This I Believe
I believe in the capacity for good in people everywhere—and the rich rewards of finding and supporting it.
I have worked much of the last fifteen years with a nonprofit called ISAR. ISAR provides small grants and other support to citizen groups in the former Soviet Union, or NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) as such groups are called.
Between 1993 and 1996 ISAR set up offices in the former Soviet Republics—Almaty, Kazakhstan; Baku, Azerbaijan; Minsk, Belarus; Tbilisi, Georgia; Moscow, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok, Russia; and Kiev, Ukraine. With funding from USAID and private foundations, it gave out small grants, from $500 to $5,000.
Among many others, ISAR grants went to environmental education teachers in Turkmenistan, to native tribesmen combating tuberculosis in the Russian Far East, to farmers planting organic vegetables in Central Asia, and to people cleaning up rivers, suing polluting factories and protecting wild animals and their habitats in all the former republics.
A number of ISAR offices have become local institutions, but some thought it best to remain a branch of an international organization, including the office in Minsk, Belarus, which I visited just after New Year. The government of Belarus is clamping down on citizen initiatives, preferring public activity to be government controlled. Every grant must be officially registered and every group re-registered. It is becoming more and more difficult to operate as an NGO.
While I was in Minsk, I met a number of NGO representatives and attended a grantee roundtable. I heard how small local cleanups had grown to full-scale ecotourism efforts. One group offered bed and breakfasts in local homes and organized craft fairs and village festivals, attracting tourists from Poland and Germany. In Baranovichi, I learned that high school students had located pre-revolutionary estates destroyed during the war, created bike paths and brochures, and brought a rundown church to the attention of local businessmen, who have since restored it.
The “Belarussian Children’s Hospice” invites child invalids and their families to spend summer months in the country with the help of Belarusian and British volunteers. Other groups have built wheelchair accessible nature trails, worked with victims of Chernobyl or created easy-to-read publications on “The Chemicals around Us” and the country’s new environmental laws.
Perhaps most impressive was the NGO “Ecoproject” that focuses on waste disposal, an enormous problem for post-Soviet towns and villages, unprepared for the onslaught of modern packaging. Ecoproject included municipal officials in local trainings and took the most active participants on a how-to trip to Bonn, Germany, including an official from the town of Belozersk. With Ecoproject’s help, the official then won a grant of 160,000 Euros from the European Community plus 70,000 in matching funds from regional government. The young official has become a hero in his town—though some think he must have won the lottery.
As the meeting came to an end, people thanked me profusely for their grants. Little did they understand that it was I who benefited, that hearing all they were accomplishing in the face of repression and uncertainty renewed my faith in the capabilities for good that exist in human beings everywhere.
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