When discussing International Alert's work in conflict regions with colleagues, associates, donors, etc., I sometimes feel that we understand each other so well. We are able to communicate the content of our work and analysis of the context using just a few words or phrases that might sound nonsensical to a normal human ear. We are so closely integrated that we have started to conceptualise our ideas through our jargon.
Yet when we move beyond our professional circles, what appears very clear to us and that which we take for granted can be perceived quite differently by people who are not involved in conflict work. For example, I have two yoga teachers, who I rarely get to see unfortunately because of my frequent travel, but who want to know what it is I do that makes me travel so much and miss their classes. It would, of course, appear rather ridiculous if I began to talk to them about our 'theory of change', preparation of 'track 1 and 2 dialogues' and other peculiar stuff.
I have started to think about how we communicate our messages. For instance, trying to explain our approaches to peacebuilding - to show people the logic of our work and what flows from what. I shall start with Ukraine.
We recently opened an office in Kyiv, the capital, with the support and cooperation of the European Commission, and will be implementing a large-scale peacebuilding project in the country. Large-scale both in the human and territorial senses of the word.
There are three main areas of the project: psychological and social rehabilitation of the population affected by the conflict; civil society capacity-building; and increasing the analytical capability of the local expert community.
My yoga teachers would no doubt ask me about these three components; how do they work, how are they linked and, most importantly, how can they contribute to peacebuilding in Ukraine?
I would start by saying that International Alert's interpretation of peacebuilding is much broader than just analysis and advocacy, and facilitating dialogue. In our understanding, peacebuilding involves actions aimed primarily at stopping any kind of violence. It involves strengthening the social fabric of societies and supporting a more structured engagement of all citizens in social and political processes. It is also about providing equal opportunities and a neutral space for all parties involved in the conflict to express their opinion to the widest possible audience, including decision-makers.
Ukraine was one of the republics of the former Soviet Union, which had been lucky, until recently, in avoiding the open armed conflicts that had spread to many other former Soviet republics at the time of its collapse. Although the country had experienced years of political turbulence, society was striving for a peaceful and creative life. The nation does not pump oil, but simply lives and works with hope, appearing very dignified in its modesty and simplicity. Judging by many measures, including that of human safety, the relaxed and friendly Ukrainian society resembled a European-style country rather than a post-Soviet one.
When blood was spilled at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv in February 2014 and the energy of social protest headed east, to the frontline, few imagined what this would mean for the entire 45 million-strong Ukrainian society - in particular how it would change their perception of the world. Who is the enemy and who is a friend? Who is fighting whom and why?
There were plenty of highly qualified Ukrainian psychologists specialised in peacetime problems such as working with addiction and various types of counselling and so on, but not in wartime trauma. Yet, seeing the urgent need for that kind of work, a large number of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, driven by their sense of civil and professional duty, began to do voluntary work with the victims, those affected by the bloody crackdown at Maidan and the armed conflict in the east.
To date much has been done in this area by health workers and volunteers, with the support of international organisations. At the same time, some of the approaches are fairly questionable from a professional point of view - a fact not disputed by the authorities, psychologists or independent experts.
There is a need to build a scientific picture of the overall mental health of Ukrainian society, to better understand what support systems there are, what individual coping strategies people use and what services are needed. This will help to improve the standard of support being delivered.
To address this, International Alert, together with the Global Initiative in Psychiatry - Tbilisi and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, are screening the mental health of a whole range of those affected by the armed conflict, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), former combatants and families of missing people. The data obtained will then be used to comprehensively assess their needs for psychological and social support, and improve how such services are delivered.
Once we have completed the research and specialists have been trained, we are planning to support and develop the quality of services in six already functioning rehabilitation centres. We will also open two model centres, to set an example of good practice in psychological and social rehabilitation, where psychiatrists and psychologists will work hand-in-hand with social workers, teachers, sports coaches and ordinary volunteers. In this regard, our approach is aimed at uniting all professional and social resources in order to optimise the rehabilitation process.
The main principle underpinning these centres is that they will be inclusive for everyone. They will function as platforms for learning advanced international practices for working with war victims and other approaches that could lead to healing at an individual as well as societal level. We shall invite foreign experts to share their experience and knowledge, and will also provide an opportunity for Ukrainian specialists to acquire knowledge and skills outside Ukraine.
Based on the results we obtain, we shall make recommendations to the authorities in the areas of health, education and social welfare about how to improve rehabilitation policies for people affected by the conflict. Our long-term vision is to gradually transfer these centres to the control of the authorities and NGOs that specialise in psychological and social rehabilitation.
The genre of a blog does not allow me to write in one piece about other aspects of the project, such as civil society and analytical capacity building, and their interrelationship, but I believe this is sufficient to make my yoga teachers more tolerant towards me missing class due to my upcoming trip to Ukraine.