The Netherlands IJmuiden October 2018
Aid Part 1:
Dogs like human feces
“Twelve years ago I visited Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, for the first time. I walked into a park and bumped into an elderly lady living under a piece of plastic. She told me she used to have a flat in the apartment block on the other side of the road on the top floor. As was usual in the old Soviet days the community had provided for it. One day she was approached by a project developer asking her if she would be interested to move to a fully renovated smaller flat on a lower floor so she did not have to walk the stairs. She would have all modern comfort at her disposal. The refurbishment was done and it would be newly furnished including modern equipment like TV, washing machine, etc. If she would just sign some papers her things would be brought there by a relocation company. He was accompanied by a real notary and she being largely illiterate trusted this official person.”
The relocation company came and cleared the flat. However, when her belongings were taken away there was no new apartment. The notary was a fraud and she had signed papers where she voluntarily transferred the apartment. Nothing could be done and nobody cared for or helped her. Her son did not want to take her in as she was no use to him and his family as she had poor legs and could not walk and be useful. Her only option was to live in the basement staircase of the very same apartment block she had lived in for so many years. The neighbors knew both her and what happened to her and allowed her to be there until her incontinence created so much smell that they too kicked her out to the park.
“It took me a week to get back to normal”
“I clearly remember my disgust as I asked her what bothered her the most. She said it was the dogs…. Not that they bit her but they kept her awake all night as they came after her feces and the smell….. I returned to Holland and it took me a week to come back to normal again and I decided to do something to help the very poor in Moldova.”
Nico Swart is a lock guard at the big locks of IJmuiden that form the entrance to the canal for big ships to Amsterdam. From a religious background (he is a Baptist lay pastor) he visited church organizations in Eastern Europe. Amongst others, the experience with the evicted lady motivated him to found a charitable foundation he named Pro Visie. It is a small fund and the focus is on support activities that provide perspective and hope and enables people to help themselves.
When I ask him why he chose to actively provide aid Nico does not hesitate: “Because it is possible. One should turn the question around and ask why do so few people try to help. The question is why not? For me it is no question at all, it is the normal course of events.”
The poorest country in Europe
For Pro Visie Nico choose Moldova as the focus country. With the lowest per capita income the poorest country of Europe, very much like the Baltic states, has been tossed around between superpowers. Part of the Ottoman Empire, Tsarist Russia, Rumania and finally the Soviet Union it became independent in 1994 after a bloody civil war that resulted in a breakaway of the eastern part into a Russia minded part Transnistria. It is still an unsolved “frozen” conflict casting a shadow over the future (as does systemic corruption). As the Baltic states and Ukraine, it was part of the Soviet Union and Russian is still an important language the original Moldovan (that is practically identical to Rumanian). Life expectancy is 67.5 years for men and 75.5 years for women. With a population of 3.5 million, of which 1 million are abroad either for work or effectively emigrated. Remittance of Moldovans working abroad amounts to 38% of the GDP. There are more than 700,000 pensioners who for the most part have a hard life.
A lot of parents working abroad (Italy is popular) leave their children at best in the care of grandparents or relatives, at worst on their own. This causes serious social problems.
Aid on long-distance
Nico learned a lot in twelve years; he has become a wiser man. In the first years, he brought food packages to Moldova by truck. Together with his wife Yolanda he personally carried out most of the work. They gathered food for food packages, clothing and we physically brought these in a van to Moldova. Also, they imported vegetable seeds and other aid goods like walking canes. Border and customs problems were not uncommon.
From a distance, it proved to be very cumbersome to reach those who really needed help. Apart from the time and money involved providing help proved a complicated process. There is a lot of organizing to do, there are never enough hours available and in order to create the desired effect and to reach those who need the aid most a lot of thinking and planning is needed. Also, it was not easy to find final destinations for the goods that were trustworthy as fraud is around the doorstep everywhere in Moldova.
Good intentions, unexpected and mostly unwanted results.
His intentions were to give provide for some hope and future. Quite often however also the logic of the situation was different from what he had anticipated. For example, the food packages were sold, not used. Toys and goods for an orphanage were taken away by the staff as they felt: “why would these children have things that we cannot give our own”. Vegetable seeds were not used in the right way and planted too hastily early in the season thus not giving the optimal yield. The vegetables grown were not used for own consumption but for sale on the market.
The science of “Development studies” this phenomenon is described as “complexities”: In a different culture and with a different set of rules an intervention from outside a system has the risk of changing the system resulting in a completely different effect than anticipated. In other words: things often turn out differently…
Nico also encountered plain fraudulent situations where Pro Visie was asked to provide money for a project (on his request unnamed) and on a visit, he was told other items had been given priority but neither of the works had been carried out. Nico has learned from those experiences.
Local embedded aid instead of long distance and vegetables
Pro Visie has now adjusted its strategy to support “local embedded” organizations. The foundation now focusses on supplying mainly vegetable seed packages to local organizations for further distribution. One of them is Neemia in Cobani, which they also support with some other needs. I visited Cobani to see the other end of the aid process for myself, see A Glass of water for Vasile for a shocking view into the deep poverty and the admirable work of Victor Zama.
Another organization very happy with the vegetable seed packages is a much bigger NGO Somato. The driving force Jana Chihai, a psychiatrist. She set up decentralized care for psychiatric patients, a totally new concept in Moldova. The beneficiaries use the seeds to grow their own food. The activities are also supported by the Trimbos Institute of the Netherlands.
These pictures and the featured pictures are from them and they also wrote a support letter, which I publish unabridged at the bottom of this article.
Despite or maybe due to his disappointments Nico still continues to visit Moldova yearly and he is full of new ideas to make aid more effective. Pro Visie cannot and does not aim to support large projects but the sparkle of hope the foundation can bring makes it worthwhile. Because it is possible.
Returning to Chișinău after his first visit he tried to find the lady in the park. To no avail, she was no longer there and Nico assumed the winter had taken its toll and she had not survived. He, however, continues with his work with the same dedication.
This is the support letter (and photos) I received from some of the beneficiaries of the aid Pro Visie gives:
How we used the donation of seeds in the district of Soroca
The multidisciplinary team of the Community Mental Health Center in Soroca district (Republic Moldova) has a beautiful tradition. Each spring, the beneficiaries of the Center receive a donation of seeds from the Dutch family Nico and Yolanda Swart. Moldovan beneficiaries of mental health community services receive seeds of vegetables and fruits. The seeds are carefully planted and grown by beneficiaries and families in their gardens and orchards. During the summer, when it is very hot, the plants are irrigated in the expectation of a richer harvest.
Many of our beneficiaries grew up in villages. They ”feel” the land and know a lot of gardening secrets. This is also their way of being active, doing something important, interesting and useful for their families and friends.
We would like to start by thanking the family Nico and Yolanda Swart for their donation to the beneficiaries of the Community Mental Health Center in Orhei.
The donation was very useful for our beneficiaries. It had a big impact on their mobility and motivation. Also, it helped their relationships with their families.
The beneficiaries had good harvest of peas, pumpkins, zucchini, onion, sweet pepper, tomatoes, beets, carrots, spring radish, and Matthiola flowers.
One of our beneficiaries has grown a special passion for cultivating flowers and vegetables. The offered seeds helped her to build her own small greenhouse of organic vegetables.