IMPROVING the world occasionally requires a failure so complete, or a proposal so absurd, that the planet for a second stops turning and people's minds are momentarily concentrated on a single issue.
Something of the sort may be at hand for Slovakia's Roma. After years of little progress in improving the minority's living conditions, the Ano party of the ruling coalition has come up with a 'plan' to send missionaries to Roma settlements and reorganise Roma life in the style of an Israeli kibbutz (ie with a central building offering all communal services, and dwellings scattered around it).
This is an exceedingly stupid idea for several reasons. First, Ano proposes not to involve the cabinet's special appointee for Roma issues, Klára Orgo-vánová, herself a Roma and the only state official who has had a clue about how to bring the isolated Roma back into Slovak society. The reason she is being shut out is that she has dared to criticize the kibbutz model.
Second, the party wants to assign responsibility for handling the Roma issue to the Culture Ministry under its own appointee, Rudolf Chmel. Even though Chmel doesn't want the job, Ivan Mačura, the author of the kibbutz project, reasons that "the best way to communicate with the Roma is through music or sport."
Finally, Ano sees the missionaries helping magically to defuse threats to the Roma that the party feverishly imagines in its project document: "hepatitis, Aids, syphilis, gonorrhea, lice, fleas... the infiltration of pernicious cults and sects and Islamic fundamentalism..."
A fly on the wall in Ano's Roma planning room might have heard the following conversation.
"Okay, guys, here's the scoop - if we fix the Roma problem we're gonna be all over the media, big time. But we gotta create a buzz, get a few ideas going. Let's just think out loud for a few minutes here."
"Okay, like the Roma are musical, right? They sing and dance and stuff. So let's give the whole shooting match to Rudi in Culture."
"Why me? Why not Robo in Economy?"
"Because none of them have jobs, stupid."
"Way-wait, I got it. They're all really primitive, right? So why don't we call social workers missionaries or something? You know, like they used to have with the Indians?"
"Way-wait, let's make them missionaries going to, I dunno, maybe Jewish settlements, kibbutzes maybe."
"Way-wait, yeah, and they can be helping to save Slovakia from terrorists, from like Islamic fundamentalism. That way we hit all the right buttons, really create a buzz."
Mockery aside, Ano's plan expects to have 500 missionaries within 4-6 years, all of them university educated, fluent in Roma languages and living directly in Roma settlements. They would be expected to advise Roma on the education of their children, looking for work, life paths, health problems, using their money wisely, and dealing with drugs and racism. As if good advice were all that is lacking.
The reaction has been swift and derisive. Orgo-vánová has called the plan "irresponsible and illogical, a rolling of the dice by hypocritical and naive upstarts." NGO minority expert Michal Vašečka said the plan had drawn "a volley of laughter" from the expert community.
What is sad is that the cabinet, and particularly Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, has been largely silent on the matter, as if sensible comment should be withheld because a cabinet agreement gave responsibility for the Roma to the brain trust of the Ano party.
Thanks to Ano, however, the attention of the country is now focused on the Roma and the government's slapdash plans for bringing the minority into mainstream society. There has never been a better moment for people with good ideas and honorable intentions to step forward and present them.
11. Nov 2002 at 0:00