Romani early childhood development – a mechanism for change?

- Blog | Adrian Marsh
Romani paraprofessionals at work
An ECD project supported by the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Kopaçi initiatives.

One of the key arguments connected with Early Childhood Development (ECD) is that the impact upon children from the earliest point (and the earlier the more effective, according to the Nobel prize-winning economist, Prof. James Heckman), is crucial if a real change is to be made in terms of improvements in life opportunities and human capability. The net ‘returns’, if one can use such a phrase (drawing upon Prof. Heckman’s academic discipline as an economist) drastically fall as time passes.

The majority of the Roma programmes and projects that were initiated by many of the world’s largest donors, during the 1990’s were aimed at supporting those young people who were identified as the future intellectuals, advocates and political leaders of the Romani communities from which they came, through university scholarship programmes, bursaries for post-graduate, professional qualification (particularly in legal studies) and in fostering a sense of pride and unity through summer schools and other gatherings that were intended to ‘build’ an elite or ‘vanguard’ to lead the emerging Romani emancipation movement. In this context, they were aimed at the other ‘end’ of the youth spectrum and at tertiary, higher education.

The question of how effective this strategy was may well depend upon who you ask; for many Romani people the opportunities to study at university level and beyond before taking up professional positions in Roma rights organisations, advocacy and litigation based programmes and across the spectrum of Roma non-governmental associations and foundations, has been (and remains) something that would have been unthinkable for generations before them. Our aspirations as Romani people before this period tended to be small, constrained by poverty for most Romani communities though numbers of Roma in eastern Europe achieved high position and influence under the old Soviet-influenced systems. This was only ever an elite group whilst majority of Romani people remained excluded from the mainstream social and cultural life of the societies in which they’d lived for centuries.

The present situation would, at first sight, seem to be not so different for the majority of Romani, Gypsy, Traveller, Ashkali, Egyptian and Sinti people. Increasingly marginalised and excluded from the post Soviet nation states that emerged after 1989, the current economic crises have eroded any small gains in individual circumstances for Romani families in every country in Europe and beyond. Things, all in all, have not gotten better but worse by significant degrees.

In terms of education, professional qualification and the presence of large numbers of Romani people in high level positions in the international organisations and institutions, there are real improvements for a growing number of us. But, it is not enough and those of us who are in positions where we have some influence and impact must work especially hard to extend this and ensure that greater and greater numbers of Roma, Gypsies, Sinti and Travellers are empowered and enabled to reach their full potential and capability. This means intervening in the earliest years of Romani children’s lives to make the kind of difference that James Heckman writes about. We cannot accept our ‘good fortune’ (laço baxt, in Romanës) unmindful of the real costs of individual success for the vast majority of our people; namely their continued existence on the very margins of society.

Quality early childhood development provision is the way to achieve the kind of success on a mass scale, that we want to see for Roma people. Investing in ECD will make the crucial difference between short, emiserated and blighted lives for lots of Romani children and longer, fulfilled lives with meaning and joy. The key to achieving this latter picture will be the increasing number of Romani people in ECD services and provision, as professionals, role models and examples to all of the potential, given the right opportunity and an equal chance that all Romani children have in them…