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The East: World Bank Finds Ways To Help The Vulnerable

Washington, 2 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Thomas Blinkhorn has a job title at the World Bank that takes three lines on his business card and sounds like something out of a sociology textbook.

Blinkhorn, an affable Canadian, is not a working economist or a banker. He is Cultural Development Adviser for Environmentally & Socially Sustainable Development for Europe and Central Asia. He focuses on just one thing -- looking after the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the countries in transition.

It's not that the rest of the World Bank doesn't care, says Blinkhorn. It does:

"Because we know from our experience of the last five years or so that a lot of people are suffering, and their lives are made more difficult. And there's a sense among a lot of people that things were better under communism. We know about that. We hear people say that and we are very, very sensitive to that."

The difficulty, he said in an RFE/RL interview in Washington, is that in the communist days, state-owned enterprises provided everything for its workers and those living nearby -- schools, health clinics, child care. Everything that public taxes pay for in other parts of the world.

As the privatization process began in earnest, it became painfully obvious that a great number of enterprises were what Blinkhorn calls "white elephant disasters" -- facilities that were not producing what anyone would buy or not producing it efficiently.

The coal mines are a perfect example, he says. If a coal mine in Romania is to be competitive in today's world, at a time when coal prices are one-tenth of what they were 15 years ago, the mines can no longer be all things to all people:

"The coal mines have got to learn how to produce coal more effectively and more competitively. That means, among other things, in addition to improving management and getting new equipment, they have to divest themselves of all these social assets. They cannot be teachers. They cannot be health clinicians. They cannot provide heat. They have to mine coal and market coal."

But when a coal mine gets rid of it's community functions to concentrate on coal, what happens to the miner and his family, asks Blinkhorn. The schools and clinics are dumped on the local community, which is usually not prepared to run them and has little or no money to keep them going. The most vulnerable in society -- the elderly with inadequate pensions, the disabled, the children, and households headed by women -- suffer the most.

In Romania, Russia and Ukraine, says Blinkhorn, the situation is made all the worse by fiscal crises.

Neither the World Bank nor any other international institution could begin to provide enough money to help each and every local community in this situation, says Blinkhorn. The answer, he says, is to go into select communities and find ways to help the people help themselves.

The biggest problem is getting people to understand that while in the old days the state provided everything, it can't do it any more. Blinkhorn recalls traveling to Yenakievo, a small Ukrainian mining town in the Donetsk region, awhile ago and going to the local school, number 20:

"We said to that school: what are the most important things you need? If we were to say we could get you maybe $10,000, $20,000 ? What would you use it for? They talked and they came up with a new roof and toilets for the kids. We said we'd provide the money for the materials if they can organize themselves -- get the unemployed coal miners, get the parents, get the kids, and you renovate the school. You do it yourself."

Blinkhorn said the bank only agreed to finance the materials after the local people had devised a plan and worked out the costs:

"It became a magnet school in an unemployed coal mining area. The people rose to the occasion. You could not believe it. Kids were involved. Parents were involved working, painting, putting in glass and everything. It was a marvelous example of what a community can do."

Blinkhorn said this and other similar projects demonstrate that the focus has got to be on the people in the local community:

"What has got to be done is a mind change in many of these communities, to say we are now in control. We have to do it ourselves. We cannot wait for the state. So it's also that we have to try to inject, through example, through interchange, a different mind set about how to organize a community to provide these basic assets for the people who can take care of themselves, but also for the parents and grandparents and the disabled. So there is a notion about community involvement and individualism that's got to be -- and it will take a long, long time to get it through the area, but you have to start somewhere."

Blinkhorn says he has been pushing his colleagues at the bank to draw far more heavily on the experiences of other countries. How did Germany handle its coal mines? The Czech Republic? How about the U.S.? The best way to make sure that experience is understood and accepted by local residents is to bring in the real people from other nations -- coal miners and their wives -- to talk about how they solved many of the same problems:

"That's far more effective in my view than some guy with a tie coming out from Washington, D.C. providing a lecture on industrialization. That is going nowhere. But if they can see some guy with coal veins in his head and rough hands and his wife, and they know what they're talking about -- they're coming from Ireland. That's got much more potency than anything I could ever do in Donetsk."

When you walk among the people in these communities, says Blinkhorn, you find out "pretty damn fast who's being hurt -- you don't need a macroeconomic model to tell you that." It's time more people took those walks, he says.