Open Society Foundations said Tuesday that it will spin off its support for Europe's Roma communities into a new foundation and pledged €100 million, around $107 million, for that work.
The Roma Foundation for Europe, which will be independent of OSF, launches in January and will be based in Brussels, said the foundations. Zeljko Jovanovic, director of OSF's Roma Initiatives Office, will lead the new foundation.
“This is a true European project because we are the biggest European minority, the most neglected and disadvantaged,” Jovanovic told The Associated Press, referring to the Roma community. “So when you support the most disadvantaged, you support the development of the whole society.”
An estimated 10 to 12 million Roma people live in Europe, with around 6 million living in the European Union, making them the continent's largest ethnic minority. Significant proportions of the community report experiencing discrimination and economic exclusion as well as higher rates of poverty and lower participation in the formal workforce, according to the European Commission.
Alex Soros, chair of OSF's board of directors and son of George Soros, who founded OSF, echoed that idea in a statement, saying the future work of the new foundation will support not only the Roma people, but all of Europe.
“I am confident the new foundation will be a dynamic force—dedicated to realizing the full potential of the Roma people, and overcoming the deep-rooted barriers they face," Alex Soros said.
Under Alex Soros' leadership, the foundations announced in July that it would significantly retool its structure and layoff 40% of its staff globally. It also paused making new grants until February. Also in July, foundation leaders told staff in Berlin that it would end much of its work in the European Union, according to an internal email seen by the AP.
Last week, Soros wrote in an op-ed in “POLITICO Europe” that OSF was not leaving Europe but that it would shift its priorities, highlighting its work in Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans. He also promised continuing support for the Central European University, which was also founded by George Soros, and the Roma people.
“We will also keep up — and dramatically increase — our efforts to secure equal treatment for Europe’s largest ethnic minority, the 12 million Roma (who mostly live in Eastern Europe),” Alex Soros wrote.
OSF will not have representatives on the board of the Roma Foundation for Europe, said Jovanovic, adding that the decision to start the foundation was made last year, independently of the restructuring. Jovanovic said Alex Soros was clear that OSF's, "internal organization is changing and has to change in the view of Mr. Soros, as well as the global board and the top leadership. However, our commitments do not change."
The new foundation will make grants, support networking between organizations as well as advocate for the Roma people. It will focus on preparing Roma workers with skills to help them find jobs in the digital economy and as part of the anticipated green transition, Jovanovic said.
“Most of all, we want to see our contribution to the social debate about how our societies need to be more cohesive,” he said, adding that they also want to prevent the framing, “in the populist argument: us versus them. We see ‘us’ as the Roma, but we also see ‘us’ as citizens of our countries.”
The new foundation aims to make grants to expend the entire pledge of €100 million by 2030. When asked how many staff the new foundation will employ, Jovanovic said in order for more of the funds to reach grantees, “We don’t want to become a big organization in terms of bureaucracy and administration. We want to be lean and small.”
OSF has previously supported the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, the Roma Entrepreneurship Development Initiative, Roma for Democracy and the Roma Education Fund, and the new foundation will continue to support those organizations as well as others, Jovanovic said.
Tomáš Hrustič, senior program manager for the National Democratic Institute in Slovakia, welcomed the funding commitment to the new foundation, saying that he believed the new structure will strengthen the agency and leadership of Roma communities in the organizations that OSF has supported.
“Diverse Roma communities need to actually take ownership over those initiatives and be part it and engage because if it is just decided by someone else, then it doesn’t work at all,” Hrustič said.
He also urged OSF and others to support grassroots organizations and to continue to support Roma communities within European Union member states.
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Thalia Beaty, The Associated Press