Marta Ruedas: Bulgaria's Structural Problems Need to Be Addressed

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Marta Ruedas: Bulgaria's Structural Problems Need to Be Addressed

Ms Marta Ruedas has been resident representative of UNDP-Bulgaria since August 2001. She has been working in a number of countries as UNDP official. Among the countries where she worked are Mexico, Bolivia, Kyrgystan, Georgia, Nepal, etc. Before coming to Bulgaria, Ms Ruedas was resident representative/resident coordinator at UNDP Sao Tome & Principe. She speaks fluently Spanish, English, French, Portuguese and Russian.

Ms Marta Ruedas met Martina Iovcheva - Editor-in-Chief of and The News.

Q: According to the national human development report of UNDP for 2001 there is a high level of ethnic intolerance towards certain minorities in Bulgaria. Are there prospects for change and how could that situation change?

A: I think there are always prospects for change. In order this to change, first, I think there should be a global acceptance that there is a problem and I don't think that the population necessarily accepts that there is one. I think there has to be sufficient discussion, sufficient effort to put the problem to the public.

Q: Who should prompt such a discussion and effort?

A: From as many places as possible: from the government, from us, from NGOs, from the ethnic minorities themselves, etc.

Q: What are the current projects of UNDP - Bulgaria for integration of minorities?

A: We have a number of efforts: first, in our large projects like "Beautiful Bulgaria" and the "JOBS" project. We try to make sure that there is special attention to the ethnic minorities. The "Beautiful Bulgaria" project, for example, hires long-term unemployed for the work. But we make sure that of those long-term unemployed there is special attempt to hire ethnic minorities as well. So, there are a lot of them employed through "Beautiful Bulgaria", through the "JOBS" project, etc. We also have special projects, focused on them, for example, with some of our activities for HIV/AIDS we work directly with the Roma minority, we have just launched a five-part television series "Romiteli."*

Q: How did you come up with the idea about the series?

A: We were working for something else in Lom. We had the occasion to talk with the trainer and just somehow in discussions, we thought it could be a good idea, we managed to get Elena Yontcheva, it's just by chance almost but I think it has worked out extremely well. We'll try to build on that and probably take the "Romiteli" football team on a sort of a road show and try to get the discussion going.

Q: How would you compare the level of intolerance towards the Roma minority and the so-called Turkish minority?

A: Compared to the Roma, intolerance towards the so-called Turkish minority or whatever is not as much. But I'm not sure because that might be because the "Turkish" minority is perhaps better organized; it's got a political voice as well. Their own interests are broadcast a lot more. Maybe I should say there is also intolerance but there is less difficulty for them to get their issue on the table. For the Roma, they are as much ignored, as discriminated.

Q: This is a global problem....

A: It is. UNDP is going to be publishing a regional human development report on Roma for the European region this year. So, we will be going to do some comparative analysis there as well on the European region for the Roma region. There's some attention regionally. It goes of course beyond Eastern Europe. My own country Spain for example has a large Roma population. Although there have been some remarkable improvements in their situation in the past twenty-thirty years, still, there are some problems.

Q: How would you compare the level of tolerance towards the minorities in Bulgaria to the other Balkan countries?

A: It's hard for me to say definitely because I've only just arrived in the Balkan region. But just the fact of the wars that have taken place in the Balkans but not in Bulgaria would indicate that Bulgaria had a better starting point for ethnic tolerance than many of the countries in the region.

Q: Do you know of villages or towns in Bulgaria where tolerance besides Lom, for example, is a fact?

A: We had a few experiences in other towns. Yakoruda, for example, where you have Romas, Turks and Bulgarians living side by side and it seems to work. Varna is a large city but they also have a lot of minorities, including Armenians who seem to work and live better perhaps than in other places. It's not universal of course - in some places it's better than in others but yes, there are some places in Bulgaria.

Q: Which country in the world, in your opinion, has achieved highest level of tolerance towards diversity?

A: I don't think in any of the countries where I have worked, necessarily, I would take them as an example but if you look at statistics and so on perhaps Canada and Australia - they have very good record of tolerance, they make very good job of integration.

Q: Which, in your opinion, are the biggest problems the Bulgarian society faces today?

