I wonder how many of out there know that the year 2007 is being marked as the year of equal opportunities by the European Union. I suppose that fewer can guess what it stands for. As someone closely connected with the integration process, and just slightly informed about the events of the year, I think I have got something to say here.
One of the objectives of the Afrolatvian Association has been to encourage the integration of its members into the Lavian society. The term “integration” has for some time been a password used especially by ethnic minority NGOs to get their project proposals approved. My understanding of inegration is that it is a process that should help individuals to have a sense of belonging by making themselves visible ,by engaging in discourse with the society, as well as by getting to know and understand the society they live in. It is not just something you do to a specific group of people, it is something you do for the society. The end result should be a society that appreciates its own diversity, and creates a favourable and fair conditions for all individuals.
I remember vividly well the first time that Afrolat went public. I had to attend a seminar organised by the Secretariat to the Special Task Minister for Society Integration. That was in 2004. My presence was received with mixed feelings by the participating NGO representatives. A lot of interrogations, excitement and reservations. Some wanted to test my knowledge of the local languages. It seems I passed the tests. I must have done very well since we immediately became friends with many of them.Since then I have been part of the integration activities organised by various ethnic minority NGOs. This has included being present at a wide range of activities oraginsed by the Uzbek, Jewish, Tatar, Ukrainian, byelorussian organisation. These have been very enriching, and have gone a long way to widening my horizon.
However, something very important seemed to have been missing in the whole process. It is the participation of the majority, especially the Latvians. The whole integration process became a party for minorities to integrate themselves among themselves. It seemed a different world of multiculturalism far away from the reality of the average person in Latvia. Moreover, there was no attempt to encourage a dialogue between the majority and minorities. It seemed either there were some difficulties doing things differently or everyone was enjoying things the way they were. This situation was , for me, definitely a misinterpretation of integration. Another problem with this was that it was like preaching to the choir. It never went beyond the NGO leaders themselves. It even failed to reach their members.
Despite all the above mentioned, I would not blame anyone for that. It was a learning process, and the NGO leaders were doing what they could do to the best of their abilities.However, there were , at least , 2 very good things at this stage. The ministry was very generous with the NGOs, and the staff was very very friendly and encoraging.The second good thing was that the ethnic monorities owned the process. They felt it was their process and there was real enthusiasm. There was this burning desire to do something, to create and to participate
Looking back now, I see things have changed, and not really for the better. It is hard to explain why. My best bet is the changes in the administration of the ministry. Whatever it is , the result is the absence of the process itself. The ethnic minority NGOs seem to be loosing interest. There are very few activities organised these days. No one seem to be particularly interested in them anymore. The extreme buraucracy , especially with bookkeeping, at the ministry could be one of the reasons. For me personally, at the end of a project I start regretting ever going for it. This is not perculiar to me as I still have good contact with other NGO leaders. I wonder if this is what the ministry sets to achieve. The necessity and importance of a project activity do not seem to matter anymore. Activities that really reach out to all ,where everyone is welcome, especially outdoor activities, are unacceptable just because you can not get a list of participants’ names and signature. There seems to be a complete lack of trust. The ministry questions why food bought on the 18th of May could be used on the 25th of May without taking into consideration that it might have to be ordered first. At one of the seminars, many NGO leaders bitterly complained about this absurdity only to be reminded that they had a choice to stop quit. I found that completely demoralising.
The new tendency is to organise conferences where 10 to 15 people are present. The people whose interest the conferences set to project are made complete back-benchers invited just to decorate the hall. Nobody actually cares if they come or not. The impression is that the aim of this activities is just to put a tick. All staged in such a way to make sure records are right but with no goal in mind.
This takes me to the so called year of equal opportunities. It has been a great mystery not just for me , but also for the other NGO leaders I have discussed this with. First of all, the fact that the call for proposals lasted just two day . To say this is strange or suspicious is just an understatement. then came the activities. A conference organised by an unknown company which has nothing in common with the issue. Very few people sitting in an expensive hotel conference room and saying useless things. And then an outdoor concert where the voluntary performers were three times more that the audience. Sitting there and observing all this, I thought this was just a mockery. Of course , I am very sure the company would have the records professionally done, but is this integration? Was anything achieved?. NO!!!
I have seen pictures of buses with about 8 people in them touring the country as part of this event. I try to compare this with the number of people a small organisation as Afrolat can reach out to with the limited resources it has. It may be that not everyone at the ministry agree with the new absurdity, but if the administration lets this happen, then they should be the ones to blame. .
With all these in mind, this year can be best describes as the year of unequal opportunities. I have just got another invitation to attend another conference as part of the year of unequal opportunities. Thanks! I am not coming!!!