Poverty Among the Roma in Bucharest
Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is a vibrant urban city with booming contemporary institutions and a greater income per capita than the European Union average. However, there remains a population of individuals that do not benefit from Bucharest’s expanding economy: the Roma. Poverty among the Roma in Bucharest is of particular concern. According to Brookings, the Roma in Romania face an employment rate of about 72% and endure a poverty rate of almost 70%.

Who Are the Roma People?

Scholars agree that the Roma people’s ancestors immigrated to Europe from the Punjab region of Northern India, across “what is now Iran, Armenia and Turkey.” From the ninth century forward, the Roma progressively expanded throughout Europe.

As a nomadic group traveling with few essentials or assets, the Roma face widespread marginalization in Europe. Dating back to the 14th century, some of the Roma arrived in Bucharest, Romania, where they became slaves of the state, institutions or private people. In 1860, the Roma became free but they still relied completely on the state and landowners for sustenance and survival. Some Roma attempted to break this dependency by banding together in clans and migrating.

The Roma in Bucharest

The European Union (EU) is home to “between 10 million and 12 million Roma” people. According to the Council of Europe, roughly 1.85 million Roma reside in Romania and make up 8.32% of the population. These are all preliminary estimates because the Roma people usually choose to reveal their ethnicity only to other Roma people. This renders it challenging to estimate the actual number of Roma people in Romania’s capital of Bucharest, although there is no uncertainty that a considerable number of Roma people reside in Bucharest.

Roma Poverty

The Roma people live and travel in close-knit groups with large families. The Roma are one of Europe’s most prominent ethnic minorities. Aside from these characteristics, people know very little about the Roma people; they speak their own language, which is undocumented, they have unique traditions and they keep to themselves.

Poverty among the Roma in Bucharest is largely the most pressing issue within their communities. Seen as a “problem” within Bucharest, the Roma population reside in slums or ghettos where they live in close quarters with few possessions. In the slums, the Roma often live in squalor with minimal food or water.

The Roma people labor in very specific occupations such as fortune-telling, metalwork and agricultural work. Some, on the other hand, do not occupy genuine occupations, but instead, steal and swindle in order to supplement their income due to their circumstances of poverty. Because the Roma face high rates of unemployment, they end up with minimal means of survival.

Apart from marginalization, one of the main issues that greatly contributes to their circumstances of poverty is a lack of education. Because of a lack of documentation or identification, the Roma struggle to access education, health care and other essential services. The Roma experience profound deprivation across every standard —  education, employment and health.

Roma Discrimination

In Bucharest, Europeans often refer to the Roma people as Gypsies, which is a discriminatory term when used by individuals of non-Roma descent. In fact, the term “Gypsy” is one of the most derogatory social labels in Europe, particularly in Romania. The discrimination the Roma endure also impacts their access to the necessary services and resources to live a better quality of life.

What is the Drug Problem?

Many Roma people in Bucharest rely on drugs to help them cope with their difficult circumstances. Drug use is common among individuals of all ages in Bucharest’s Roma ghettos. In an interview with author Max Daly, Dan Popescu, harm-reduction services coordinator at the Asociatia Romana Anti-SIDA (ARAS) said that “The general public’s attitude to the Roma and to the drug addicts is that we are wasting money on nothing, that it’s better to let them die than to help them.”

Due to their lack of legitimate identification, only 45% of the Roma have access to health care and welfare benefits. Roma drug users often use unclean needles, leaving their community with high rates of HIV and hepatitis C. The fact that authorities rarely acknowledge the Roma only exacerbates the situation.

The Good News

The Romanian Harm Reduction Network (RHRN) aims to reduce “risky behaviors” linked with drug abuse “by increasing the degree of communication between partner organizations and improving the quality of services for drug users at the national level.” RHRN develops and encourages reforms aimed at facilitating the application of successful socioeconomic strategies and initiatives aimed at drug users and various socially marginalized subgroups.

To address the drug problem among people in Bucharest, the RHRN provides training to professionals to enhance their “capacity in harm reduction and HIV prevention service provision.” The curriculum covers topics such as syringe exchange initiatives and treatment with opiate substitutes as well as guidelines for communication and advocacy. These collective efforts ensure a more comprehensive response to the drug problem in Romania, with a particular focus on marginalized groups like the Roma.

Despite the fact that the Roma encounter poverty and oppression in Bucharest, various groups are working to help them rise out of poverty to become an empowered, self-sufficient and thriving population.

– Tiffany Lewallyn
Photo: Flickr

Mental Health in the United Kingdom
In April 2021, psychiatrists warned that the United Kingdom may be in the depths of a mental health crisis. The number of people seeking help for issues such as anxiety and depression climbed to record numbers in 2020. In fact, these numbers were so high that the National Health Service (NHS) struggled to meet the demand for mental health services. Affirming this in October 2021, Somerset, a mental health organization, said that the U.K. is facing a “mental health pandemic.”

