David Bisset: Young and sophisticated Bulgarians offer hope, but are few in number

An interview with an expert on child development and social care, on hurdles to social change in Bulgaria and how Bulgarians could overcome them

David Bisset is a specialist in child poverty and deprivation. He is one of the founders of Equilibrium, which is one of the leading children’s organisations in SEE. His relationship with Bulgaria goes back to 1991. He has lived in the country since 2000.

MK: Mr. Bisset, how long have you been living in Rousse and what changes have you noticed over time?

My family has had a home here since 2000. So two decades. Although I have not been in the country that entire time. But we have had a home here. The reason I came here is because it is my wife’s home city. We decided that when our children were very young it would be nice to come and live in Bulgaria at least for a short time. My wife is an only child. We didn’t want our children to develop a strong preference for Scotland and not accept that they are Bulgarian.

I have been aware of a gradual westernisation in Bulgaria that tends to be driven by the interest of the younger generation. And I think it is contributing to a generational divide, especially between grandparents and the younger generation. Rousse as a city has some of the advantages and lots of the disadvantages of a provincial city. Unfortunately, I think that the disadvantages are dominating. I keep track of the economic indicators for this region and for the entire Danube region. Rousse is dominant in this region, but the region is lagging behind the rest of the country on a number of indexes. Economic development is gradual. Year after year there are steps in the right direction. But this area is not so enterprising and is not developing as fast as the rest of the country.

There is a distinct lack of investment from other countries, but the level of foreign investment is particularly bad in this region. When it does happen, it tends to be labour outsourcing. It means that there is a lack of innovation and development of new industry in Bulgaria. What Bulgarian industry is doing is the work of other countries, because of cost differentials. There is also a difference in cities. Sofia boasts about being the capital of Europe in information technology and outsourcing. I am not sure somebody should boast about that, because I think that it represents a bubble, which will easily burst. Companies will quickly decide to give their attention to something else. So that’s the picture.

MK: Coming back to the time when you came to Rousse, do you remember your first impressions of this place?

I have had a relationship with Bulgaria, starting back in 1991. So there were very few surprises. A lot of my experience is reminiscent of my childhood – even some of the decorations, appliances, styles. They are very similar to what I was accustomed to in my teenage years. I quite enjoyed that. And in a way, as I explained, this westernisation in Bulgaria makes me a bit nostalgic about old Bulgaria in a funny way. When I came here, I was one of only three British people who were living in the city. Everybody knew me. When I was out walking in the evening and people were shouting: “Hi, David!” My daughter would ask “Who is that?” And I would reply, “I have no idea.” That was a charming aspect of life in Bulgaria and in Rousse. I liked that. I still like that. I like that I can walk to work and bump into people who recognise me and we can have an exchange. But sometimes I long for a little bit more sophistication, a little bit more enterprise. For example, we’ve got a university in Rousse. But you don’t find the type of counterculture, ventures, arts, and small businesses you find in other university cities.

A lot of people have said to me that Rousse is a city of shopkeepers and that very pedestrian type of commerce. I know what they mean; I see it.

MK: You say that Rousse is developing gradually year after year, but it is very slow. It is not really good, when compared to other regions of Bulgaria.

A lot of Bulgarians friends have said that there is a protectionist type of business. A lot of businesses, like commerce, are controlled by a very small group of individuals. They do things to discourage development in these areas, so that they can continue to control. But that is not unique to Rousse. You can find it in a lot of cities.

MK: How did it happen that you became one of the key people responsible for social policy in Rousse?

It was my wife, who studied journalism. When she returned to Bulgaria, she was first employed by the international charity “Save the Children”. They had an office in Rousse. A lot of the international charities later withdrew from Bulgaria. And at that time my wife was lucky enough to be offered a job as an executive director at a new social services centre. It was opened here under a World Bank project. At that time, the social centre was managed by an organisation headquartered in Sofia. We decided that we could develop our own organisation and bid for a tender for management of the service. We won the tender and we’ve been managing it ever since; for 15 years now.

MK: What do you consider your biggest achievement of that time?

At that time we were the first provincial NGO that managed social services in Bulgaria. Since that time we have become the biggest social service provider in the country. We now manage a network of services in Rousse and in the district. We employ roughly 130 people in social services. We were the organisation that provided an implementation team that closed the first baby home in Bulgaria. We have played a very prominent role in closing these institutions. Our newest venture is the creation of what we call an early childhood resource centre. It is the first in the Balkans. We work with very young children and parents, and we have professionals who work with very young children. We explore models in early childhood development and early intervention in cases of children with developmental and cognitive problems. I think that is an achievement. We punch above our weight, despite the fact that we are a provincial organisation. All the other organisations of our size are based in the capital.

