By Stuart King, Community Development, Peace Corps Ukraine
Sustainability. It's a word every Peace Corps volunteer knows and swears by. No development idea leaves the conception phase without being thoroughly tested for sustainability. Of course feasibility is important, but if project results are short-term and unsustainable, it's back to the drawing board.
After months of questionnaires, medical tests, and interviews I was extended an invitation to serve as a Community Development volunteer for the Peace Corps in Ukraine. An emerging, post-Soviet country like Ukraine did not strike me as a place in need of development assistance, at least not the kind provided by Peace Corps volunteers; yet during my time in Ukraine, I have come to discover that this was just the challenge that awaited me.
My service began in March 2011 with awkward dinner conversations in broken Russian with my Ukrainian host family. Amidst a slew of questions, many of which are still outstanding, my fellow volunteers and I struggled to find our niche. Finding our cause (and worth) became more than a matter of simply teaching people how to wash their hands and brush their teeth to save lives. People in Ukraine are well educated and hard working; hi-speed Internet is ubiquitous, McDonald's is constantly packed, and kids play on their smart phones in class. As I learned, and am still learning, Ukraine's needs are more subtle than what first meets the eye.
The Cold War meant very little to me. As a small child, the threat of communism and the Soviet Union never really hit home. Since then improved relations with the former Soviet space, coupled with a fast paced, self-absorbed American culture, have made it easy to forget that the Soviet Union even existed. But it very much did, and for those who lived through it, it's not particularly easy to move on after 70 years of one tradition, one attitude, one mindset. I soon discovered upon arriving in Ukraine that this is the challenge facing the Ukrainian people: to maintain a sense of identity, while at the same time adapting to new global standards.
So what could an English-speaking business and economics student like myself do to help Ukraine? As it turns out, a lot – write grant applications, evaluate business practices, and practice conversational English with municipal English language teachers and university students, to name a few. But that pesky word – sustainability – kept troubling me and I questioned if my efforts would have a positive effect after my two years in Ukraine were up. These feelings led myself and a good friend, David, to brainstorm ways in which we could add to Ukraine's economic development on a micro level, while creating something that would not end when we board the plane home.
Buying and selling on the Internet has become second nature in America. Websites like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy are places where millions of people engage in online commerce every single day. Finding the best price or the perfect gift from the comfort of our homes has never been easier and more and more people are joining in. Whereas most people in Ukraine have some form of access to the Internet, the level and understanding of virtual shopping is nowhere near what Americans have grown accustomed to. Here, David and I saw an opportunity.
Over the course of a year, a small group of dedicated Ukrainians and Peace Corps volunteers set about creating a training program designed specifically for Ukrainian small art and craft entrepreneurs. Together we believed that if properly trained and effectively marketed, Ukrainian artisans could successfully sell their handmade creations to people around the world on the increasingly popular Etsy.com. The concept was simple – help Ukrainians sell homemade goods online; however, getting from point A to B wasn't so clear. Sure Ukrainians have access to and use the Internet, but what about language barriers and financial transparency? Who was going to teach them to become responsible business owners that understand American consumer culture? To answer these and other questions, we settled on a five-part training series that not only transfers skills essential for small business success, but also provides that one piece to the puzzle we're so hell-bent on achieving: sustainability.
The Eastern Rinok project, as it became known, commenced in November 2012, with interested Ukrainians attending weekly meetings conducted in Russian or Ukrainian to learn how to become shop owners on Etsy.com. The project's name is a word combination of Ukraine's location in Eastern Europe, and the Russian word for marketplace, Rinok (ree-nuk). To date, 12 creative, hardworking, and dedicated Ukrainians have joined our team and opened Etsy shops, offering for sale over 50 authentic Ukrainian art and crafts ranging from colorful embroidery, traditional dolls, notebooks and diaries, handmade jewelry, and much more. Each team member is endorsed by a Peace Corps volunteer living in his or her community, helping the Ukrainian entrepreneur continue building their shop and serving as a language intermediary when necessary. Training and registration has been arduous, but participants that stick with it to the end are always happy they did, as the skills and knowledge acquired are permanent, opening doors that were previously closed.
The Peace Corps functions under three main goals: 1) helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; 2) helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and 3) helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. The Eastern Rinok project has the unique ability to address all three of these goals in one fell swoop. While Ukrainian entrepreneurs learn valuable skills to become trained online business owners, we as Americans are given the opportunity to learn more about Ukraine, its kind and generous people, and the vision it shares for a brighter future.
Ukrainians are doing their part – taking time from their busy schedules to attended business training courses – and now it is our turn to help them realize their goals. By purchasing handmade goods from an Eastern Rinok team member you are directly contributing to Ukraine's development, plain and simple. You are not only receiving an authentic, high-quality product, you are affirming the achievement of your Ukrainian vendor and tangibly helping improve their quality of life.
Please visit our Web blog easternrinok.wordpress.com for more information about the project and team members making this dream a reality. An Etsy team has also been created using the same name, Eastern Rinok, where all team members are listed as one community. Visit www.etsy.com and search for "Eastern Rinok" to see the products already available for sale. Project coordinators may also be reached at email@example.com. Thank you for helping Ukraine.
Stuart will return from the Peace Corps in June 2013 to graduate from the University of Denver with a Master of Arts degree in Global Finance, Trade, and Economic Integration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org to answer questions about Eastern Rinok or the Peace Corps in general.