The Decade of Roma Inclusion is an unprecedented pan-European initiative that channels the efforts of Governments, as well as inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, to eradicate racial discrimination and bring about tangible improvement to the plight of the world's most populous marginalized community. The Decade, which runs from 2005 to 2015, is expected to present a long-term holistic approach to the situation of the Roma1. The initiative is a prime example of how the creation of human development opportunities can help end racial discrimination. It aims to maximize resources for improving the general economic and social position of the Roma while addressing the racial stereotypes and discrimination they face. The ultimate goal of the Decade is to integrate the Roma as full members of society, enjoying the same opportunities as the majority populations.
The initiative was launched on 2 February 2005 in Sofia, Bulgaria, where Prime Ministers of the participating Governments -- Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia -- signed the Decade Declaration, with the commitment to "work toward eliminating discrimination and closing the unacceptable gaps between Roma and the rest of society2. The founding international partner organizations include the World Bank, the Open Society Institute (OSI), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and various Roma organizations. The Decade also benefits from the support of the European Commission, which is a member of the International Steering Committee (ISC).
The Decade grew out of a high-level regional conference -- "Roma in an Expanding Europe: Challenges for the Future" -- hosted by Hungary in 2003. The Roma collectively constitute one of the largest ethnic minority groups within Europe and represent the largest minority within the enlarged European Union (EU). Experts estimate that between 6.8 million and 8.7 million Roma live in the entire continent today, with nearly 68 per cent of them in the new EU member and candidate States of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans3. Although they have inhabited these lands for a millennium now, Roma communities continue to face racial discrimination and widespread exclusion on a daily basis. A 2004 European Commission report on their situation placed the treatment of Roma among the most pressing political, social and human rights issues facing Europe4.
The socio-economic insecurity and political instability in most countries with large Roma populations have contributed to the marginalization of minorities and thus had an adverse impact on Roma communities. Cultural differences have further led to prejudice against them. The anti-discrimination legal frameworks within the United Nations and the European Union, as well as the strict accession requirements for EU applicant countries -- the so-called Copenhagen Criteria demanding, among others, respect and protection of the rights of minorities -- have yet to bring tangible results in addressing the marginalization and discrimination of Roma communities. Today, most Roma remain social outcasts within their societies. They live in segregated neighbourhoods, attend segregated schools or classrooms and are the subject of frequent racial profiling by police5. In a recent UNDP report, the Roma were described as Europe's most vulnerable group in terms of poverty or the risk of falling into poverty due to lack of educational and employment opportunities, inadequate personal (physical) security, poor housing and poor access to health care6. Mutually reinforcing discrimination and failure of development in these sectors form a downward spiral, causing the widespread exclusion of the Roma.
The international legal framework is rich in provisions, strictly prohibiting all forms of direct or indirect racial discrimination. Some of the international legal instruments of relevance to the Roma are the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, as well as the European Union Directives on Racial and Employment Equality. Legal foundations for guaranteeing their human rights have been laid in most countries with significant Roma minorities. All the EU member countries participating in the Decade -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia -- have now transposed the EU Racial Equality Directive into national law. The EU candidate countries, while trailing behind with implementing comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation based on the EU Directives in the field, have introduced essential, though not always complete, anti-discrimination protection. However, a general understanding is emerging that discrimination cannot be eradicated by legal action alone, but has to be coupled with measures addressing the socio-economic status of minorities. In other words, the human rights framework has to be complemented by development opportunities for the discriminated segments of society.
In 2002, UNDP conducted extensive research on the predicament of the Roma in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. The resulting regional human development report, Avoiding the Dependency Trap, argued that discrimination is both a cause and a consequence of inadequate development opportunities7. Therefore, enforcement of anti-discriminatory legislation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing the hardships experienced by the Roma in these countries. Without development opportunities for the Roma, legal guarantees of equality would remain hollow and in the long run could even lead to further exclusion. According to the report's findings, human rights are inexorably linked to development opportunities.
Its recommendations on monitoring poverty and on achieving the other UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) relevant to the Roma practically make up the foundation for the Decade. The ISC, which constitutes the Decade's highest decision-making and coordinating body comprising representatives of the Governments, the international partner organizations and the Roma, has identified four priority areas for action -- education, employment, health and housing -- as well as three cross-cutting issues -- discrimination, poverty and gender.
