Partners Bulgaria has built a solid reputation for implementing complex programs aiming at social inclusion and improving the quality of life of marginalized populations, especially minorities, children and youth at risk.

Interethnic Cooperation and Community Development

A complex social issue like inequality and marginalisation of minorities in Bulgaria requires long-term, sustained efforts by many governmental and non-governmental actors. Bulgaria has a substantial Roma minority, as well as a large Turkish minority and many smaller minority groups. Roma communities found themselves in a difficult downward spiral. Discrimination, poor quality of life and segregated education meant that very few were qualified for the decreasing number of unskilled jobs available. Macro factors regarding economic development, government effectiveness, the fight against organized crime, and entrenched cultural biases all contribute to the problems of social inclusion and equality in the region. The Ethnic Integration and Conflict Resolution /EICR/ program of Partners Bulgaria offered new tools and platforms for collaboration at the local level in the target 13 cities, which have contributed to the start of a slow cultural shift and supported a new generation of leadership.

In the beginning of this century Bulgaria was suffering economically and politically from the conflict situation in the Balkans, but it did not have the deep ethnic cleavages apparent in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia. The EICR was designed as a conflict prevention program to ensure that Bulgaria’s thus far peaceful situation between the majority and the minorities did not worsen and become violent.

The program started in Lom, a middle-sized town with 30% Roma population located in the poorer North-West region of Bulgaria. Later the program expanded in other communities with mixed Bulgarian, Roma, and Turkish populations –  Vidin, Kyustendil, Asenovgrad, Dupnitsa, Samokov, Targovishte, Aytos, Devin, Isperih, Kardjali, Momchilgrad and Razgrad.

The goal of the EICR in its very first iteration in 2000 was “to promote inter-ethnic and inter-sectoral cooperation in Lom, facilitate ethnic conciliation, and increase the effectiveness of minority groups and others working with them in improving the condition of the minority communities.” Partners Bulgaria developed this approach based on a theory of change that is shared amongst the global network of Partners’ centers throughout the world: If we build individual skills, bring people together to form relationships, and set up structures in which these people can use their skills and maintain their relationships over time, we can reduce prejudice and improve living conditions for all community members.

Partners Bulgaria developed a program that was participatory, pragmatic, and solution-focused. The organization played the role of process advocate. The Partners Bulgaria team brought training and a set of participatory processes and values to each location, but crucially, left the identification of problems and design of solutions to the participants themselves. The approach exemplifies the classic tenet of conflict resolution articulated by Fisher and Ury as “separate the people from the problem.” Instead of directly asking participants to work on prejudice and conflict issues, Partners Bulgaria asked them to work side-by-side on problems that affected the whole community, such as economic development, access to social services and education of minority children. Partners Bulgaria believed that, through this approach, people would come to see each other as partners in the effort to improve their city, rather than as adversaries.

The EICR program was inclusive of both majority and minority populations (first Roma, then also Turkish). This was a strategic choice—development projects targeting minorities to the exclusion of others have the potential to ignite tension in the community. Later, in 2011, the European Commission recognized “explicit but not exclusive targeting” as one of its 10 Common Basic Principles for Roma Inclusion. As the initiative evolved, Partners Bulgaria began calling it the Interethnic Interaction Program because the terms “integration” and “conflict resolution” were problematic, implying that minority communities should assimilate into majority culture instead of maintaining their distinctiveness, and that there were already conflicts within these communities, rather than shared problems.

Summary of Program Outputs and Outcomes

  • 1062 people trained in the Cooperative Planning process: 40% Bulgarians, 30% Turkish people, 30% Roma. Approximately half were women;
  • 200 community projects funded: 72 in the area of education, 60 in socialservices, and 68 in economic and business development;
  • 300 people trained in community mediation;
  • 431 disputes mediated, mostly family issues and mostly brought by Roma to the mediation centers;
  • 365 people trained in the Leadership Institute, of which 150 (half Roma and half Turkish) passed the exam to become trainers;
  • 436 jobs created.

The program was supported by the United States Agency for International Development. Its evaluation in 2007 concluded that the main asset left by the program was, “a core group of people with increased self-esteem, knowledge, a new type of relations, and supported local civil society structures and practices that are to continue working for positive change and improving the quality of life in isolated communities.”

This echoes and reinforces the three main elements of the project’s theory of change: Skills, Relationships, and Structures.

Read the report of the program here and the case study Inter-Ethnic Cooperation and Community Development in Bulgaria by Laina Raynolds – Levy, PhD, edited by Nike Carstarphen, PhD, 2014.