The BEARR Trust 2014 Annual Conference

“Stormy outlook?  Challenges facing health and welfare NGOs and their international links”

This all-day conference on 14 November 2014 looked at the constraints – political, legal, bureaucratic, financial – that face NGOs across our region, and considered how they are adapting to cope with, in some of our countries, rapidly changing circumstances.

To view speakers’ presentations, click on their name. For their biographies, click here. Any use of or quotation from the report or presentations should be fully attributed to the author and The BEARR Trust.

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The conference confirmed the question in the title – concluding that non-governmental organisations in many of the countries in the region where BEARR is active were indeed facing challenging times, for many reasons. But there were also moments of optimism. The invited speakers shared their expertise on countries all around the region – Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine, and on a thematic level covered many areas of NGO work: youth, education, health, penal reform, as well as political and legal aspects of the not-for-profit sector.

Throughout the day, a good deal of diversity across the region emerged, and the discussion often returned to political issues. While BEARR is a non-political organisation, active in health and social welfare – on the face of it non-political topics – many participants argued that everything is political, and it certainly seemed that no discussion of NGOs in the countries of the former Soviet Union can take place without political issues taking centre stage in various ways. Discussion covered recent legislation in Russia affecting NGOs, the conduct of prosecutors and the Ministry of Justice to implement the legislation, despite the fact that social welfare and health NGOs are supposedly exempt, at least from the “foreign agent” legislation, as well as copycat legislation in the pipeline in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere, and also the general drawdown of grant giving from abroad and by business. At the same time, however, many speakers stressed the emergence of new forms of social activism, in the shape of crowdsourcing, fundraising by SMS and social media, and the development of social enterprises. Third sector activity in the health sphere was also facing challenges, in the form of new legislation in Russia forbidding “propaganda about non-traditional sexual relationships” and similar legislation under discussion elsewhere in the region, with the result that even where it had not been formally adopted, vulnerable groups had become more hesitant about seeking advice and medical services. One speaker had tried without success to ascertain what, in her country, was formally defined as “traditional sex”!

There was a broad consensus that the days  of western funding of NGO activity in these countries were coming to an end, while new sources of funding were developing but still not adequate to take up the slack completely. Traditional post-communist NGOs are increasingly working on behalf of or with local government to deliver services, and less inclined to use advocacy on behalf of the groups they represent in case this should result in accusations of “political activity” and hence reprisals by the authorities. Russia was the first country of the region to adopt legislation inhibiting the activities of NGOs, while the South Caucasus health and social welfare NGOs were still able to function more or less freely. In Central Asia there were two models: in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan there was virtually no foreign funding or involvement and almost no third sector activity, while in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan NGOs were able to operate freely, however restrictive legislation was under discussion but had not been adopted. In Ukraine, in early 2014 ex-President Yanukovych had implemented restrictive legislation but as soon as he fled the country it was repealed and since the new President and Government took office NGOs have been more active than previously, in the general debate about reforms and in drafting new legislation. The situation in Belarus and Moldova was not discussed on this occasion.


Session 1 – Overview of the Region

Armine Ishkanian, Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, stressed the current degree of divergence in the region after the relative uniformity of trends in the first two decades of third sector development, from 1991-2005. Then there had been rapid growth, most of it top-down due to an influx of foreign funding. More recently there has been a rise in grass-roots civic initiatives and social media activism initiated by a post-Soviet generation without direct experience of repression. Such groups and partnerships work collaboratively but without feeling any need to institutionalise themselves as NGOs.


Across the region the main challenges are identifying new funding sources and maintaining independence. Social enterprises are emerging but lack a legislative framework in which to operate. Tension has developed between service provision and advocacy work, particularly since governments became nervous about NGOs since the so-called “colour revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. The public still do not trust NGOs much, and rather than supporting specific areas of activity consistently, tend to donate spontaneously, especially for causes like sick children. NGOs now try to operate independently of donors and authorities, working with civic initiatives and informal grassroots groups below the radar. Civic initiatives try to consider the causes of social difficulties rather than just solutions. Some topics, such as domestic violence, are still not much talked about and while they attract funding, little progress has been made in changing public attitudes.   Activism in this area as in the case of LGBT rights tends to be seen as the introduction of alien values and some initiative groups have been set up to campaign against such work.

