FEATURE — Summer 2006
   

 
Gautam N. Yadama, associate professor of social work, helps select and advise eight new social work students from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Mongolia each year. These students come to the University for a top-level education in order to address the daunting human needs pervading their post-Soviet states.

Shaping Social Development Around the Globe

The School of Social Work partners with Columbia University and the Open Society Institute to educate students from Central Asia, so they can help build the policy and social service infrastructure their homelands need.

By Betsy Rogers

The scene is Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Gautam N. Yadama, associate professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. Yadama and his wife, Shanta Pandey, also associate professor of social work, have invited 16 international students from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Mongolia for a traditional turkey dinner. Afterward, the students play the piano and join in songs from distant lands—Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Kyrgystan.

The scene exudes conviviality and warmth. Less visible but much more significant is the powerful purpose binding this group together, which will shape not only their own future but the future of their nations.

These international students, predicts Shanti Khinduka, former School of Social Work dean and now the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor, will be "the movers and shakers of social development ... a voice to reckon with in that part of the world."

This select group of young men and women are Open Society Institute Fellows. Their mission is to acquire a top-level social work education and return to their countries to develop, in some cases from scratch, a social service infrastructure to address the daunting human needs pervading their post-Soviet states.

Ilhom Akobirshoev, M.S.W. '05, is a national program officer for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He supervises the social sector, which includes health, education, and social protection.

Part of the Soros Foundation Network, the Open Society Institute (OSI) seeks to promote democratic governance, human rights, and reform. It has developed a strong presence in former Soviet republics and supports many initiatives there.

"When these countries emerged as independent, sovereign nations out of the Soviet mold," Yadama observes, "suddenly they were faced with real tectonic shifts in their societies. They had to re-invent themselves." Preoccupied with setting up private market economies and creating new governments, he notes, they left human problems unaddressed.

"People were suddenly left to themselves," he says. "Consequences for the ordinary citizen were terrible. Great social problems began to emerge." Major unemployment, epidemic disease with no health services to combat it, increasing drug and substance abuse, family dislocation, domestic violence, and neglected and abandoned children are among these problems.

Nor did the challenges stop there. In these countries where the state had been all-powerful, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had no place. "There were no agencies delivering social services," Yadama explains.

"Capacity building" is a term Yadama returns to again and again. Though in 1999 the OSI originally envisioned the fellowship program as a means to train social workers and return them to Asia, "we proposed that we should do something much greater," he says. "The sustainability of a program like this hinges both on what we do with the students here and on the kind of infrastructure that we might develop back in these countries."

Maria Stefurak, M.S.W. '03, is a media and information specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Democracy and Conflict Mitigation in Kazakhstan.

Thus from the beginning Yadama and his counterparts at Columbia University—the only other social work school OSI chose for this program—have networked assiduously with NGOs, various nations' development agencies, the World Bank, United Nations organizations, and local community groups to identify needs and opportunities. Yadama continually asks: "What can we do to partner with OSI in building infrastructure for social development and social work?"

Immediately obvious was an urgent need for social work education. Social work as a profession simply did not exist in these countries. But the OSI alumni are beginning to fill that gap. In Mongolia, for instance, Erdenehcimeg Tserendorj, M.S.W. '02, is director of the Social Work Education Development Program, funded by OSI's Higher Education Support Program (HESP). She also is coordinator for the new Social Work Information and Resource Center.

She and other OSI alumni work with faculties at 10 Mongolian universities, helping develop an undergraduate social work curriculum. She, together with Oyut-Erdene Namdaldagva (2002 OSI alumna from Columbia University), has initiated an annual research forum for Mongolian social work faculties, students, and practitioners. Through HESP, she offers social work summer courses to university faculty, and she teaches master's-level courses at the Mongolian University for Science and Technology.

"You might be surprised that a person with an M.S.W. teaches M.S.W. courses," she notes. "But because we do not have a single person with a Ph.D. in social work, we do teach in Mongolia."

Tserendorj also wears another hat, serving as a community mobilization team leader with the World Bank's Sustainable Livelihood Program of Mongolia. Working with 148 communities in eight provinces, the program staff members are designing projects to build community development capacity.