MK: You talk about the childhood centre. What are the other areas of your activity? What other areas of social care are of interest to you?

Everything we do is associated with child protection. We work with at-risk children and vulnerable families. These are children between 0 and 18 years old. We provide 24-hour care for children with disabilities. We run new services – what used to be called a baby home. We provide palliative care for very young children.

Increasingly, we are becoming aware of three significant social issues. One of them is absent parents. When parents are working overseas or in other cities, they leave their children to grandparents. This creates difficulties. The second is the significant risk of divorce and separation now in Bulgaria. There are a lot of single parents in the country, who are suffering and have difficulties. We need to intervene in very damaging conflicts within families where separations are taking place. The third is more and more cases of anxiety and other psychological disorders among teenagers. It is a very big issue. Again, it is not unique to the city or the country, it is a Western phenomenon. We don’t know the reasons for this very complex phenomenon. I spend a lot of my time counseling teenagers, who are depressed and don’t really see much of a future for themselves.

These are the three main issues.

MK: Judging from the experience of different post-communist countries, including Poland, I know that the government has abandoned social care. Do you believe that is the situation in Rousse as well? You say that teenagers have been suffering and they are the focus of your organisation. But I believe they must be the focus of all institutions, because they are the future of the place or of the country. Do you believe there is some awareness and interest in that on the side of the authorities?

In terms of development of the sector, it has been two steps forward one step back. But now we have come to a situation of crisis that has been driven by… we are aware that there are right-wing political factions behind this. It is manifesting itself as religious extremism with contributions from both Russia and the United States. There are very strange evangelical organisations in the United States. But we believe it is politically orchestrated by right-wingers. And they have interfered dramatically with the development of social protections in Bulgaria. The first signal came when Bulgaria was considering signing the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Eventually, some countries didn’t sign the convention on the basis of certain statements on gender. They felt it was a step in the wrong direction, signing a document that recognises gender as separate from biological sex. So they didn’t sign that convention and that was the first warning sign that something was happening. Since then, there has been extreme opposition to regulations on families and children. The government was at the point of ratifying new regulations on the development of social services in Bulgaria. That was put on hold as a reaction to this right-wing pressure. There is extreme opposition in the country to the involvement of NGOs in service provision.

MK: They accuse you of promoting some new family models or what?

It is bizarre almost to the point of being laughable. They have created a lot of fake news, concerning the influence of Norway on providing child care in Bulgaria. They even provided fake footage of blond Norwegians exploring child institutions in Bulgaria, selecting children to be taken back to Norway to be adopted by gay couples. It is laughable, but unfortunately, members of the public actually fall for it. It is causing lots of harm.

MK: What do these right-wing organisations aim for?

I think it is being done to undermine the country’s shift towards normative practices from the European Community. That is why it makes sense that there is both Russian and United States influence. Neither of these countries are particularly fond of the European Commission.

MK: Both Russian and American religious extremists want to stop your adoption of  Western standards in human rights?

I think so. I don’t think it is only about human rights. But human rights is something they could conveniently attack and exploit.

MK: You said that some of the public actually believes these hysterical assessments that gay couples from Scandinavia are stealing Bulgarian children. How would you describe the general mood of society? Is it tired? Or is it struggling for survival? Is it getting excited by such fake news? How would you characterise it?

I am aware of numerous articles, even academic publications, announcing the fact that Bulgaria has high levels of social pessimism. It is being expressed by the facts that Bulgarians are even more depressed than people in Afghanistan and other countries where there is an open conflict. What is causing this? All sorts of theories are put forward. I don’t know the answer. But I am aware myself that Bulgarians are extremely apathetic and are unable to see the power of their own actions or their role in organisations. They believe you can’t actually change things through grassroots action. Bulgarians blame the politicians, but then sit back and wait for things to happen from the top down.

MK: So they are not happy with the political class and then wait for some other political class to emerge.

Yes, exactly. Those working in the kindergarten sector say that they like what we say, but in their view it is impossible. You can’t do anything to change this. Why? “The system. The system doesn’t like us.” This is a refrain you hear again and again and again in many sectors in Bulgaria. “The system doesn’t like us.” What do you expect to happen? Just sit back and wait for the ministries to take steps or you try to see that positive changes tend to happen from the bottom up. I have seen examples of school transforming around the country just because they have a strong headmaster, who is able to motivate his team to start doing things differently. And the authorities become obligated to accept those changes. How can you give a successful organisation negative appraisals, when the inspectors come to visit? I said that was what was going to happen in Bulgaria. But Bulgarians, unfortunately, don’t see things this way.

