Lelei LeLaulu describes how small islands are helping the Commonwealth of Independent States

Former US Senator Vance Hartke was recently hosting a high-level delegation to Washington from Kyrgyzstan to high tea in the Senators’ dining room in the Capitol.

The Senator, a courtly veteran of the civil rights years and indispensable ally of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was introducing organization representatives around the large table to his guests. When he started to introduce the guests from a US international non-governmental organization (NGO) called Counterpart International, the Ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to the United States said with a smile, ‘Excuse me, Senator. In the Central Asian Republics everybody knows Counterpart’.

When glasnost proved to be the final blow to the former Soviet Union and that vast nation was appealing to the West for help in remaking itself as a democracy, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) played a leading role in responding to this appeal.

A division of USAID called the Office of Private Voluntary Cooperation (PVC), at that time led by a visionary Deputy Assistant Administrator called Sally Montgomery, came up with the bold idea of sending teams of international NGOs and university and foundation representatives, along with high-level officials from USAID itself and the US State Department, to the former Soviet Union to come up with recommendations for a fast-track approach to rebuilding the non-government sector in those societies.

To lead these Volunteer Executive Service Teams (VEST), the PVC Office chose an NGO called the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific (FSP), an organization which for 25 years had been focusing its programmes on the island nations of the Pacific.

The choice was little short of brilliant. When FSP started its work in the Pacific Islands in 1963, almost all the islands were colonial societies. Colonial societies are ruled by powerful colonial officers who run the civil service, education, health, transport and all aspects of society. In that respect they are similar to communist societies. In addition, island societies are microcosms of larger societies, small enough for small efforts to make a difference.

FSP was the principal secular NGO working with the Pacific Islands peoples as their societies evolved from colonies to independent nations. FSP became the vehicle for much of the international funding that helped young islanders to launch their own independent community programmes in job training, boat-building, fishing, housing, village management, health, energy, food production
all the programmes that form the backbone of a civil society.

It was the FSP practical experience of democracy building in island societies, combined with the inspirational input from such universities as Case Western and the hundreds of years of development experience of the members of VEST teams, which made the VEST team recommendations so valuable for guiding USAID programme planning in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Today, USAID programmes support international agencies, businesses, NGOs and consulting firms, which are deeply involved in every aspect of civil society development in the former Soviet Union
from training political parties to training union leaders, from setting up farmers’ cooperatives to training community leaders to run housing cooperatives, from modernizing energy production to cleaning up the massive pollution generated in the communist societies.

With its specialized skills, honed in the island nations of the Pacific, FSP, reborn as Counterpart International in 1993, is one of these agencies, with on-the-ground programmes in every nation of the former Soviet Union.

Counterpart invented the ‘Counterpart Service Center’ to run these programmes, using the model that had worked so well in the island nations. These service centres have a tiny expatriate staff, usually limited to a director. At the beginning of the programme, specialist consultant trainers run workshops for promising local personnel. Within three months, the local personnel graduate and take over the training programmes for the NGOs inside the target nation.

Counterpart has already trained 10,000 local NGOs from its Counterpart Service Center programmes throughout the former Soviet Union. Some NGOs turn into small businesses, like the Disability NGO in Ukraine which now manufactures prosthetics. Some NGOs deliver humanitarian assistance to clinics, orphanages, old people’s homes, schools, the jobless
through a large Counterpart Humanitarian Assistance Program (CHAP) which Counterpart operates throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States with core funding from the US State Department.

Other programmes are at the cutting edge, such as the programme in Tbilisi, Georgia, where Counterpart is assisting Tbilisi to meter every building in the city, while using USAID funding for vouchers for the poor who cannot afford to pay the winter costs of energy.

Just as forward looking is a Counterpart media programne in the Central Asian Republics, which has encouraged media personnel in radio, television and the press to come together to form national associations and to publicize civil society programmes which are making a difference. Disability programmes in Kazakhstan, through the media, become known in Tajikistan and are replicated there. Artisan programmes in Uzbekistan are shown on television in Turkmenistan, and imitated there.

Environmental skills which are absolutely essential to sustainable development in island nations are equally important in the nations surrounding the Black Sea, the Caspian and the Aral Sea, and these skills are continually being exported to the former Soviet Union thanks to the unusual linkage that Counterpart provides.

At the same time, because it is playing on the much larger stage of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Counterpart finds its role changing in respect to island nations.

Lelei LeLaulu was Outreach Coordinator for the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States.

Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...