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Volunteers drive recovery of Chernobyl-affected communities
26 April 2006

Left to right: Olga Kolosyuk, Vyacheslav Bortnik and Yugesh Pradhanang visit a water pump in Kirdany, Ukraine. (Photo by UNV)Left to right: Olga Kolosyuk, Vyacheslav Bortnik and Yugesh Pradhanang visit a water pump in Kirdany, Ukraine. (Photo by UNV)
Kiev, Ukraine: For Olga Kolosyuk, clean water represents progress in a post-Chernobyl Ukraine. The fact that her village of 1,000 has safe drinking water demonstrates what the community has accomplished—most notably the refurbishment of a local water supply—since taking the lead in improving their situation.

Olga is a leader of a community organization called Dryzhba, a collective of residents from Kirdany. She is one of numerous volunteers who, with the help of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, set up a community organization in the village. More than 200 community-led organizations exist in 139 villages throughout the Chernobyl-affected area. They are addressing the economic, environmental and social problems stemming from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred 20 years ago today.

The organizations were established between 2002 and 2005 as part of the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme (CRDP), a joint initiative of the Government of Ukraine, UNDP, UNV and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with funding from Japan, Canada and Switzerland.

The CRDP uses mixed teams of Ukrainian and international UN Volunteers, together with technical assistance from UNDP Ukraine, to work alongside the communities. Collectively, they identify and develop rehabilitation projects, from renovating schools to improving community health centres to better cope with the illnesses associated with the Chernobyl fallout. During 2004 and 2005, 94 community projects were implemented, including 21school improvement initiatives, 21 health centre refurbishments and 22 water supply system improvements.

To build the capacity of the communities, the UN Volunteers provided training in planning, communications, leadership, fundraising and other skills to bring about effective project management. In 2005, nearly 4,000 people, including representatives of local government, participated in various trainings.

“They’re not only working to improve the community, but also themselves,” says Yugesh Pradhanang, a UN Volunteer from Nepal, charged with overseeing the UNV component of the CRDP. “Before [the CRDP], there was a dependency syndrome – people expected the government to take care of everything. Volunteering has given them a ‘magic stick’. They’re building partnerships and working together with local governments to improve their lives.”

Promotion of volunteerism is an important component of the CRDP. The UN Volunteers have worked extensively on sensitising the communities on the benefits of volunteering and its role in steering community development forward.

Much work has been equally carried out with Ukraine’s existing network of community organizations and other civil society groups to raise awareness of volunteerism in Ukraine and reposition it beyond preconceived notions under the former Soviet Union. Schools, for instance, have benefited from the new take on volunteerism. Previously seen as institutions under the government’s responsibility, today several schools part of the CRDP are hubs of community engagement with parents and those unaffiliated with the school active in education.

“There has been a big change in people’s minds,” says Vyacheslav Bortnik, a national UN Volunteer at the CRDP Regional Office in Ovruch. “When we first came here, people had no hope for the future and they wouldn’t believe that they could change anything. Now they’re saying ‘We did this and we are planning this’. There has been a big change.”

Mobilizing youth has also been a focus of the CRDP. Several community organizations have made youth issues a priority and invested heavily to create opportunities to improve their lives in the affected communities. As a result, youth centres were opened in 19 villages during 2004-2005, providing youth with a gathering place where resources are available on educational and social opportunities.

Beyond tangible results, the CRDP, and its focus on volunteerism, has boosted the affected communities’ sense of spirit, hope and direction. “I have positive feelings towards the CRDP,” says Valentina Radkevich, a leader of an association of community organizations in Listvin, where a youth centre and health post were established. “I have [had] the chance to teach other people… I am almost 60, but I still have possibilities for development and it’s great when you can help someone.”

Iryna Nevmerzhytska, a youth leader in Kirdany, says volunteerism has helped realize a common goal. “The [programme’s] most valuable success is the cooperation among people and joining forces together, all directed towards the achievement of one aim… the well-being of the community,” she says.