MK: They just accept reality and the struggle from one day to another?

Yes.

MK: There were some social protests in Bulgaria last year. There were some worker protests. Perhaps something is changing? Perhaps the younger generation is adopting a different approach? How can these protests be understood?

The protests that we saw are consistent with my own experience, that there is a social group which is young, highly-qualified, speaks foreign languages, primarily English. It has had exposure to foreign education. This group is very frustrated and hungers for change. But they are not big enough. Despite these protests, there is no evidence of the existence of this group in Bulgaria. I only discovered this social group when certain families started coming to the family centre. They came in, they spoke English. I didn’t even know they existed. They were invisible. As a force of change I don’t think there are enough of them. I don’t think they have the voice at the moment. But it has been very revealing, when sitting and talking to young professionals. And it is revealing how many of them work on a freelance basis or under international contracts. They do not want to work for Bulgarians. That is not a nice phenomenon as well.

I could probably have made quite a good living if I charged a fee for providing professional references to young Bulgarians who go for overseas studies or start work there. I do that once or twice a month. It used to be more frequent. I don’t mind doing it. I am only too happy to do it for people. But I regret what it represents. I hope that these kids will come back.

Vladimir Mitev (VM): Mr. Bisset, you have a very clear idea for social change and you can spot it on the radar, wherever it exists. Could it somehow be encouraged more? There was a concept during mature socialism in Bulgaria in the 80s – “development at your own place”, which means that somebody is not being promoted, but still has opportunities and perspectives to grow and develop. There must be some form of encouragement, which takes into account provincial realities. What could that encouragement be?

I’ve seen certain things happening in the capital and in Varna. They are encouraging. They are led by young people, who are highly qualified and have achieved success in their field. They are now starting these incubators to encourage other young people to achieve success as well. It is similar to the support provided in other countries to entrepreneurs and business development. So it is happening. I have seen it happening. It provides an environment that actually supports the development of small business. Otherwise, it doesn’t really exist. It is very difficult to start a business in Bulgaria. There are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. Financial support is very difficult in Bulgaria.

VM: But you define social change through business, through entrepreneurship. Is this the only way to think about social change? What if I never have the capital to be an entrepreneur, but I want to make social change? What should I do? Form a labour union?

You ask me how you can start a grassroots movement. If I really knew the answer, I would have done it by now. I still try. For instance, we did something in our organization some years ago. A lot of young people are very frustrated, because there is not a lot to do in Rousse. They want to do things for the sheer pleasure of doing it. They wanted to perform or do their little project, tidying up the park.

So we tried to encourage them. We have drawn groups of kids together from schools. We did workshops with them. We educated them in the basics of project management. We did this with them. They told us something interesting. There is activity for youth in the city. But again, it is dominated by certain groups of adults. They have a very limited repertoire. They put emphasis on public performance and on the development of little champions. It is very difficult for kids in this context to do something for the very pleasure of doing it. It also means that, nothing ever changes. So when you see youngsters, involved in cultural activity on public holidays, the aspects of their performance is exactly the same as it was the previous year or the year before that. I already spoke about the dominance in certain areas of a limited number of individuals. So the question you asked me and which I am very conscious of, is how could we be doing it. I just don’t know what the answer is. But maybe part of the answer is instilling the desire, the passion in the younger generation. I think it will break the barrier of apathy. I think it will allow things to happen. But it is very very difficult.

VM: I can understand a bit of the problems, even without discussing them. I am part of this environment. There is hope when somebody can recognise and name change or problems. I suppose a lot of young people don’t have the language to understand their own desires or challenges.

MK: The younger generation doesn’t have the language to express its frustration and anxieties. We had a similar situation in Poland two years ago. It turned out that the groups which channel those anxieties are the right-wingers. When I hear from you that right-wingers are becoming more visible, I start to think that the more liberal and educated portion of young people will seek their place either in the capital or abroad. And the rest will express themselves through the extreme right and  traditional values. Is there risk of that?

I think there is a significant risk of this in Bulgaria. Yesterday, I posted something to my Facebook page, which was an expression of my own frustration with the situation. A few years ago, I was seen as quite an entrepreneurial individual in activism. I often got involved in cooperation with other organisations, such as the British Council, that come to work with teenagers. These young people were expressing anxieties and ambitions. But I come up again and again against the same phenomenon: different organisations were putting forward teenage candidates for their history of activity and high family status. They have been selected on the grounds of academic credentials and other activities. They had very outgoing narcissistic personalities. They like the sound of their voices. I said on Facebook – look at these kids’ CVs – they are longer than mine. They participated in youth parliaments, they had a lot of extracurricular activities in schools, they were everywhere. They made it very difficult for me and my partners to integrate children from underprivileged backgrounds, such as Roma kids. Even the efforts towards giving the younger generation a voice suffer from this elitism. It is very prominent in Bulgaria. If you do anything within schools or the education sector, this is what you will encounter.

