Sophia Sanders : Moldova

Reflection 1  

There are some mornings when I wake up in Chisinau and wonder if my IDIP placement was a mistake. Development is so often tied to blatant poverty that it does not seem right to be living in so much luxury. I have my own one bedroom apartment that is fully furnished with heated floors, sunken bathtub, large windows, and gas heaters. No one would ever guess that I was in a ‘developing’ country and some days I forget as well, like when I go to the eighth floor of a newly remodeled ‘skyscraper’ and sit in my corner office. Yes, I have landed in the lap of luxury, especially in comparison to many of my peers. However, it all too quickly becomes real when I look outside my window and onto the crumbling concrete that makes up most of the very soviet influenced city. The copious amounts of stray dogs and cats that greet me outside my apartment are little does of the reality that is Chisinau; a city at the apex of first and third world. So close and influenced by ‘modern’ Europe and so crippled by years of social and economic Soviet oppression.  

As grateful and lucky as I feel for my luxurious accommodations, it cannot compare to how extraordinary my work is. The USAID sponsor, USAED run Moldovan Civil Society Strengthening Program is somewhat of a legend. Before I arrived I was told that I had the best placement with the most incredible Chief of Party, and that it would be the place where I would learn the most. As much as I thought it was being pumped up for my benefit I realized how right they were when I got here. I was immediately told that I would not be doing any menial office work and was immediately put into meetings to talk about our different programs, our grantees, and to begin to craft my own project. I was on a field visit within one week to observe how our NGO’s train for engagement and was able to see a presentation on Youth Opinions of Volunteerism back in the city the next day.  I have been busy from day one despite how under prepared and misinformed they were about my arrival and what I would be doing once I was here. That misinformation and the USAED suspension issue were enough to have them worry that they would need to ‘send me home’ early. Needless to say, they did not and I have just gotten the final approval for implementing my project.  

It is hard to plan anything very meaningful or with the ability to see the impacts of with only a couple months here, but with the help of my Chief of Party and many of grantees I am giving it my best shot. One of the main obstacles to development in Moldova is that there is no culture of philanthropy, volunteerism, or even basic donations. Most Moldovans think that if you want to help you give a bit of change to a beggar in the street. Under communist rule there was implicit work against donations and NGOs were often painted as money launderers or products of western capitalism. This has ultimately led to today’s NGOs struggling to access the needs of their community, their ability to meet their needs, and the community’s satisfaction with the services provided.  

Enter Sophia.  

My project, which we hope to be able to implement country ride, is going to be piloted in Balti: a region to the north that has a few of our grant funded NGOs, Peace Corps volunteers willing to help, and absolutely no needs assessment has been done there yet. So through initial trainings that I will conduct, focus groups led by local youth, and social events that are aimed at getting feedback from the community we should get a good idea of what the relationships are between the NGOs and their constituents. If I can get all of that done with enough time left over I will do the analysis and present the information with recommendations to the NGOs. I am severely grateful for the amount of trust my work has put into me, and not more than a little fearful of failure. All the elements are so volatile from whether the roads will be covered with too much snow to even get to Balti to the very real chance that the feedback will be shallow and limited. I am going to give it my best shot and hopefully it will be able to provide the much needed information of what Moldovans actually need from NGOs and what they actually want to see change in a country accredited with being the most apathetic in the world. A lofty goal perhaps, but that seems to be large part of this kind of work.      

Reflection 2 

There is a saying in Moldova that roughly translates to “we are all together because the same sun shines on all of us”.  This saying relays perfectly what I have come to know, and love, about this small, relatively unheard of country. Moldovans are strong and compassionate and most have memories of being under Soviet Rule. They remember times that were so difficult that they are grateful for their freedom now. It is this attitude towards life that has made my time here so incredible. The country is in a state of constant transition as they work towards more economic and social reforms and so many of the existing reforms have yet to reach the average Moldovan.  But they are hopeful and they believe that they can establish themselves within Eastern Europe.  

This overwhelmingly positive outlook has made my time, and work, here extremely rewarding and promising. Last week I was able to finish the last of my trainings for facilitators so that they can carry on the project once I am gone. They are so enthusiastic and genuinely hopeful that this project would produce results that I almost do not feel as bad about having to leave before its completion. Once the pilot is done we will coordinate with each other via email and make any needed changes. Then, assuming nothing majorly disastrous happens, we will be able to implement it in most of the NGOs across the state. It is so exciting for me to be a part of the rapidly changing times here. I often wonder what Chisinau will look like when I return; how different will it be? They are desperately hoping to gain EU membership, but that is a long way off. However, I tend to agree with the Moldovan spirit. If any country can pull itself out of the shadows of Russia, Romania, and Ukraine, it will be this country. As Joe Biden said in his speech here last week, "The people of Moldova deserve the best."  

My time here has felt short and long all at the same time. I have experienced so many new and wonderful things but feel I am leaving with so much left to do. I have met people who will be lifelong friends but we have spent only a few months together. I have visited organizations around the country that are doing the most spectacular work with the Roma population, the elderly, imprisoned youth, and the environment. And I have created a tool for these NGOs that is simple and yet was much needed. They will be able to understand the needs and wants of their communities better and, in turn, the communities will be able to have a say in the projects of the NGO’s; something that has been sorely lacking. Like all development work I have been frustrated at times when the process was moving slower than I wanted and been delighted when small benchmarks have been met. I am certainly leaving as a bit different and a bit more knowledge, but I am leaving in hopes that I have somehow helped in the progress of civil society in Moldova.  

I leave tomorrow and though I am not ready there is no option to stay. But I know that I will be left at the airport with the words that I am together with the Moldovans. Because they are right, the same sun reaches all of us and there is comfort in that thought.