“We need cultural sensitivity from both sides”
Franz Karl Prüller became Chairman of the Board of ERSTE Foundation in January 2015. He has been working for the Foundation since 2005, initially as Director of Programme Social Development, and, since the end of 2012, as a Member of the Managing Board.
One of Prüller’s many achievements has been the setup of the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership, which aims at connecting Roma and non-Roma by creating the necessary conditions for a peaceful and prosperous cohabitation at community level. Pig farming, fashion design, eco-gardening, experiential education, multimedia training, modern handcrafting – these are just few of the topics that the partner organisations are working on.
The Roma topic has been a focus of many international and local organizations in the past 10 years, and, yet, issues like discrimination, lack of decent living conditions and proper education have hardly changed. What is the ERSTE Foundation Roma Partnership and what does it bring new?
Franz Karl Prüller (FKP): The Partnership is a cooperation of organisations in Central and Eastern Europe, which are all looking at improving the employability or income situation of Roma in a variety of ways. Currently there are ten organisations from four countries in the Partnership: Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovak Republic.
How do we differ in our approach from other international actors in this field? We decided not to engage in large, international projects which rarely benefit the small communities and the rural areas, where we still see a continuous deterioration of the situation of Roma. But, instead, we work with a variety of partners in these small communities, connecting Roma and non-Roma to utilize local resources for income generation and job creation, or to improve their skills, and thus their possibilities to find a job. We work with organizations that can have a sustaining impact on this, either by setting up a social enterprise, or by providing ongoing training or facilitation of services that would help people to better move into jobs. The idea behind it is to create models of good practice that can inform and motivate others to become engaged in similar ways.
There is one more element that is important to mention: as we are working with very diverse partners we are trying to bring them together, to share experiences and inspire each other. So this is also a different approach: working not just with one partner in a big project, but with many partners in many small projects, and enable them to learn from each other.
How are the member organisations supported? What is the process that an initiative goes through when entering the partnership?
FKP: Once a new project is included in our programme, we support it with direct funding and also with expert advice, either from IFUA, our partner from Hungary, who provides members with business consultancy if they are developing social enterprises, or from our pro-bono experts in different fields. For example, Nadja Zerunian has been working as a designer for large firms around the world, and she is now helping Romano ButiQ, our partner from Romania, to improve the design of the objects handcrafted in wood, silver, metal or leather by craftsmen and -women of the local Roma communities. The goal is to improve the design and maintain a high quality level to make their products better marketable, and therefore to improve their income situation, but also to enable the artists to fine-tune their handicraft, and eventually to pass it on to others.
Another concrete support for all members comes through the already mentioned exchange that is ongoing among partners and which we specifically emphasize during our annual meetings, which we call LEAPS, because what we do in these meetings is to learn, exchange, activate, and create a platform for synergies.
As part of the cooperation with each member organisation, we agree on concrete goals, success indicators that have to be met, and of course we check if they were achieved. We need to see that there is a progress towards the desired goal – be it an independent self-sustaining social enterprise, or a certain number of people trained, or skills being taught to other people, or resources mobilized locally.
When would you say that the supported projects become success stories and can be on their own?
FKP: This depends on the type of the project, as we have a great variety of projects in the Partnership. For a social enterprise, the support period is generally not shorter than three years, sometimes longer. The nature of a social enterprise is that, first of all, it looks at the social benefit of its activity, be it that of integration, job creation for minorities or marginalized people, or addressing some other social issue. The second aspect of the social enterprise is of course that it has to be able to financially maintain itself, that it should create enough revenue out of the commercial activity to pay for all the raw material costs if it is a production, or to pay for the staff that is employed there. Any profit it makes should be reinvested in the business itself, with the purpose of changing something in the social level of the community.
The success of the Roma Partnership projects can be measured in the increase of job possibilities or education for job opportunities, but it can also mean skills that people acquire, which make them better prepared to go on the job market, or networks that they are building to support their projects, or also the local resources that are mobilized. We have a project which is bringing to communities the so-called bio-briquettes, meaning affordable fuel made out of agricultural waste that can be burnt to have heating in the houses; and if a community is able to identify necessary resources, to go to a company that is, for example, having sawdust as its byproduct and utilize that for making the bio-briquettes, then this is what we mean by local mobilization of resources, which is also an indication of success.
FKP: One big challenge continues to be the discrimination that Roma experience in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and that discrimination makes it difficult for them to move into the regular job market, or to start an initiative that depends on the cooperation of the non-Roma in the community. It’s difficult for the Roma and non-Roma to come together in an enterprise because of the attitudes that exist on both sides, but we hope that this can change by providing good practice models and possibilities to really see that the other side is not that bad or discriminating, or as averse to working hard as it is often portrayed.
The difficulties in establishing a social enterprise are also caused by a lack of legal framework for social enterprises in CEE. Roma social enterprises in addition face discrimination at various levels. For example, products coming from Roma are more difficult to market, because people discriminate against the producers already.
Public authorities can be a problem too, because their attitude in many countries is to control and “administer” the Roma minorities but not to help them to become economically more active. Also companies often show a certain reluctance to support initiatives for Roma, although we know companies that are quite willing to do that. However, many have made bad experiences. Very often the problems are routed in cultural specific behavior from the Roma, but also non-Roma side, that leads to a situation when companies say “ah, they don’t care about our help”, or “they don’t fit in”, or something like that, and this leads to frustration, so the attempts to integrate Roma are given up again. But we made the experience that if you approach it with a culture sensitive mindset, if a cooperation is introduced in a correct way and the company looks at it from the point of view of really working with a group of people who have been excluded by the majority for such a long time, then it can work, but it needs cultural sensitivity from both sides.
In your opinion, what is the realistic perspective when it comes to the social integration of Roma in CEE on a medium term?
FKP: I am both optimistic and pessimistic. Pessimistic, because we can see that the spiral is still going down: discrimination, non-acceptance, marginalization, all these lead to a certain behavior in the marginalized group that reinforces the prejudices of those who are in power to keep people outside of the mainstream society, and this reinforces the downward spiral. This downward trend is also reinforced in many places in CEE where Roma are slowly becoming a majority in their communities, where a lot of the non-Roma are moving out, so the Roma communities are left to their own scarce means, without job opportunities, with very high unemployment rates and no interest of the public authorities to do anything there, because “it’s just a Roma community”.
On the other hand, I am optimistic because I can see that specifically in urban and semi-urban areas, and specifically with young people, the borders are opening up. Young people today are much more accepting than the older generation, they have other references for social contacts, they are more open minded, and also the electronics-oriented world offers them more opportunities. What this also means, of course, is that there is going to be a certain loss in the very specific Roma culture, and this is a challenge that I have no idea how it can be resolved. Because it is exactly that specific culture of the Roma that provides identity and a certain protection but it is also the reason for continued discrimination. If they give that up and if they assimilate to become like everybody else, it means giving up an identity as well.
So I’m both pessimistic and optimistic, because for some people there will be an improvement, for some I don’t see it happen. And the challenge for Roma and non-Roma alike is to accept differences, but to do that in a way that people can fully participate in the society, even if they are visibly, and culturally, different from others. But this is what Europe is about today, isn’t it: to achieve unity in diversity.