4 Facts About Mental Health in the United Kingdom

  1. COVID-19 significantly impacts mental health in the United Kingdom. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported in October 2021, that at the height of the pandemic, 21% of adults in Great Britain suffered depression. This is an uptick from the pre-pandemic level of 10%. Furthermore, nearly 75% of these adults reporting symptoms of depression attribute those symptoms to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Mental illness is on the rise among the youth. The U.K. Children’s Society indicates that “in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem” has risen by 50%. Exacerbating these issues further, about 75% of youth suffering from mental health issues do not receive the mental health assistance they require. Dr. Santiago Nieto, a general practitioner who works at Northampton’s County Surgery, told the BBC in November 2021 that “there is far more anxiety, more depression, more cases of suicide or attempted suicide and more serious self-harm.”
  3. Geography matters in the case of mental health in the U.K. Research shows that mental health issues are more common in certain areas within the U.K. For example, the Health and Social Care Board finds that mental diseases such as anxiety and depression are more prevalent “in children and young people in Northern Ireland” in comparison to other areas of the U.K. This survey is the first of its kind, and though it is unclear why this disparity exists, researchers find that an array of factors contribute to the rising levels of depression, including “family trauma, adversity, poor health and disability.” Furthermore, according to the ONS, “adults living in the most deprived areas of England” are twice as likely to experience depression as those living “in the least deprived areas of England.”
  4. Unemployment strongly affects mental health. According to the ONS, adults facing unemployment are 50% more susceptible to depression than employed adults. Noting a situation prompting further inquiry, The Health Foundation released a report in April 2021 examining the relationship between mental health and unemployment, especially amid COVID-19. The report finds that “the relationship between mental health and unemployment in the U.K. is bi-directional,” meaning that strong mental health can help an individual secure a job and losing a job can damage mental health. The report estimates that the rising unemployment rate in the U.K. will worsen the mental health of “an additional 200,000 people” by the end of 2021.

NHS to the Rescue

Despite the challenges of mental health in the United Kingdom, there is a strong apparatus in place to address the challenge. In 2008, the NHS introduced the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) program, which has since become one of the most recognized mental health programs in the world. The IAPT utilizes talk therapies to treat people with anxiety and depression in England. Due to its success, the NHS is expanding the program. New goals aim to reach nearly 2 million adults with IAPT services by 2024. Program expansion will also focus on “supporting people to find or stay in work” amid rising unemployment.

COVID-19, rising unemployment, growing depression and anxiety rates among the youth as well as unequal access to care presents a complicated problem for the United Kingdom, which will require creative solutions. However, the nation remains steadfast in its commitment to improving mental health in the United Kingdom with the support of the NHS and countless organizations.

– Richard J. Vieira
Photo: Unsplash

Spain’s housing crisis
In October 2021, government officials in Spain made it their primary mission to combat the ever-increasing rent prices across the country. Governmental officials are tackling this issue by increasing rent-control efforts nationwide. This goal will impact the number of private equity landlords operating in Spain and address Spain’s housing crisis.

What are Private Equity Companies and Landlords?

Private equity companies, more commonly referred to as private equity firms (PEFs), are designed strictly for investment management. PEFs are companies investing in other companies. PEFs strictly buy and sell stocks in private companies on other private corporations’ behalfs to generate income and revenue from the sales of stocks. PEF investments are not made in the public market, but rather in private firms to potentially increase the amount of money made, as a return on investment.

Private equity landlords are corporate landlords that PEFs invest in. This places additional pressure on landlords to make a profit and increase returns for PEFs. Therefore, on top of the money earned in rental prices and the fees incurred through home management as part of rentals, there is a cycle of continuously increasing rents to make more money for PEFs.

Housing Crisis in Spain

Spain’s housing crisis has been an issue since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes it has undergone include drastic rent hikes and lack of home availability in certain regions. The main reason is that many did not feel safe living in congested cities and have attempted to vacate the cities and buy or find home rentals elsewhere.

Spanish citizens have struggled to find affordable housing in a nation with a 21% poverty rate since 2020. This figure of 21% includes 7% of Spanish families that live in severe poverty, according to El Pais.

To top everything off, the hike in rental prices averages 50% over five years. However, prices exceeded a 60% jump between 2014-2017 in Madrid and Barcelona. Comparatively, wages in Spain have increased by 1.6% on average. This is driving an income inequality and challenging many to afford and maintain rental housing. Housing in Spain has become a burden for many due to the influence of private equity companies on rental prices.

During the pandemic, with the lack of growth in wages nationwide and increased hikes in rental costs, Spanish law mandated that no evictions could take place. Nevertheless, in some areas, such as Ciutat Mediriana, evictions continued. Spain’s housing crisis left people on the street with no way to be able to access housing they could afford.

Private Equity Landlords in Spain

Blackstone, a PEF based in the United States, has investments in 30,000 homes across Spain. Blackstone opened housing rental investment opportunities in Spain in 2013. It has not slowed its increases in Spanish housing rental prices since. The return on investments for Blackstone in Spain hit all-time highs for the PEF as it has increased rent prices year after year. The significant returns for Blackstone due to the increased rent prices are costing individuals more than 30% of their income.

