A year at a Ukrainian orphanage taught valuable lessons about the consequences both of giving in to corruption and of giving without thought.
I thought I would be unable to sleep because of the cockroaches, but I was out cold until the nurse’s shout startled me awake: “Blood drawings at 6:10!” I slipped off my cot, smiled encouragement to Anya, and helped her down the hallway. The air was stale and close, becoming unbearable as we approached the tiny, filthy room that served as a toilet for the 50 patients and visitors in the ward. Now that the sun was nearing the horizon, the irregular fluorescent lights had been turned off, leaving only the gray sky to provide light through double-paned windows. A doctor, standing in a hall recess, quietly accepted a bribe from a father desperate to help his child.
It was this action—the bribery and all that it represented—that tormented me during the year I spent working with orphans in Ukraine. An equally criminal tormentor was what I call thoughtless philanthropy: when someone gives for his own gratification or according to generous, negligent instinct. Instead of acting on godly love, the thoughtless philanthropist acts, wittingly or unwittingly, on self- serving love. Bribery and thoughtless philanthropy tormented me more than the risk of infection represented by the nurse who treated Anya (she wore the same gloves to take blood from more than a dozen patients), and more than the toilet, which is a not insignificant statement for someone who has been forced to walk through raw sewage. Evil flourishes as a result of such acts.
Following graduation from Dartmouth College in June 2011, I worked in Ukraine for one year as a post-graduate fellow, focusing on the prevention of human trafficking by helping orphans graduate to employment or higher education—and healthy family relationships. The mission of Children’s Hope, the organization with which I worked, is to help educate, clothe, and provide medical care and safety nets for needy children, specifically those at the Komarivka village orphanage in northern Ukraine.
Children graduating from orphanages in Ukraine lack the basic skills, support structures, and guidance nec- essary to make a successful adjustment to independent and responsible adult life. Having been raised in institutions and unhappy families (including situations of extreme poverty, alcoholism, neglect, and abuse), these children have never experienced a normal, healthy family life to emulate in their relationships with their own spouses and children. Frequently, as a substitute for family support, they seek out love and comfort from unhealthy relationships in a way that puts them at risk for abuse, single pregnancy, and trafficking, in addition to dependence on alcohol and narcotics. Children’s Hope works to shield orphans from these substitutes through transition homes, educational classes, and providing much-needed personal interaction.
As the organization’s representative “in the field,” I visited the Komarivka orphanage on a daily basis to work with 120 children between the ages of six and sixteen. I tackled a wide variety of tasks, including initiating communications with Ukrainian social services repre- sentatives, translating legal documents, working alongside villagers in the fields at planting and harvest time, meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, facilitating surgeries, and interpreting for my supervisor during meetings. As I traveled frequently from village to town to city, I interacted with a diverse cross-section of the Ukrainian population, visited nursing homes and hospitals, and rode in trains and buses. Everywhere, I witnessed corruption.
For most of the year, I lived in a communal apartment with Ukrainian university students in the town of Nizhyn. “Never open the door if someone knocks,” was the first piece of advice I received from one of my roommates. “Why?” I inquired. “It might just be robbers,” my Ukrainian friend conceded, “but it could be the police.” There was nothing unusual about her answer. When I asked some of my students to act out a skit, they performed a scene in which a police officer pulls over a driver, threatens him, and demands a bribe. This was a scenario I experienced nearly every time I got in a car. A Ukrainian co-worker of mine was arrested secretly on trumped-up charges, interrogated for hours, and eventually shown a rope and informed that they would hang him and call it suicide if he did not give them the money he received from the Americans.
Corruption affects all of Ukrainian society, including orphanages. Laws are left open to interpretation, so there is no guarantee that if you do everything Bureaucrat A tells you, you will be obeying the law according to Bureaucrat B. Sometimes, laws are purposefully written to be all but impossible to obey, allowing bureaucrats to collect “unofficial fees” (bribes) to circumvent them. Paperwork delayed for years, steep fines, and threats of imprisonment are used to persuade even the most conscientious law-abiders to pay off authority figures.
Principled students speak freely and unashamedly about paying their professors to receive higher grades. It is understood that if you fail to give your doctor a sizeable bribe, you will receive substan- dard care. Corruption affected my ability to stay in the country, the building of our new transition home Smile House, the Komarivka orphans’ education level and medical care, and even their family life. I spoke with one mother who sent two of her sons to the Komarivka orphanage after being persuaded by the orphanage director that they would have a better life there: the director is paid according to how many children are in his orphanage, which gives him the incentive to recruit children even from the best of families.