Once a colleague of mine from Rousse University said something revealing and I was horrified by what she said. She was asking if I could do some of the classes, because she had other work. It was on short notice. So in the context of her apologising, she said: “You will like this case. They are from the best families.” And I said: “Sorry? What does this mean?” “Oh, they are the cream of the city.” I said “Oh, my God! I respect you, but I wish you hadn’t said that to me.”

This characterised a lot of things.

MK: This is absolutely surprising. After all, Bulgaria was a socialist country. It used to promote egalitarianism.

But now there is a new political elite and new local families.

MK: It is incredible how fast it changed from an egalitarian society to an oligarchy – political, cultural, now you mention education as well. On the other hand, the society accepts that and says “that is the system”…

I think this is one of the components, actually the most prominent one, that contributes to teenage depression and anxiety. But one of the other things is that a lot of kids are conscientious, they study hard, but perhaps they come from poor families. They are up against this everyday in high school. There are kids from well-to-do families with no respect for the teacher. They don’t study, but they know they are going to get top marks. You know that they are going to go to top universities. And the other kids just give up.

MK: They see their effort will never be valued.

Yes. You can buy yourself a degree in Bulgaria.

MK: A university degree?

Yes. You should have income. But you have income, when you are one of these families.

MK: And all you have to do is just indicate your origins?

Yes. This contributes to social apathy. I had a friend from the UK who came to visit Rousse a few years ago. He is a general practitioner. He is a senior partner in a firm of doctors. So he is considered affluent. He has a good profession. We were walking around Rousse and he was spotting cars. He said: “Do you know how much it costs? I can’t afford such a car. How can a Bulgarian afford a car like that?” And I said: “On paper they can’t.”

This is so blatant. Everybody sees that.

MK: Vladimir told me that Rousse was one of the few places where in the last local elections a mayor not from GERB (the ruling party on national level in most of the last 11 years – note of the editor) was chosen. Do you think that the fact that the citizens of Rousse chose somebody not from the establishment, means that they still have hope that change can take place?

Again, I can’t give you a clear answer to this question. The election result surprised me. I expected GERB to prevail. I just keep my fingers crossed that that could signal a potential for positive changes in the city, that perhaps some of the things that have been dominating are losing their grip. That is my hope, but I still don’t know.

MK: I see that the feeling of uncertainty is also very strong in Bulgaria. You don’t know what will happen next. And as a society, you don’t try to predict what happens.

I think one factor contributes to this. There is a very pronounced lack of transparency on public information in the country. Dealing with bureaucracy in Bulgaria is very complex. There are no guidelines to guide people through it. People can’t fight against the barrier. No one can explain how to fight against this barrier. The public is in the dark. They don’t know how to do things or how things work. A lot of the work social workers in my organisation do is help people get the benefits, which they are entitled to. People don’t like to do the paperwork. Nobody tells them.

MK:So they don’t get the benefits they are entitled to, because they don’t know.

Yes. They are either not very literate, or go to different offices and fight against the barrier. If the communication between those in power and those in society was a little bit more open, it would make a difference.

MK: Then people will feel that they belong to this place and they could contribute to it… From what I hear from you and other interlocutors of mine, it looks like the state apparatus in Bulgaria is a separate structure that exists for itself. And the society is stressed trying to survive. People are not interacting, they just live next to each other.

I would love to see the situation, where a mayor comes to power and starts trying to reach out to the community. I think that’s maybe what it will take for things to start happening differently. The gap between the government and society in Bulgaria is very wide. The bureaucracy is very complex. Needlessly complex. Even going to a Bulgarian bank is complex.

MK: So the bureaucracy is creating work for itself.

I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem to be functional. This is the time of the year when household taxes are being paid. People also pay taxes on vehicles. And there is one office in the city, where this happens. It is almost at the edge of the city. When you get there, everything is on the computer. They have a wonderful computer system, but people have to queue to use it. And there are just two or three women that do it. There must be an easier way to do it.

A lot of the bureaucratic process is like that. There are multiple steps – you have to go to one office and then another office. They could tell you the same information, wherever you go. Modernisation in terms of development could be getting all these computers together. But they don’t fit together. They are not functional. You could wait for ages to complete a transaction. They seem to superimpose new procedures on top of the older ones. It just becomes needlessly complex.

Photo: David Bisset (source: YouTube)

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