Countries in eastern Europe are facing a social crisis after
10 years of the transition to capitalism. But UK social services and
international charities are working with governments to help build social
services. Frances Rickford reports.
"Countries in transition" is the fashionable
definition of the 27 countries in central and eastern Europe, which were
formerly part of the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact. There are big differences
between them but, after 10 years of political and economic upheaval, all are
now facing a major social crisis.
If the people of eastern Europe expected capitalism to
deliver prosperity they will have been bitterly disappointed so far. Although
economically there are signs that some countries in the region have turned the
corner, many of the problems besetting them at the end of the 1980s have become
far worse. To take Russia – admittedly one of the worst – as an example:
– By 2000 gross domestic product was at 61 per cent of its
– The annual mortality rate among young men shot up by more
than 70 per cent over the decade to nearly one in 200, and male life expectancy
at birth had fallen by 5.5 years to just under 60.
– The institutionalisation of children has worsened. The
proportion of babies and young children in institutions over the same period
increased by 85 per cent to more than 380 under-three-year-olds per 100,000 in
There have been some positive developments, such as a slight
fall in infant and maternal mortality rates, but teenage deaths from all causes
have risen sharply and school enrolments have fallen. It is in this social
situation that social workers from the UK are being asked in growing numbers to
share their skills and expertise to help build a framework for social care in
the region. Big funders, such as the World Bank, are investing in social care and
want UK know-how to get it off the ground. The UKgovernment’s own Department
for International Development is also ploughing money into social welfare.
Brian Munday is senior lecturer at the European institute of
social services at the University of Kent and has written a book about social
care in eastern and central Europe.
He says that UK social workers and managers are seen as
skilled not only in planning and delivering front-line services, but also,
crucially, in understanding the role of the voluntary sector or
non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Funding bodies are keen to support
fledgling NGOs in the region where they were almost non-existent until a few
But worries about crime and fraud have provoked caution
among most funders who often insist the money is held by a western organisation
partner rather than paid to a local body directly.
Munday identifies de-institutionalisation as one of the main
objectives of the funded programmes. Children have been the main focus, while
the plight of older people is receiving little attention. But there are
attempts to promote community-based alternatives to large institutions for
people with mental health problems. One British-based NGO, the Hamlet Trust,
works exclusively in central and eastern Europe helping users and staff build
grassroots organisations and projects to improve the quality of life of people
with mental illness.
Munday says: "There is little between the family and
institutional care, for any group. With rising unemployment and poverty
families often simply can’t afford to look after their children and elderly
relatives, so economics plays a huge part."
Munday is concerned about too great a reliance on NGOs, and
too great an expectation of what they can achieve. He says: "The building
of civil society through NGOs is very important, but we know from our own
history that the state is extremely important in the provision of social care.
If you rely too much on NGOs, provision is very patchy and tends also to be
The World Bank has recognised this in its programme for
Albania where it is trying to build a state-run social care system from
scratch. Munday’s European institute was asked by the World Bank to find a
senior manager to be based in the country full time for two years to work
alongside the minister and senior officials setting up new services.
They were unable to oblige, but staff from the institute,
together with practitioners from Kent and Suffolk social services departments,
are currently training mental health workers in Estonia and helping develop an
accreditation system for Romanian NGOs working in child protection.
Munday says: "UK social services have a good reputation
in other European Union countries as well as in eastern Europe and British
expertise is very much in demand."
1 Unicef Innocenti Research Centre, A Decade
of Transition: Regional Monitoring Report 8, Unicef is available from www.unicef-icdc.org/publications/pdf/monee8/eng/index.html
‘Steep learning curve’
Hugh Salmon works for Everychild, formerly the European
Children’s Trust, as technical adviser in Moldova and Georgia.
"The idea of doing social work overseas originated from
my time in a Jordanian children’s home as a volunteer before university.
Enjoying working with children in a residential setting prompted me to look
into social work careers once I was at university.
"It was the stimulation of working with other cultures
that made me want to transfer to an overseas setting, having first qualified
and gained experience as a social worker in the UK."
Salmon worked for the Caldecott Community; at a
post-adoption centre in London; with unaccompanied asylum seekers in a London
borough; and at NCH, recruiting, training and assessing adoptive parents for
children with special needs and years in care already behind them. But his
interest in working overseas persisted.
