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The Social Fund as venture capital

All projects started by the company Basta with financial support from the European Social Fund are still running within ordinary business operations. Perhaps the reason is that the management decided from the very start not to look upon the project funds as grants.

Basta

The first time Basta received funds from the Social Fund was in the late 1990s, that was for computer training. It has since been followed by an upper-secondary school course, which is held at the branch office Basta Väst in Borås, and a collaboration with the School of Social Work at Lund University.

Here everybody is equal

Basta’s driver turns off the main road four kilometres south of Nykvarn. He parks in front of a few yellow buildings on a sloping courtyard.

We get out of the car and Kristina Blixt, Basta’s EU coordinator, opens the door to a jugend villa. To the right is a computer room and straight ahead two large assembly rooms. The walls are painted in earthy warm tones and outside the large barred windows we can see Lake Ygen. 

A few pupils who are involved in a lively discussion in broken Swedish, are seated in a lounge suite. Everyone cheerfully extends their welcome as we enter the room. They came to Sweden from Iraq a few months ago and are studying Swedish on Basta’s Yes education.

Jaber EliasJaber Elias thinks that Basta is calmer and friendlier than Komvux in Södertälje, where he studied before.

“Here, the teachers have more time,” he says.

The Yes education is a one-year vocational and entrepreneurial education. It started as an experiment with financial support from the European Social Fund in 2002. The project was called “Empowerment for the future”.

Namu Nambiar is Basta’s Chairperson. Just like in the rest of the building, her office has no doors. Yes is an open education where everyone should feel that they are equal, teachers as well as students. And all have equal responsibility to ensure that the educational programmes work.

“ We developed the education to see if educations for people with Basta backgrounds would work. People who come to Basta have often had bad experiences from their schooldays,” says Namu Nambiar.

Before long Basta received requests from upper-secondary schools and individuals who wondered if Basta could accept students from the outside. An education was developed and Basta began to admit young people who don’t fit in to mainstream upper-secondary schools. In the autumn 2007, a vocational and validation programme for newly arrived refugees from the Middle East also started.

Basta is not a treatment centreNamu Nambiar

Basta is a social enterprise run by former addicts, for people who want to leave their addictions behind them. Most people who come to Basta are men in their 40s with an average of 20 years of drug abuse and twelve years of imprisonment behind them. Rehabilitation is conducted in a corporate structure, without methods, educationalists and experts. And everybody who comes here does so voluntarily.

Basta sells a one-year rehabilitation service to the social services or correctional care and educational programmes - the Yes education, to municipalities. In 2008, turnover was SEK 50 million. The company has boarding kennels, a carpentry shop, a graffiti removal service and a barn. It is within these activities rehabilitation takes place.

The companies in the Basta Group are operated on commercial terms, without funding and in competition with other care providers but without profitability requirements.

In the normal treatment of drug addicts, people are sent back into society after a year once their rehabilitation is over. But after 20 years of abuse it takes longer to rebuild your life, and this is where Basta comes in.

“We give people time,” says Kristina Blixt.

Anyone who wants should be able to stay on after their rehabilitation. Today about 100 people live there permanently. This means that operations must evolve constantly.

The Social Fund as venture capital

Lars Svedin is one of the founders of Basta and its financial manager. A few days later, over a coffee in Södertälje, I ask him to explain why Basta’s operations can stand on their own two feet even though the project has been wound down and funding from the Social Fund has stopped.

“Basta has always declined grants. We want to enter into partnerships as an equal party. It is about empowerment. But we are running a business, and as an entrepreneur, you need capital. No bank would lend money to a company where the board consists of former criminals and addicts.”

“The money from ESF was to be used to start, develop and establish the school. We chose to see the money as venture capital, but we never said it out loud, because it was not popular from the authority’s point of view. The money for the school would cover the Yes education’s operating expenses.

Lars Svedin believes that one reason for the success is that from the very start they had an idea as to how operations would work when the project period ended.

“We wanted to see the practical results of our work. We assured ourselves that the education would be financially viable once the funding from the Social Fund stopped.

