Youth work in the countryside

International youth work in the countryside of aspiring Eastern European nations

It’s difficult to overestimate the role of education, and non-formal learning in particular, in European integration process of Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia. Powerful EU programmes such as Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps have an impact on civil society and the establishment of international cultural dialogue between the Eastern Europe and its Western neighbours. And now these opportunities are absorbed on the local countryside in the aspiring nations despite all the contextual limitations.

Rural youth

While we witness a steady transformation in the societies of the region, not all its younger generation are evenly feeling advantage of access to self-development and economic opportunities offered by the EU. The rural youth in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia are traditionally less represented as participants of numerous educational exchanges, international volunteering and cooperation projects because the multipliers and entities operating in this sector in the region have only started to take on active roles. This happens due to formative processes of civil society that gets established in the countryside in the region and due to reforms of formal education in line with the wider European agenda.

When we talk about the countryside of the Eastern Europe region and Caucasus there are those commonly shared characteristics due to the post-Soviet past and current struggles to pave the way as independent nations that desire to be the part of the wider EU family.

When we try to describe the portraits of rural youngsters from the perspective of youth workers and civil activists of the region, we find that they are much affected by the local context.

As in many communities, the main problem of young people in Aparan community is unemployment. Most of them have higher education, bachelor’s degree, specialized in various fields. However, due to the lack of jobs and low wages, they are unable to adapt in their communities, and very often they have to leave their villages and concentrate in big cities, mainly in Yerevan – says Gohar Sahakyan from “Altera Lab” NGO and Aparan community, Armenia.

We find the situation with lack of employment opportunities is common to the rest of the rural areas of the region.

As there are not so many employment opportunities in our rural community besides agriculture, some construction and transportation services, we see many people, including youth either commuting to work to Chisinau or even leaving to work abroad. Recently I saw many cases when young people left to find employment outside Moldova. – answers Liliana Botnaru from the Riscova village in Moldova.

In Ukraine youngsters in the countryside are also in its mass mostly focused on economic issues as the country battles with economic slowdown due to war and slow reforms.

The common approach is that young people try to leave their village to get whatever possible formal education which is seen as a mean of higher chances for economic success in the future. That is why we see the narrowing of quantity of adolescents everywhere in the rural communities. Those, who stay are usually engaged in agriculture, helping out to parents. As Ukrainian countryside is traditionally very agrarian. – from the perspective of Iaroslav Gerashchenko, Ukraine.

This is much shared by other respondents, like Liliana Botnaru who said that when they are working on non-formal education projects very often they have to adapt to young people aged less than 16 years old or to target groups who are older than 25, the age when some ex-students return to Riscova.

Additional factor for young people to leave the rural communities are frozen or active armed conflicts that haunt the post-Soviet space during the recent decades.

Medea Pavliashvili, from the Gori Youth Centre and Umbrella NGO, Georgia, specifically underlines that they feel the lack of young people in the territories close to the occupied area of South Ossetia. The work of their centre, therefore, often relies in much on followers from among the school-age children who stay in the rural communities because of their age. And once they graduate, she tells, their try to leave to a city to enter any university.

Rural youth organisations

Other contextual limitations faced by young people in the villages of the region are connected to less active cultural life and fewer extracurricular opportunities. This is confirmed by Gohar from Armenian Aparan who shared on lack of entertainment venues locally, and by Liliana from Moldovan Riscova who said that there’s not much going on in their village and because of that the actions of their NGO find bigger interest among young people as there is simply no alternative for having fun with their friends. Solid basis of attendees of activities offered by the Gori Youth Center in Georgia is another proof of that. Medea tells that often those young people that they meet and work for in the neighbouring rural communities come to Gori and bring along their friends as their non-formal education events are scarce and valued by young people.

Another respondent from Georgia, Nana Surameli, the principal of the secondary school in Kaspi Municipality, Akhalkalaki village, answers that her school steps in to offer non-formal education opportunities for the local youth like a debate club, democracy education or extracurricular training on entrepreneurship. This is filling the absence of active NGOs locally who would offer non-formal education. Such actions are rare and from outside. Nana knows examples of education on gender topics or cultural activities offered by the outsider NGOs but still this is uncommon for the rural communities of Akhalkalaki area.

