Social work in Kazakhstan with the VSO

Social worker Tina McElligott (pictured) moved to ­Kazakhstan a year ago with charity VSO to help develop the ­nation’s services for disabled children and their families. She tells Simeon Brody about her experiences

What were you doing before you became involved with VSO?
I was a social work team manager in the London Borough of Waltham Forest child and adolescent mental health service.

Why did you decide to become involved with VSO and work abroad?
I wanted to experience something different, set myself a new challenge in a new environment while also hoping to share something useful about my experience of social work in the UK.

How did you come to be placed in Kazakhstan?
In Kazakhstan, VSO runs a health and social well-being programme that includes developing social work as a profession. The organisation needed volunteers who could share understanding of social work and of how social care systems develop using participatory approaches to learning. VSO offered the placement and I accepted it.

First impressions of Kazakhstan?
I have been based in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and my first impressions were mixed. There are vast contrasts here, the most noticeable being between that of the vast wealth of Kazakhstan (gas and oil industry) and the widespread poverty. There is a diverse population but it is mainly ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Russians, so you don’t get noticed as a foreigner until you speak. You could be in any European city on first impressions.

What sort of social care infrastructure do they have for disabled people?
During the Soviet time, disabled people were housed in large institutions. The Soviet Union encouraged this type of care, which meant that society in general did not know that disabled people existed. Because Kazakhstan is such a large country, with many families living in rural areas, services tend to be focused in the cities. Families caring for disabled children in rural areas have little or no access to health, education or social services and no means to transport their children to these services.

What does your work involve?
I am one of four volunteers who have been implementing a two-year European Commission project to build community-based social services for disabled children and their families in partnership with a local rehabilitation centre for disabled children and VSO. The work has involved providing training to health and social care staff on social work theory, methodology and values. It also involves lobbying the government of Kazakhstan for reform of legislation. We also support community-based social services pilots.

Have things improved now?
Things are improving all the time. The understanding of social work is better, medical rehabilitation services are now combined with assessments of social needs that assist families to care for their disabled children in the community. There are still negative perceptions in the community about disability and its causes, but with a public awareness campaign and more disabled people now living in the community we hope that these attitudes will change. Universities are going to change their social work curricula to bring them more into line with international standards, and the government has committed to legislative reform and the development of social services. Things have changed to such an extent that VSO will leave Kazakhstan in September 2007 and open a programme in neighbouring Tajikistan.

Where next for you?
I’m coming back to the UK in July. The project is over and it’s been quite a challenging year, but I’m looking forward to returning to work in the UK. It’s been a unique experience and I’m glad to have been a part of it. I may even do it again in another country but I’ll think about all that once I’ve satisfied my cravings for a bacon sandwich.

Why Borat’s not so niiiiiccce!

What is the view in Kazakhstan of the fictional Kazakhstani character Borat?
Borat is banned in Kazakhstan. Those who have heard of or even seen the movie have mixed reactions some feel insulted and others have taken it as the comedy that it is. Kazakhstan is really nothing like the movie and the people are not at all like Borat.

Contact the author
 Simeon Brody

This article appeared in the 19 July issue under the headline “‘I wanted something different'”

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