The Middle Years: BEARR takes a hard look in the mirror

2001 – 2011

The adolescent years of BEARR’s life span to date saw much of the international development funding for the former Soviet Union being redirected elsewhere, forcing BEARR to reassess its role, and make some significant cutbacks. Ultimately, this period of hard reflection ushered in a new era for BEARR, with an increased focus on the facilitation of networking, and the launch of the Small Grants Scheme in 2006.

In BEARR’s nascence, there had been huge goodwill in the West towards Russia and the former Soviet Union, says Daryl-Ann Hardman, who took over from Myra Green as BEARR’s Director in 2003:

People really thought that everything was going to change […] Back then there were lots of people who were genuinely very interested in Russia; people with money, who had Russian connections of various sorts. For this reason, BEARR had a very good take off in the early years”.

At the turn of the millennium, BEARR continued to fund discrete projects in Russia under the chairmanship of the late Sir Norman Wooding [1]. Noah Birksted-Breen, BEARR’s Project Officer and then Project Manager from 2001 to 2003, recalls the sense of excitement and hopefulness he felt visiting several projects in Russia during this period. One such project was to build up psychological support for young people in the cities of Pervouralsk and Ekaterinburg. The project felt particularly ground-breaking in that therapeutic assistance was still a fairly novel concept in the region. They were not resoundingly welcomed by the medical community in Russia, however: “it was a glimpse into the kind of resistance you get to change, even to things that are widely accepted in western societies such as community therapeutic services”.

Towards the end of Noah’s time at BEARR, funding from DFID and other sources had begun to dry up, and there was little to plug the gap. BEARR pivoted towards helping other organisations, mostly larger western NGOs, to connect with burgeoning organisations in the region to enable them to build their own capacity and connections: “BEARR acted more as a bridge” says Noah, “because it didn’t have the funding to implement its own projects properly at that stage”.

According to Donald Ridley, the psychologist on the Pervouralsk project and several other BEARR projects at the time, there were warning signs of mounting problems for Russian colleagues on technical assistance projects during this period. Russian authorities made it increasingly difficult for local staff working with international NGOs and there were reports of Russian staff on such projects being labelled ‘unpatriotic’ for working with overseas charities. Soon after Pervouralsk, DFID made non-payment of salaries to Russian partners part of the terms and conditions of funding for future projects. It became increasingly hard for Russian nationals to work in this field, and several of the staff in Pervouralsk would soon leave the region.  

Daryl-Ann Hardman doing a sponsored run for BEARR at the Flora Ladies’ 5k run in Hyde Park in 2002

When Daryl-Ann started at BEARR, she found that many of the projects they were funding were in their final months, and there was no plan for afterwards:

One of the first emails I received was from DFID, notifying me that a project they were funding, which had been signed for two or three years, was being curtailed after just one”.

Depleting funds meant that considerable cutbacks were in order. For instance, office space was increasingly unaffordable and BEARR downsized from two to one workplace. There followed a series of stints in locations of varying suitability, including two office moves in the short time during which Noah worked at BEARR alone – first to an office that still resembled its former use as a travel agency, sometimes confusing visitors, and second to an empty flat above a Barclays bank in Streatham.

Rachel Watson, Michael Holman, Daryl-Ann Hardman, and Noah Birksted-Breen outside BEARR’s office at 55 Bondway in Vauxhall

Daryl-Ann recalls the next office, which opened directly over the railway by Vauxhall station, and was extremely cramped and hot:

There was no way of opening the window because every time a train zoomed past, all our papers would fly up and the dust and grit from outside would descend on the office. I remember measuring the temperature one particularly hot summer and it was above the legal limit for office workers. It was boiling and we all had little fans on sticks. So, I made sure everyone knew they had the right to take their work home with them if they wanted to!

Part of the reason BEARR started to receive less government funding was that Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development under Blair from 1997 to 2003, was sceptical about both the work of UK NGOS abroad and the focus of the Know How Fund – a DFID programme to support Soviet bloc countries transition into democratic free market economies. According to BEARR’s former Chairman Michael McCulloch [2], Clare Short feared that too much of the Fund’s money was being spent in the UK, rather than in recipient countries, or on the wrong priorities. Michael had extensive conversations with her while at the Fund, but Clare Short remained doubtful about its value as a freestanding instrument and the separate identity was dropped in 2000 in favour of more conventional DFID approaches.

Russia was no longer flavour of the month”, explains Michael. Money was being redirected to countries facing what were seen as more immediately pressing international development issues, including Iraq. Daryl-Ann also notes an increased concern with supporting organisations focused on tackling the HIV/Aids epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But given the existence of large UK organisations already working on this issue, such as Terrence Higgins and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, BEARR could not compete in this area.

