EU expert: social policy should be based on real needs

Ukraine’s system of social services remains among the most critical issues of public policy in the country. More social challenges have arisen as a result of the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and volunteers, despite their huge effort, are not always enough to tackle these complex problems.

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Andrey Tretyak, the EU twinning advisor and expert on social policies

The experts of the EU-funded project on social services development in Ukraine analyse and discuss European practices with their Ukrainian counterparts. To make the lives of vulnerable people easier, the experts suggest concrete steps to improve the efficiency of social services in Ukraine. We sat down with Andrey Tretyak, the EU twinning advisor and expert on social policies, to try to understand what social reforms are needed in Ukraine.

– What are the key differences between the Ukrainian and European systems of social services?

The first and foremost difference is that the system of social services in Ukraine is a descendant of the Soviet model. In itself, there is nothing wrong with it: the Soviet Union was a pioneer in implementing some innovative social policies in the early 1920s. Some of these policies have even influenced the development of European social services systems.

But the two systems used different paradigms as their foundations. The Soviet system developed its social policies based on the concept of full employment, the belief that everyone able to work should be integrated into a productive system. Those not willing to work could even be forced to work and unjustified inactivity was perceived very badly. Hence, the majority of Soviet citizens were employed and therefore safe from extreme poverty. The social protection system targeted the people who could not be integrated into normal working activity (children, elderly, disabled) as well as social groups who have earned privileges (outstanding working results) or have suffered (war, catastrophes). Poverty was not targeted by this social system and was perceived as the responsibility, or even the fault, of the poor people.

By contrast, Western European countries developed within the market economy, where unemployment cannot be avoided. That’s why European countries have oriented their social protection systems to support people who find themselves temporarily in difficult situations (unemployment, disability, etc.) with the aim of helping them reintegrate into normal life as quickly as possible. It is cheaper to support these people immediately following a life change and to help them reintegrate than to support them continuously afterwards.

Here is the fundamental difference. The main differences between the systems are illustrated in the treatment of homeless and unemployed people. In the Ukrainian post-Soviet system, such people tend to be treated as lazy and responsible for their own situation.

– What does this mean in practice?

It means that in Ukraine people receive state support only if they are seen to deserve it, like war veterans, or people suffered from the Chernobyl disaster. In Europe, support is given to those in poverty to help them reintegrate into society.

– This means that the European model of social protection is not about granting awards of merit, but about meeting needs. In this context, how is it possible to determine if a person really needs state support?

There are several ways to verify this. In Europe, where the majority of incomes are registered in the fiscal system, it is possible to apply the mechanisms of mean-testing to assess the total revenue of households. In countries with a big share on “informal” economy (i.e. grey, undeclared revenues), the social benefits are often accompanied by obligations. This means that people must do something productive to get financial support from state. For example, unemployment benefits might be closely linked with public works and beneficiaries could build a flowerbed. I assure you that people who don’t in fact need this money will refuse to do this type of community service.

– Does this model work in the EU?

Most EU countries currently apply this model. Obviously, a perfect model does not exist and the systems are always evolving in every EU country. The latest trend is conditional cash transfers, which means providing state support is attached to an obligation to change a behaviour. To give an example, a person receiving targeted social assistance might be required to take retraining and get a new job, or people with disabilities are encouraged to integrate the workplace.

– Should there be any laws to achieve such integration in Ukraine?

Ukraine actually has quite good legislation, but sometimes it doesn’t work as it is meant to.

– Why?

Because of the way the laws are adopted. When the law on disability was being revised in France in 2005, it took two years. A working group that included all stakeholders – beneficiaries, NGOs, specialists, researchers – discussed the law for two years, and in the end the society as a whole agreed on the final version.

A Ukrainian official might not understand why those people would bother wasting two years of their time since a law can be written in a week by drawing on several European laws. The outcome of that kind of process might be a really good law, but it won’t work in Ukraine because it is not based on consensus or on the needs of Ukrainian society.

The French law is more effective because stakeholders contributed to its development. Laws should be based on consensus in society rather than simply copy-pasting European legislation. Some European norms will not work in Ukraine right now because the values here are different and the population sometimes has a different perspective on social issues.

– Going back to determining people’s needs. There is an on-going debate in Ukraine on whether to eliminate “cross subsidies” on gas bills. Elimination of these subsidies would increase gas and heating costs for households. It is argued that, in order to help the poorest people (who cannot afford high prices), the state should, together with increasing prices, provide targeted subsidies to the poorest, so that they could pay their bills. But how is it possible to know whether a person really needs this subsidy if many do not declare their salaries for tax purposes? Are there any European practices that could help?

The principle is the same. We should move from the logic of assistance towards the logic of social integration. A person should be required do something useful for society and/or change his or her behaviour in order to get the subsidy. In such case, only those who really need public support will ask for it.

– Let me ask, finally, what, in your opinion, are the three most important steps the Ukrainian government should take on social policy?

The first step is to properly identify people who really need the social assistance. Currently, this is one of the main problems facing Ukraine’s system. The present system of determining people’s needs is inefficient because of conflicts of interest: the same institutions provide the information about people in need, and receive funds from the state budget to provide them social care, so they have an interest in identifying more potential beneficiaries.

Decentralisation of social care could solve this problem, so the second step is to decentralise social budgets. This should be done gradually, beginning at the oblast level for instance. If you immediately hand over power to provide social care to the municipal level, social policy will collapse. There are often not enough people with the expertise necessary to prioritise social policy issues at the village level.

And the final step would be decentralisation of financing, which means that the state should finance services instead of financing the institutions that provide these services.


The Project «Support for the Development of the Social Services System in Ukraine» was implemented within the EU-financed Twinning Cooperation Programme during 2012-2014. Within the project representatives of governmental structures of France analysed the situation in Ukraine in the field of social services provision. They also provided recommendations for more effective policy and provision of social services for the most vulnerable population of Ukraine in accordance with the European standards.

Find the official video of the Project here

For more information, please contact: +38 (044) 278-52-90,

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