Eurasian Alumni Confront Community Development Challenges
As local Eurasian NGOs and individuals expand their role in providing social services and initiating community development projects, an increasing number of young people are looking for ways to get involved. Among those at the forefront of this socially minded movement are alumni of the Eurasian Undergraduate Exchange Program (UGRAD). To enhance the impact they can make in their societies, 116 UGRAD alumni from 12 countries gathered in mid-July in Lviv, Ukraine for a three-day conference entitled, “Through Social Entrepreneurship towards Social Change.”
The event came in response to the observations of UGRAD alumni in the preceding year. Throughout 2006, the alumni noted at various regional conferences how the roles of government and foreign support were shifting as local NGOs and individuals strived to take on the social challenges previously led by others. This phenomenon, utilizing lessons learned from preceding implementers and the private sector to initiate grassroots support, has been labeled “social entrepreneurship.”
The July conference focused on bringing international experts in community development together with ambitious alumni to discuss the myriad components of designing and managing community projects. Speakers and trainers were brought in from Poland, Bulgaria, Italy, Azerbaijan, Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine to comprehensively address the needs of the participants.
The conference was kicked off by keynote speaker Ewa Konczal, director for Youth Venture in Europe and country representative for Poland for Ashoka, a global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. Konczal shared Ashoka’s experience and vision. Monika Pisankaneva, a program officer for Community Foundation Development Fund, followed up with a speech on the importance of developing relationships with local foundations. Pisankaneva provided several examples of such collaboration in rural Bulgaria, and she continued on this topic in her smaller workshop later in the conference. Giula Galera, a representative from the Institute for the Development of Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Trento in Italy, provided a theoretical background of the evolution and current meaning of “social entrepreneurship.”
Following the three keynote speakers, three UGRAD alumni inspired the audience with presentations of successful projects that they had conducted in their communities. Dina Odynets described the projects that she had implemented in regional cities in Russia, including holiday events for orphans. Dayanch Hojagyeldiyev from Turkmenistan introduced his projects that involved outreach to World War II veterans and the founding of a children’s “Geographer’s Club,” helping young people understand the world they live in through activities on the Internet, interactive assignments, and research projects.
Finally, Andriy Maxymovych, a local UGRAD alumnus from Lviv, gave an overview of his project, a 41-day, 930-mile marathon run from one side of Ukraine to the other to raise money for the maternity ward in a Lviv hospital. Maxymovych began his run in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, and finished in Lviv, his hometown on the western edge of the country. Along the way, Maxymovych gave presentations about the ward and was featured in local newspapers and television programs. He raised over $18,000 for the hospital. Maxymovych’s dedication to causes is part of what earned him a short-term position in Ukraine’s Department of Inter-parliamentary Affairs.
On the second day, alumni participated in smaller workshops. Levan Tsutskiridze, rector for the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs, presented on the importance of goal setting and strategic development for nonprofit managers. Svitlana Zakrevska, president of the NGO Innovation and Research Center, “ALLIANCE,” in Donetsk, Ukraine, spoke on leadership in local communities, including how to determine neighborhood priorities and how to practice neighborhood governance. Chingiz Mammedov, advocacy program manager and trainer for Counterpart International in Azerbaijan, drew upon his extensive experience as a trainer and author to create an interactive session on communication and negotiation. Mammedov’s session included several simulations that highlighted the crucial importance of communication and negotiating skills both within and between organizations. Oksana Zubritska, a trainer from Counterpart Creative Center, worked with participants to expand their ability to recruit and integrate volunteers.
That afternoon, Irina Makeeva, a project manager from the Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center in Novosibirsk, Russia, spoke on techniques to involve volunteers and motivate local citizens to participate in community development. Makeeva explained her activities with the Support Center, an inter-regional organization with partnering organizations in more than 10 regions that conduct trainings, distribute grants, and advocate for legislation. She asked the participants to focus on defining the role of citizens and the definition of a good citizen as prerequisites for motivating citizens in a community. Interest was perhaps the highest for the topic of microcredit and microfinance, fields that many alumni believed were the most applicable for their home communities. Aurica Crozu, general manager of the German Technical Cooperation in Chisinau, Moldova, spoke about the rising interest in microcredit and microfinance and specifically detailed the development of savings and credit associations (SCAs) that have been established in rural communities in Moldova.
After two days of workshops and sharing their skills and experience, alumni were asked to generate projects within the areas of social protection, civic activism, the private sector, and public administration. In groups of 15, participants brainstormed and developed goals, outcomes, and project steps. Each group then presented their project in a PowerPoint presentation to the jury panel of experts, composed of trainers from the conference. That afternoon, the panel announced the top three projects. First prize was awarded to the project “Socialization of Ex-Prisoners,” which suggested forming an Office for the Center of Socialization of Ex-prisoners that would work with prison authorities and NGOs to conduct psychological and educational trainings for the former prisoners. The project also wanted to organize a job fair in conjunction with employers.
The project entitled “Integration of Disabled Adults into the Labor Market” earned second prize, while third prize went to the project, “Happy Hands: You Can Do More Than You Think,” which aimed to integrate street and orphaned children over the age of 16 into society. The winning projects demonstrated clear goals, realistic budgets, and the prospect of real sustainability, and were sufficiently developed so that many UGRAD alumni discussed the possibility of implementing these exact projects in their home communities. Other alumni gathered to come up with similar project models that they planned to organize in their communities.
The UGRAD alumni agreed that they had gained the tools necessary to move forward with social entrepreneurship initiatives back home. This, combined with the extensive international networking achieved, made the conference a huge success. By the completion of the event, many alumni expressed their anxiousness to get back to their home communities and begin implementing their new skills.
The Eurasian Undergraduate Exchange Program is a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State and is administered by IREX.