It must be understood that corruption in Ukraine has its root in the Ukrainian economy and history. Policemen, doctors, and teachers are paid very poorly and rely on bribes to supplement their paychecks. Astronomically high taxes encourage a flourishing black market that relies on the mafia for protection. Bribery and under- the-table dealings are accepted as the most efficient way to accomplish anything. The recent history of Ukraine is one of upheaval and economic uncertainty, which has created little respect for the rule of law and a dependence on oneself rather than governmental authorities.
Understanding the practicality and background of corruption in Ukraine should not obscure the fact that the results are monstrous. Every time a person pays a bribe, he or she supports a system in which officials can be bought and in which the law carries no respect. The cost is justice and human life: surgeons obtain their degrees without learning anything; the police remain a contemptible force to be feared; commerce is inter- rupted; roads are not maintained; society is sharply divided into the haves and the have-nots; laws are not enforced; people are reluctant to work hard to achieve something, because effort is not correlated to progress; political opponents of those in power are imprisoned; children and adults are trafficked while officials are paid to turn a blind eye.
In my work, I faced an agonizing decision: pay bribes and thereby give my support to the entire corrupt system, or categorically refuse to pay any bribes on moral grounds and accept the consequences, which would significantly cripple my mission. I, along with my co-workers, chose the latter. In spite of my general inclination toward practicality, I never once paid a bribe or “unofficial fine.” I was blessed to see some positive results: I witnessed Ukrainians, inspired by our reactions to corruption, refusing to pay bribes; I learned that tenacity can sometimes open the same doors as dollars, even when it was said to be impossible.
Yet I cannot condemn the other choice. The cost of honesty and integrity in Ukraine is time, which can mean not reaching dozens of individual children. Our God values the individual, and when confronted with the very real possibility that one of our orphans would end up crippled, or blind, or trafficked due to the refusal to pay a bribe, I questioned my choice. Who, after all, can condemn Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, who paid bribes that supported the Nazi system in a small way, and yet through those actions saved the lives of over 1,200 people?
A simpler issue, though one of no less importance, is the question of how to serve and love others. One hot summer day, I was walking to a Kyiv metro stop when the sight of a woman and child arrested me mid-step. The woman was sitting on a dirty cloth and holding a young child who was filthy and covered in open sores. My initial instinct, in horror and pity, was to give the woman money. It almost immediately clashed with a second instinct. Wait. Something is not right. I passed by.
In retrospect (and this is why one must wrestle with these issues at home so as to be prepared when the situation arises), I should not have so blindly followed either instinct. I should have spoken with the woman. I should have evaluated my instincts. (If I had been in America, I should have called the police.) I later discovered that this woman and others like her were controlled by pimps who drugged the infants (to prevent them from crying) and collected the money given by kind passersby. In other words, the incentive for keeping these babies drugged and in appalling condition day after day was the donation of the thoughtless philanthropist.
Good intentions are not enough. People with excellent intentions gave a large-screen television to the orphanage, and other people with excellent intentions give out fistfuls of candy to the children. The television is on for most of the day, showing Ukrainian music videos that appear to promote prostitution and rape and badly dubbed X-rated American movies with scenes of sadistic violence. The girls proudly imitate the dance moves and clothing styles, and the boys pretend to kill each other in brutal ways. The candy does less psychological harm, but most of the children have mouthfuls of soft, rotting, blue-gray teeth.
The thoughtful, rather than merely well-intentioned, philanthropist should note that what these children lack is family and guidance. Unfortunately, these are two things difficult for money to buy. Gifts can have great value as representations of affection and individual care. However, they can also serve to cheapen relationships when given too often or without the accompaniment of personal interaction, at which point the child learns to exploit people for material gain rather than to seek out mutually beneficial relationships. Self-serving love will not take the time to discover the deepest needs of the “loved” person. It will not deny the instant gratification of gift-giving. In contrast, godly love is found in those who research charities before donating, who dedicate themselves to seeking out the best way to serve others, and who do not shy away from breaking their own hearts to do what is in the best interests of another.
It is difficult to weather storms posed by issues such as corruption and philanthropy. It is easy to succumb to despair, to selfishness, or to an obsessive “whatever means necessary” mentality. Our motivation directly impacts our success. The motivation “to serve mankind” is corruptible, as is the motivation “to make a difference.” Ukraine, incidentally, was the location of some of the most perverted results of such motivations, as the Soviets “in the name of the people” systematically starved 5 to 7 million people to death in 1932 and 1933.
If we operate instead under the motivation of doing what is pleasing to God, our hope is in Him, our mistakes are less severe, and our strayings from the path of righteousness shorter-lived. Corruption and thoughtless philanthropy are best fought with the desire to do what is right, merely because it is right. Paul instructs the Corinthians, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does” (2 Corinthians 10:3). We should be motivated not by a cause, but by God’s goodness.