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Ukraine and New Paradigms in Social Development: The Work of the Kamenets Podisk / IFSW Partnership

Alena Sherman's picture

By Rory Truell, IFSW Secretary-General

Ukraine Community Social Work CentreElina showed me how they seal the plastic bags. Just before placing the open ends in the heat machine, she places a small piece of paper inside, with a few words written on it. “The Ukrainian people are strong” she translates.

Elina is one of many women who founded and work in the local kitchen at the Community Social Work Centre. It is one of the first projects supported by a partnership between the Kamenets Podisk District Council, local communities and the International Federation of Social Workers. Together the partners have developed an approach which transforms the idea of ‘humanitarian aid’, (which too often strips peoples of their capabilities) into resourceful and confident communities with a hope for a strong future.

Elina explains to me that the contents of the bag are mixed grains and herbs to form dehydrated barley soup. Three hundred grams make five liters of thick nutritious food. The next bag has a more reddish substance and I ask if it is Borshch. “You know Borshch?” she asks with some surprise.

The dehydrated packets are easily distributed to displaced people, those at the front lines and anyone who has lost their normal food supply as a consequence of the war. Everything in the package has been shrunk through hydration and all the necessary herbs and spices added. All that is required is for clean water to be added and bought to a boil for about 40 minutes. The women in this Community Kitchen produce about 1,200 meals a day, making a significant contribution to food security in their distribution network. It is one of many projects that brings the community together, recognizing their strengths, creating opportunities for mutual support and ensuring people have an active role in their own futures.

Another example of such projects is focused on making bed frames and furniture, as more people are arriving in the district with nothing but the clothes on their backs. With the coming months of winter and dampness, the challenge for finding beds, cupboards and wardrobes has become urgent. Under such pressing conditions, finding the material and machinery to manufacture mattresses has not been possible. Thanks to the Romanian Social Work Association, these are being donated and bought in by trucks from across the border. The frames and side cupboards will be produced locally in an initiative supported by the Kamenets Podisk / IFSW partnership.

With each of these examples, the approach is to support the local communities to, where possible, develop their own enterprises, as the economy has ground to a halt. This comes at a time when people have not been paid since the start of the invasion and industries crashed when men were drafted into the army. This approach is built from social work experiences from other countries experiencing war or natural disasters as well as from successful examples of transforming poverty into thriving communities and societies. It is an approach that prioritizes local-led development over relief-aid and transforms the concept of aid into support for self-sustaining social and economic development.

The partnership between the Kamenets Podisk District and IFSW has worked carefully to consider these dynamics. The partnership has supported, encouraged and facilitated community enterprises and, in the case of the above examples, supplied the dehydration machines and an industrial dough machine in the Community Kitchen. But these examples only represent the beginning aim of this approach and its overarching vision. Further down in this article we will explore other examples. Before that, however, it may be important for some readers to hear more about why the traditional aid model is not the preferred option.

The challenges of traditional aid approaches

Ukraine social workGlobally, social workers have witnessed unintended long-term consequences and prolonged devastation bought about from traditional aid approaches. International aid in many situations of war and extreme crisis is often blind and deaf to local strengths and does not have the necessary principles and processes to form partnerships with local communities. Consequently, when food or clothing is provided free, any chance of local communities maintaining or adapting their local economy is immediately broken. No one can cost-effectively produce products when the same products are being distributed by aid agencies for free. Therefore, manufacturing machinery lies dormant, workers are displaced without income, and an environment of dependency emerges. We know from situations of crisis that when people are dormant, waiting for their water, their meals or their small cash payments, they often report feeling powerless, worthless and frustrated. Such situations often prolong or exacerbate their emotional and psychological challenges. Yet when people are active in their own recovery or a part of rebuilding their community’s future, their trauma symptoms are significantly reduced.

“At the Community Social Work Centre, we use the social work model,” Yana Melnychuk the Centre’s coordinator explained to me. “We have many resources and ideas here in Kamenets Podisk District. Yes, we are under attack and war. Yes, many of our loved ones are at the battlefields and we are so scared for them every moment. But we are still strong people. We know what to do, we know our community and how everyone must be supported and involved for our survival now, and for our future. We welcome every donation, and we will make sure that each cent goes to supporting our sustainable survival via our interdependency, and not by the dependency aid model. By working together, we will not just survive we will thrive,” she said.

The partnership and other IFSW projects do not reject all aid, and financial aid is always welcomed, providing the people who need it can collectively (as much as possible) be involved with how it should be spent. Examples of the healthy use of outside financial support can be seen in money used to purchase mattresses and dehydration machines for this partnership (funded by donations from international social work associations). Examples can also be seen in the IFSW’s work supporting Ukrainian refugees as they move from the war zone through bordering countries.

Social workers who set up information points during the refugees’ journeys on many occasions called for external financial support and the donation of clothes, sleeping bags, and medicine, and for members of the public to host or drive refugees to their next point.  As people were on the move, it was simply not possible to support the development of their local economy, nor did the refugees request this. They were more interested in which countries would give them and their children the best opportunities and where they could have somewhere safe to rest for a while and have something to eat.