And actually, this is a sign of another problem – rural young people get fewer information on the opportunities of non-formal education and the programmes available to join.

Our Eco-Center in the small village of Stina in Podilia region of Ukraine, has opened a whole new world of intercultural dialogue and international mobility in non-formal education to local youth who dared to join. And that made a huge difference. I imagine how it is in other villages where there’s no eco-centers and no information of such kind. I am sure young people there are very limited in this sense, in comparison to those who get information from us – says Iaroslav Gerashchenko from Ukraine.

Rural youth work

Non-formal education really makes its impact locally when applied well in the rural youth work. Liliana Botnaru from Moldova sees it as a highly effective instrument of inclusion, when children of various capabilities are mixed in the common work and everyone gets engaged. In comparison to schools where often pupils get segregated into success groups based on their personal background or other communicational capabilities. In non-formal education, instead, everyone learns how to express themselves which is great. Still, in the villages the formal education dominates. And when at non-formal activities we give chance to children to contribute, they sit still, not being used to this freedom of expression – Liliana adds.  

Despite its proven effectiveness non-formal education and structured youth work in the countryside of Eastern Europe and Caucasus have its struggle.

One of the biggest perils is the need of ubiquitous recognition of the youth work as a profession on the national level. In Georgia we don’t have a law on recognition of the youth work which in turn can stimulate undesirable effects. Some youths don’t understand therefore what we do. Sometimes there are stereotypes about the humanitarian sector or other outreach workers who tend to form superficial connections with people in target communities and then it drags down the youth worker image together – tells Medea Pavliashvili.

The same situation is in Ukraine. Iaroslav Gerashchenko knows about some attempts to reform the sector and actualize the youth work. For example, there was a national program under the auspices of UN launched still back in 2014 called “Youth worker”. But it has not made way into the legal field, neither there is structured training on this topic offered by formal educational establishments. Youth workers remain as self-grown civil society activists or workers at state youth centres who come from all walks of life – believes Iaroslav.

Local resources, what?

Another big challenge is the capacity of youth workers in the rural areas. For example, Medea Pavliashvili knows that to perform the outreach activities in the communities neighbouring Gori, representatives of her NGO need often to rely on occasional financing from international donors during the international cooperation projects or otherwise co-finance such trips to the villages from their own costs: We would like to reach more young people in the surrounding areas, but financial limitations can’t allow us to do it – says Medea.

Gohar from Aparan, Armenia also notes the limited resources and support for youth work in general and rural youth work in particular. Liliana from Riscova, Moldova, underlines human resource scarcity as a restraining factor. She goes: If there are no catalysts in the village who can engage and train the local population to be a leader in the area of rural development then it is hard to go ahead and have progress. But once people start to make first steps and see their small but gradual victories, when they are not overwhelmed with the process, so then they start to form competencies to be project managers and leaders.

Liliana has told us the story of a librarian from the Riscova community who, thanks to the cooperation with her EcoVillage, has evolved into an active fundraiser attracting resources from donors for the local school. Liliana also adds that in circumstances of limited human resources key players in the local organizations are at high risk of burn-out as often they need to perform multiple roles at once, as she put it. According to her in the city, big NGOs have the advantages of enjoying more task diversity among its members.

Similar notions were brought in by Gohar from Armenia who feels the lack of volunteers in the youth sector in her community: Stereotypical thinking in rural areas is expressed very deeply, sometimes people are not open enough and ready to cooperate and get involved in youth work, which creates additional difficulties for the youth workers. Iaroslav from Ukraine tells about the huge turnaround of people: Many young members of our Eco-Center switch to other priorities very fast after they’ve gained something in our projects for their self-development process. That is not bad, it’s a reason we work, of course. Still, then it leaves you constantly in lack of those who remain as colleagues and can work on structure of programmes with you shoulder to shoulder.