Starting Yes as an independent school was not possible. The first class had four students, and the second had seven. To start an independent school we would have needed a class with 20 students right from the start.

Developing successful educationFlowers

Almost 80 per cent of those who attended the first years of the Yes education received a job with Basta or outside Basta. Some of those who did not complete their education relapsed into addiction.

Cecilia Heule at the School for Social Work in Lund has evaluated the education offered by Yes . She states that one reason why the students complete their studies is that the education is tailored to the students’ situation.

“The money from the Social Fund made it possible for us to develop a teaching style which works for ”bastians”,” says Namu Nambiar. “We see the resources in people. If a person that comes to us cannot read, we say: That’s OK; then we teach them to read. Learning is always adaptable. Of course we have structures, but they are elastic.

Role models provide for a change of attitude

Those who come to Basta have often lost faith in themselves. When they see that others who have been in the same situation complete the education and later find work, they serve as role models and as inspiration.

“Previously, people often said ”I have done drugs for such a long time, my brain doesn’t work anymore”. Thanks to Yes, there has been a change of attitude,” says Namu Nambiar.

Mirko Domonji is the Project Manager for Basta Bygg. He is Basta’s equivalent of a Managing Director. He came to Basta during the autumn of 2006 and began at Yes in 2007, focusing on woodwork.

“When I became drug free, the education emerged as an opportunity to receive a grade. I have started on several educational programmes, but never completed the studies before. The drugs have always taken over.

In June 2010 Mirko Domonji received his professional certificate.

“What a lift! Now I know that I am attractive on the labour market.

Yes is driving Basta’s development

The success with the Yes education whetted their appetite. Basta applied and obtained financing from the Social Fund to see if it was possible to start a Yes education in Södertälje 2005. It was important to find out whether the education would work outside of Basta,” Lars Svedin explains.

“Basically, all of our activities should be multipliable. It should be possible to start a Yes education or a Basta anywhere. That is our way of giving back to society. We were successful, the method worked. The number of students grew from 30 students in the school year 2006-2007 to 180 students in the school year 2008-2009. That in turn led Basta to start educations for newly arrived refugees in the yellow jugend villa. Today, students with drug abuse are in the minority on the education.

Education brings users and academics together

Namu Nambiar and Imad IsmaelAs the educational level of the bastians increased, a desire to get into a university college grew. There was a desire to create a greater understanding between users and user organizations and social workers. The result was a collaborative project between Basta and the School of Social Work in Lund which started in 2007, which was also funded by ESF.

The cooperation has led to experiments with user participation on the sociology programme. The users take part in the course as students on equal terms. Namu Nambiar has taken this course and occasionally gives lectures herself on the sociology programme.

“When students who have finished the user participation education come out into the real world and meet people who are in bad shape and behave strangely, they understand that behind the facade is a normal human being and that their behaviour may simply be a defence mechanism. The pleasant classmate they have at the university may have been in a similar condition,” says Namu Nambiar.

Bringing users into the university environment has not been straightforward. When Namu Nambiar is out lecturing, she often meets people who are of the opinion that user participation is unacademic.

“Suddenly, there are people undertaking courses who lack general entry requirements. They may not even have finished primary school, and they still receive five credits at the university.

Namu Nambiar thinks that the attitude at Lund University has changed since the education started, and it seems like the experiences have leaked out to several universities. She also feels that both experts and institutions listen to the user-controlled organizations and take them more seriously now than before.

But it is of course difficult to measure whether the courses with user involvement in practice change the sociology students’ ways of relating to the users when they come out into working life. Or to what extent it has been empowering for user students to study at the university,” says Kristina Blixt.

The effects will come over time

“It’s not until now, several years on, that we can see the real impact of Yes. It is obvious that there is considerable interest in the education. Perhaps the collaboration with the university will have a similar development,” says Kristina Blixt.

Basta often receives visits from municipalities that are interested in starting similar programmes. The municipality of Karlstad decided to start a replica of Yes after a visit. They even recruited one person from Basta to help start up operations.

“You may think what you want about us and our teaching methods. But the fact remains that our operations deliver good results,” says Lars Svedin.

Text and photo: Anna-Karin Florén