Though I do not profess to be a journalist, I felt I needed to communicate in some fashion my disenchantment in foreign corporations doing business in Ukraine and their commitment to the community they find themselves in.
I am a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in the small town of Vilkovo situated on the Danube delta. I am working for the local ecological center Delta, a growing environmental NGO, helping them in their organizational development and strategic planning.
I am also helping them put together a fundraising plan since NGO's in Ukraine by law cannot sell anything to raise money for their needs. Thousands of organizations like these survive only on grant moneys solicited from foundations, the majority of which are foreign.
Many of these foundations have been active in Ukraine for years and have started to analyze their programs and the impact they have made. Many organizations have now reduced the funding, thus forcing many NGO's to greatly limit their scope of activity. Eventually, other sectors of the society need to come in and assist them. In most cases, the business community becomes a major source of funding. Unfortunately, I need to say that in small-town Ukraine such practice is non-existent.
Of course, if you walk the center of Kyiv on the Independence Day, you will see thousands of ads of sponsors of various festivities, stage props, musical groups, etc. The situation in smaller communities is very different. What's even worse is that organizations involved with environmental issues have a harder time getting support.
Vilkovo, a small fishing town, is distinct in that it was built on numerous islands, which eventually were connected by a network of canals. To this day people from all over Ukraine and the former Soviet Union refer to this town the as 'Venice of Ukraine.'
During Soviet times the fish of the Danube were exploited and the port of Ust-Dunaisk transported the bountiful catch of sturgeon and herring to everywhere in the world.
After Ukraine became independent in 1991, the business shut down and many were forced out of work. Intensive canal, dam and irrigation projects have caused an ecological disaster in the wetland region.
The result has been degradation of the sensitive steppe soils and accelerated degradation of the fish habitat due to extensive chemical fertilizer use. Today the fish are gone and the small size of the fish market in Vilkovo is proof of this.
In addition, because of the conflict in Kosovo, the annual spring spawning of herring did not occur, causing increased concern among the population over the future of their fishing industry.
This brings me to the story of young student Petya Polyantsev. I am very privileged to know this young person, because he is representative of the new generation of young people here.
A few years ago Petya did a study on the condition of the town's canals, called 'yeriky,' knowing that they were the heart and soul of Vilkovo's identity.
Earlier, Vilkovo inhabitants maintained the canals for transportation routes and soil for their gardens and houses. They also were the primary source of water for cooking and washing.
Petya, in his testing of the yeriky water, detected high amounts of toxins in the locations where people still used it for their needs. Many canals were turning into green ponds, and perfect habitats for harmful bacteria.
Petya could have reacted – just like many other people do today – by ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. But he formed a club of young people within Delta in order to work on preservation of the yeriky.
Everyday these young people would come to the center and work on ideas to achieve their goal. Upon seeing this, I told them that in America, when people want to get something done, they organize a campaign.
Today the Save the Yeriky campaign numbers 100 participants who have undergone training, conducted a survey of over 400 residents on the use of the yeriky and have begun to clean areas near the canals.
In the process of organizing the campaign, partial funding was obtained from the U.S Peace Corps Small Project Assistance Program. Delta contributed in computer use and office supplies. But other funding needed to be raised.
The children also organized a committee to design a campaign shirt to award all the participants of the event.
We decided to try to find a corporate sponsor for these shirts. I took on the responsibility of looking for sponsors, thinking that – as I had done in America – companies would respond.
I knew about the difficult economic conditions among small companies, so I decided to shift my focus to multinationals. So who is doing business here, I asked myself? What better way than to visit the bazaar in my town and see who is selling what.
Well, I am an avid lover of coffee and potato chips. And behold, I noticed even in Vilkovo Nescafe and Pringles on sale. Not only did I see these products on sale here, but in every bazaar in Ukraine from Luhansk to Sevastopol to Lviv.
Of course, we are not going to mention the cigarette market that is out of the question. From advertisements back home I knew that all these companies are involved with such environmental organizations as Global Environmental Management Initiative, The World Business Council on Sustainable Development and others.
I did the usual introductory letter, the traditional telephone call and even the initial meeting at the corporate office.
Well, everyone applauded our work and even gave us such lines as 'I think our committee will like it' or 'I know my boss will like it.'
I sent the program description together with the budget and waited, waited and waited. Then I followed each up with another letter, an e-mail or two and even phone calls, which is no small task in my isolated town of 10,000. But still nothing!
I could have maybe contacted more businesses, made more trips all over Ukraine to talk to corporate public relations people and spend more hours calling them on the phone.
But time has run out for that and I guess I've tried the best I can.
There is only one thing positive about this whole situation: I will switch from drinking coffee to milk and from eating potato chips to enjoying homemade bagels. That will help me to lose some weight and improve my health.
Frederick Stupen is a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Odessa region town of Vilkovo.