You are here

The day we become silent about things that matter

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To a leader of Maidan civic activists,  social business pioneer Terry Hallman was a 'Hero of Ukraine' we both spoke to him on the day before he died when his only concern was the children he'd made the primary focus of his work.

His experience draws our attention to how difficult it can be to speak up when the vulnerable are at risk.

In Ukraine, under a written constitution, it's the responsibility of all residents to act where the vulnerable are being harmed.  

The ongoing media examination of how Jimmy Savile could have abused children over so many years raises many questions about the willingness of those close to him to speak out.  Those who tried, it seems, were dismissed.   This was a man doing good for others on a major scale, he was also a valuable commercial  asset for the BBC.

As the revelations continue to emerge, we’ve learned how those most vulnerable were at greatest risk – those at the margins of society who were institutionalised,  considered a problem for society and an opportunity for predators.

Consider this issue on a global scale, where the vulnerable are even less protected. Take the example of Ukraine’s Forgotten Children, a recent BBC4 documentary.


Although the the narrative claims that nobody is speaking out, this is a story the BBC removed from their Action Network in 2006.  

When in 2006, we first learned of how disabled children were mistreated in Ukraine’s state care, it seemed important to speak out about a place called Torez. We were given permission to reproduce part of an NGOs report but  couldn’t mention the location or the people involved for fear of others being harmed.  There was another dimension in that the NGO who had photographic evidence, feared also being shut out of the work they were doing and losing support of their donors who’d see nothing for their  social investment.

In his Death Camps, For Children article Terry Hallman wrote of this dilemma, saying:

“I pleaded with the researcher to allow me to publish the full letter. The full letter, along with what I know and what HRW published in December 1998, would provide three entirely independent sources corroborating the same information. Request was refused on what the team deemed to be “ethical” grounds: they were sworn to secrecy immediately on arrival, and told that staff would fired and charity aid workers would be expelled and prevented from returning. That had already happened before, with aid organizations having been shut out for four years.

I don’t know if I’m stretching ethics here or not. On the one hand, I am bound by confidentiality and respect for the Western team’s work, as well as legitimate concern that everyone could be shut out entirely via mere mention of this information publicly. At the same time, silence will continue to prolong a deadly situation. What the Western team was told three weeks ago is exactly what the HRW team was told seven years ago. Obviously, perpetrating silence remains the status quo, and therefore nothing has changed. The Western team didn’t know about the HRW report until after the fact, when I pointed it out to them last week. They’re at least reconsidering their promise of silence, but feel bound by their own word — unwitting though it may have been — to keep silent. I hope that they will ultimately recognize that their overriding obligation is to their clients — kids in concentration camps, as they themselves put it — above the interests of people keeping their jobs and certain powers-that-be threatening to shut these kids off from any further help from the outside world. In the meantime, I’m trying to strike a fair balance between confidentiality and avoiding being a party to death by silence. I think I have a greater moral obligation to speak than to keep quiet.”

After the  formal strategy paper for large scale intervention was published online the following year, we connected with a young charity leader named Albert Pavlov who posted part of it on his website.

“The most urgent component of the project below is relief and modern medical treatment for tens of thousands of Ukraine’s children diagnosed as psychoneurologically handicapped. Many have died in state care, in primitive and inhumane conditions. Many are misdiagnosed, and end up in atrocious conditions. Following intense publicity and public discussion of the issue during final preparation of this project, Ukraine’s government agreed on 5 March, 2007 to open more than 400 new treatment facilities for these children all over Ukraine. That commitment from Ukraine’s government was a major step forward, clearly demonstrating Ukraine’s willingness and ability to take initiative in childcare reform first and foremost.”

He knew what was going on in some of these institutions and a few months later would be too  late to save a boy named Andreyuska from starvation in a place called Kalinovka (the location featured 5 years later in the BBC documentary) .  It’s not possible to keep silent he declared sending ripples across the country:

“What is happening at the facility for disabled children at Kalinovka (Zaporozhye Oblast) is simply intolerable in a civilized society. The death of an orphan child in a remote village where there is almost complete lack of medical care—is it really possible in the 21st century?”