Ilhom Akobirshoev, M.S.W. '05, now national program officer with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) in Tajikistan, is also working on community mobilization. He supervises the social sector, which includes health, education, and social protection. For instance, he is training social workers to make assessments and referrals in a project to de-institutionalize children. (When economic pressures mounted on families, many children were sent to state orphanages.)

Guzal Kamalova (red shirt), M.S.W. '03, is a national child protection officer with UNICEF in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

SIDA also operates a program called the Aga Khan Project. "It establishes village organizations in rural areas," Akobirshoev explains, "where the population pools resources and implements projects that benefit the community," from roads to clinics to micro-lending.

OSI alumni are engaged across the social welfare landscape. Marina Ushveridze, M.S.W. '03, is country coordinator for the Children's Tolerance Education Project, a program of Save the Children-Georgia. She develops children's television shows, school activities, and teacher training to promote conflict resolution, negotiation, problem-solving, and good citizenship among children in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

"During the past century," she explains, "the people of the South Caucasus have endured debilitating conflicts and turmoil. These conflicts, combined with residual problems from the Soviet era, have created societies marked by a lack of tolerance, cooperation, trust, and willingness to compromise. The citizenry of the South Caucasus needs to develop the values that form the basis for a peaceful, democratic, and pluralist society."

Like Tserendorj, Ushveridze is committed to developing her profession. She founded and chairs the Georgian Association of Social Workers, the nation's first. The association organizes conferences and consults with local social service providers. It is developing a professional ethics code, establishing an undergraduate social work program at Tbilisi State University, and designing a certificate course for local practitioners.

"The need for development of the profession is very high in Georgia," Ushveridze says. The country desperately needs expertise on the ground to deliver social services—fully 50 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less.

Fariz Ismailzade, M.S.W. '02, is also contributing to the profession, teaching two social work courses at Western University, Baku, Azerbaijan. In his "day job," Ismailzade is director of political programs at Baku's International Republican Institute, training and working with local NGOs, political parties, and student groups to strengthen them and foster civic activism.

True to his commitment, he hopes eventually to run for parliament. Meanwhile, he writes prolifically. His op-eds have appeared in quarterly journals and online media, including Eurasianet, the Eurasia Daily Monitor, and the Johns Hopkins University's Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst.

Maria Stefurak, M.S.W. '03, is channeling her own efforts to share news and information within these formerly secretive countries. As media and information specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Democracy and Conflict Mitigation in Kazakhstan, Stefurak works to develop media there and in Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Overall, the OSI alumni are engaged in an astonishing variety of initiatives, from health and economic development to disaster management, from legal assistance to protecting children, the environment, and the free flow of information.

"We are serving local journalists who want to improve their journalism skills, media law advocates who are working toward media policy reform, and broadcast managers who are trying to make TV and radio stations sustainable and popular," she explains. But the chief beneficiaries, she believes, "are the citizens of Central Asian republics who need pluralistic information to be engaged in democratic processes in their home countries."



Fariz Ismailzade (top), M.S.W. '02, is director of political programs at Baku's International Republican Institute, fostering civic activism in Azerbaijan. Marina Ushveridze (center), M.S.W. '03, is country coordinator for the Children's Tolerance Education Project, a program of Save the Children-Georgia. In Mongolia, Erdenehcimeg Tserendorj (bottom), M.S.W. '02, is director of the Social Work Education Development Program, and she serves as a community mobilization team leader with the World Bank's Sustainable Livelihood Program.

The rights and well-being of children are the focus for Guzal Kamalova, M.S.W. '03, national child protection officer with UNICEF in Uzbekistan. "With others at UNICEF, I am working on the development of policies and programs for children in state institutions, children with disabilities, children in conflict with the law, and children living and working on the streets," she explains.

Though she works at the policy level helping to draft new laws, Kamalova seeks out opportunities to visit orphanages, state boarding schools, and neighborhoods to listen to these vulnerable children. "I have a strong desire to make real change in the lives of those children who need our special protection," she says.

Overall, the OSI alumni are engaged in an astonishing variety of initiatives, from health and economic development to disaster management, from legal assistance to protecting children, the environment, and the free flow of information. Gulnara Ismankulova, M.S.W. '02, also is a good example; she heads the World Health Organization's country office for Kazakhstan.

