Tuesday, April 13, 2010


When I came to Azerbaijan, I had no experience or understanding of grants. Most volunteers write at least one grant while they are here. Grants are offered by charitable organizations or governments. They outline what they will pay for and ask for applications. Those who submit the winning applications get the money.

In my town, for example, the Japanese government gave $100,000 to a local organization that trains adults in topics such as English, welding, knitting and computer skills. They used much of the money to install air conditioning and central heating so that it is comfortable for the trainees. They also bought a few new computers.

Many grants are smaller. I worked on a grant in which we asked for travel money for young people to visit other cities in the country. This idea would have sounded strange to me before I came here, but now it sounds perfectly logical. I got the idea because as I travel around this small country (the size of Maine) I am surprised at the young people who are proud of their country, but have never been anywhere. It is cheap to travel here and if they planned, most families could take a day trip to a local city to have fun and see some of these sites. But they rarely do.

What makes it stranger is that if you ask the people over 40, most have extensive travel experience, but it all happened before the fall of the Soviet Union. They can talk about travel to Russia and the other 13 former Soviet countries, as well as travel around Azerbaijan.

Part of the ability to travel in those days is that people had more money then. Everyone had a job (it was required), while now I think unemployment is more normal than having a job. The other reason is that the Young Pioneer Camps offered opportunities for youth to travel in their own countries and attend cultural events and summer camps.

I remember my mother talking about these camps when I was a child. She told me they were Communist propaganda camps that Soviet children were required to attend and they were filling the heads of the youth with lies about the West. I am not sure about that, but when I got here, I started hearing nostalgic stories about these camps from the over-40 folks. They talk about being taken to see the ballet, opera, classical music concerts, and to other cities to attend museums, go hiking and attend athletic events. There were community centers with gymnasiums and rooms set aside for music and crafts.

As I traveled in a lovely mountain area last year I saw very large, very badly deteriorated buildings on a beautiful hillside. The windows were broken and the roofs were falling in. I asked and found that these were former summer camp buildings for Soviet children. They played sports, hiked and had a great time being in the fresh air with other kids outside of their cities.

Kids today rarely have the opportunity to play any sports, travel or have cultural experiences. Our idea is that since families are out of the habit of traveling and most feel they can’t afford to even spend one day in another nearby city or in the country, we would apply for a grant, take the kids on a guided tour of another city, with some free time. They would be able to see some of their cultural heritage and history, some beautiful natural areas and may be inspired to travel again on their own.

The young man who did most of the writing of the grant studied in America for one year during high school. This is in a program that is funded by the US Government. Young people who speak excellent English can go through an application process and live with host families in America for a year and attend high school There is a similar program for college students. When he went to America and was asked to talk about his country from his own experience, he had to say that he had never seen much outside of his town. He wants better for other kids who have the opportunity to study in America and also for kids who will spend their whole lives here.

It seems that an important issued for Americans is to communicate America’s positive values to foreigners. I think a very good and cheap way to do this is through education programs. I have met dozens of kids who have been through these programs and all feel friendly toward Americans and excited about their experiences. After their eductation in the US, many become leaders in their countries. Of course, this works even better for prominent families of foreign countries. Jordan is one of our few friends in the Middle East. A big factor could be that the father of the king of Jordan married an American woman and the king has spent time in America.

Since I have been here, I realize how much other countries do for foreign aid worldwide. My perception was that the US was the world leader, but I am finding out that is not so. On a per capita basis, Norway gives 6 times more than the US for both government and private contributions. It seems to me that in Azerbaijan, Norway may be the best-known country for charitable organizations. Norwegians seem to be everywhere, from running micro-credit organizations to cultural and humanitarian organizations and hiring a lot of Azerbaijanis to work with them. Other countries that give many times more aid worldwide than the US are Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland. The UK gives about 1 ½ times what we do worldwide. Of course, this is good news for many Americans and I don't have a position the issue, but I was surprised at the statistics.

We will hear in May if we have the grant money. If so, we will start traveling in June.