Working on environmental policy in Ukraine is ‘not a job in the classical public sector’

Where should you work if you want to change the country? Stay in the private sector, or take a risk and transfer to the state sector? Olena Volkova chose the second option, and has no regrets. Here she shares her insights about working in the Environmental Policy and Natural Resources Management Committee, speaking about what motivates her, and her goals.

From volunteer to MP’s assistant

Olena Volkova became engaged in environmental topics because she found simply building a regular career in the public sector unfulfilling. “I wanted to do something useful, so that somebody could benefit from my work,” she says. The public servant started to look for like-minded people in the NGO sector, and found them in the Ukrainian Youth Climate Association. Volkova offered them her assistance and started to volunteer for the organization.

The activist began to organize events and popularize topics linked to the environment. She was also trying to promote these themes in the Verkhovna Rada. However, she said, it was more difficult to find an audience there. She had to explain again and again to the deputies and their assistants why this or that draft law on the environment was important, and had to be paid attention to.

Meanwhile, as an activist, Volkova travelled to Peru to the UN Conference on Climate Change in 2014. This experience gave her even more motivation to pursue environmental topics.

“At that point, almost nobody talked about climate in Ukraine,” Volkova says. “When I started such discussions, people just smirked. The UN conference showed me how many people are actually looking for solutions to combat climate change.”

Returning from the conference, she immediately went to the Minister of Ecology saying: “We need to make statements about the climate. Until there are actual requirements, nobody will know what is happening. Educational work alone is not enough.”

Volkova wanted to work in the Environmental Policy and Natural Resources Management Committee, and the opportunity arose last year. The committee was looking for an environmental specialist, and suggested that she should apply for this position. This is how she became an MP’s assistant. Volkova says that while working for the committee she has managed to influence certain decisions, such as the adoption of a law on monitoring greenhouse gas emissions.

Non-governmental or governmental sector?

Volkova attended the UN Climate Conference for a second time five years later, now as a member of the official delegation of the Government of Ukraine. She smiles when asked “which was better?”

“The NGO sector rushes to various demonstrations, while the public sector attends formal meetings,” she says. “The activists do everything far more emotionally. We do things more deeply. The official delegation has a better understanding of the technical details and the legal nuances. While civil society works with awareness-raising, it’s the state that makes the decisions.”

Volkova believes that civil society’s task is to ensure that the decisions made by the state are right. However, many activists do not want to interact with politicians. “They say they are apolitical and against any cooperation. But how will they achieve their goals then? Nothing will change without influencing decision-making at the state level,” Volkova says.

The MP’s assistant believes it will be very difficult to succeed without having an active dialogue, and the integration of environmental activists into the public sector. She is glad that Iryna Stavchuk, who used to lead the Ecoaction Centre for Environmental Initiatives, is now the deputy minister of the environment. They have known each other for a while, so now can resolve pressing issues even via social media.

“It’s not like work in the classical public sector. We have idea-driven people who have a direct impact on decision-making, so everything moves faster. Now we have both transparency and productivity,” Volkova says.

What’s next?

Volkova aims to ensure there is a public examination of draft laws, so that deputies can have quick access to external analyses. Moreover, she hopes to train a future generation of politicians who will specialize in environmental topics. She emphasizes again that civil society activists, who already have such knowledge, do not always want to be engaged in politics.

“We don’t have an expert dialogue, you see. There are no experts who can come (to MPs) and say what is right, what is wrong, and why. So we’ll have to train them,” the MP’s assistant explains.

Who could become such experts? In her opinion, first and foremost they should be MP assistants who are interested in these topics and who want to develop further in this direction. “These are people who have already come into politics. We just need to provide them with the relevant knowledge,” Volkova says.

Apart from a lack of experts in the public sector, according to Volkova, there is often also a lack of willingness to build a dialogue. But the activist is still enthusiastic, and says that she has learned to overcome such resistance.

“Any wall can be broken. The question is how to do it. From the front, from the right, from the left, or all sides at once,” she smiles.

Her influence is starting to have good results, she says. Deputies who had to be coached in certain issues for a while are now starting to come back to Volkova saying: “This is a great topic, let’s develop it!”

UNDP conducted a series of trainings to study in detail the environmental requirements of Ukraine under its Association Agreement with the European Union. This series of educational sessions provided MPs with a roadmap of draft laws that have to be implemented.

“I always check with it to see where we still have gaps,” Volkova says. “Of course, we want to do everything all at once, but they have to be done in order. For example, it’s not that easy just to ban plastic. This law has to be integrated into the law on waste packaging. But first we have to adopt a law on waste. It’s all connected, so one needs patience.”

Volkova hopes that very soon deputies will have access to an environmental education and a network of activists with expert knowledge. She also dreams that there will be an environmental party in Ukraine.

“They say that such a party would be utopian, because (environmentalism) is economically unbeneficial,” says Volkova. “But in my opinion, there are some things more important than income. They are where we live, and what we breathe. Income loses its importance if people are not healthy.”

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This story is a part of a communication campaign about environmental changemakers, which became possible thanks to the UNDP project “Support to the Parliament of Ukraine on sustainable energy and environment” with the financial support of Sweden.

Author: Yuliya Hudoshnyk. Edited by: Euan Macdonald, Yuliya Samus, UNDP
Photos are kindly provided by Olena Volkova.

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