“People experienced for the first time that ‘free cheese’ does not necessarily has to lead to a mouse trap”. This is just one of the gems my colleague Alma Masic and I encountered during our monitoring mission in June, interviewing all participant municipalities on their actual experiences during the project with citizen participation and cooperation within the project teams.
These were the words of the mayor Oksana Vinnytska of Pershotravensk in Eastern Ukraine, who gave a new boost to already existing local practices with citizen participation using the framework and expertise of EUSTAB (Eastern Ukraine State Building and Accountability project). A project implemented by VNG International and PAX, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At this moment I am on my way for the second monitoring tour to all six project teams, discussing their progress since last June and preparing for the final conference in October this year. My flight takes me to the city of Kharkiv where I will meet my colleagues Alma Masic and Oleksandr Shashkin and make final preparations for conducting the interviews.
What I find very interesting and appealing within this project, is the focus on smaller municipalities in parts of Ukraine that is not often addressed by international development cooperation programmes before.
My personal experience is that in smaller municipalities, like elsewhere in the world, the quality of interpersonal relations is even more important than in bigger municipalities. Citizens, local leadership, staff of local authorities, all are more closely connected in daily life and work.
Smaller communities may in that sense be more vulnerable, as the differentiation in society tends to be smaller. For example, when young adults leave for the bigger cities for education and employment. Several of the participant municipalities understand that very well and welcome the opportunity of this project.
Apart from leading to a variety of citizen participation activities, organised between municipalities and CSO’s, our approach to this project also leads to creating a learning environment between the participating municipalities. My experience as an activist organizer and as a former elected deputy mayor in the Dutch city of Diemen, is that for a genuine and living practice of citizen participation you need a culture where learning by action is accepted. Where representatives of local governments and of CSO’s can look each other in the eye and reflect openly and constructively. This does not mean that they have to agree on all aspects. But they do have to share some notion of a long-term vision for developing a local citizen participation practice.
One of the statements I had to repeat often in my conversations with the local leadership and the local project teams, was that within this project the focus would not be so much on the actual outcomes within each municipality, but more on the process of how local authorities and CSO’s would come to a joint decision and execution of their project. This was new for some – being used to projects where the exact project outcomes were predefined in detail. It took some time to build mutual trust and getting to know each other, for they finally sensed the underlying objective. But then it was like unleashing a source of until now hidden energy and creativity, leading to a variety of locally driven activities. Or as I like to describe it, leading to the magic of ‘1+1 makes 3’.
The director of the public library of Pavlograd definitively had experienced that magic, when she told us with brightened eyes how pleased she was that a neighbourhood library near a refugee compound, was transformed into a social hub offering a variety of social services and activities in cooperation with CSO’s. And how she wanted to introduce this new concept also into other community libraries within Pavlograd.
This is exactly what I hoped for when starting with this project as a Citizen Participation Expert in June 2016. To offer local communities the possibility of a learning environment where they experience through action learning and reflection what their potential is now and in the future. On this second mission I hope that we will encounter more of these kind of transformative experiences. Because those are generally the ones that will endure, even after a project is finalized.
Maïta van der Mark, Associate Expert VNG International