Social Business Mission – Slovakia, October 12-19, 2013
Objective: Identify twenty Social Business Opportunities for Roma communities in Slovakia and launch six by the end of 2014.
Project Partners: Swiss-Slovak Cooperation Program, Ekopolis Foundation, Epic, Social Business Earth
Can social business build a better future for Roma communities in Slovakia?
By Samantha Caccamo, Founder & CEO, Social Business Earth.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of walking through a Roma community settlement in Eastern Slovakia. Roma are known by majorities as the” gypsies” or “travelers” of Europe living primarily in Eastern and Central parts of the Continent. Some sources claim that up to 10% of inhabitants in Slovakia are Roma, approximately 600,000 people. So how do Roma people in Slovakia live and what can social business do for them? Well, our week-long trip in Slovakia had the purpose of answering just that.
I arrived in beautiful Bratislava and was greeted by Zuzana Polackova, Regional Coordinator for Europe of our partner organization Epic, and later Dagmar Mokra, Project Manager from the same organization. The week kicked off with Monday morning meetings with Ms. Alena Stefanikova of the British Council and Ms. Andrea “Basa” Bučková, Director, Department of Coordination of Marginalized Roma Communities, Office of the Plenipotentiary of the Slovak Government for Roma Communities. Later that day we were joined by my colleague Daniel Goldstein, Social Business Fund Advisor at SBE, who arrived from Hong Kong. A four-hour drive towards Eastern Slovakia was a good start to see a bit of the country side where Roma people live. Slovakia is not a large country and since its independence in 1993 its total area is approximately 49,000 square kilometers with a population of 5.4 M. It is landlocked and bounded by the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Austria and is known for its numerous and impressive mountain ranges such as the Tatras which we saw from a distance.
Roma communities face many different social problems starting with unemployment and poor housing conditions often forcing them to live without enough water, gas, electricity and proper sewage systems. Most Roma depend on social welfare, however, many of them are not registered in regional labor offices and fall below the official basic support level. As absurd as it may sound, the Slovak government pays a higher pension to people who have been on social welfare than to those who have worked. This is a strong deterrent for unemployed people to join the workforce. Education is another serious issue as Roma kids are often sent to a special secondary school for the mentally handicapped and are not able to take A level exams and join higher education programs. This alienation by the curriculum further exacerbates their marginalization in the educational system.
Throughout the entire trip in Slovakia we were blessed to be accompanied by the remarkable Ashoka Fellow Mr. Michal Smetanka, with whom we are working on a bottom-up approach to increase economic development in some of the poorest regions of the country where the State initiatives have failed to provide sustainable solutions for marginalized communities. Michal is also an impressive musician of world music and can play just about any wind instrument he gets his hands on, he also builds new instruments himself. We had the pleasure of hearing some of his music on CD and he promised us that next time we are in Slovakia he will play and sing for us!
We began our program with a meeting with Mayor Vladimir Ledecký in the Spišský Hrhov municipality in the Levoča district. A very entrepreneurial character, Mr. Ledecký has started several social business initiatives in his municipality using local resources with the objective of being independent from government aid. We visited some small social businesses created in spaces owned by the municipality in sectors such as wood production and agriculture that have potential to be expanded. Approximately 20% of inhabitants in Spišský Hrhov are Roma. The percentage increased by 50% since 2004. We feel “Vlado”, as the Mayor is friendly called by the locals, will be a strong ally in our mission to create social businesses for marginalized communities in his region.
Mr. Vladimir Ledecký , Mayor of Spišský Hrhov
We continued our trip and arrived in the Roma community settlement of Rožkovce where we visited a local elementary school with 53 pupils. The teachers told us that poverty, hygiene and healthcare are a big problem. There isn’t a doctor in the village and children are sent to school by their parents even when they are ill, knowing they will get a free lunch. One teacher also stated that 70-72% of government money meant for Roma is kept by non Roma or white people.
The second municipality we visited was Hrabušice where we met Mayor Jana Skokanová who explained to us that 50% of inhabitants in her village are Roma. They have two primary schools, one for Roma and one for people with mental disabilities which is also attended by Roma kids. The Mayor was clearly not happy about the pension system in Slovakia and the fact that it pays a higher pension to people on welfare than to people who work. She brought us to a Roma settlement within walking distance from her office where we entered the homes of Roma people to see firsthand how they live. Some homes have bathrooms others don’t and they use sanitary latrines outside. The municipality built water pumps in the village to give people access to drinking water. The sad reality of this village is that most of them don’t work and the ones who do are hired part-time by the municipality Activation Program which strives to provide work for Roma. Seeing so many people sitting around doing nothing is distressing especially when one realizes the amount of wasted human potential. When we spoke to them they told us they would like to work but they don’t know what to do. It is a very sad situation indeed.