When he took the helm from Sir Norman Wooding in 2003, Michael was greatly concerned about BEARR’s prospects of sustainability and recognised that urgent changes were needed. Since BEARR’s work to date had been focused on discrete projects and the organisation had received high levels of steady financing since its inception, BEARR’s personnel were not accustomed to managing its finances in a particularly long-term way. Michael’s background [3] meant that budgeting for international development projects was not unfamiliar terrain, and his experience undoubtedly helped guide BEARR through this especially tumultuous period. 

Michael noted at the time: “the hard truth is that BEARR can no longer fund regularly from its own resources the process of finding, developing, and submitting projects.” He was writing in a Newsletter article to BEARR’s followers, to explain the difficult decisions they faced and to introduce the possibility of a merger with Allavida (Alliances for Voluntary Initiatives & Development), an organisation also supporting NGOs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with whom BEARR shared its office for a time. Indeed, in considering BEARR’s future, no option was off the table, and Michael and BEARR’s trustees even contemplated winding the organisation down in the form of a merger or closure.

But all was not doom and gloom. Hard reflection and long discussions ensued, and the team eventually settled on paring back BEARR’s overheads rather than winding up the organisation. Michael and the team went through the organisation’s finances and operations with a fine-tooth comb and further shrank the organisation in terms of staff numbers and space. There followed more office moves, culminating with the CAN Mezzanine offices for third sector organisations, which BEARR still uses today.

Myra Green, Natasha Sturgeon and Michael McCulloch at a BEARR conference sponsored by EBRD

Out of the midst of this painstaking reassessment and retrenchment, new horizons emerged for BEARR. 2006 was a particularly significant year: it marked the launch of BEARR’s website, enabling BEARR to play a more active networking role for NGOs in the region. This tied in with a drive to promote BEARR’s role and comparative advantage as a bridge between health and social care experts in the UK, and burgeoning civil society organisations (CSOs) in the region.

Other objectives for 2006 detailed in BEARR’s 2005 trustees’ report, included “running a topical annual conference with more non-Russia focus”. To this end, over the years that followed BEARR would expand its reach to support projects and develop connections beyond Russia’s borders, with CSOs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The first of these were two projects in Moldova – Institute for Democracy and Perspectiva – in 2008. 2006 was also set to be the year to “work with other NGOs to help Russian civil society benefit from Russia’s chairmanship of the G8”. This goal was not fated to yield such fruitful results, with Russia’s membership being withdrawn in 2014.

Crucially, this was the year in which the organisation secured long-term funding from US law firm Baker Botts, thanks to BEARR trustee Marcia Levy, who had a contact there from when they had worked together as solicitors at a Moscow law firm. Baker Botts were keen to find NGOs to support to fulfil their new Corporate Social Responsibility duties, and for approximately 10 years they provided BEARR with $35,000 annually. This funding would eventually come to a similarly abrupt halt when management of the US firm changed 10 years later.

The first and most long-term recipient of Baker Botts’ funding was The Ecologia Youth Trust, a charity based in Scotland working with orphans in Russia. Ecologia has supported Kitezh Community Centre in the Kaluga region of Russia since its foundation in 1992, building two foster family villages which are still running today. BEARR would continue to support Ecologia for approximately eight years using part of Baker Bott’s funding.

Most significantly, and not uncoincidentally, 2006 marked the creation of BEARR’s hallmark Small Grants Scheme. Michael conceived of the idea to use the remaining Baker Botts funding to provide seed funding to small NGOs working in partnerships in the field of health and social welfare, supporting different vulnerable groups each year. Megan Bick, who had been so instrumental in getting BEARR off the ground in the early days, was invited to become a trustee and took on the bulk of this work:

Her USP was that she had spent many years assessing small charitable projects in the former Soviet Union. She was absolutely vital to us starting this up.”, says Daryl-Ann.

The pilot Small Grants Scheme was specifically for projects supporting deaf children in Russia. Grants went to the UK NGO HealthProm, for the project “Supporting deaf children and their families in the Altai Republic through professional training of local specialists and through inclusive activities at the local day care centres”, and to the Russian NGO Help in St Petersburg for the project “Meeting the Stars”, raising awareness among the public about children and orphans who are deaf or have hearing difficulties.

Really I think that the Small Grants Scheme was the saviour of BEARR in that period, alongside the money received from Baker Botts”, says Daryl-Ann. The scheme is now in its fifteenth year and through it BEARR has provided grants totalling £325,462.70 to 121 projects across Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

Louisa Long
BEARR’s Information Officer

12 October 2021

In case you missed it, you can read the first of BEARR’s anniversary articles (1991 – 2001) here.

[1] 1927 – 2005; BEARR’s Chairman from 1993-2003

[2] BEARR trustee from 2001, BEARR’s Chairman 2003 – 2008 through much of this transitional period, and formerly the Head of the Know How Fund 1992 – 1997.

[3] Michael represented the UK on the Board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1997 to 2001, was Adviser to the President of the EBRD in 2003, and Head of the Know How Fund 1992 – 1997.

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