Spain’s housing crisis does not have an overnight solution. However, the bill that Spain’s left-leaning officials proposed could fix the problem to some extent. According to Euronews, if Spain implements the bill, it will place rental price caps on any rental company with more than 10 rental homes, effectively strengthening rent control.

About Rent Control

Rent control boosts the economy because it diversifies investments in the public and private sectors. Spain’s housing crisis leaves little opportunity for spending money outside of rental affordability. This leaves other economic sectors falling behind and losing strength over time.

Rent control helps individuals living in lower-income situations keep their housing for longer and more secure periods of time. Landlords are also guaranteed filled buildings when rent prices do not increase and overburden their tenants. Rent control reduces homelessness and evictions, consequently keeping people in their homes and effectively reducing poverty rates.

The bill that the Spanish government proposed to cap rent price increases also benefits the landlords through reduced taxation, giving them the incentive to support the rental caps. This bill could mean diversification of businesses and enhanced opportunities for localized businesses or landlords to combat the PEFs and boost the local economy.

The PEFs in Spain drove rental prices beyond easy affordability for many. Spain’s housing crisis is out of control as a result. This bill could reduce homelessness and poverty. It could boost the economy through localized diversification of business and investments and give Spanish citizens chances to find new homes.

– Clara Mulvihill
Photo: Unsplash

Renewable Energy in Portugal
Portugal is taking advantage of its Atlantic coast by investing in offshore wind farms. These developments occur in an effort to reverse the negative economic effects of COVID-19 and downsize energy poverty in the country. The expansion of renewable energy in Portugal has the potential to reduce the country’s expensive dependency on imports while simultaneously creating new local jobs and domestic industries.

The Issue of Energy Poverty

The United Nations defines energy poverty as a lack of “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy.” Compared to other countries in the European Union, Portugal endures some of the highest rates of energy poverty, with nearly 20% of the country’s population reporting that they were unable to properly heat and cool their homes in 2018. Compared to the E.U.’s average of 6.9%, Portugal has a notably high rate. Energy-inefficient homes result in extremely high energy bills for citizens when temperatures fluctuate, especially in the winter. Recent studies show that 75% of the buildings in Portugal fail to meet the required guidelines for heating. This is an issue that has devastating impacts on the overall health of residents.

The Portuguese government does provide discounts on gas and electricity for households that meet certain socioeconomic criteria, and in 2020, nearly 753,000 households in Portugal received the electricity social tariff. Additionally, approximately 35,000 received the natural gas social tariff. However, the development of renewable energy and the subsequent reduction of overall energy costs could eliminate the need for these social tariffs altogether.

The Economic Effects of COVID-19

Like many countries, Portugal’s economy has faced huge setbacks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its GDP decreased by 8.4% in 2020, “the largest annual decline since 1936.” In order to combat this decline, the country is making strides to expand its renewable energy sector.

The hope is that it can transition from the expensive task of importing fossil fuels to finding innovative ways to generate its own clean energy. Renewable energy in Portugal has expanded greatly in recent years, providing more than 50% of the country’s electricity needs in 2019, with hopes to reach 80% by 2030.

Innovations in Wind Energy

One area of renewable energy in which Portugal has become a leading European country is the development of wind energy. In 2019, Portugal’s Atlantic coast became home to the second floating wind farm in Europe, an alternative to onshore turbines which can disrupt tourism and generate noise complaints. Previously, offshore wind farms were limited to shallow waters, preventing countries like Portugal from taking advantage of the industry due to their deep Atlantic waters.

However, incredible innovation by the Windfloat Atlantic Project produced three wind turbines located 20 km offshore from the port city Viana Do Castelo, minimizing disruption to the local fishing industry and taking advantage of more powerful winds and deep water storms. These three turbines alone possess an installed capacity of 25 megawatts. This is “roughly equivalent to the energy consumed by 60,000 homes in one year.” The cutting-edge feat of the Windfloat Atlantic Project has captured the attention of many other coastal countries who hope to develop similar technology and presents great potential for a resurgence in Portugal’s economy.

Renewable Energy and Economic Growth

COVID-19 caused unemployment in Portugal to skyrocket by 36.2% between May 2019 and May 2020. Throughout the pandemic, workers without degrees in higher education were most affected, with an average increase in registered unemployment of 38.3% between the same dates. However, the expansion of offshore wind energy is creating new job opportunities for this demographic which do not require higher education.

Wind energy in Portugal currently employs approximately 22,000 people, and the Windfloat Atlantic Project, which Ocean Winds implemented in 2011, has created 1,500 jobs for local citizens. Increased dependence on renewable energy in Portugal will also decrease electricity bills for residents and become a pivotal agent in combating energy poverty. Many expect that the pioneer project will grow in the coming years. Portugal is in the perfect position to capitalize on that growth, improving the lives of its citizens and revitalizing its economy in an earth-friendly way.