Mikhailo Syrota was a highly respected politician a lawmaker who was considered the father of Ukraine’s written constitution.  The constitution which spells out the responsibility of residents to act where the vulnerable are at risk. In 2008, he spoke out about the prostitution of infants in state care:

“There’s a whore-house in Odesa where 3 to 6-year old kids are used as prostitutes. Officially, it is called the Zhemchuzhyna orphanage and in which 60 boys and girls live. They are regularly raped by adult clients. Who provides a cover for it? – The law-enforcement agencies. I have to do something about it. A have a 6-year old grandson, and when I think that my grandson can be one of them, I can kill the criminals with my bare hands. Now they tell me that vice is easier to be dealt with when my deputy immunity from prosecution is lifted. But a lawmaker must be protected against coercion and harassment from anyone, law-enforcement including,”

Five months later he was dead, from a mysterious road traffic accidemt in a remote location.

Appeals for support from politicians and business leaders fell on deaf ears.   In February 2008, for example,  a fax to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reached  those that now hold presidential office.  It would be met with a dismissal, there being insufficiant budget for a group of ‘retarded children’

"Practically everyone has been afraid to even talk about it, never mind try and change anything.  Local judiciary have considered it to be impossible to fix the problem, because of mafia.  Not that judiciary and others who know approve in any way.  Like most other people, they have families to think about, and that’s that.  It takes considerable time before anyone will open to say anything at all, even in hushed whispers.  Children are left in conditions of neglect and medical ignorance, without benefit of even the most basic modern medical interventions that could reduce their suffering and give them a life reflecting human compassion that the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens want for all of Ukraine’s children, in my experience.  Whether these kids live or die is of little, if any, concern to mafia.  Many kids die from sheer human neglect.  Staffers cannot possibly provide the level of nurture needed, because there’s not enough staff.  There’s not enough staff because taking care of kids isn’t even the point.  The main function is extraction of money from state and regional budgets.  Regardless of how and why this came about, whether or not this arrangement was intentional from the start or emerged out of Ukraine’s twisted, tragic modern history, that is what is going on."

In 2009 Sir Richard Branson had been at the Davos Ukrainian lunch, speaking of how business should focus on social problems.  I contacted the Virgin Unite foundation, offering to lead the way.

David Cameron has spoken about ethical capitalism as Davos too. I raised a pettion to ask for his support.

The European Union, recently awarded a Nobel Peace Prize would when challenged, attempt to hide the evidence of our efforts.

Former EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, an advocate for Ukraine’s moguls to gain access to EU markets would as UK business secretary, pledge support  for those helping others.  There was clearly a powerful commercial interest in airbrushing Ukraine’s human rights issues, however.

It was increasingly evident that, in spite of the rhetoric, this is where nobody wanted to go. We had shared our proposals for social enterprise development with the British Council who are sponsors of Guardian media. My blog on re-imagining capitalism was not acceptable because it referred to issues that were to be brushed aside.  

The key message in the 2006 'Marshall Plan' was this:

“This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for “people-centered” economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority – as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether. This is in keeping with the fundamental objectives of Marshall Plan: policy aimed at hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. This is a bottom-up approach, starting with Ukraine’s poorest and most desperate citizens, rather than a “top-down” approach that might not ever benefit them. They cannot wait, particularly children. Impedance by anyone or any group of people constitutes precisely what the original Marshall Plan was dedicated to opposing. Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first — not secondarily, along the way or by the way. “


In 2008 for their Citizens Consultation, we told the EU

"The most urgent component of the project below is relief and modern medical treatment for tens of thousands of Ukraine’s children diagnosed as psychoneurologically handicapped. Many have died in state care, in primitive and inhumane conditions. Many are misdiagnosed, and end up in atrocious conditions. Following intense publicity and public discussion of the issue during final preparation of this project, Ukraine’s government agreed on 5 March, 2007 to open more than 400 new treatment facilities for these children all over Ukraine. That commitment from Ukraine’s government was a major step forward, clearly demonstrating Ukraine’s willingness and ability to take initiative in childcare reform first and foremost."


Before Terry Hallman died, he wrote in his notes on Ukraine

“I compiled and wrote a microeconomic development blueprint for Ukraine nationally.  The English version was completed in October 2006, at which time I discussed the project with Ukrainian officials in Kharkiv.  Central to the project was a center for social enterprise, the purpose of which was to provide education on principles of developing enterprises whose aims were to be self-sustaining and to address specific social problems systemically.  That was and is the only way to even begin to address and resolve the widespread problems left in the wake of Ukraine’s prior government.  The entire nation, the whole system, was badly damaged.  Repair and relief in any one area, such as childcare reform — a horrific mess — could only happen by dealing with the entire social, economic and political system as a whole. Dealing only with the various discrete elements would not work.  There had to be a wide-scale reformation of the whole system in order to fix any one part of it.