Ms. Jana Skokanová, Mayor of the Hrabušice Municipality
The following day started with a visit to the Chminianske Jakubovany municipality where Mayor Jozef Lukáč discussed with us the potential of social business in his town. We met him at a local school which was built with the Ministry of Education funds and through Roma community labor. Currently the school’s capacity is not large enough to meet the demand and children in the area attend classes both in the morning and afternoon so that all can have access to education. The social business opportunities in the area are mainly in the construction and forestry sectors.
Our next stop was the Svinia municipality where we met Mayor Mária Nawratová who strongly supports the empowerment of Roma communities. There are approximately 1,700 people in her village 1,200 of which are Roma. As the Mayor spoke we sensed frustration and dismay in her voice while she explained to us that the current Parliament wants to get rid of her due to her support to Roma people. She registered all Roma in her community while previous mayors never bothered so the government would not have to pay social welfare to them. Of all 1,200 Roma only two of them work as cleaners. No other Roma works in her village. As a result of this appalling reality discrimination against Roma is made all the easier and citizenship rights are often denied to them since they do not possess an identification card. The mayor is determined to use EU funds for a Community Center and production of handmade shoes and bags. The housing condition of Roma in Svinia is deplorable. They live in dirty shanty towns made of mud and wood without bathrooms and other basic supplies. Roma people want to work, the mayor tells us, but they are just not given the chance.
Our last visit of the day was to the municipality of Sveržov, an extraordinary example of making possible what others say is impossible. This municipality is rather small with 580 inhabitants but it provides advisory services to 50 schools and 65 kindergartens in addition to processing salaries for nearby villages. Mayor Pavol Ceľuch managed to start a social business for job creation in construction hiring 90 Roma people to build houses with State subsidies and municipality funding. There are several social business opportunities in the area in addition to building and construction and we plan to seize such opportunities to create new viable social businesses.
The following day we met with Mr. Daniel Lorinc and Mr. Vincent Brezniký mayors from the municipalities of Kučín, Kladzany and nearby regions, and I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that even though there are no Roma in their village they work to help Roma who live in municipalities nearby. During our discussion they told us that 70% of Roma do nothing all day and take social welfare from the government. The State Activation Programs struggle to give work to Roma and can only employ a small number of them. We discussed the potential creation of a fish farm with former Mayor Pavol Kanuch who has set up his own consulting company. Overall we assessed that the most promising sectors to build social businesses in this region are agriculture, forestry and construction.
An impressive project we visited in Presov is the Dorka Crisis Centre which welcomes families in crisis and single parents, charging a lower rent than average market price.
In addition, the centre provides specific professional services for children with psychological disorders and encourage social development through counseling, psychotherapy, crisis handling, opportunity for new activities, education, health care and systematic work with the child’s family which could/should lead to returning the child to its biological family or, where necessary, a new foster family.
Mr. Radoslav Dráb,manager of the Dorka Crisis Centre, is planning to launch a social business to produce seven tonnes of pasta per month and employ 28 women. This social business will be launched in September 2014!
Our last visit before returning to Bratislava was in the Municipality of Rakytnik where we met Mayor Rencsok János who told us that 80-90% of people living in his village are unemployed and 50% are Roma. The area seems to be forgotten by tourists although it is immersed in beautiful landscapes and nature. The roads leading to this municipality are not well connected to the main highway. The main local resource is agriculture, however we spotted some business opportunities in establishing a Bed & Breakfast, an Agritourism facility, an Equestrian Center, and a vocational training to teach young people how to grow vegetables and other products in their land.
All in all we drew several conclusions from our journey in Eastern Slovakia. Many Roma communities urgently need better housing conditions, mobile healthcare and vocational training. Our project will promote non-racial discrimination for Roma in job applications as well as access to regular secondary school for their children. Through the creation of small income-generating social businesses we aim to remove barriers that isolate and segregate Roma people, fostering social inclusion and new job opportunities that will make them independent. Our trip to Slovakia provided the insight we needed on the living conditions of Roma communities in order for us to start working on the development of new social businesses we aim to build by the end of 2014. Time to get to work now! We will keep you posted on the twenty social business opportunities we identified and the six social businesses we plan to launch. Thank you to Zuzana, Dagmar and Michal for being wonderful hosts! We look forward to working together! : )