UN Resolution Shifts Chernobyl Aid Focus

The United Nations General Assembly has promoted a new resolution shifting the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) emphasis on Chernobyl assistance efforts from emergency and disaster relief to rehabilitation and sustainable development.

Cihan Sultanoglu, UNDP's Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director of the Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, said, “UNDP is trying to change the legacy of Chernobyl from one of despair and hopelessness to one of hope and prosperity and health.... 20 years of treating the residents of those regions as victims has created a culture of apathy.”

The intent of this policy change is to end the culture of dependency that has emerged among people living in areas contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster, and “rebuild a sense of self-reliance.”

This announcement follows a 2006 World Health Organization (WHO) report that found the health impact of the accident was much less severe than was initially feared. The report also indicated the majority of the affected areas only suffered "low doses of radiation - doses that are close to naturally existing 'background levels'".

WHO Report

Let’s take a look at the WHO report first. I will agree that a large portion of the “affected areas” received much lower doses of radiation than locations closest to the Chernobyl plant. However, I wonder how the “affected areas” can be considered contaminated if they received radiation doses close to natural background levels?

UN Resolution

Regarding the UN announcement, I do agree with a plan for rehabilitation and sustainable development, but not at the expense of those people who truly are victims of the Chernobyl tragedy. I think there should be a balanced approach, continuing the ongoing effort to help Chernobyl victims while also providing for rehabilitation and new development.

There are victims from the Chernobyl disaster, and it would be a shame to turn our backs on them and say they are no longer victims just because 21 years have passed since the accident. It will be interesting to see how the UN implements their plan. If their approach completely changes, I hope it will not occur abruptly, but be implemented gradually over the coming years.

Help from Aid Organizations

In regards to rehabilitation and sustainable development, for quite some time, I have felt many aid organizations could better spend some of their money by helping provide Chernobyl-affected communities with improved infrastructure such as sanitary systems, clean wells, gas lines, etc. This help is long overdue. Blogger MoldovAnn, Programme Officer for the UN Volunteer Programme in Ukraine provides an facinating commentary about this very issue in her October 15 blog post, Chornobyl Legacy.

Ann points out that many aid organizations want to help people, but shy away from more remote locations. They are also more likely to provide money and support for a tragedy. This last point concerns me regarding potential consequences of the UN decision related to other aid organizations. By removing the labels “emergency” and “disaster” from Chernobyl, some organizations may stop providing aid. Therefore, this UN decision could inadvertently be lessening much-needed aid to the area.

Conclusions

The unfortunate reality of Chernobyl’s aftermath is that thousands of people suffered major health consequences that continue to this day. Some survivors are severely crippled, while others are able to live in their own homes most of the time, but still require weeks of medical attention in hospitals several times a year. Most of the time, these people barely have enough strength to get through a “normal” day. For example, my friend Lyubov, a former Pripyat resident, rarely feels well enough to write me a normal-length letter.

The incident at Chernobyl was, is, and always will be a disaster. The affected areas are located in the countries of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian Federation. Ukraine and Belarus are definitely poorer countries that do not have proper financial resources to deal with the Chernobyl aftermath on their own. They need our help. No matter how you look at it, the people living in the affected areas (and former residents now living outside those areas) are very much victims of this tragedy and still need our help.

I believe the balanced approach I previously mentioned would be best in this situation. Hopefully UNDP feels the same way.

I am not sure if she will agree with everything I have said, but I want to thank Kathy Ryan from Chernobyl Children’s Project International for inspiring me to write about this subject.

2 Comments

There is really no new news in this UN resolution ... the message of the United Nations last year on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl is that is important for residents of this region to look toward the future, and for international organizations to be supportive in that effort. And on that point, I am in strong agreement. When people think about Chernobyl, they tend to focus on what might seem to be the most dramatic impact of the disaster, which would be radiation and the health and medical effects of radiation. Not so recognized, however, is that the disaster had huge economic and social impacts. These effects still linger, and the most thoughtful humanitarian and development efforts must focus on recovery. Outside the city of Minsk, however, there is still a lot of poverty. How a humanitarian organization should balance providing for basic needs and providing for long term needs (ie, stimulating jobs and the economy) becomes a matter of opinion. The UNDP represents one point of view on that matter.

The UNDP is correct to urge a shift to "recovery" rather than emergency response in the region. But what has astonished and annoyed me for the past year is the secondary point that they regularly make: That the worst impact of Chernobyl is the psychological one. The UNDP insistently portrays people living in Chernobyl affected regions as fatalistic victims of their own bad attitude: If only they could change their attitudes, things would go their way. Just because this way of thinking goes over well on "Oprah" doesn't mean it can be so broadly applied.

Last year I had the opportunity to testify before the US Congress and the Helsinki Commission on the ongoing impacts of Chernobyl. At these hearings, UNDP focused cynically on the theme that people living in Chernobyl regions suffered from not much more than an attitude problem. I have never heard anyone except UNDP representatives make this assertion, and I wonder why. It certainly does not reflect my experience in the region. It is true, I have met people who fit this description in the Exclusion Zone areas -- but one would expect that a person who by their own choice would move back into a highly contaminated region might be an eccentric and fatalistic person. But in town and cities throughout Belarus, I've had the opposite experience. People want to move on, they want to have accurate information, they want opportunity, and they want to participate in decisions about their future. All of this was reflected in public attitude research conducted by the United Nations.

When UNDP talks about humanitarian organizations who have treated locals as "victims," I have to cautiously agree. There comes a point after a disaster when the "helping" organizations have to turn the reins over to the local people and give them a say in what is needed and let them drive the efforts. It may well be that a number of organizations failed to evolve their approach as the years passed. Others may have had motivations other than helping people get back on their feet -- for example, evangelical organizations on a mission.

On the other hand, it should be said that large organizations like the UNDP can be expected to distain the work of smaller organizations that work on a personal level to improve the lives of "one child at a time." One could argue that the problems in the region need to be approached from both directions.

It is probably too much for one comment, but I will also note that the UNDP has consistently downplayed the detail of the Chernobyl Forum report, which is much more concerning when read it its entirety. It doesn't seem fair or compassionate for UNDP to mock the families who live on contaminated lands -- and have done so for 20 years with little reliable information about their health risks -- and as mentally unstable victims of their own fears.

Kathy,

Thanks for your post. It really helps to get the viewpoint of someone who works directly with Chernobyl aid and can provide these additional insights. I like getting more information than just the slanted view of one organization.