A: They're quite a few: the high rate of unemployment, the issue of corruption is always mentioned, there's also a very, very strong imbalance in the ageing of the population that is bound to create some problems; it's all tied to our definition of poverty in many areas. There are some structural problems within the country, which have to be addressed.

Q: Curbing poverty is one of the top priorities of UNDP. What are the specific projects of UNDP-Bulgaria in that area?

A: One of the ways or rather the way UNDP works is to make an analysis of what are the difficulties of the country and then to see where a lot of these difficulties are already being addressed by others and where UNDP can make the biggest difference. Some of the structural problems, for example, we are not really working on, because the government or the World Bank or EU are addressing them. We are working hard with the government on unemployment for example through the "Beautiful Bulgaria" project and the "JOBS" project (Job Opportunities through Business Support) - we have 24 business centers throughout the country that work at generating employment through small and medium enterprises creation. Through this we have created a lot of permanent employment in the country. We have a great deal of attention at the unemployment problem and we're working with the Ministry of Labor there. We're starting to work this year with the government to tackle the corruption issue too.

Q: How?

A: Our analysis showed that there was a problem in addressing corruption in a systematic way. There were a lot of isolated attempts but there wasn't an attempt at addressing it systematically or combining and coordinating the efforts. We're starting a project in May to have a review of the administrative justice system. We'll be trying to work with the government on including the population in addressing the problem of corruption because for now the people are very much spectators and complainers. The population can also be part of the solution. We'll be trying to have a program to include citizen participation in tackling corruption.

Q: There are huge problems and still, in your opinion, in which direction is Bulgaria heading - positive or negative?

A: I think there has been quite remarkable progress in the past few years and Bulgaria has an enormous potential and is moving forward absolutely. Maybe not as fast as people would hope but it's definitely moving forward.

Q: Do you think that Bulgaria's image abroad is improving?

A: I think it still needs a lot of improvement. That is one of the problems Bulgaria has in fact. It's maybe a legacy from the past when Bulgaria was very closely linked to the Soviet Union; there was this "closed" Bulgaria's image that has to be overcome. Still, Bulgaria's image abroad is definitely improving; people are seeing the country in a new light. But I think there should be more of a concerted attempt to get a new image of Bulgaria out there.

Q: What do you think is the future of the non-governmental sector in Bulgaria?

A: Personally, I see a lot of very active NGOs working in Bulgaria even now. The whole NGO sector is relatively new; there weren't any NGOs ten years ago really. So, you're starting a lot further back in the development of NGOs than many other countries and there is quite an active NGO sector and I have
no reason to think that this will not continue in the future.

Q: Which is the most memorable project you have worked on during your career? What are the biggest challenges that you face in your profession?

A: Results and satisfaction - often they do go close together. Sometimes you can have some very satisfying projects - just small projects that achieve remarkable results and I've have had some of those in Mexico, in Bolivia, etc. where you have individual projects (sort of like "Beautiful Bulgaria" here) that really take off, have impressive results for one reason or another. On the other hand, there are some countries just because of the timing you're there, they themselves just as countries can achieve results or have that moment when there's so much that is possible and you're there at that time and you're working with them and it's very satisfying. For example, when I was in Mongolia, it was just after the first elections and everybody was very hopeful about the future. Everybody was very active: from the side of the government, from the side of the population, from the side of the donors. So, there was so much that was possible at that time. There
are a lot of different things that can make you satisfied in a country. We'll see about Bulgaria.

Q: You have worked in many countries all over the world. In what terms do you think Bulgaria is unique?

A: Bulgaria has some of the elements that really make it possible for development to take off. It's got an enormous human capacity; the human resources that it has are very qualified; it has a lot of the basic fabric, underlying infrastructure that would allow for an enormous development. If the structural issues that I mentioned could be addressed it would make Bulgaria get into the EU very fast. In Bolivia and Mexico, for example, you have enormous problems to address: the population itself is the problem, there you have to tackle health, education issues, etc. Not true in Bulgaria: you have a momentum here in Bulgaria that would allow enormous strides to be made towards accession, development. For me, that's very satisfying since so far I haven't worked in a country where I could genuinely look to the immediate future and say: well, maybe in the immediate future UNDP would no longer be necessary!

* Five-part television documentary about a mixed Bulgarian-Roma football team from the Danubian town of Lom. Elena Yontcheva is the producer of the series.
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