The blueprint underwent a series of six translations into Ukrainian, first to translate concepts, then to refine the language to acceptable academic standards.  University professors and certified translators disagreed with some language of any given translation, thus the refinement process.  After six translations and seeming endless discussion over a three month period, the final paper was delivered to Kharkiv National University on February 20, 2007, for immediate release to government officials as they saw fit.  Two weeks later, Kyiv announced agreement on the central point and metric of the paper: modern rehabilitation treatment facilities for Ukraine’s most vulnerable people.  Those were, and are, children diagnosed as psychoneurologically disabled and hidden away in isolated, remote rural locations to live or die.  Death was common and an accepted norm due to neglect arising from almost incomprehensible medical ignorance, corruption and misappropriation of millions of dollars in funding channels that were supposed to assist the children, and entrenched protection of that money stream for benefit of what some judges characterized to me as Ukrainian mafia.  The point was not the welfare of the kids as much as siphoning off millions of dollars budgeted to protect and assist them.  

 Opening up the reality of that situation resulted in threats against me and anyone else interfering with that system.  I came under direct assault by tax police, government’s primary enforcement arm if anyone steps out of line.  This is not a research activity where many, if any, other people dared to participate.  UNICEF was willfully blind to the matter because it was just too dangerous to bother to intercede  Powerful interests remained entrenched with enforcers to make it dangerous.  Jurists were correct, in my view.  It was more a mafia operation than anything else, aimed at misappropriation and laundering of large money.  That was perfectly congruent with how Ukraine operated before the revolution.  USAID wanted nothing to do with it, nor would they fund any organizations or activists who might try.  Some things could be done and some things could not be done.  Helping these children was something that could not be done.  So, I exposed it and made it the central focus and metric of Ukraine’s microeconomic development blueprint.  In that context, it was far more difficult to ignore, dismiss, or argue about.  For about six months, I really did not expect to survive.  Nevertheless, Ukraine’s government finally conceded the point and announced the opening of more than four hundred new treatment centers for children who were theretofore invisible under tight and deadly enforcement.”

Speaking out incurred both dismissal and hostility including an ongoing smear campaign

In my summary of overall impact I relate how in  2006, the Death Camps for Children article was considered inappropriate for BBC media and in 2012, the BBC4 broadcast on Ukraine’s Forgotten Children declared that aside from one woman, nobody was speaking out about this issue.

Likewise, when the story of Torez, the location that couldn’t be revealed 5 years earlier, reached the Sunday Times and was reproduced in Kyiv Post, we were told.

“We are all guilty of inaction. The violation of human rights in Ukraine is one of the pressing issues of our day. The suppression of freedom of speech, the control of the right of assembly, the oppressive use of the tax police and the blatant banditry of the road police however all pale into insignificance when compared to the wanton starvation of disabled children by those whom the state has empowered to protect them.   “

"This story will reverberate right around the world and so it should. Ukraine will be judged not by the actions of this cruel few but on how the case is now handled by the authorities. However, we must also look to ourselves for it is no longer acceptable to look the other way.

The Ukrainian maxim: “I saw nothing, my home is on the other side of the village” has no place in the modern world. If by our deliberate blindness, children are allowed to suffer such depravities then, by our inaction, we are all guilty."

The Sunday Times goes on to identify an oligarch who’ll resolve the problem over the next 5 years

“One champion of these needy children is billionaire Rinat Akhmetov. He has set aside millions to close down every state children’s home in Ukraine by 2017 and replace it with international-standard foster homes. He is right for doing so. After all, a sizable proportion of people in Ukrainian prisons spent their childhood in state care.”

It was precisely what had been proposed 6 years earlier in 2006,  when the same oligarch was identified, in ‘Death Camps for Children’ , saying:

“Excuses won’t work, particularly in light of a handful of oligarchs in Ukraine having been allowed to loot Ukraine’s economy for tens of billions of dollars. I point specifically to Akhmetov, Pinchuk, Poroshenko, and Kuchma, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list. These people can single-handedly finance 100% of all that will ever be needed to save Ukraine’s orphans. None of them evidently bother to think past their bank accounts, and seem to have at least tacit blessings at this point from the new regime to keep their loot while no one wants to consider Ukraine’s death camps, and the widespread poverty that produced them..”

When Terry Hallman wrote his article - What is social enterprise? I knew precisely what he was saying:

"Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not."

It was an echo of what he told Bill Clinton all those years ago.


Social Enterprise: Journalism in denial

JK Rowling speaks up for orphans