Busy bee of charity brings villages back to life

  • 2001-03-01
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Nine years of hard social work, 130 projects, dozens of thankful people and no publicity. Piet Boerefijn, the representative of a Dutch non-governmental organization in Estonia, thinks nothing of it and is ready to go on fighting social problems in Estonia to the death.

The philosophy behind the Netherlands Cooperating Foundations for Central and Eastern Europe is simple enough: the wealthy should help carry some of the burden of responsibility of the poor.

Its activities in Estonia are coordinated by one man, Piet Boerefijn, who consults with a board of six Estonian advisers that gives the go-ahead on whether or not a project deserves funding.

"Mostly we work with NGOs as it is easier in the legal sense, but exceptions can be made," said Boerefijn.

But Boerefijn says that his organization funds only the most thoroughly planned projects to be sure the money won't be wasted. From its launch in 1992 to January 1, 2001, 27 million kroons ($1.57 million) have been given in financial aid to Estonian projects by the Netherlands Cooperating Foundations. According to Boerefijn, only Soros has given more to projects in the social field in Estonia.

Over 40 Dutch foundations are operating in Estonia under the Netherlands cooperating foundations for Central and Eastern Europe umbrella name. One of these is 430 years old and was initially established to help orphans.

"Nowadays the state cares for orphans, and the foundations are dealing with other issues," said Boerefijn. Traditions and experience in the charity field help the foundations to accurately use money that comes from private individuals, special projects or interest on deposits.

Being properly targeted is one of the advantages of the foundations, said Boerefijn. "For example, one of the foundations is dealing with blind people only and has become a real expert on this issue," he said.

Most of the projects are located in the south of Estonia, with a handful in Tallinn and the northeast.

"In general, the regions have always been more attractive for us. The cities and especially the capital can basically manage social care by themselves," Boerefijn said.


The foundations operate within eight basic fields of work: children, the elderly, handicapped people, psychiatric patients, the homeless, drug addicts, prisoners, minorities. But a new area of interest is coming to the fore.

Small community centers for the villages of Karjatnurme, Kalme and Laanemetsa near the Latvian border and Hellamaa on the island of Hiiumaa were set up a year ago with the help of the foundations.

Many villages throughout the Baltic states have lost direction and any sense of community. Ten years ago, after the collapse of the collective farm system with the start of independence, local society also broke down.

"Services like central heating, public transport, medical support, libraries, cultural centers and shops were closed along with the collective farms," said Boerefijn.

"Many villagers still live in cold apartments, without enough money to build a chimney and a stove. By supporting the establishment of local centers we are trying to stop this downward spiral."

The centers in Karjatnurme, Kalme and Hellamaa are situated in renovated buildings where people can come every day and use the Internet, read newspapers, take a shower, wash their clothes, watch TV, play games or take a course in handicrafts.

In other villages such as Koikula (Valga county) and Lungu (Rapla county), similar centers will be opened later this year.

"Hundreds of villages in Estonia have identical problems. But the further away you get from Tartu and Tallinn, the fewer job opportunities there are. That's why we are supporting new community centers in the periphery," said Boerefijn.

Ly Kaarna, a chief specialist on social care from Valga county municipality, is well satisfied with Netherlands cooperating foundations for other reasons, too. "Thanks to them, a group of social workers from the counties of Valga, Voru and Laane got some additional training in Holland last May," said Kaarna.

One of the major projects right now is the construction of a new building for the school for the mentally handicapped Maarja in Tartu. The school has been cooperating with the foundations for seven years. The new building will open this summer and will make this the most advanced school of its kind in Estonia.

Young addicts

Boerefijn has his own opinion about the most significant social problems in Estonia. "The reform of care institutions for the aged, the mentally handicapped and psychiatric patients, and improving living conditions in prisons are of major importance. The problems of street children and drug addicted youngsters are new and also very alarming.

"A rise in the number of drug addicts leads to a higher level of crime, HIV and insecurity in the streets."

The Dutch model of state regulation of soft drugs like marijuana would not work at all in Estonia, according to Boerefijn, because of a different history of using drugs, the quality of the drugs and people's attitudes toward them.

Moreover, the Netherlands' much larger state budget allows for addicts to be treated properly, and it handles related problems more easily and effectively, added Boerefijn.

"The Dutch model of drug regulation may seem perfect, but the reality is less beautiful. The liberal policy attracts many foreign drug users and criminals."

There is another shocking difference between drug use in the two countries. While most Dutch drug addicts are adults between 30 and 50, Estonian narcotics users are mostly children and adolescents between eight and 25.

Another difficult feature of working in the social welfare sphere in Estonia is maintaining proper contact with officials, namely getting them to keep their promises, confessed Boerefijn. "They may pledge anything, but when the whole deal comes to concrete financing or other aid they often forget their promises."

But when the system works, the poor Estonians on the receiving end are full of appreciation. Sergei Nikolayev, director of a night shelter in the city of Narva, is extremely grateful for the willingness of the Dutch foundations and the Estonian Red Cross to help.

In 1995, a soup kitchen for the homeless and unemployed was set up in Narva, and after this, realizing the target group was much greater than expected, the foundations opened the night shelter the following year.

"Training has helped our staff with practical everyday problems of running the shelter and dealing with homeless people," Nikolayev commented. Two study-trips to Holland have been arranged and paid for by the foundations.

Why Estonia?

Boerefijn studied human geography at the University of Utrecht and later passed a special course on the transition of planned economies to market economies. He traveled a lot from the early 1980s and has been in every corner of the Central and Eastern European region and the Soviet Union.

Out of all the countries he has been to he prefers the Baltic states, and out of those three he chose Estonia to live and work in.

"Why? Well, I think Estonia has been the most dynamic country in Europe over the last decade, and maybe in the whole world," said Boerefijn. In 20 years, he thinks, Estonia will reach Finland's advanced level of lifestyle.

That is why Boerefijn thinks it's great that the Dutch government will finally open an embassy in Tallinn this summer. "But to be honest, it should have happened eight or nine years ago."

Boerefijn is also critical of the coordination of the European Union's projects. "Some projects funded by the European Union looked promising in the beginning but turned out sad in the end," said Boerefijn. A huge amount of money is spent on renovating a building, training specialists or covering expenses for one year, but after that the funding stops and the whole project collapses.

But Boerefijn enjoys working in Estonia and prefers it to the Netherlands where, as he put it, everything is already finished. Rather than charity, he resorts to sports to illustrate his answer. "You can't build a new Formula 1 track in Holland, but you can do it in Estonia. Even in the geographical sense, the density of the population here is 11 times less than in the Netherlands. This country has space for development."

The minor amount of political and economic instability still present in Estonia makes work here even more interesting, he added, even though it may turn out that the mayor you cooperated with is corrupt, your financial partner may go bankrupt, and officials sometimes do not keep their promises.

Working in Estonia is difficult, but it is so pleasant to see the good results after the work is done, Boerefijn said.