A recent New York Times’ profile of the Slovak town of Spissky Hrhov reveals how local leaders, in bringing people from divided communities together, can foster a virtuous cycle of economic development, social cohesion, and individual opportunity.
Like other small towns in this mountainous region of Slovakia, Spissky Hrhov faced tremendous uncertainty in the aftermath of the democratic revolution of 1989 and Slovak independence in 1993. People rejoiced in the overthrow of communism. But with a moribund economic base, no evident means to attract investment, and ethnic divisions, Spissky Hrhov seemed consigned to economic subsistence and social conflict.
For Spissky Hrhov’s sizable number of Roma residents, the situation was particularly dire. Descendants of long-ago migrants from the Indian subcontinent, Roma are spread throughout Europe, concentrated in Central and Eastern Europe, and in Slovakia number in the hundreds of thousands among the country’s five million citizens. While Roma can be found throughout many echelons of Slovak society, as a group they face disproportionate rates of social exclusion, economic impoverishment, and human rights deprivation. A staggering 80 percent of Roma live in or on the edge of poverty. Nearly four out of five are unemployed, under-employed, or out of the labor force. Four out of five do not complete secondary education, compared with one out of 10 in the general population. As many as half live in isolated settlements often lacking water, sanitation, and other basic services.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has supported Slovakia’s democratization process since 1992, working with parliament, political parties, and civil society organizations, in the capital, Bratislava, and around the country. NDI started working with Roma communities almost 15 years ago to help them use the political process to assert their equal rights as citizens. With NDI support, Roma have run for and won elected office, advocated to change laws or see existing ones enforced, and began to move public attitudes away from discrimination and toward integration. These efforts have registered important advances, as seen in a recent, Roma-led evaluation of NDI programming. The Roma community in Slovakia now boasts some 32 mayors, nearly 500 local council members, and parliamentary representation in recent years - a first for Slovakia.
These successes have come about despite a generally inhospitable political climate that is trending nationalist and populist—and alarmingly among many of Slovakia’s young people. Spissky Hrhov set out to change this set of circumstances and has succeeded. Back in 1998, the town’s young mayor, Vlado Ledecky and colleagues like councilmember Michal Smetanka, enlisted Slovak and Roma residents in a local public enterprise to pave sidewalks, which led to larger infrastructure projects, which in turn spurred new housing, and ultimately businesses specializing in local agricultural products. Spissky Hrhov generated an economic base of its own, attracting outside investment, even from abroad. Roma residents now live in standard housing, and unemployment is low. Their children go to school with Slovak kids. At risk of extinction 20 years ago, Spissky Hrhov has stopped losing people. Its population is growing.
At the heart of this success were efforts to integrate the town’s Roma community into the economic development plan, and the readiness of Roma residents to contribute. NDI drew on this example in inviting Ledecky and Smetanka to engage with other mayors, local councilors, and young people from Roma and mixed Roma/Slovak communities. They spoke about economic development, and also about creating partnerships among Slovak and Roma residents, building personal relationships, and giving voice to a common vision. People from nearby communities took note of the progress, and NDI helped many of them, particularly young people, to form civic initiatives in their towns.
Spissky Hrhov’s success highlights the lessons that NDI has learned in its work with Roma communities. Local leadership matters—in both Roma and Slovak communities—in building common visions that bridge ethnic and social divides. Participatory development also matters. Participatory development is a “bottom-up” practice to explore individual attitudes, behavior, and ability to act, and how individuals can organize themselves to compel change. This “whole-community” approach not only addresses immediate problems but alters the decision-making process in ways that allow Roma to advance their interests and in ways that benefit the municipality as a whole.
NDI is taking these lessons into a new program funded by the U.S. State Department to help Roma communities in Slovakia, and in neighboring Hungary and Romania, to use participatory development practices of the kind undertaken in Spissky Hrhov and other communities in Slovakia where NDI is working.
People look at the national level to secure democracy, development, and human rights, and rightly so. They require long-term and large-scale political, legal, social, economic, and cultural investments. Sometimes, though, democracy and human rights and development sprout from below. We have to look at the local level to be sure that we see them.