Cooperation with the state partners also is a big challenge. While some noted a progress achieved in cooperation with the state actors like Gohar from Armenia, who is both an active member of “Altera Lab” NGO and works in the local Aparan municipality as a responsible for youth sector. Others see the situation as very slow. Medea Pavliashvili gives an example of state-initiated youth centres in rural areas that remain hollow premises as there are no genuine local youth workers to fill them in with own activities, no active cooperation with NGOs. As for Ukraine, Iaroslav Gerashchenko admits that recent events shifted the expectations of state to partnerships with the civil society counterparts towards strictly the humanitarian or war effort directions. Other types of cooperation like it used to be before in areas of culture, education, environment currently either don’t get authorized or omitted as unnecessary.

EU projects comes in

The process of European integration and formation of civil society in the countryside of the region brings in opportunities of implementation of international cooperation projects and various intercultural exchanges. All our respondents have clearly highlighted that those EU frameworks from non-formal education sector make the real difference in the countryside. Iaroslav Gerashchenko from Ukraine mentions the real importance for the rural youth from Ukraine to be engaged in exchange programmes abroad or welcome foreigners in the home country – rural areas are frequently still closed-in and traditional, and intercultural exposure is something very special there, he says. Moreover, youngsters from the rural areas in Ukraine differ from their counterparts in cities with better economic capacities. And hence such programmes as Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps offer financial support for the participation of young people they immediately become accessible and desirable for such young people from families with lower income.

Meanwhile the international cooperation practices penetrate deeper in the countryside and help rural youth workers and project managers to achieve tangible success even despite all of the contextual limitations of the countryside.

Nana Surameli from Akhalkalaki in Georgia also counts non-formal education exchange programmes as something of interest to those local youths who received good information on how to participate. She brought the example of a girl from the local rural community who studies in the university in Italy thanks to the credit mobility in formal education of the Erasmus+ programme. But Nana again stresses that such opportunities are more accessible to young people from the cities as they are comparatively more informed.

But gradually, she continues, the information penetrates in the villages. More and more of her colleagues take part in the meetings dedicated to international non-formal education frameworks and the interest to international cooperation from the side of the schools in the rural areas grows. She speaks of e-twinning exchanges as one of the good examples – her school in Akhalkalaki communicates with counterparts from Turkey and Bulgaria.

Liliana Botnaru from Riscova in Moldova confirms the importance of international cooperation and intercultural dialogue happening in the villages. She brings an example of the youth-led project on the renovation of the local park in Riscova. Local youngsters were deeply touched to understand that their village is of interest for someone from abroad as the renovation happened as an exchange project with young peers from France and Switzerland coming in to contribute their assistance. International cooperation is important for building the networks for future actions, Liliana believes. Still, there are numerous hurdles for the young people from the countryside that they need to overcome to become active participants in the intercultural projects. These are the language barrier and often lack of self-confidence as the participation requires many organizational aspects like filling in complicated google forms and applications. Others are often withheld because they can be overwhelmed with chores at home, Liliana adds, youths from the village from the early age take on many responsibilities around the household.

A more active intercultural dialogue was started a year ago in Aparan after the launch of the youth centre as a cooperation with the local municipality. Now this is a place where Gohar Sahakyan, as a local youth worker, sees first-hand a positive effect on local youngsters and outcomes of communication with foreign participants of a youth exchange projects. Gohar believes it helps not only to improve motivation and knowledge of local young followers of the centre but also to break stereotypes about the other cultures.

Medea Pavliashvili from the Gori Youth Center tells us about many occasions when she witnessed positive changes among rural participants of international exchange programmes. She mentions that these young people get thoroughly motivated, they see and can implement different practices from other countries back in their community. This is good for the Gori Youth Center because young people feel more confident and get energized, in particular, from the example of people doing the same things in their location. So, despite many limitations for the rural youths that still persist – Medea mentions again, similar to other respondents, the lack of information, language barriers, lack of self-confidence or often mistrust of parents who would not let their children participate in unknown things for them. Anyway Medea sees the trend and interest in international youth projects is rising. Once someone gets a positive experience his or her friends start to get engaged as well.

Find out more about the organisations:
Georgia: Gori Youth Centrefacebook; Umbrellawebsite and facebook;
Ukraine: Pangeya Ultimawebsite and facebook; Pangeya’s Image Mappingwebsite;

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