Monday 15th May 2006, Chernihiv.
As your interview with me appeared in the Analytics section last Friday, I was driving off the ferry in Oostende, Belgium, at the start of a 2500 km journey to Chernihiv, from where I am writing now, my trailer laden with donated clothes, toys and musical instruments.
This is the fourth time I have made the journey overland. Compared to flying, which I have done many times to check up on projects and deliver small donations, driving is far more expensive, time consuming and tiring. But I cannot turn off the tap of generosity of people in Britain and I am happy to make the trip once a year or so. And I can’t deny that I enjoy the drive, which for this trip I’m sharing with my son, Andrew. Travelling through Ukraine gives me an opportunity to see how towns, villages and land use is changing, and to engage in conversation with the “ordinary” Ukrainians I meet at the border and in petrol stations, shops, bars and roadside cafes.
We stop in Witten, Germany, to meet a bunch of medical students who have set up a peer-training program to educate Ukrainian medical students in HIV awareness –they’ve met some resistance to taking HIV prevention messages into schools, and I put them in touch with “Our Generation”, the organisation I support in Chernihiv, which has a lot of experience in this field. We talk about future joint projects – we can see many opportunities.
My first thought on entering Ukraine, as the front wheels of my Land Rover drop into the collapsed drain that ran across the road under the border gate, is: ‘how sadly symbolic of the state of the country as a whole’. But as the formalities of passport control, vehicle registration and import control get underway, I sense that something significant and fundamental had changed since my last visit.It takes a few moments to understand – it starts with a feeling that the official who is reviewing my documents is, well, pleased to be there. I glance at his uniform - smart, obviously cared for – and then spot his name badge. This is a novelty since my last trip, and surely another borrowing from the McDonalds culture – Hi, my name’s Ivan, would like fries with your immigration form? Regular stamp or super-size stamp? Then I see it; below his name and number, where it should have said “have a nice day” is the customs hotline telephone number. And there it is again on the office window, above a statement that offering or accepting bribes is a criminal offence. Mr President, I take my hat off to you – this is more than just empty words, this is putting money where you mouth is.
Because the corruption which I had seen on previous visits – the blatant demands for money or cigarettes by petty officials who, for a few moments, held all the aces – is different from the addictive money grabbing of the high-ups. At Ivan’s level it is driven by need, not by greed; it can only flourish when despair has displaced self-respect. As I pass from one bright, well appointed office to another (although far fewer than previously thanks to the new “unified office” which does the work of four departments in a fraction of the time) all the staff present the same impression: proud to be doing their job properly in an environment which cares for them. And that means someone is spending money on salaries and office equipment. Here an adequate carrot is leading the horse, the stick clearly visible but unnecessary.
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