Kate Levine, a lawyer at European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), and formerly at the Sigrid Rausing Trust, often sees the negative side of the situation for NGOs, having been involved with a number of cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights. She highlighted the Russian Federation’s foreign agents (FA) law, and other legal barriers to entry, registration, free speech and assembly by NGOs.

Session 2 – Central Asia


Charles Buxton, from INTRAC, based in Bishkek, said it was the role of civil society to be pragmatic and optimistic. In Central Asia, INTRAC is mostly involved with social welfare NGOs supporting vulnerable groups including rural communities. Ten years ago Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had severed links with international NGOs, so INTRAC works in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. For all of them the external environment is difficult, with the conflict in Afghanistan and challenges from Uzbekistan and in inter-ethnic relations. Many perceptions in the region are formed by the Russian-language media. Societies are Muslim and, as in the UK, some young people are being radicalised with IS(IL) having an influence. Civil society is active, with about half of NGOs in a recent survey active in health and social welfare. Many are also active in civic issues, such as savings groups, dacha communities, water issues and so on. These have an important role to play. There is a demand for social justice, particularly after the nationalist-inspired unrest in 2010. NGOs deliver communal services sometimes with EU funding, and as a result local authorities have to consider standards in these activities. Initiative groups are a way of interacting with local government, but as yet they are less active in remote areas. They are gaining confidence to challenge government. One has set up a youth centre in a village with UNICEF, but the environment is difficult, with secondary education under-funded and the challenges of ideology and migration. In Kyrgyzstan 95% of NGOs are unaffected by political problems, and have little difficulty registering, while in Tajikistan the need to reregister has proved a deterrent and 50% of NGOs did not reregister. Nonetheless there has been a conservative backlash against e.g. international adoptions, LGBT rights and sex education. New NGOs are being established, without the amount of international funding that the older NGOs received.

Aisuluu Bolotbaeva, Executive Director of the Central Asian AIDS Foundation, who joined the conference via Skype, added first-hand experience of some of these issues, talking about challenges in HIV/AIDS work in Central Asia, particularly with vulnerable groups such as sex workers, the LGBT community and people who inject drugs. The threat of prospective legislation banning information about LGBT issues is acting as a deterrent to such groups in seeking medical and other advice, as they fear discrimination. A particular challenge for such marginalised groups is that they cannot access healthcare if they have no ID or permanent address. It is important to inform them of their rights. In 2012 there was a an attempt to criminalise sex work, but advocacy about the possible effects of such legislation on HIV rates made sure it was voted down. Instead local police “moral departments” were set up, with an equally intimidating effect, and resulted in a witch hunt against sex workers.

Session 3 – the South Caucasus

Nikhil Roy, Programme Development Director, Prison Reform International (PRI) and Gwen Burchell, United Aid for Azerbaijan (UAFA), Baku, spoke about the situation in Georgia and Azerbaijan. PRI have an office in Tbilisi (also in Moscow and Astana), and have done a large amount of work on the situation of women prisoners. Eighty percent of women prisoners in Georgia are mothers and have problems maintaining contact with their children. Of the three countries of the South Caucasus, PRI finds it easiest to work in Georgia. Changes have been implemented since a huge protest broke out when the use of torture in prisons was made public two years ago. Azerbaijan is the hardest to work in and the least open. It has an Ombudsman for Prisoners but the incumbent is not independent of the state authorities. Armenia is somewhere between the other two in terms of openness.


Gwen Burchell, who has worked in the region for 15 years, said that the main challenge was the lack of trust. Corruption remains a serious issue. The aim of the work is long term development of health and education services for children. Sixty of the staff of 70 are local medical and social care workers. They use evidence as a basis for their work and ensure that every child has a care plan. UAFA also conducts research and advocacy. International NGOs often come with a specific short-term project to implement, which provides for no long-term sustainability. UAFA has worked to raise funds locally, build confidence, and ensure long-term continuity. its methodology is now being introduced into pre-schools by the government of Azerbaijan. All donations it receives are made public to ensure complete openness.

