The BEARR Trust 30 years on
BEARR’s Chairman Nicola Ramsden reflects on the Trust’s development over the past 30 years.
The BEARR Trust’s 30th anniversary is also that of the Soviet Union’s sudden dissolution in 1991. Reflections on the evolution of the former union and on the progress of the small UK-based charity that still works in most of the subsequently independent states are inevitably intertwined.
As Louisa Long describes in the first of three articles tracing BEARR’s history, BEARR started by coordinating and delivering emergency medical and humanitarian supplies across Russia and to Georgia. The decision to form BEARR in November 1991, and the speed with which its founders amassed support, sprang from goodwill and a desire for cooperation between British health and social welfare organisations and the voluntary groups that were rapidly forming in former Soviet states.
The early phase of emergency deliveries was short-lived, although BEARR kept its name without drawing attention to the ‘E’ for ‘Emergency’. The original impetus of goodwill and cooperation also endured, and has now animated BEARR’s work for 30 years. However, BEARR’s approach to supporting the health and social welfare of vulnerable people in former Soviet countries has changed radically in response to geopolitical developments and the questioning of traditional models of international aid.
The past three decades can be divided into two fifteen-year periods, with 2006 as a watershed year for BEARR. By that time, the writing on the wall was clear: governments and supra-national donors were shifting their focus elsewhere, and there would be reduced funding for the health sector technical assistance projects that had sustained BEARR since the mid-1990s. BEARR’s trustees were forced to scale back the charity’s management team, and to rethink its strategy.
BEARR’s response, led by then-chairman Michael McCulloch, was to increase voluntary efforts and fundraising, and to launch its own Small Grants Scheme. The latter has come to define BEARR’s current approach, which is to support small grass-roots civil society organisations (CSOs) with seed-funding to try out new ideas, and as much encouragement as possible through publicity for their work. Since 2006 BEARR has awarded 120 grants, amounting to more than £325,000. Half of the grants have gone in almost equal numbers to CSOs in Russia and Ukraine, and an increasing number have been directed to Central Asia, notably to Tajikistan (12) and Kyrgyzstan (8), with a lesser number to Kazakhstan (4) and Uzbekistan (1). BEARR has also supported projects in the South Caucasus: in Armenia (11), Georgia (4) and Azerbaijan (4). In addition, BEARR has awarded grants to CSOs in Moldova (9) and Belarus (4).
BEARR’s trustees choose a theme each year for the Small Grants Scheme, based on what we know of the most pressing needs or of the regions where a problem is particularly acute. BEARR has funded a wide range of projects: to help young people who are homeless or who have physical or mental disabilities to find training and employment; to help vulnerable older people; to support skills training for refugees and displaced people; to support victims of abuse and domestic violence; to strengthen the position of women in rural communities; to combat drug dependency among young people; and to encourage youth volunteering.
In this anniversary year, we are funding projects to reduce the social isolation of vulnerable people, a problem made worse by the Covid pandemic. We invited CSOs to tell us which groups of people needed the most help, and asked them to propose the best way of supporting them. Increasingly, we expect to take our lead from what local CSOs tell us, and we have begun to run annual surveys of the hundreds of CSOs we are in contact with.
We also try to integrate Small Grants Scheme themes with the networking events we organise, such as our regional and London conferences and – galvanised by the pandemic – webinars. Along with a new website and increasing use of social media, these events give the organisers of local CSOs a platform to publicise their work and to make contact with others doing similar work in other countries. Looking forward, BEARR will still be an enabler of contacts and information exchanges, but we expect these to be increasingly between organisations within the region rather than with organisations in the British health sector (welcome though such exchanges would still be).
In contrast with its first 15 years, BEARR receives no public funding – the Small Grants Scheme and BEARR’s present information and networking activities have been built up since 2006 through pro bono work by the trustees and volunteers, and fundraising from individual donors and philanthropic foundations. Nevertheless, BEARR has found a financial equilibrium: a five-year grant from a charitable foundation that was secured under Robert Brinkley’s chairmanship (2012-2018) has been renewed for a further five years from 2021 to 2025.
BEARR therefore meets its 30th anniversary in the happy position of knowing that it has the financial means to give grants, and to promote contacts and information exchange, for at least a few more years. If there is an identifiable cloud on the horizon, however, it goes back to that other 30th anniversary – the demise of the Soviet Union. Few people foresaw its collapse, and few people have accurately forecast how the independent countries would develop. On the one hand there has been an explosion in the number of voluntary groups, working in ways that would have been unimaginable at the time of the Soviet Union, many of them becoming highly professional. On the other hand, some of the individual governments increasingly seek to control and shape civil society. Organisations involved in health and social welfare can expect government support to the extent that they supply a useful social service, but perhaps less so if their advocacy on behalf of vulnerable people is perceived to be at odds with government policies. Reflecting that, financial support from foreign donors is increasingly under scrutiny – a risk both to the recipients and to BEARR.
One of BEARR’s founders and now one of its patrons, Lady Ellen Dahrendorf, commented on a previous anniversary that BEARR’s role was to throw a pebble into the waters. We continue to hope that the ripples will find a way round whatever obstacles they encounter.
Nicola Ramsden, BEARR’s Chairman