Saved from closure: Marlborough Brandt Group takes a narrower path with just three trustees but no global education service

Written by Tony Millett on .

Newly re-elected MBG trustees Alex Davies (left) & Janneke Blokland with (rt) Dr Nick Maurice and three Gambian supporters of MBG (l to r) Kalifa Saho, Buba Barrow & Bakary Touray.Newly re-elected MBG trustees Alex Davies (left) & Janneke Blokland with (rt) Dr Nick Maurice and three Gambian supporters of MBG (l to r) Kalifa Saho, Buba Barrow & Bakary Touray.The annual general meeting of the Marlborough Brandt Group on Thursday evening (March 23) at its Manton offices confirmed the charity's new direction with the appointment of three trustees to take it forward in a very slimmed down and more focused version.

The previous nine trustees, who had taken the decisions, stood down and - with some opposition - Janneke Blokland, Lilli Loveday and Alex Davies were re-elected as the new board of trustees.  To reduce unsustainable administration costs, the offices are closing at the end of this month and staff have either left or will be leaving.

Janneke Blokland and Lilli Loveday had been elected to the previous board of trustees and Alex Davies (who has had a long association with MGB) had been co-opted onto that board.

These changes follow a root and branch review of MBG by its director Karen Bulsara, who has also now stood down.  Two main problems informed her report:  first that the two-way link with Gunjur - with Gambians coming to Britain for training - had become impossible because of the denial of visas by the British government.  In addition MBG did not have the capability to provide appropriate safety compliance for students visiting Gunjur.

In addition there were the rising costs of employment, insurance and running the office - problems common to all small charities. The Annual Report reveals that at the decisive meeting last October, the majority of trustees had voted to close MBG.  And it was said during Thursday's meeting that had it not been for a significant legacy, MBG would have closed two years ago.

But the three new - and younger - trustees are determined to continue MBG's mission - concentrating on its work in Gunjur.  Lilli Loveday was not at the meeting, but is in Gunjur explaining the changes to the charity's local partners and village leaders.

She has also reported back by email on the positive reaction to the MBG changes and also on the atmosphere of optimism that has followed the final departure of The Gambia's long-term dictator, President Jammeh, and the return of democracy with President Adama Barrow.  The Gambia will be able to return to the Commonwealth and EU funding is already coming into the country.

It is a difficult time for MBG to be seen to making any kind of changes to its work -  especially as its current projects are bearing fruit.  The small loans scheme has enabled several sustainable businesses to start in Gunjur - with the loans returned on time.  

And MBG's support for training to enhance 'employability' is having a positive effect as well.  It is making some inroad into the exodus of young Gambians taking the treacherous 'back route' to Europe.  Nick Maurice (an MBG founder and former director) told the meeting that some fifteen per cent of those arriving at Lampedusa having crossed the Mediterranean are from The Gambia - Africa's smallest nation.

The main casualty of this retrenchment is the closure of MBG's Wiltshire Global Education Centre - WGEC.  This has taken teachers to The Gambia and brought teaching about the world to schools across the county and further afield.

The message to the AGM from the outgoing trustees stated: "Over the years WGEC has been very successful, and well respected in Wiltshire schools and beyond. We are extremely grateful for all their efforts over the years.  Nevertheless in reviewing priorities, and in line with our policy of concentrating on the communities of Marlborough and Gunjur, we reluctantly had to conclude that a wider educational remit of MBG is no longer financially feasible."

It was widely accepted at the meeting that this was not the right time to stop global education initiatives.  No one mentioned Brexit, but Dr Nick Maurice did mention the need to bring people together following Wednesday's attack at Westminster.

At the AGM, the outgoing WGEC manager Caroline Harmer tried to get the closure discussed again and complained at MBG's treatment of WGEC. She was told the decision had been made and was not for further discussion. And Treasurer Theresa Ardley showed what WGEC cost the MBG budget in administrative charges.

However, a former MBG Chairman, Ray Jones, raised the possibility of finding a larger Wiltshire charity that could host WGEC.  His offer to help in the search was gratefully accepted by the new trustees.

In his address to the meeting, Dr Maurice pointed to the recent statement by the Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, recgognising the 'extraordinary number of small grassroots charities who do amazing, often highly innovative work in the world's poorest places.'  

Dr Maurice added: "I think we can all agree that she clearly had MBG in mind as she uttered those words!"   This summer she will launch a Small Charities Challenge Fund for organisations with an annual income of less than £250,000 - which could add a glimmer of light at the end of MBG's slimming down process.

In the coming weeks, the new trustees will be holding meetings about future policy and calling for volunteers. They have already started a collaboration with Venture Force which specialises in administering groups going overseas and working on volunteer community projects.

Looking to the future, the new trustee board wants to continue the annual 'Lent Lecture'.  But, for avoidance of doubt, there will be no annual MBG Quiz Night next month - it may be revived next year.

MBG was established in response to the report of the independent commission on international development issues under the chairmanship of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt.  The commission's report - titled `North-South: A programme for Survival' - was published in 1980.  Edward Heath was the British member of the Commission.

It emphasised the great disparity between living standards along the North-South divide and called for better relations - both economic and inter-communal - between the rich world and 'Third World' countries. In Britain it was published as a paperback - and read quite widely.

The first part of MBG's latest statement of objectives reads: " promote, foster and sustain educational projects between people of the Marlborough District and people living in areas of deprivation abroad (i.e. 'the third world'); and for that purpose to sustain the special link which MBG has built up with the people of Gunjur in The Gambia, West Africa and establish links elsewhere."

Shortly, we will be publishing extracts from Dr Maurice's address to the AGM which provides much helpful context to MBG's long record, these decisions and its future.