On June 15, The Hague Institute for Global Justice organized a kick-off workshop in Skopje, Macedonia, to launch the project “Balancing Protection of Communities and Integration of Society: a Study of Primary Education in Macedonia.” This six-month research project is led by The Hague Institute with the support of the Embassy of Switzerland in Macedonia. The study investigates the strategic areas of minority language education, history education, and decentralization and seeks to understand how they have affected the protection of minority rights and the integration of Macedonian society as well as the prevention of violent conflict. (For more information on the project, see the project page)
The workshop featured roundtable discussions with high-level policymakers, donors, and representatives of civil society and academia. The discussions provided an opportunity for feedback on the project design, and to better understand the Macedonian context and unresolved challenges for the education system. Various stakeholders shared their concern that, the latter remains deeply divided: children from different ethnic communities remain segregated, and only rarely are incentives offered to encourage the discovery and understanding of the culture of the other. A wide gap between policy and practice persists, and still much needs to be done to implement the various policy frameworks and strategies that have been endorsed over the last two decades. One telling statistic is that on average, only 10% of ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian children have at least a chance to have contact with the other community.
The workshop participants mostly agreed that the protection of minority rights is largely respected within the Macedonian education system. However, protection has so far been enforced at the expense of integration. An example that illustrates this tension has been the creation of schools separated along ethnic and linguistic lines, where children from different communities never meet. This approach has increased mutual mistrust and has posed challenges for interethnic communication because of a lack of understanding of each other’s language and culture.
Some argued that it is impossible to think of rights without duties: and that a right of preservation of identity and culture should not stand in the way of an equally important duty to contribute to an integrated society. Such arguments clearly link to the prevention of violent conflict: protection might keep communities apart and reduce opportunities for conflict in the short term but to achieve a cohesive society that sustains a long-term peace, equal participation in all aspects of society and the promotion of a shared sense of belonging are critical.
There was consensus that insufficient political will is a persistent challenge. The lack of sustained support for the integration of society undermines local initiatives and sends the wrong signal to citizens. In particular, political parties have few incentives to include the promotion of inter-ethnic integration as part of their election strategy, which further hinders attention and awareness.
To overcome these issues, participants shared a number of best practices, which largely involve initiatives at the local level for assisting with inter-ethnic activities: for example, a number of projects by donors and NGOs encourage schools to increasingly organize field trips involving children from different communities. Insights from the workshop and high-level interviews conducted in Skopje also indicated that an increasing number of teachers apply to receive training in promoting integration between communities, while innovative models foresee new ways to teach the language of the “other” and facilitate communication and contact between different ethnic groups.
During its mission to Skopje, the project team also conducted the first part of its data gathering process, conducting high-level interviews with a number of policy makers, civil society representatives and members of academia. In the next phase of the project, data will be gathered among a sample of schools and communities. The findings of the study will be presented in a final report, which is to be published in the final quarter of 2016.