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Dimi Panitza: Education is the Cornerstone of Building the Future of Our Nation

April 25, 2004

Q: Mr. Panitza, how has Bulgaria changed in the past few years?

A: Considerably. Bulgaria has been doing extremely well in the foreign affairs field. Bulgaria is a proud member of NATO. We are a distinguished member of the Council of Europe; we are marching towards the European Union very well. I highly respect the whole foreign affairs team.
On the domestic field we still see tragic examples of people who cannot live on their pensions, who are hurting, who are poor. But I think we have a growing group of people, Bulgarians aged 18 to 40 who are entrepreneurial, who are doing things, who are creating businesses, who contribute their knowledge. And you can see it. It is in your face and every time I come to Sofia I can see the change from the last time I have been here. I have been traveling the country and I am impressed with how really strong the development has been: all the tourism outside of Sofia, new inns, new hotels, new Sevlievo, Gabrovo, Turnovo, Arbanasi, Plovdiv, Kazanlak and everywhere. Massive currents of tourists everywhere, both foreign and Bulgarian. I see construction everywhere. The money is there, it is circulating, the market is growing.
So, my feeling is we are not regressing: we are marching forward and I am very optimistic about the year we have. The fact that we belong to NATO is very important, because it basically means that we are part of a club that has rules for its members and if you want to be a member, you have to observe them. That is also true for Bulgaria. We will have to apply those rules in the field of justice, for example. Because that is one area which is catastrophic in this country. The sometimes puzzling manner in which Bulgarian justice operates cannot last forever. The same thing will happen when we join the EU. Its rules of behavior are stringent.


Q: Do you think that young people in Bulgaria are prepared for the EU accession?

A: Absolutely not. There is a massive, massive need for education here. The ignorance about what belonging to EU entails is huge. We have lost a long time not explaining well enough what accession means, what membership means, what responsibility it entails. And what sacrifices. So we hope that the government, the authorities, and the business community will do some serious work in that direction. We hope that companies in Bulgaria will even think of EU seminars for its employees where they can explain things and answer questions about EU. That should be done.
Indeed, Bulgaria is in a tragically bad situation as far as education is concerned. We are moving into an era of knowledge-based economies everywhere, and that means education. This means literacy in the broad sense: problem solving, team building and creativity. It is not just a question of having knowledge, but applying it effectively. Also increasingly important is knowledge of history, including good and bad lessons, and of philosophy.  It is a national tragedy that today in Bulgaria over 50,000 children don't attend school
either because their parents don't want them to, or because they can't afford to buy the basics. And these are not just Roma children!
Bulgaria must develop a crash program for education. This is a matter of national  survival. We must have educated people in every nook and cranny of our society if we are to move forward and claim to exist as a nation. See what the Irish have done in the last 20 years, reorienting their entire economy through a massive effort to educate their people, becoming one of the most prosperous and booming economies of the EU! Yet, currently less than 10% of Bulgarians are computer literate and we trail behind many of our neighbors in that field...
Everything depends on education: the transition from school to workplace; the capacity to move from one job to another; the capacity to engage in lifelong learning; the capacity to be able to shift, be flexible and move into new opportunities and new roles. All of this depends on education. This is the cornerstone of building the future of our nation.


Q: I guess this issue is also closely related to your efforts in improving media quality in Bulgaria. How has that been progressing?

A: You know of course about the Panitza Excellence in Journalism Prize that we established 10 years ago. Actually, this year we are going to celebrate our 10th anniversary. The purpose of that prize is to bring up the quality of writing, research, seriousness and responsibility of Bulgarian journalism. That's what it's all about. The prizes are given to people who do well, but that does not mean that they reflect the image of Bulgarian journalism. They are the exception to the portrait. But they set the example to other young journalists. We have a growing group of young journalists who work outside Sofia and they take part in the contest as well. In the meantime the situation in the press is deplorable; it is getting more and more irresponsible; it is responding to the taste of the lowest possible denominator. There are exceptions of course, but this is not just a Bulgarian phenomenon. On a global scale, press is in the same shape. My criticism of the press is not related only to Bulgaria and Bulgarian tabloids. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Ten years ago it would not have been possible to have a Pulitzer Prize winner at New York Times lose his job because he faked his stories. Today this happens at USA Today, Washington Post and so on...In my days, when I was a journalist, that was unthinkable. Today even the most responsible monuments of journalism are being affected by this disease of fast medium, fast buck, fast impression.
And this takes us back to the issue of education. Ever lowering standards in education produce a far less educated public that reads ever less well produced newspapers. Because people don't read any more. They look at pictures and captions. It is a huge concern of mine that young people don't read books. This is serious, that is why I appeal that the Bulgarian government must develop an emergency national strategy for mass education and put every penny the government can afford into education.


Q: What are your special projects for 2004?

A: One of the things we are doing is the Program for Primary Prevention of Drug Addiction. We produced a small brochure two years ago which is a reference for parents and teachers. We found out there is this growing society of young people who are indulging in drugs. And the involvement of parents is catastrophic; they are unable to stop them and then it gets too late.
The brochure has been a tremendous success - many say it is the best tool in this direction anybody has ever published in Bulgaria. By now this program has been developed in 57 towns in this country. We are very, very grateful to Bulgarian businesses that supported this program. Mtel helped us a lot to produce a great number of brochures. We get requests for brochures from all around the countries - schools, municipalities, hospitals.

Our second project is related to that slaughter on the highways that we witness. We have just finished a report that I hope will have the same impact as the drug brochure. We are planning to hold a conference on the subject in September. Road accidents have reached a catastrophic dimension in Bulgaria. In the last ten years, a city the size of Dupnitza has been cleared off the map, not to mention the serious wounds and injuries. That slaughter must stop.

Another very successful project is the School of Politics, in association with Open Society and New Bulgarian University. The support of the Dutch government has been tremendous: they will support it in the next two years. The Norwegian government has been just as supportive to us. The School has five courses a year, 5 days each. We have members of parliament, mayors, political counselors, members of government, members of society - representatives of the police, doctors, teachers, journalists, all contributing or studying. We have an alumni association with 90 members, and the good news is they are all still in Bulgaria, they have not left.

Yet another project concerns children in hospices and homes. One of the very important issues for Bulgaria, as we march towards EU, is that we must lower the number of kids in these institutions. So we have this programme for foster families, which provides legal support to foster families. It is just getting off the ground now and is doing very well.  We also have a brochure produced, explaining the whole purpose of foster families, how the system works, the support people can receive in adopting a child, and it's a growing successful program. Unfortunately, business doesn't help us much in that.


Q: What do you think is the reason for that? Do you think business is well informed of the benefits that come with charity?
A: I fully agree these benefits and alleviations are not being promoted in any way. I think what BBLF is doing is admirable - to begin to develop and foster the field of CSR in Bulgaria. That is also part of the idea of education as defined at the beginning of our conversation. There is another dimension to doing business and that is the social dimension. Maybe it's because many of our businesses here are very young, they are just getting off the ground, they are still growing and developing, they still have a corporate culture to breed. I am hopeful for the future. In the case of the foundation, we have received support from business, but in the field of children's care, for instance, we have not been very successful.


Q: Could you please specify ways in which making charitable and responsible business in Bulgaria could be profitable?

A: Junior Achievement is an excellent example of what we are talking about, because every businessman who supports JA basically supports his own future. By educating a student, he ensures the future of business. Unfortunately JA has not received the support from business it deserves, especially if we compare it to Romania where the support of business for Junior Achievement Romania has been tremendous. There is a lack of vision here, because JA is doing something that everyone benefits from, not least of all business.