Rebuilding countries is best done without the state

The war in Iraq is likely to be followed by a period of massive
reconstruction in that country. The experience of rebuilding
eastern Europe may carry important lessons for those working with
displaced and dispossessed Iraqis.

For one thing the alleged use of depleted uranium weapons by the US
is a worry, not least in terms of their effect on the health of
future generations of Iraq’s children. In this light – and whatever
the differences in radioactive scale – the events that followed the
explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986 may be highly

Belarus, still part of the Soviet Union, bore the brunt of the
radioactive fallout. The response to the disaster, though generous,
was mixed. Charitable organisations provided humanitarian aid and
developed links with hospitals and orphanages. They also offered
“therapeutic holidays” for children.

Every year, thousands of children, some as young as six or seven
are taken to European Union countries for four weeks and placed
with host families to improve their health with good food and
“clean” air. These efforts are appreciated by families living in
poverty, but the long-term benefits have yet to be tested.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socio-economic position
in Belarus has deteriorated. In the 10 years from 1990 the number
of children classified as “orphans” and brought up in orphanages
doubled to nearly 33,000. Last year, according to the health
ministry, 552 babies were abandoned and transferred either to
another hospital or a “baby house”.

In the Minsk region in 2001 the mortality rate exceeded the birth
rate by 111 per cent (there were 17,000 recorded deaths and 8,000
recorded live births). Life expectancy is also dropping. For a man
it has dropped from 74 to 61 since 1990. Half of all pregnancies
are terminated; 75 per cent of marriages end in divorce. Despite
government measures to stabilise the economy the position remains
precarious. Since 1990 the value of the rouble against the dollar
has dropped from three to 1,880. Inflation is soaring and record
numbers of families are falling into poverty with dire consequences
for health and employment.

Visiting Belarus in January 1998 with notepad and cameras was a
life-changing experience. As an experienced social worker used to
working with disability and distress, I had to cling to my cameras
to record the tragic consequences of a nuclear disaster combined
with desperate poverty and lack of investment in social

Collecting money to fund the purchase of essential medicines,
multivitamins and equipment for sick and disabled children went
some way to offset my distress. But it was cosmetic. The aid was
all gone within three months. So what was going to bring
longer-term benefits?

The orphanages were the obvious target. I talked to the directors
about foster care. They were bewildered. First, there was no direct
translation of the word “fostering” and, when it was explained, the
idea was dismissed. Who would want to care for someone else’s
child, particularly one from an orphanage or, worse, disabled?

After negotiation, government officials were granted permission to
visit West Sussex to see for themselves what fostering was about
and a three-year partnership was agreed. The UK and Belarusian
governments and Unicef provided funding, and the technical
expertise was provided voluntarily by staff and experienced foster
carers from West Sussex Council.

After three years the impact is clear: 116 professionals have been
trained with a further 40 expected this year. There is no doubt
that there has been a significant culture shift. It is estimated
that there are now nearly 1,000 children placed with nearly 750
families and the momentum is growing. Although these figures have
been enhanced by the recent inclusion of other placement
categories, the trend is looking good. Last year, for the first
time, the rate of admission to orphanages abated.

This is only the beginning. It is imperative that future efforts
are targeted on preventing abandonment. Systems and services to
support parents in caring for their babies, particularly those born
with disabilities, are necessary if the rate of admission to
orphanages is to be stemmed at source. Building on the success of
the fostering project, using the same partnership principles, a new
project proposal has been developed locating intervention in
maternity hospitals. The proposed model is tried, tested and
effective. It is disheartening that our government has rejected the
application for further funding as it is “no longer providing
financial support for activity in Belarus”. This is presumably
because of the human rights record that has attracted so much
external criticism.

Many east European countries have benefited from multi-million
dollar investment in schemes to develop welfare infrastructures,
but in Belarus there has been minimal external formal state
investment. Mutual suspicions by Western donors on human rights
grounds, and from Belarus viewing Western support as a Trojan
horse, have severely limited progress. But this is not about
supporting a hostile regime; it is about working with a Belarusian
non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Association for
Handicapped Children, and a respected children’s agency, Unicef, to
promote the rights of children under the UN convention. The role of
NGOs is critical. Strengthening and supporting them by using them
to deliver services offers a countervailing force to the power of
the state and can bring immediate and measurable benefit,
particularly to poor and marginalised groups.

As Belarus becomes the eastern border of the EU it becomes ever
more important to uphold concepts of citizenship and responsibility
in terms other than those defined by the state.

Working with NGOs creates the basis for sustainable developments
beyond state control. A sophisticated approach to the development
of policy would distinguish between supporting the state and
supporting its citizens in their struggle to build a society that
values each individual.

After hostilities cease in Iraq much will depend on the possible
involvement of the United Nations and the role of NGOs. But whether
it is a UN or US-led solution, as some expect, one thing is
certain: a huge humanitarian aid budget will be needed to help the
children and young people who will feature so prominently among the
casualties of war.

Margaret Bamford is vice chairperson, Adur, Arun and
Worthing PCT and former assistant social services director, West

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