Like many countries, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were detrimental to Portugal’s economy. However, the success of the WindFloat Atlantic project has resulted in more job opportunities for those who became unemployed during the pandemic, a decreased dependence on energy imports and the downsizing of energy poverty due to the more affordable prices that renewable energy sources are able to offer. The cutting-edge technology of Portugal’s offshore wind farm has sparked excitement in many other European nations who hope to develop similar projects along their coastlines. As a new leader in the development of renewable wind energy, Portugal will continue to innovate and pave the way for cleaner, more affordable energy for all.

– Hannah Gage
Photo: Unsplash

HIV/AIDS in Ukraine
Ukraine has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world, with an estimated 260,000 people living with the disease. Odessa, the third-most populous city in Ukraine, has “the highest concentration of HIV/AIDS of anywhere in Europe.” Poverty exacerbates HIV/AIDS in Ukraine and primarily has links with injected drug use, threats to government funding, lack of access to antiretroviral treatment and social discrimination.

Poverty and HIV/AIDS in Ukraine

Ukraine is second to Moldova as the two poorest countries in Europe. The poverty rate in Ukraine increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, from 42.4% in 2020 to 50% as of February 2021. There is a strong connection between poverty and the spread of diseases; it could be both a cause and a result of poverty.

HIV/AIDS causes conditions of poverty when working adults become ill and can no longer support their families. The disease becomes a result of poverty when the conditions of poverty put people at greater risk of contracting it. As an example, women and girls who live in poverty are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. They are more likely to resort to working in the sex trade. That could put them at dangerous risk for contracting HIV.

HIV/AIDS in Ukraine’s Women and Girls

UNAIDS estimates that out of all people with HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, 120,000 are women over the age of 15 and 2,900 are children aged 14 or younger. Gender inequality, poverty and violence against women and girls are significant factors in the spread of HIV. Women and girls who live in fear of violence may be reluctant to advocate for safe sex, receive testing or seek treatment for HIV and other diseases.

Gender inequality inhibits women’s access to resources for sexual and reproductive health. In rural Ukraine, where the poverty rate is highest, 36% of women do not participate in community or family decision-making. Only 46% are competent with a computer or the internet. Almost 48% do not have access to medical services.

The Lack of Access to Antiretrovirals

As Sky News reported, access to antiretrovirals is a major problem for many people living with HIV/AIDS in Ukraine. Although a law stipulates that antiretroviral therapy should be free to all citizens, limited national resources have resulted in restricted access.

Antiretrovirals are crucial for preventing the spread of HIV to children. The use of antiretrovirals during pregnancy and administered to an infant for four to six weeks after birth can result in a transmission rate of 1% or less. According to U.N. Women, the majority of women living with HIV/AIDS in Ukraine were between 18 and 45 years old. Out of these women, 39% discovered that they were HIV-positive during pregnancy.

Social Discrimination Against People Living With HIV/AIDS

According to WHO, discrimination against people who use drugs and people living with HIV presents a serious challenge to identifying those who need treatment. Harsh drug laws, fear of HIV/AIDS and systematic police abuse undermine efforts to provide HIV information and services such as testing and safe needle exchanges. In addition, the law requires drug treatment centers in Ukraine to register drug users and share the information with law enforcement. This protocol keeps people who use drugs from seeking medical help, which subsequently prevents them from testing and receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS.

The War in Donbas

The war in Donbas has made it difficult for people to receive treatment in a region that previously had one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the country and was home to nearly one-quarter of all antiretroviral recipients. When the war began in March 2014, it displaced 1.7 million people. To compound this, unsafe sex has resulted in an increase of HIV/AIDS within the military. Combined with ongoing military conflict and a shortage of antiretrovirals, Ukraine is experiencing a crisis: the government has failed to keep up with infection rates.

Solutions

In July 2021, Ukraine received a grant of $35.8 million from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. According to the Ukrainian government, it would use the funds to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE), reduce risks associated with COVID-19 and strengthen the health care system.

Ukraine is collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), USAID and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The country wants to implement prevention campaigns, increase access to antiretroviral treatment and target key risk groups, such as people who inject drugs, sex workers and men who have sex with men.

On September 1, 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would provide more than $45 million in additional assistance for Ukraine. The aid would help people the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Donbas affected. The U.S. is working with USAID-supported programs to provide supplies for Ukrainian health care centers, training for health care workers and psychosocial support for the most vulnerable populations.

– Jenny Rice
Photo: Unsplash

Elderly Poverty in Estonia
Estonia, the northernmost Baltic state, is a member of the European Union that was formerly part of the Soviet Union. After gaining independence in 1991, newly recognized Estonia embarked on a series of political and economic reforms. Many now commonly refer to the country as one of the Baltic Tigers alongside Latvia and Lithuania because of its rapid economic growth. Today, Estonia is a developed, high-income country that consistently ranks high in quality of life, education and digitalization. Despite this, Estonia still lacks in other indicators of development. The road to capitalism increased inequalities in Estonian society that did not exist under communism. Citizens lost some of the safety nets they previously had. Elderly poverty in Estonia remains a significant issue that demographic trends and a fragile pension system exacerbate.