Having learned from other refugees’ journeys, the social workers involved in the Ukraine situation focused on not having temporary camps or tent cities. In those environments, people can get trapped for months or years in frustrating, almost institutionalized conditions: ‘Breakfast is at 7:00, lunch is at 12:00. Never leave the camp without permission. A doctor comes on Wednesdays and an immigration expert on Fridays’, and so on. Instead, the social workers have worked alongside communities in receiving countries to open their homes to refugees and for the public schools to integrate refugee children. They have utilized donated funds to support refugees in converting buildings into medium-term accommodations with community kitchens and support systems. They have sought funding for the development of small businesses that utilize the refugees’ skills or negotiated with employers in other parts of Europe that had shortages of workers and sought funding to support the refugees’ transportation to these areas.

The success of this work, like that in the Kamenets Podisk district, requires the social workers to have their eyes and ears open to what the refugees want and recognize refugee capabilities and strengths in leading their own development. The approach does not reject donations, which are still needed, but it does reject the aid mentality, which is the dominant approach to social development in crisis situations, as it cannot translate the circumstances of crisis to situations of opportunity.

The Approach of the Kamenets Podisk / IFSW partnership

Ukraine crisisKamenets Podisk / IFSW partnership has listened to people that have worked through change and are consequently using an ‘inside out’ model of development. The decisions are made on the inside by the people struggling but are informed by experiences in other places. This has shown the wisdom to think long-term, to create a local vision that sets a new course of life, beyond this war, a vision for a life even better than before this crisis.

Therefore, in addition to finding ways to accommodate and feed the 50,000 plus displaced people newly arrived in the district, a social diagnosis and skills audit is being undertaken to evaluate the resources sitting in the community. Teachers, manufacturers, trades people, community organizers, carers, scientists and others are being identified and supported to apply their skills in restarting or creating new enterprises for everyone’s good.

Simultaneously the Community Social Work Centre provides a drop-in service where everyone will be greeted and given an opportunity to sit, talk and participate. Programmes are offered including childcare and schooling for children to enable parents, mostly women, to enter the workforce or join community projects. Respite care progammes have also been developed, giving overburdened moms or dads time when needed. Support groups have been created so that no one feels isolated and newly arrived displaced people are welcomed. There are no barriers to participation and community members are also encouraged to play a role in the organization and delivery of the programmes. To assist with the challenges of traumatized soldiers coming home while on a few days leave, groups have been established to provide information and care. They also provide social education so that all in the district can understand the symptoms of war-related trauma and can act upon them.

And the Centre does not stop there…

In a relatively cashless society (due to the economy breaking down), the Community Social Work Centre staff and volunteers are transforming an old warehouse into a community social exchange supermarket. When possible, this supermarket will buy and provide local products, only importing essential items that cannot be made locally. Each item will have a price which can be purchased in cash or in exchange for points that people have acquired while working within the community. People like Elina in the Community Kitchen, Kayta who teaches math to children, or Aliona who photographs families to send to their loved ones at the frontline.

Conversations for the community to provide its own social exchange supermarket in the longer-term are already taking place, as there have been discussion around the need for a permanent food and accommodation social security strategy for refugees who return after the war.

‘What will happen when a bus load of institutionalized children return after the invasion ends,’ one person asks. This question refers to pre-war social service systems that were based on former Soviet systems. Under such systems many children with disabilities were placed in large institutions away for their families and communities. ‘We will need to rebuild our communities to include them,’ came a reply.

These conversations bounce through the Community Social Work Centre, across the tables and cups of coffee, the stacked boxes of winter jackets waiting to be distributed, the emergency food kits, the teaching whiteboards and the children’s toys. Conversations focused on making food today but thinking ahead to after the war. They each speak of hope, mutual support and recognition of each person’s role in fulfilling that vision.

A Learning Experience

The Kamenets Podisk / IFSW partnership is not approaching their response with any strict criteria. It is a practical approach, adapted from learning of other people in crisis situations. The key to the success of this approach and others, in different cultures and with different challenges, has been one very clear factor: locally led development.

Social workers have been critical to the outcomes: using their skills to bring people together in recognizing their combined strengths and finding outside support and funding focused on people and sustainability, not just immediate relief.  Finding international solidarity and support is an essential pillar to making these projects move forward.  IFSW, therefore, invites international funding agencies and all policy makers concerned with the journey from crisis to prosperity, to come, observe and participate in this transformational approach to international development.

I asked Elina, working in the Community Kitchen, if she would mind officials coming to see what they are achieving in the Kamenets Podisk District. She replied, “This work, this place, these people, give me hope [and] I want everyone to have hope. I want them to come from every country to learn how to make this food, to see how we do it. I want them to learn that their people are strong, like ours are. When we respect each other at home and in other countries, maybe then we will stop having wars.”

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank and acknowledge the leadership team involved with all of these developments. From the Ukraine Kamenets Podisk District, Mykhailo Simashkevych, District Mayor, and Yana Melnychuk, Coordinator of the Community Social Work Programme. From IFSW, Ana Radulescu (IFSW European Regional President) with the support of Herbert Paulischin and Alexandra Zoituc and the team from AsProAs (The Romanian Association of Social Workers).