East reaps what aid sowed

March 24, 2000

Vera Rich reports on how Britain's academic relations with the former Soviet bloc have ripened in a decade.

Ten years ago this month, Lithuania declared independence, triggering a process that within two years led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

It is appropriate therefore that, on the eve of this anniversary, one of the major cooperation schemes between United Kingdom universities and higher education institutions in the former Soviet Union - the Regional Academic Partnership programme (Reap) should be carefully assessed.

UK aid to the transition process in the former communist bloc was envisaged from the beginning as a temporary measure - an injection of money and know-how to kick-start the necessary changes. Indeed, British Council funding for cooperation projects with Central European universities comes to an end this month, although some projects not based on direct university contacts will continue (for example, an environmental clean-up programme with the Czech environment ministry).

Reap still has time to run. Nevertheless, one of the main themes addressed by a British Council-hosted conference at the London School of Economics was the sustainability and long-term effects of Reap projects after the money runs out and the British Council formally disengages itself.

The Reap projects involve cooperation with academic institutions in ten of the 15 former Soviet states, from Uzhhorod in the far west of Ukraine to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia. Subjects vary from police training (Kiev/Leicester) and further education for prisoners (NW Polytechnic, St Petersburg/City College, Manchester) to journalism (Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University/Westminster) and management training (Urals Academy of Public Administration/Luton).

A number of the projects have clearly arisen out of local needs or specialities. The pollution problems of Lake Baikal generated the Irkutsk-Kingston cooperation on geochemical cycles and the migration of toxic substances in the environment, while Nottingham's long tradition of textiles, and the twinning of Nottingham with Minsk clearly lies behind a partnership on knitwear between Nottingham Trent University and the Belarusian State Linguistic University. Some topics appear to have come about almost by chance - the St Petersburg prison project grew out of the request of a mother for educational help for her convict son.

Although a partial review conference of Reap projects was held last year, this was the first full-scale event, with reports from academics on both sides of the agreement. The participants were split into three working groups: agriculture and environment; finance small and medium-sized enterprises, privatisation; and good government.

Each group considered not only the progress of the relevant projects, but also wider issues: spin-offs for the local community and Reap's contribution to relieving the widespread poverty that is an unwanted side effect of transition and the networking and sharing of experience between Reap projects.

The latter proved to be of some importance - for example, five universities in Minsk were represented at the conference (Belarussian State University, the Pedagogic, Linguistic and Economic universities and the International Sakharov Environmental University).

Yet the Belarussian participants in Reap and their British partners all came together for the first time at the London School of Economics and - during an impromptu meeting in the lunch break- decided to establish regular contacts.

Networking, however, can bring its own economic problems. Rapporteurs from the working groups all noted that much valuable teaching material (including books and CD-Roms) has been produced in individual projects and urged that it be made available to the Reap community. It was pointed out, however, that such material has at least a potential commercial value to the universities that produced it and that its wider dissemination could lead to problems of copyright.

A number of participants stressed that the real value of Reap may lie not in the individual "products" of cooperation - valuable as they undoubtedly are for the communities concerned, but for the experience of cooperation. This, it was stressed, is a long-term process: "Development is organic and takes time," said Richard Ennals of Kingston University Business School, the rapporteur of the finance/SME/privatisation working group.

"If the Reap culture is cut off, we cannot assume that it can be replanted." It takes time for the British side to establish themselves in the post-Soviet context, and only now, after seven years or so, are the British participants beginning to feel "at home".

The Reap projects are bottom up, not top down. They do not involve large policy changes, rather the formation of new attitudes at grassroots level. The Kiev police project, for example, has set its sights on developing a social climate in which members of the public are prepared to work with the police rather than viewing them as potential oppressors.

The economic and anti-poverty effects of Reap projects are harder to quantify. However, the psychological effects on the population of the partner countries if Reap were prematurely terminated could be considerable and destabilising, particularly in the climate of political uncertainties caused by the Chechen war and political developments in Russia.

As Ennals concluded in his report, Reap, continuing through periods of withdrawal of EU support, has been fundamental to perceptions of the UK as a dependable, competent, practical, reliable long-term partner.

Vera Rich writes on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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