The Estonian Pension System

As of December 2020, 41.4% of Estonians over the age of 65 are at risk of poverty, which is one of the highest rates across the European Union. This percentage has significantly increased since 2011 when it stood at 13.1%. When the Estonian government modernized the economy and pension system after independence in 1991, young people benefitted more because they had more time to collect into their pensions. Those approaching old age or already receiving pensions suffered, evident in the high elderly poverty rate today. When people reach retirement age in Estonia, they receive a pension based on the time they spent contributing to the labor force. In addition to this, Estonians can opt into two other pension pillars, one based on their income and one based on voluntary contributions.

  1. State Pension. The first pillar of the pension system is mandatory for all Estonians. It aims to guarantee a standard of living above the absolute poverty line. Social taxes that the government collected fund this pillar. Citizens receive a pension based on the number of years worked.
  2. Wage-based Pension. Estonians can participate in this pillar by contributing 2% of their salary to a pension fund. This pillar used to be mandatory but is voluntary as of 2021.
  3. Supplementary Funded Pension. This pillar, which insurance companies and banks managed, allows people to make extra payments into their pensions.

With the aging population, the number of pensioners is quickly rising, putting pressure on pension sizes. The Estonian population is aging and the number of working-age people is decreasing. The social tax revenue that funds pensions is likely to decline. The media has criticized the reforms that made the second pension pillar voluntary for their potential to destabilize the economy and increase poverty among the elderly.

Gender and Elderly Poverty

Elderly women are especially vulnerable to poverty in Estonia. According to the OECD, 42.8% of women over 65 in Estonia live in relative poverty, compared with 21.4% of their male counterparts. Women also have a much higher life expectancy than men in Estonia. They are living on average 8.4 years longer than men.

This could mean that women often end up widowed and lose their husband’s source of income. This only compounds the financial problems elderly women may already face because of low pensions. 

Looking to the Future

Despite this, the Estonian government has made efforts to combat elderly poverty. Recent reforms adjusted the retirement age to increase every year with the life expectancy. A higher retirement age means people work longer, contributing more to pension funds that Estonia will need in the future. The Estonian government wants to ensure that the pension gap between men and women does not grow. To do that, it is calling for measures to reduce the gender pay gap. The measures include increasing the Labor Inspectorate’s supervision of wages and promoting gender equality curricula in schools.

The government has not yet analyzed the effects of this plan as it extends into 2023. On a supranational level, the European Union proposed legislation in early 2021 that would require companies to report on pay disparities between males and females. The wage gap has dropped from 22.5% in 2013 to 19.7% in 2020 and projects to drop another percentage point by 2023.

To address elderly poverty in Estonia, various organizations are working on regional, national and European levels. The European Anti-Poverty Network has a commitment to eradicating poverty across Europe and placing the fight against poverty and social exclusion at the top of the EU agenda. It has partnered with the Estonian Association of Pensioners (EPUL), which cooperates with government agencies to protect the rights of the elderly.

Its primary activities are advocacy-focused and help bring elderly voices to the forefront of Estonian politics through public events, lectures and lobbying meetings. In 2018, EPUL signed an agreement that formed elderly councils in the Tallinn city government to involve the elderly in decision-making. The organization also gives free legal aid to the elderly and provided 817 hours of free legal help in 2018.

Though the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on elderly poverty in Estonia is not certain. However, trends in the years leading up to 2020 are favorable. The relative poverty rate is slowly decreasing, as is the gender pay gap that affects old-age pensions. With NGO work and strong national policies, Estonia is on its way to alleviating and eradicating poverty among its most vulnerable population, the elderly.

– Emma Tkacz
Photo: Unsplash

EU Energy Poverty
Rising prices for gas and electricity have prompted the EU to appeal to its member countries to subsidize customers and businesses as it deals with the negative impact of its decisions regarding climate. Seeking to deter energy poverty, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simon spoke of measures that target select customers at most significant risk of energy poverty with direct payments, cutting energy taxes and shifting energy taxes to general taxation. Simon said to the EU lawmakers that mitigating the social consequences and protecting households most at risk is of 
“immediate priority.” He also suggested that businesses engage in longer-term power purchase agreements while not ruling out the possibility for relief through state aid. Here is some information about energy poverty in Europe as well as programs to alleviate energy poverty.

Energy Poverty in Europe

Energy poverty is prevalent across Europe, where anywhere between 50 and 125 million people cannot afford proper indoor heat, according to a 2009 publication by the EU. Member states have acknowledged the gravity of the issue and its ramifications in health issues and social isolation. Energy poverty marks low household income, high energy costs and inefficient energy houses, where an increase in revenue, management of energy costs and more energy-efficient infrastructure are solutions. Energy poverty affects Sub-Saharan Africa significantly, particularly in the medical sector, with limited time for health care activities and thus increasing risk for patients. Europe is not immune to these issues and should not overlook them, even if the potential scale is not as significant.