Session 4 – Russia and Ukraine

In the last session we heard about current challenges in Russia and in the eastern part of Ukraine, where there is armed conflict. Evgeniya Alekseeva, Director, Public Health and Social Development Foundation FOCUS-MEDIA, Moscow, a former paediatric surgeon, showed a slide with the spectrum of civil society organisations active in Russia. She spoke of the challenge of coming to terms with a government-dominated media and accepting that it does not always tell the truth. The situation of NGOs in Russia has changed a great deal in the last five years. Former political movements are undertaking social work, while social entrepreneurship is growing. Informal groups and social media are the latest forms of civic activism. A recent CAF Russia survey showed that 40% of Russians give to charity, but most of them (82%) donate spontaneously, with no strategy. Currently, new legislation is being drafted to cover “acceptable”, i.e. socially oriented NGOs, resulting in a “separation of sheep from goats” in civil society. Volunteering is developing. Most donations go to sick children. Since 2011 presidential grants have been available to socially oriented NGOs. At first they bid in a real competition but now it is clear that there is a list of those NGOs which may be given grants.  State grants are very short in duration, for only about 8-9 months, making any strategic level work by NGOs very difficult. Most foreign donors are leaving Russia.


NGOs deemed to be “foreign agents” are barred from receive state funding. Over 1,000 checks on NGOs have been carried out in the past couple of years, since the new legislation such as the FA law took effect. FOCUS-MEDIA provides information about HIV/AIDS, but finds it difficult to inform about sexual health as this remains a taboo in Russia. The government wants to gain popularity but reduce the costs of providing social services, an aim which is served by getting NGOs to compete with the state to deliver them.

Valentina Diomkina, Chairman, Donetsk Youth Debate Centre, Ukraine, spoke eloquently about the crisis in Ukraine and the situation facing the population in Donetsk. She is not currently based there, as most NGOs have had to leave the conflict zones.  Originally she was involved with work to tackle child labour, such as in prostitution, illegal coal mines, and begging; promotion of democracy among children and advocacy for children’s rights. By the end of the Yanukovych regime last winter only about 10% of the NGOs registered in Ukraine were really active, as they had no support from the state and could only rely on foreign funding. Reform has been happening from below, with ideas, lobbying and initiation of reforms.  DSC_2434


Many former civil society activists have recently joined state organisations and the relationship between civil society and the state in Ukraine has changed radically. An explosion of civic activity has occurred. Civil society is trying to help with the mental conflict between people in west Ukraine who are familiar with European values and those in the east who know Russia social values best. Many children are traumatised by war and displacement and the state was not prepared or equipped to provide for their needs. Civil society was better able to react, and 149 new voluntary groups emerged. Valentina thought small NGOs need support, and also expertise in working with traumatised people, especially children. In discussion the law on lustration came up. It could affect 1.5 million civil servants. Attitudes to such legislation vary, both inside and outside Ukraine, but on the whole civil society in Ukraine supports it, hoping that it will cleanse society of corruption and make it possible for NGOs to work with the new politicians and government.

Summing up, BEARR Trustee Nicola Ramsden posed some questions: how would the newly emerging civic activists’ groups cope with the increased regulation of civil society and will NGOs in the region be able to continue with advocacy? Will new ways for civil society to communicate help, and will grassroots community groups find their place as a middle layer between governments and NGOs? Can trust in civil society increase? In the wake of the foreign agents law, will foreign donors have to tread more carefully and be more cautious in the words they use? If states in the region appear to be becoming more paternalistic, could a growing middle class mitigate against this – or has “homo sovieticus returned?  And what should the BEARR Trust’s role be in these circumstances?


Robert Brinkley, Chairman of the BEARR Trust, expressed thanks on behalf of the Trust for the British Ukrainian Society for its sponsorship, and also warmly thanked the volunteers and trustees who had worked to make the conference possible.