative Groups under the CLLD approach in the current and previous programming periods. The major problem is that many rural municipalities lack the administrative capacity to work successfully under the territorial approaches and this would deepen disparities between municipalities. Moreover, the experience of the current programming period has shown that the interest in social inclusion and Roma integration on the part of the Local Initiative Groups is not high and in practice does not lead to serious change on these topics at local level. A real investment will be needed to increase the capacity of smaller municipalities to work under the CLLD approach. The ITI approach is completely new and over-reliance on it can be risky.
- The issue of applying the principle of “state aid”/deminimis to projects targeting vulnerable groups has not yet been resolved. This approach restricts the possibility for NGOs to implement projects of more than 200,000 euro over three years. The principle has been introduced at European level mainly for purely economic operations where a market environment exists and the aim is not to distort market competition. In the current programming period, this approach has been applied to all projects, including education ones, which are exempted at European level. The deminimis approach has also been applied to projects targeting vulnerable groups where there is no market environment and no distortion of competition. Bulgarian institutions did not find the courage to exempt certain groups of projects from this principle, which led to a lack of interest in them. The new operational programmes do not go any way to resolving this technical problem, which has a very serious substantive impact. There is real danger that, if no solution is found, social inclusion operations will not be implemented.
The Recovery and Sustainability Plan
On 8th April, Prime Minister Petkov and European Commission President Ursula Von Der signed the Bulgarian Recovery and Sustainability Plan, which is meant to support the country in overcoming the effects of the Covid crisis and making the transition to a high-tech and green economy. The plan itself contains no measures specifically targeting Roma. Some of the measures envisaged would have a serious effect on social inclusion.
One of the first operations for which preparations have been launched was the ” Modernisation of the Educational Environment”, which will provide for the renovation of about 60 schools. The way the operation was envisaged tended to favour large schools in district towns and the capital. Thus, there was a real danger of further widening the gap between the so-called ‘elite’ schools and schools in villages and small towns. More information can be found HERE
After a statement submitted by Amalipe Center, the Ministry of Education acted adequately by expanding the range of schools that can be supported under the operation. However, it remains an open question to what extent the municipalities (which are the main beneficiaries) will prefer to apply with schools that are in small settlements and educate students from poor and uneducated families.
Over the next months and years it will be very important to prevent the massive investments under the National Recovery and Sustainability Plan from widening the gap. This Plan will finance a number of ‘hard’ measures (i.e. reconstruction, construction… ) that will complement the ‘soft’ measures under the European Social Fund’s operational programmes. It is important that there is coherence between them and that they lead to bridging existing gaps rather than widening them.
In an analysis I wrote in January, “What lies ahead in education: new, continuing and absent commitments”, I outlined some of the key commitments in the Coalition Agreement of the parties that voted for Kiril Petkov’s government. A new school funding model including quality and added value, an increase in the percentage of funding for education and science, free kindergartens and nurseries, free textbooks up to final grade and a number of other innovative political commitments were included in the Education Annex of the Coalition Agreement. The annex also contained a number of commitments continuing the education policies of previous years, including maintaining teacher salaries at 120-125% of the national average wage, keeping scope teams, digitising education and a number of others. At the same time, important topics such as intercultural education, educational integration and desegregation were omitted.
The past few months will be memorized by the implementation of important measures in the educational sphere, which are related to social inclusion and Roma integration. As of April 2022, kindergarten fees have been removed – a measure that will certainly lead to an increase in pre-school education coverage and, consequently, to an increase in the overall coverage of school education. For years, many organisations have been calling for the lifting of nursery and kindergarten fees. Steps in this regard were taken with changes to the Education Act in September 2020, and a public and political consensus has gradually emerged to implement this measure. With the adoption of the new state budget, this was financially secured and became a reality from April 2022.
Another important measure was the national programme “Support for Educational Mediators and Social Workers”, which the Ministry of Education and Science has launched since July 2022. This programme came to secure the payment of 900 educational mediators who were working in a similar number of schools under the Support for Success project. Education mediators proved their efficiency and effectiveness during and after the Covid pandemic. This position was very well received by the schools and parent communities. As the Support for Success project was coming to an end in June 2022, the informal network of education mediators and Amalipe Centre proposed the creation of a new national programme to cover the payment for the mediators’ work. In January 2022, the Minister of Education Acad. The Minister of Education Acad. Denkov made a commitment to this and the new national programme has now been funded from the Education Ministry budget. Thus, from 1 July 2022, the number of educational mediators was even increased.
The Ministry of Education and Science had also committed to other activities such as providing free textbooks up to grade 12, extending free transport access to secondary school students, expanding the national programme to support desegregation and a number of others that would have a positive impact on inclusive education and educational integration. It is necessary that these commitments are continued by new governments as well. A new model for assessing the added value and quality of education in schools was launched in February. The first results of this model were expected to be presented in September 2022. It is crucial that this actually happens, despite the political changes, because the assessment of the added value that each school gives to its pupils can and should be part of a new funding model for educational institutions.