The Rise of Volunteer Groups

October 24, 2015
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The Rise of Volunteer Groups

The Friday panel on the activities of the volunteer groups in Ukraine discussed the emergence of the volunteer movement in the East of Ukraine. Natalia Stepaniuk presented her fieldwork on the volunteer associations in Eastern Ukraine, and Ioulia Shukan talked about her research on the activities of the “Sisters of Mercy” in Ukrainian hospitals.

Natalia Stepaniuk pointed out that the volunteer movement was not a mere continuation of the Euromaidan events: rather the protests were the basis for a new wave of civic mobilization. Having conducted a number of interviews, Stepaniuk found that interviewees often compared civic mobilization to marketing. Stepaniuk observed that volunteer movement injected civic concerns into private ties. Her findings suggest that strong private ties enable fast mobilization, including financial transactions.

Stepaniuk directed her attention also at the relationship between national identification and civic participation. She cited concern among volunteers that their efforts are drawn away from providing emergency assistance and towards ensuring the state’s ability to fulfill its functions. According to available data, 10-15% of volunteers were running for positions in municipal elections this fall, and they relied on social networks that they developed in the past two years. These volunteers are also closely familiar with issues on the ground that concern their voters. Stepaniuk maintained that volunteers enrich the society’s understanding of disability and displacement, and counteract the stereotypes of displaced persons. They are thus an essential element in the future reconciliation process. Referring to the top-down model of change and reforms presented earlier in the conference by Anders Aslund, Stepaniuk argued that the model should be reconsidered now that Ukraine acquired the unique human capital of the volunteer groups that is connected in such an essential way to the needs of the society.

Results of Ioulia Shukan’s work come from interviews and fieldwork in the hospitals of Eastern Ukraine. In 2014, the volunteer initiative “Sisters of Mercy” was introduced at the Kharkiv military hospital, but their work focuses in hospitals both in in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Shukan observed that young women who participate in the initiative are of middle class, they are working women, about 20 to 27 years old. The volunteers usually do not follow a schedule, but rather contribute whenever they can. Only very few of the volunteers actually quit their regular jobs in order to become full-time volunteers. For most of them, it was the war in Donbas, not Euromaidan events that motivated them to become volunteers. The volunteers report that it is often their own anxieties that drives them, as they usually have a loved one who has been mobilized – thus affect and emotion are frequently the main factor in their engagement.

Besides emotional support, the volunteers usually also address material needs of the hospitals: fundraising for repair works and equipment, supplies for cleaning and maintenance of the facilities, for medical procedures and medications. These volunteers thus combine multiple roles: they serve as a doctor and nurse, offer motherly care and attention, while also fundraising and marketing their activities. Shukan emphasized that these roles require specific codes of behavior: empathy, positive and cheerful attitude. “Sisters of Mercy” avoid showing tears or signs of pity, so as not to give the wounded soldiers and amputees a sense of inferiority, instead trying to give them as much comfort as possible. Shukan recorded a conscious effort on the part of the volunteers to deny a part of their own femininity, portraying themselves as “volunteers, not women” – a contradictory stance given the motherly roles they assume towards the soldiers. Shukan argued that the removal of sexuality from the identity of the women has to do greatly with the women’s perception that it is necessary for them to perform functions that require intimate contact when taking care of the patients.

An interesting phenomenon that Shukan observed was the fact that volunteers also bring their network to the hospital (including children that they usually have no one to leave with at home), but the engagement is usually disruptive of ordinary life and emotionally exhausting. Total engagement erases other facets of social life, and it also “projects out into the nation” – meaning mostly that through their engagement these women identify deeply with the Ukrainian nation and state. As the war goes on, the volunteers developing long-term projects and seek partnership with the state to realize them – for instance, in long-term rehabilitation of the wounded soldiers.

The lively discussion that followed the presentations revolved around the concept of volunteering and the identity of the specific volunteer groups. In response to Mayhill Fowler’s question, Natalia Stepaniuk described several incidents of contestation of the designation “volunteer” among various groups and individual activists. Those who engaged full-time in volunteering sought to protect the volunteer status from occasional helpers as well as from those groups of interest who tried to coopt the designation for their own political interests.

Shukan also described the strong tension that exists between the medical personnel at the hospitals and the volunteers. Medical personnel often views the volunteers as a valuable resource, but both personnel and doctors face accusations from the volunteers for their apparent lack of involvement and devotion to caring for the wounded patients.

Reflecting on the discussion during the previous day’s panel on warlordism in Ukraine, Jesse Driscoll emphasized that this kind of volunteering is also about the mechanisms of state-building in contemporary Ukraine – because the social energies described in the presentations by Stepaniuk and Shukan are precisely what prevented warlordism and the total collapse of the state in Ukraine in the past two years. Driscoll also pointed out that, given the volunteers’ effectiveness, foreign donors are likely to be more comfortable sending bilateral aid directly to volunteers doing this kind of work than to an ineffective state that is beset by corruption.

Megan Metzger raised the question of the local volunteers’ networking on the national level. In response, Natalia Stepaniuk confirmed that while many fundraising efforts happen locally, there is a great deal of cooperation in delivering the aid – mostly because connections were made during Euromaidan protests where activists worked together with participants from other regions. These links were reactivated later for volunteer activities: for instance, donations would be collected in a West Ukranian city such as Ternopil and then transported to Kharkiv where local volunteers would distribute them to those soldiers in need at the front line.

Jennifer Carroll described cases of love relationships and even marriage that she and her colleagues witnessed during the Euromaidan revolution, asking what is likely to happen to these relationships once the war is over and women are forced to return to their traditional roles in the society, either as Barbie dolls or berehynias [the figure of the protectoress of the home, hearth mother]. Stepaniuk and Shukan agreed that the fate of these relationships is uncertain. Stepaniuk pointed out that, in the volunteer movement, significantly more women engaged than men, but their involvement are largely limited to caring functions. Even women who work at the front lines usually use their gender to take care of the soldiers emotionally (cheering, entertainment, etc.) or otherwise (food, clothing, mending, etc.). However, Stepaniuk argued, women also discovered new forms of engagement that go beyond the traditional gender roles, especially in terms of political participation.

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