Yadama is thrilled with his former students' impact in their homelands. He sees the "George Warren Brown School of Social Work stamp" in many places.

"OSI alumni think in very expansive and innovative ways," he observes. "Rather than merely doing good work, they are doing good work that is systematic—that builds the capacity of community and state systems."

OSI Fellows are chosen from a highly competitive process. Almost 500 candidates applied for the 2005-06 year. Yadama and Brian Legate, the social work school's admissions director, along with their counterparts from Columbia, meet in New York every November to reduce the number to about a dozen each from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In the winter they interview candidates in each country. In March they reconvene in New York for final selection of two students from each country and two at large. "It is a tough task," Yadama acknowledges.

At Washington University, the students pursue the standard M.S.W. program, choosing among five concentrations—children, youth, and families; mental health; health; gerontology; and social and economic development. Many OSI Fellows, Yadama says, choose the last, "because they see that the root of many of these problems is in economic transition, and they want to learn more about what is happening and how they can address these problems."

Some choose different concentrations. Zarina Mammadova, M.S.W. '06, chose mental health. With an undergraduate psychology degree, she plans to provide direct client counseling in her native Azerbaijan.

Mammadova readily admits there were challenges when she first arrived in St. Louis. "In the beginning, it was difficult," she says. "The country is different, and the education is different, with lots of writing assignments in a second language, for example."

Yadama acknowledges all these adjustments and other issues the School must face. He says helping newly arrived students see the relevance of this American education for post-Soviet conditions requires consistent effort and imagination from him and other faculty. But as the OSI Fellows study the breadth of social work and realize its impact, they begin to appreciate its potential for their struggling nations.

Mammadova sees the implications for Azerbaijan. "Social work has been developing for a long period in the U.S.," she observes, "and has answers to questions like methods for treating depression or substance abuse." These answers, she believes, can help people in her country, where years of territorial conflict with Armenia (there are about 800,000 internally displaced persons) and the collapse of human services formerly provided by the state have inflicted profound trauma.

The research enterprise Mammadova has come to value so deeply is part of the capacity that Yadama hopes to build in Central Asia and the Caucasus. "If we are to be about social change, bringing about transformation in the lives of the poor, we not only have to train people in the region, but we also have to do good research that informs this training," he argues.

"Social work is not charity. It is a scientifically based enterprise; therefore, we need to build up educational and research endeavors. I think once governments and universities really begin to do serious analytical work and serious professional training, then we will have moved a step closer to building the policy and social service infrastructure these countries need."

That Washington University should be engaged in this transformative endeavor on the far side of the globe does not surprise Yadama. He believes the OSI initially approached the George Warren Brown School not only because of its top ranking but because the School, more than other social work institutions, is known for its global focus. "This is a natural for us," he says.

Former Dean Khinduka agrees. When OSI first contacted him in 1999, he grasped immediately the congruence between OSI's intentions and the School's international involvement. Though the program presented a major financial challenge—the OSI wanted the School of Social Work to absorb half the tuition costs—Khinduka agreed. "I believed it was the right thing to do," he recalls.

He has not been disappointed. "It's one of the best things that has happened to this school," Khinduka says. "The students have a range of experience that would be the envy of any program. Many have worked for the U.N. or nongovernmental organizations. Their contributions to class discussion are wonderful for our American students. They have very questioning minds. Some of the most penetrating questions come from them." He marvels at the energy they bring to the classroom.

And, he adds, "they are resolved to make a difference. They will fight for human rights."

When the OSI Fellows gather for turkey and trimmings at the Yadama house, one reason for thanksgiving is the opportunity the fellowships give both them and the School. The alumni feel this gratitude deeply. "The Open Society Institute Fellowship had a great impact on my life, transforming me into a more engaged citizen," says Stefurak. "It broadened my horizons to think about roots and causes of social issues and how to resolve them."

Ismailzade also appreciates the tools he acquired. "I learned how to do surveys, how to do research, how to develop programs, how to assess and evaluate programs, how to work with media, how to write proposals," he says. "I use these skills every day in my work and personal life."

"It was," Kamalova agrees simply, "one of the best experiences of my life."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois