Women's NGOs in Ukraine: A Tale of Two Publics

By
Nancy Popson

The objective of western civil society programs should be to foster groupings of individuals joined by mutual understanding of common problems for which they propose common solutions, said Alexandra Hrycak, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Reed College, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 30 October 2000.

Hrycak explained that these groupings, or "publics," are important in western countries in a variety of policy domains. However, in Ukraine, policy-making is disconnected from government accountability, and groups have been unable to cooperate or form coalitions around common agendas. Western programs can encourage regular interaction among groups and thereby help build effective community organizations through which citizens might better influence politics.

Hrycak suggested that the western community to date has focused more on providing assistance and training from the outside. She noted that it is difficult to determine the extent to which these programs have been able to foster networks of cooperation in Ukraine, since evaluations tend to focus on quantitative measures, such as the amount of groups created or individuals trained. This focus has led, Hrycak contended, to ephemeral organizations that focus on self-perpetuation and on creating the possibilities for future grants. In order to do so, they tend to focus on publishing activities, and are not able to create a public for themselves or their issues. Their audience becomes the foreign donor rather than the domestic community.

A possible alternative perspective is to focus on the political process. Hrycak explained that this approach encourages greater face-to-face activity and deliberation. Only in this way will individuals become committed to finding solutions to common problems. Unfortunately, according to Hrycak, western grantmakers encourage groups to remain small, diversified, and specialized, making it difficult to create a public for the groups.

Hrycak then illustrated the effect of western civil society programs on Ukrainian women's organizations. In Ukraine, like in Russia, there was a large peak in the number of organizations founded in 1994-1995. In theory, such a peak should coincide with increased domestic political opportunities. However, Hrycak claimed that the peak in Ukraine corresponded instead to a western catalyst--the funneling of western assistance into the country in preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995. The new groups founded at that time were interested primarily in women's rights. Quite a number of these organizations have no ties to each other, subsist only on their own narrowly defined issues, and do not engage in coalition building. Often they do not want to cooperate for fear of having their issues become neglected in the larger network of associations.

Other groups play a more central role and do have significant networks of cooperation. These grew out of the national independence movement and the organizations of soldier's mothers, and their focus is very different than the western-oriented groups. For example, originally Soyuz Ukrainok and Zhinochna Hromada were interested in the state of the Ukrainian language, culture, and environment rather than the rights of women. They therefore advocated a more maternalist than feminist style of politics. These groups have sustained networks that meet on a regular basis. Their activities revolve around service, bringing them into contact with their public and fostering longer-term commitment.

Hrycak concluded that there are two publics, or two ways of understanding the role of women's groups, that have developed in the past decade. One is the feminist bloc, which is oriented more on centers outside of Ukraine. These activists spend a good portion of their time participating in training exchanges with western countries. Hrycak noted that these groups are more appealing to western funders, as they share a concern over issues of women's rights in the region.

The other public is made up of women's groups that grew out of more maternalist organizations, and who are already engaged in domestic politics. Their main issues and mode of activity, according to Hrycak, may be more appealing to the women of Ukraine than those rooted in the feminist frame of mobilization. However, Hrycak noted that these groups have also learned to present their issues in ways that can attract western funds, and over time have become more committed to questions of women's rights.

In conclusion, Hrycak remarked that western civil society programs have been effective in quantitative terms. However, many of the newly founded organizations have meager membership numbers. She also noted that women's issues have been effectively put on the agenda in Ukraine, and this may be attributable to the work of western programs. Her greatest criticism of the programs was their tendency to provide disincentives for cooperation, leading to factionalization of the community.

Finally, Hrycak recommended that western civil society programs could be more effective were they to create incentives for activists to attend conferences and events at which rival groups could deliberate. In this way they could form a public around agendas that are domestic rather than foreign.

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