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“This place, these people, give me hope”: Ukraine and new paradigms in social development

Rory Truell, International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) Secretary-General, talks about his recent visit to the war-torn nation and outlines the work of the Kamenets Podisk and IFSW Partnership.


“This place, these people, give me hope”: Ukraine and new paradigms in social development

Elina 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, about three-by-three centimeters with writing in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag inside the bag. Not being able to read her language, I asked her what it says. “The Ukraine people are strong” she translates.

Elina is one of many women who founded and works in the local Community Kitchen. 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 hope for a strong future.

As the machine presses down to seal the bag, Elina explains to me that the contents of mixed grains and herbs is hydrated Barley Soup. 300 grams of the dried substance makes 5 liters of thick nutritious food. The next bag has a more reddish substance and I ask if it is Borshch, “You know Borshch” she says with some surprise.

The dehydrated packets are easily distributed to displaced people, those at the front line 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 the boil for about 40 minutes. The women in this Community Kitchen produce about 1200 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 is the making of bed frames and furniture. As more people seeking safety arrive in the district with nothing but the clothes on their backs the challenge for finding beds, cupboards and wardrobes has become urgent with the coming harsh months of winter and dampness. Under such pressing conditions finding the material and machinery to manufacture mattresses has not possible, so thanks to organization of the Romanian Social Work Association, these are being donated and bought in by truck from across the border. The frames and side cupboards, however, 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 to 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 industry crashed the day that men were drafted into the army. This approach is built on by learnt social work experiences from other countries in war or devastation caused by natural disasters and also from the 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. For example, the partnership has supported, encouraged or facilitated community enterprises and also in the case of the above examples supplied the dehydration machines in the Community Kitchen and more recently an industrial dough machine. The partnership has also funded and installed air conditioners to make the working conditions more palatable. But these examples only represent the beginning aim of this approach and its overarching vision. Further down in this article we can 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 the traditional aid approaches

Globally, social workers have witnessed the unintended long-term consequences and prolonged devastation bought about through the aid model. 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 as aid, any chance of the local people 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 incomes, 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 such as war or disaster related trauma. Yet when people are active in their own recovery or a part of the rebuilding of 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 a 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 related IFSW projects do not reject all aid, and aid in terms of cash/money is always welcomed, providing the people who need it can collectively (as much as possible) be involved with how it should be spent. Examples on a healthy use of outside financial support can be seen in the partnership’s work within the Ukraine, e.g. the mattresses and the dehydration machines (funded by donations from the international social work associations) and also in the IFSW work supporting Ukrainian refugees as they moved from the war zone and through bordering countries.

Social workers who set up information points during the refugees’ journeys on many occasions called for external financial support and the donations of clothes, sleeping bags, medicines 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 and nor did the refugees request this. They were more interested in which countries would give them and their children the best opportunities, which bus to catch and to have somewhere safe to sit for a while and something to eat.

Having learnt from other refugees’ journeys, the social workers involved in the Ukraine situation focused on not having temporary camps or tent cities. These are environments where people can get trapped for months and years in frustrating, almost institutionalized conditions: ‘Breakfast is at 7:00, lunch at 12:00. Never leave the camp without agreement. A doctor comes on Wednesdays, an immigration expert on Fridays’ and so on. Alternatively social workers worked alongside communities in asylum countries to open their homes to refugees and for the public schools to integrate refugee children. The social workers utilized donated funds to support groups of refugees to self-convert buildings into medium term accommodation with community kitchens and support systems. They advised and sought funding for the development of small businesses that utilized refugee skills or negotiated with employers in other parts of Europe that had shortages of workers and sought funding to support the refugee’s 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 in recognizing refugee capabilities and strengths in leading their own development. The approach does not reject donations, actually such acts of solidarity are required, 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

Kamenets 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 in the struggle, 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 and scientists along with other knowledge groups 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 mums or dads time-out when needed. Support groups have also been created so no one feels isolated, and displaced people who are newcomers to the district 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 for everyone involved. 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) Community Social Work Centre staff and volunteers are transforming an old warehouse into a community social exchange supermarket. When possible, this social exchange will buy and provide local products and only import those essential items that cannot yet be made locally. Each item will have a price which can be purchased in cash or in exchange of points that people have acquired while working within the community. People like Elinor in the Community Kitchen, or Kayta who teaches maths to children, or Antonina who works interviewing people in her community as a part of the social diagnosis, or Aliona who photographs families to send to their loved ones at the frontline.

Conversations are already happening on the need for the community to provide its own social exchange supermarket in the longer-term based on this experience of people looking after each other. Discussions have emerged on the need for a permanent food and accommodation social security strategy for the new refugees who will return after the war ends. ‘What will happen when the bus loads of institutionalized children return after the invasion ends’, one person asks. This question refers to the pre-war social service systems that were based on former Soviet systems. Under such systems many children with disabilities are 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 or thinking ahead to after the war, they each speak of hope, mutual support and the recognition of each person’s role in fulfilling that vision.

A Learning Experience

Kamenets Podisk / IFSW partnership is not approaching these developments with any strict criteria. It is a practical approach adapted from the learnings of other people in other crisis situations. 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 also. Utilizing their skills to bring people together in recognizing their combined strengths, finding outside support and funding that wants to invest in people and sustainability, and not just providing immediate relief, which can have the unintended effect of undermining local economies. Finding such international solidarity and support is an essential pillar to making this raft of effective projects move forward. IFSW therefore invites international funding agencies and all policy makers concerned with the journey from crisis to prosperity and sustainability, to come, observe and participate in this transformational approach to international development.

I asked Elinor in the Community Kitchen if she would mind officials coming to see what they are achieving in the Kamenets Podisk district. She said to me, “This work, this place, these people, give me hope, 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, in particular Mykhailo Simashkevych, District Mayor and Yana Melnychuk, Coordinator of the Community Social Work Programme. From IFSW, in particular 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).

Paint on Face

Rory Truell is Secretary-General of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). To find out more about the IFSW’s work and this project visit


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