EU Plans Backfire and Exacerbates

According to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, behind the rising energy prices afflicting Europe today are the EU’s “Green Deal” policies. President Vladimir Putin of Russia shares the same opinion. The Green Deal initiative aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to levels seen in 1990, on the way of eliminating emissions by 2050. One of its strategies involved discouraging the usage of long-term purchase agreements for gas, coal and nuclear energy in favor of short-term pricing to deter its use. LTPAs are not sensitive to market prices and are therefore a more cost-effective option than purchasing gas if one is doing it for the long run. This discouragement has left EU member countries scrambling for alternative gas options amid the energy shortage, exacerbating the already low levels of energy poverty.

Programs to Alleviate Energy Poverty

Various projects have developed across Europe with the common aim of ending energy poverty. Horizon 2020 Energy Efficiency voiced themselves in 2018 and granted around 6 million euros to three projects responding to energy poverty: STEP (Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty), EmpowerMed and Social Watt. STEP, for example, has created a model that includes a call to organizations and consumer groups that specialize in issues affecting those who are energy-poor. It wants to educate energy-poor consumers in nine European countries they have identified as the most energy-poor and share their methods and policies with other EU countries.

STEP

In Lithuania, for example, the Alliance of Lithuanian Consumer Organizations partnered with STEP following inquiries by ALCO into organizations that revealed concerns by consumers regarding energy poverty issues. The Association of Social Workers, an amalgamation of social workers across many organizations, which also happens to be ALCO’s principal partner, received an introduction to the STEP project. This led to several social workers’ interest in receiving the required training to become efficient energy advisors.

EmpowerMed

EmpowerMed, a slightly more nuanced project than STEP, is also addressing energy poverty in Mediterranean coastal areas with a focus on women, gender and health. Its name has an association with numerous publications on energy poverty training, policy and reports. This is part of a constitution of other efforts such as energy workshops, advocacy campaigns that gender-neutral stress policies and energy visits to select households.

Social Watt

Social Watt tasks itself with providing parties exhorted under Article 7 of the Energy Efficiency Directive in Europe to engage with strategies to alleviate energy poverty. Integral and endemic to the function of Social Watts are its features. The Analyzer feature of Social Watts is a downloadable tool that facilitates consumer data observation to identify risk houses. The Plan function identifies optimal solutions that accommodate any nuances in the energy conservation dynamic. The Check tool serves as a verification function to ensure the endeavors of Social Watts are without errors or negative ramifications. 

The ramifications of energy poverty constitute adverse health effects, educational delay, medical impedance and economic disruption. While COVID-19’s economic consequences have exacerbated Europe’s energy poverty, programs to alleviate energy poverty have been able to offer hope to the most vulnerable and, at a minimum, prevent social unrest.

– Mohamed Makalou
Photo: PublicDomainPictures

Working to Empower the Roma 
The Roma represent a previously nomadic group of people who are now scattered throughout Europe. Since their initial migration from India to Europe in the 10th century, the Roma have endured persecution. As a result, an estimated 80% of Roma people located in Europe live in poverty. Fortunately, several organizations are working to empower the Roma people throughout Europe.

How Discrimination Drives Poverty

The Roma have faced discrimination in Europe for centuries — an issue that persists even today. Data from 2016 reveals that, at the time, one out of every four Roma encountered some form of discrimination in the past year. Discrimination often restricts people’s opportunities and limits their capacity to escape poverty. For example, the Roma often struggle to find housing and face forced evictions in countries like Bulgaria and Italy. Thus, advocating against anti-Romani discrimination is imperative to alleviating poverty among the Roma.

3 Organizations Fighting for the Roma

  1. The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC). Founded in 1996, this Roma-led nonprofit organization advocates for the rights of the Roma people through legal action, policy change and education. The ERRC has brought attention to the failure to protect the rights of the Roma throughout Europe, making the situation a primary political focus. The organization has relayed the urgency of this issue to member states of the European Union as well as candidate countries to ensure it receives attention. Furthermore, the ERRC has taken legal action by initiating more than 500 court cases to hold various governments, organizations and even individuals accountable for any discriminatory or violent actions against the Roma.
  2. European Roma Grassroots Organisations Network (ERGO). This network, established in 2008, is a conglomeration of more than 30 smaller organizations that are working together toward the common goal of addressing anti-Romani discrimination. The network’s main objective is to make policymakers aware of how discrimination against the Roma is responsible for the group’s struggle to achieve equality and inclusion. ERGO endorses improved policies to empower the Roma while launching several public campaigns to raise awareness of the issues plaguing the Roma.
  3. The Roma Support Group (RSG). This organization is a Roma-led, U.K.-based group that supports Roma families by offering them a diverse selection of services, such as homeschooling resources, a guide to COVID-19 prevention and steps to follow to report hate crimes. The RSG intends to better the current situation of these families by helping them conquer obstacles such as discrimination and exclusion. It also advocates for the Roma within the public sphere to raise awareness of the struggles they face. This organization is responsible for various projects including the Financial Inclusion Project in London. This initiative helps alleviate poverty among the Roma by familiarizing them with the welfare system and increasing their financial knowledge.