Inadequate employment opportunities are considered the major causes of the poverty and exclusion experienced by the Roma7. In the UNDP reports, ethnic affiliation, followed by economic depression in the country, and lack of marketable skills were ranked as the most important causes of unemployment. In other words, racial discrimination is only one reason for the high unemployment rates among the Roma, as the market rules of a competitive economy are unlikely to favour them due to their low skill and education levels. However, lower competitiveness in the labour market is often due to discriminatory practices that limit access to education. Exclusion from education, conversely, is linked to involvement in income generation, lack of role models, unsupportive social environment and other poverty-related factors. All of this is to describe the vicious circle of Roma discrimination and development problems. In the cycle of poverty that leads to the further deterioration of educational levels, living conditions, diets, access to basic health services and employment opportunities, discrimination becomes both a consequence of and a primary cause for exclusion.
According to UNDP report's findings, poverty -- being among the major systemic causes of exclusion and segregation -- plays a central role in aggravating racial tension. For instance, high rates of poverty and low levels of employment leave Roma households heavily dependent on social welfare, which in a significant number of cases is the primary source for their survival. At the same time, Roma participation in the formal economy is limited, so relatively large numbers of the Roma do not pay the social security taxes needed to fund these benefits. This causes their "asymmetrical" participation in social welfare systems and can further exacerbate intolerance along ethnic lines and deepen exclusion. Here too, sustainable development policies can provide answers.
In UNDP's view, initiatives have to move away from the more traditional approach to social inclusion where the focus is on addressing violations of human and civil rights or on increasing welfare spending for marginalized groups. Instead, anti-discrimination and inclusion measures should be approached through sustainable development programmes, resulting in affordable and achievable solutions that do not require constant subsidization and can win support from majority populations.7 It is, furthermore, emphasized that in order to build broad social support for governmental policies and to effectively address ethnic tension, both Roma and non-Roma communities should jointly participate in the development process as partners. Thus, development should not pursue a narrow group-focused approach, but a broad area-based approach targeting all vulnerable sectors of society. These recommendations have been confirmed by a recent survey on the Decade commissioned by OSI and the World Bank to gauge the drivers of discrimination faced by the Roma. According to its results, both Roma and non-Roma respondents insisted that the Decade address the needs and concerns of other citizens in the region suffering from similar social and economic disadvantage.Programmes perceived as preferential of the Roma were seen by both Roma and non-Roma as counterproductive, with the potential to increase discrimination and hostility towards the Roma in the long term8.

Policies addressing discrimination through development have encouraging prospects for success as they are also in synergy with the nine participating Governments' international commitments under various political and socio-economic mechanisms. These policies can make use of the EU structural funds and pursue measures within the EU Lisbon Strategy to establish a knowledge-based society on the principles of sustainable economic growth and social cohesion, with the ultimate goal of "modernizing the European Social Model by investing in people and building an active welfare state." 9 The achievement of such social cohesion is impossible without addressing the needs of the most vulnerable communities. Furthermore, such policies are critically important for achieving the MDGs and can be implemented within the countries' national MDG strategies.
Ultimately, as evidenced by the UNDP survey data7, the Roma themselves view their human rights situation through the prism of development opportunities, demanding better education and employment opportunities and being less concerned about the legal or political dimension of it. Given the interrelated nature of all these problems, policies need to take a holistic and integrated approach. Anti-discrimination campaigns seeking to overcome existing prejudice should be coupled with national education and employment strategies in order to provide positive examples of the personal and professional advancement of members of the Roma community. As UNDP has advocated for the past few years, "the socio-economic problems facing Roma populations throughout the region require an approach that puts violations of Roma human and civil rights in a broader analytical framework. [.] Without development opportunities, human rights are incomplete".10 Notes
1. The term "Roma" is used to refer to Gypsies, Roma, Sinti, Travellers and other groups perceived as "Gypsies".
2. Declaration of the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015. 3. J.P. Liègeois, Roma, Gypsies, Travellers (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Press, 1994). 4. European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment and Social Affairs, The Situation of Roma in an Enlarged European Union (Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2005). 5. Ibid. See also UNDP, At Risk: Roma and the Displaced in Southeast Europe (Bratislava: Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, 2006). Open Society Institute Justice Initiative, "I Can Stop and Search Whoever I Want". Police Stops of Ethnic Minorities in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Spain (New York: Open Society Institute, 2007). 6. UNDP, At Risk: Roma and the Displaced in Southeast Europe (Bratislava, 2006). 7. UNDP, Avoiding the Dependency Trap (Bratislava: Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, 2002). 8. Open Society Institute, Current Attitudes Toward the Roma in Central Europe: A Report of Research with non-Roma and Roma Respondents (Budapest: Roma Initiatives Office, 2005). 9. Lisbon European Council, 23 and 24 March 2000. 10. UNDP, Avoiding the Dependency Trap (Bratislava, 2002). See also UNDP, Integrating Human Rights With Sustainable Development (New York: United Nations Publications, 1998). UNDP, Human Rights and Human Development (New York: United Nations Publications, 2000).