Here in the Open Society Scholarship Programs, we champion the power of the individual. One of our programs, the Social Work Fellowship, which began in 1999, has funded individuals with the aim of developing the field of social work in post-Soviet countries.
The design was simple: enable those in the region in related fields to obtain a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University or Washington University in St. Louis. At its peak, the Social Work Fellowship Program operated in 7 countries—Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—offering 16 scholarships a year.
The development of a field that didn’t exist or existed in a rather simple form is no easy feat. In some countries, the political situation did not lend itself to any endeavors that challenged the status quo; in others, there seemed to never be enough cohesion among the individuals for them to become a force. When we interviewed potential candidates for the program, we would try to gauge the applicant’s dedication to the field and assess if he or she would go beyond what most would do. It was a calculated risk.
For the most part, it’s a risk that has paid off. The recent success of the Azerbaijan Social Work Public Union got me thinking about how change occurs and how the Social Work Fellows have changed the landscape of social work in many countries. Alumni in Mongolia and Georgia have formed thriving associations that have helped not only raise the profile of social work within their respective countries, but also develop social work education.
By contrast, development in Azerbaijan had been slow. When I met with alumni during interview trips, it was easy to see their frustration with the system. For every step forwards, there would be several back. For example, the success of getting funding to develop a department of social work at one of the leading public universities was crippled by the university’s bureaucracy and politics.
Progress, however, happens when you least expect it. First came membership of the Azerbaijan Social Work Public Union into the International Federal Association of Workers, then an article published in the Guardian on the work of the AZSWU to develop social work and address disability rights.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit of maternal pride. We would first meet the potential candidates during the interview process, then again at the pre-departure orientation where they would express the fears and excitement that come with leaving one's family and friends for two years to study in a language and country that are not one’s own. Before they'd return to their home countries, they would share their anxiety and eagerness to return.
We would watch them graduate and send them off with a reminder about the program’s goals and mission. When we visited their countries to check in with the now alumni, we heard about their progress (or lack thereof) and their criticism of seemingly unwieldy systems, but also their optimism. Although at times things seemed rather bleak, and it would have been easier for alumni to leave their countries and get jobs elsewhere that would fully utilize their skills, they did not. They forged ahead.
I recall meeting Irakli Vacharadze, one of our alumni from Georgia, in 2005 at an orientation in Istanbul, Turkey. Like most, he was excited at the opportunity to live, learn, and study in New York for two years. He returned home, where he's been an activist on LGBTI issues. It’s not easy being gay in Georgia, but that never stopped Irakli from fighting for a cause he believed in. We met again in a professional capacity since he became a Social Work Faculty Fellow, working on developing curricula to be taught at universities in Georgia.
We kept in touch, and whenever I visited Georgia, I would make sure to visit Irakli. In 2010 he founded his own NGO, IDENTOBA, focused on LGBTI issues in Georgia. At a recent gay rally in Tbilisi, violence broke out. As soon as I heard I contacted Irakli to make sure he was ok. He said he was safe and still determined to press ahead. Despite the continued threat of being beaten, imprisoned, or even worse, he marches on.
There are now registered professional associations in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Mongolia, and Tajikistan founded and developed by alumni of the Social Work Fellowship Program. While the program no longer exists as a stand-alone initiative (its last intake of students from the post-Soviet states was in 2012; we're offering scholarships to students from Jordan through this year), I would categorize it as a success. It wasn’t always easy, and progress came at different rates, but program alumni have shown what dedication to the field can achieve.