Moving Forward

For years, the Roma have faced persecution and marginalization across the world. As a result of this discrimination and exclusion, many Roma people have fallen below the poverty line. However, organizations are working to empower the Roma while fighting for their rights to live a life free of discrimination. By supporting organizations that empower and protect the Roma, even an ordinary individual can make a difference in the lives of this marginalized group.

– River Simpson
Photo: Flickr

Elderly Poverty Rate in Romania
The elderly poverty rate in Romania is a challenge to not only the elderly population but also the country itself. Romania’s poverty rates for retired individuals and elders over the age of 65 have increased drastically from an already high level.

The Issue

Romania’s elderly at-risk poverty rate reached a record high of 25.1% in the year 2020, whereas it was previously 14.4% in 2012. Additionally, 24.5% of elderly women in Romania are under the poverty line with a pension, comparable to the record high of 25.7% in 2016 and a record low of 22.1% in 2010. Comparably, males with pensions reached a record high of 18% in 2020 and a record low of 7.9% in 2012.

These statistics present an evident truth; as the years pass in Romania, the elderly poverty rate is quickly rising. This leads poor elders to search for work to make enough money to survive, which they often do not have the qualifications for. In the end, impoverished elders rely on pension payments, which some do not even qualify for, while others struggle to survive below the poverty line.

Romania’s Health Care System

Romania has a dual health care system. Similar to countries such as Australia, it has both a private and a public health care system. However, its system differs from others when it comes to the government’s involvement. Romania’s government spends an average of 4% of the country’s GDP on health care, which is one of the lowest rates in the EU. The government does not fund private healthcare, thus leading those in poverty towards government-funded health care, which has proven to be inadequate. Furthermore, those who do pay for private health care do not always get a better deal. Since the government is uninvolved financially, private hospitals can overcharge patients exorbitant amounts for as little as a consultation.

Also, since the year 2007, about 15,700 Romanian medical experts from both private and government-funded institutions left the country to pursue a better salary in other European countries. With a sub-par salary for Romania’s government-paid doctors (some specialists receive as little as $350 a month), Romanian doctors often resort to bribery, in which they charge patients additional fees for even the simplest consultations.

In terms of the elderly poverty rate in Romania, it is clear that either of the two options for health care in Romania can be costly, and their physical health frequently undergoes neglect. As of 2020, only 23.4% of Romanians over the age of 65 would rate their health conditions as “good” or “very good,” while the EU average is almost double this, at 41.1%. Additionally, 66.7% of these people reported issues with walking, and 51.9% with vision problems, which they cannot treatments for. In comparison, only about 40% of adults over the age of 65 in the United States have a disability.

The Pension Problem

Romania’s pension system is likely to face challenges due to the country’s aging population. Romania is facing a demographic challenge, with a population decline of approximately 25% from 21.4 million in 2008 to approximately 15 million in 2050. Though Romania will most likely face additional challenges as a result of the projected population drop, one major issue could be pensions.

Furthermore, the proportion of elderly people in Romania could reach 29.9% by 2050, subsequently leading to a strain on the pension system. With an aging population, more people will require pensions, putting the government in a dilemma about whether to pay the full amount necessary. As proven with the health care system that the Romanian government provided, the corrupt country will not be eager to allocate so much money to pensions.

Having said that, Romania does have a solid pension system in place, which is based on citizens’ contribution to the economy over a minimum contribution period of 15 years. However, a growing elderly population could cause the country’s pension system to crash according to projections, potentially impacting the elderly poverty rate in Romania.

Lastly, another issue with the Romanian pension system is the fraud that seems to consistently reappear throughout the years. One of the greatest scandals occurred in 2009, in which Romania reported $7.15 million in pension fraud. Resolving an issue like this would require stronger pension security and a potential re-evaluation of the pension granting system.

People Against Poverty

People Against Poverty is an NGO that works in six countries, including Romania, to reduce poverty levels. It has been working to reduce poverty in Romania since 2003 and has hosted a variety of projects, including an Agricultural Project which provides resources for people in Romania who live in rural communities. NGOs like People Against Poverty are extremely important when considering poverty reduction in entire countries, and the implementation of its programs can help in solving Romania’s elderly poverty issue.

Elderly poverty in Romania has been an increasing problem within the past decade, and will likely continue to be one into the future. It remains in the hands of the Romanian government to solve this problem before the elderly population reaches a peak. However, hope exists that the population will regulate itself, or that the economy will open more jobs for impoverished elders. With the help of NGOs like People Against Poverty and the growing economy in Romania, there is certainly hope that the elderly poverty rate will decline over the upcoming years.

– Andra Fofuca
Photo: Unsplash

Human trafficking in Albania
Albania experienced greater prosperity than it ever had during its years as a Soviet satellite state, with its national income and standard of living skyrocketing as the country industrialized and urbanized. When the communist government lost power following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, political instability, government-backed pyramid schemes and civil war caused an economic disaster. As a result, many of Albania’s desperate poor, particularly women and children, became vulnerable to human traffickers, who significantly expanded their operations.

