Three weeks before European Union enlargement, the United Nations released a report saying that some population groups in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia are threatened by poverty. While acknowledging that much progress has been made in the four Central European states, the UN report says these countries have to come up with specific policies to fight poverty or they risk having a significant section of the labour force as unemployable. Kerry Skyring spoke earlier to the director of the regional office of the United Nations Development Programme Ben Slay. Kerry first asked Mr Slay what progress has been made in improving social problems in the region.
"The ones that are most obvious are the goals pertaining to infant mortality and maternal health. Here you see dramatic progress all throughout the course of the 1990s that really represents a continuation of the positive trends that were in effect before that. This is basically a reflection of the fact that these countries are developed countries and they have data that look very much like other European Union countries in this respect."
What about reduction in poverty? Because these economies have generally been growing fairly well, with a good GDP growth over the past six or seven years. Has that led to a reduction in poverty?
"Well, here it gets interesting. It all depends on how you define poverty. If you take the simplest measure of absolute poverty, the measure that is often used by the United Nations of people who live on one dollar a day or less, then you have virtually no one in Central Europe who is poor. But this isn't a very useful way to conceptualise poverty in Central Europe. What the national teams who wrote our reports did was that they tended to describe poverty in relative terms, in terms of people who lived below 60 percent of the average income. And here you do see poverty and in fact, generally speaking, in relative terms, poverty is getting worse in these countries because distributions of income and consumption are becoming less equal. That has been a concern. A related concern, especially in Slovakia and Hungary is the status of the Roma communities where you have something very much like absolute poverty."
So why are some people still excluded, if you like, from schools and from the general taking part in society, getting jobs and earning money and generally having a reasonably active life?
"Because they don't have the development preconditions to be included in society. Some Roma, for example, do not have the labour force skills to take advantage of the jobs that are available. And of course, in all of these countries, with the possible exception of Hungary, unemployment is a serious problem. In Slovakia it is more than 15 percent and in Eastern Slovakia, where most Roma live, it's 30 percent or above."
Your report makes one very pessimistic statement that says that if current socio-economic marginalisation and inadequate education persist, then in ten or fifteen years substantial parts of the labour force in Europe may be unemployable.
"Well, that's right. To some extent this is a demographic issue. If you look at Hungary, for example, the overall population is declining but the Roma population is growing very rapidly. And that suggests that a growing share of the labour force growth is going to come from Roma. And yet these are the portion of Hungarian society that is the least well educated, has the least skills on the job market and is least able to take advantage of the opportunities now becoming available."
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