"I had already learned that the region where my skills
would be most likely to be of some use was eastern Europe and the former Soviet
Union, owing to the pressing needs of children in institutions, combined with
the existence of at least a skeleton of a welfare state but without the
precedent of state intervention to protect children and support families.
"Just as I was considering whether to go abroad with
VSO my manager at NCH handed me a letter from the European Children’s Trust,
which was looking for people prepared to work as technical advisers in eastern
Europe under what was then called its social exchange programme.
"ECT was an organisation into which many social work
colleagues from the UK had already put a lot of work over the 10 years since it
started out as the Romanian Orphanages Trust. Its programmes had evolved from
trying to rescue failing residential institutions to helping state structures
develop networks of community-based services.
"I experienced a steep learning curve during my first
year in Moldova, and have stayed with the trust because it has given me the
chance to contribute to rapidly developing, innovative programmes in two
countries where most of our success is owed to the enthusiasm and determination
of local staff and partners."
The two main programmes have been family support and
fostering. The family support programme in Moldova, which has the higher rate
of children in institutions, aims to prevent children being abandoned in the
first place and to rehabilitate those in institutions into their families
through intensive, time limited support. In Georgia the foster care programme
is based in three areas, including the capital Tblisi and the rural region of
Telavi. "Although we’ve used TV and radio advertisements most foster
carers hear about it by word of mouth. In one village in Telavi there are four
or five foster carers while in Tblisi recruitment has been very
Both Moldova and Georgia have asked Salmon to continue for
another year – satisfying for him not only because many projects are reaching
an exciting stage, but also because both countries need to become much less
reliant on overseas consultants and managers. EveryChild has a native country
director in both Georgia and Moldova, and local staff have become skilled in training
new social workers – in Georgia members of the existing three teams in the east
of the country will provide the initial training to two new teams in the west.
"But we still need new technical expertise from other
countries. We have just recruited two physiotherapists, one Dutch, one British,
to help develop community alternatives for disabled children who are currently
destined to a life in institutions."
‘Not there to colonise’
When Richard Servian came into social work in the mid-1970s,
he was working with disabled children, most of whom were living in large
hospitals and other institutions and were widely considered impossible to look
after in the community. Now service manager for disabled children at Dudley
social services in the west Midlands, for the past year he has been helping to
develop foster care and other community-based services for children in Moscow.
Servian made his second trip to Moscow for a week in February together with
three management colleagues from the social services department, a member of
the Social Services Inspectorate and a foster carer. But on his previous trip
he was the only social worker with a party of three foster carers.
Dudley is working in partnership with an international
charity, Christian Solidarity, and Moscow’s own regional government in a
project called Our Family. The project is the brainchild of one Russian woman,
Maria Ternovskaya, who was determined to develop a fostering service in the
city. The partnership is a two-way street, and Moscovite social workers and
carers have visited Dudley and are set to do so again in June. Servian
says:"We’re not going there to colonise, but to share experiences and
skills. It’s about developing fostering in Moscow and Dudley."
The partnership is funded by the UK government’s Department
for International Development, and part of the deal is that Dudley Council
releases staff to make the trips in their work time. International aid agencies
are currently pouring money into social welfare projects in central and eastern
Europe, and UK social services are perceived as having the expertise that can
help build what is needed. But can hard-pressed departments justify releasing
staff to work overseas? Servian argues that there are clear benefits for Dudley
as well as Moscow in the arrangement.
"Social workers have got a really bad deal in terms of
their public image. It really boosts your confidence that you have got
something to offer.
"When I first started working, disabled children were
in big institutions so it reminds you that it really hasn’t been a waste of
time in the UK."
The enthusiasm and energy of the local government officials
have also impressed him, and new legislation has allowed the framework to be
created to prevent children coming into care, and to help them return to their
own families. Servian says: "Until recently local authorities couldn’t do
preventive work. Now they can but they don’t really have the resources. I
visited the child protection office in the local town hall. They seemed to have
three people trying to do the job of perhaps 100 in Dudley.
"Things there are not much different from how it was in
this country 30 years ago. But there are more people there wanting things to
change than in the UK. It helps you understand why you exist as a social work
professional – it’s a different perspective from performance indicators. And it
helps you understand different cultures, and different ways of developing
services. We will have more rounded and confident staff, managers and foster
carers as a result of this project."