The Situation in Contemporary Albania

The Albanian government and the National Coalition of Anti-Trafficking Shelters identified 81 potential trafficking victims, with an additional five victims officially recognized in 2020. Of the 85 total victims, 58 were children and 62 were female. These figures are lower than in 2019, when there were 96 potential victims and seven confirmed victims, 80 of whom were female and 67 were minors. However, the number of victims is likely higher, and prosecutors did not convict any traffickers in 2020, whereas they did in 2019.

To compare, the state identified 134 total victims from 2005 through 2006, following the introduction of its first action plan for “trafficking in persons. Among the victims were 123 women, 77 children and 112 Albanians. In 2005, there were 49 convictions, and in 2006, there were 56. The country’s ability to identify victims has certainly improved, yet the complexity of trafficking cases has increased over the years, making convictions more difficult.

A Tier 2 source country, traffickers smuggle more people out of Albania than they bring in. The primary destinations of trafficked individuals are countries neighboring Albania such as Greece and Italy, as well as Western European countries like the United Kingdom, which had about 600 Albanian potential victims in 2015. In all, the number of Albanian victims abroad could be in the thousands. The Albanian government must fully comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 to become a Tier 1 country, the highest and best tier. Albania has held a Tier 2 position for many years because it continues to make significant efforts to meet the Act’s standards.

The Link Between Trafficking and Poverty

Human traffickers are most likely to prey on the poor and those living in rural areas because the poor are frequently desperate for work and people living in rural areas are more isolated than city dwellers. Women, children and migrants are also traffickers’ most common prey since they tend to be easier to entice and hold captive while engaging in sexual acts with the former two is in higher demand than with adult men. Though they are not prime targets, traffickers hold men captive as well, typically forcing them to perform farm or factory work in nearby Balkan countries.

In 2016, 33.90% of the population lived on less than $5.50 per day, compared to more than 55% in 2002. Similarly, the proportion of the population living in rural areas has decreased since the expansion of trafficking in Albania, from around 60% in the 1990s and early 2000s to 37.89% in 2021. Thus, the target demographic of human traffickers is shrinking.

Examining the Targets of Traffickers

Traffickers force children to sell small items on the street and beg for money, especially during tourist season, when traffickers know tourists are more vulnerable to these practices. Their captors make these children hand over most or all of the money they earn. Traffickers also solicit minors for the purpose of sex. The traffickers tend to force children of ethnic minorities and migrant groups such as the Romani into seasonal work. Stigmas against the Romani make them vulnerable to traffickers, less identifiable as victims and less likely to receive support.

Traffickers entice poor women to work as prostitutes by posting false job ads and posing as wealthy boyfriends. These women keep little to none of the money they earn, leaving them only with the trauma of their experiences. Captive women work in nail salons, factories and as domestic servants when not performing sex work. The attitudes of men toward women are also a component in women being targets.

Transiting migrants heading to Western Europe from Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa, are additional targets of human traffickers in Albania. The language barrier, the fact they are in an unfamiliar country and their desire to reach a wealthy nation make migrants susceptible to traffickers looking to exploit them.

The Albanian Government’s Response

The government is doing little to resolve law enforcement’s limited ability to screen and identify potential victims from migrant groups, children and sex workers. The Border and Migration Police have few interpreters, yet people speaking dozens of languages other than Albanian cross the border regularly. This language barrier exacerbates the difficulty of identifying and helping trafficking victims.

The lack of specialized experience prosecuting trafficking cases results in prosecutors convicting few criminals for human trafficking-related crimes. Instead, they often either convict the accused of a lesser crime, or the accused goes free. Furthermore, government employees are allegedly complicit in various human trafficking crimes. If true, corruption is contributing to human trafficking in Albania. The government claimed it would conduct an investigation but is not yet prosecuting anyone.

Government Investments to Reduce Trafficking

The government invested 29.3 million leks, the equivalent of $291,980, to the government-run specialized shelter for human trafficking victims. This is a massive increase to the 20.9 million leks or $208,270, it spent in 2019. While the government decided to reduce the funds it allocates to the salaries of support staff at NGO shelters, it spent more on food support. Delays in funding periodically undermined the efforts of shelters, however.

Additionally, the government moved 4.6 million leks ($45,840) to a fund of seized criminal assets designed for victims of human trafficking in Albania. The offices of the National Employment Services offered job priority to 60 of these victims. The government has also provided vocational training to 20 officially recognized victims and offered temporary residence permits to foreign victims.

Ending Human Trafficking in Albania

After the fall of the communist government, traffickers exploited the turmoil to expand their illegal trade, enriching themselves at the expense of their victims. However, the plague of human trafficking has undergone mitigation due to increased combined efforts of the Albanian government and NGOs. To eradicate human trafficking in Albania, the government must establish more robust social programs for the poor, expand job opportunities and improve access to support services; especially for people in rural areas. The government also needs to improve its screening of targeted groups, better train police in identification and prosecutors in dealing with trafficking cases, put greater emphasis on reintegration and fund NGO-run shelters consistently.

– Nate Ritchie
Photo: Flickr