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Russia: NGOs Just Beginning To Take Root

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Many Russian non-governmental organizations say that getting ordinary citizens and businessmen to participate in building a civic society remains a difficult task. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on a conference of more than 280 NGOs that is discussing ways of developing a greater role for themselves in Russia today.

Moscow, 13 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The first-ever conference of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in Russia has attracted some 280 groups from more than 60 of Russia's regions. Meeting through tomorrow near Moscow, they are discussing ways of increasing their role in Russian society.

Many admit that it won't be easy. They note that, traditionally, the Russian state has adopted a top-to-bottom policy toward its own society. That's the very opposite of the grass-root democracy, communal identity and feeling of belonging to a civic society represented by NGOs.

The conference -- organized by Britain's Charities Aid Foundation and financed by foreign as well as Russian sources -- is made up of NGOs that support everything from an antique doll museum through private farmers and theater groups to helping disabled adults.

While they have grown in numbers in recent years, Russian NGOs are still largely outside of mainstream society. One reason is that they suffer from the suspicion of criminal association because many non-commercial organizations are regularly set up and exploited by corrupt businessmen and politicians to siphon off -- or launder-- money. That makes it difficult for legitimate NGOs to raise funds.

Another, perhaps even more important reason is that most Russians still don't understand the role that the non-governmental sector should play. Olga Alekseyeva, a Charities Aid Foundation representative, says that NGOs are not what she calls "a surrogate for the state," but rather a sector of their own where citizens can work for their common interests. Alekseyeva strongly criticizes Russian society's paternalism.

"[Russia's] social policy is made according to the logic that the 'state knows best' how to help the population. The population is [seen] as little lambs that constantly need to be saved."

Russian NGOs complain that state policy leaves them little space for action. One of their major priorities is the development of philanthropy both on a federal and local level. But they admit they have little general support and that the habit of philanthropy is developing slowly in Russia.

Vera Barova, head of one of Russia's first community funds -- which collects money exclusively from Russian businesses to support community initiatives -- explains the problems she was confronted with at first in her Siberian hometown of Tyumen.

"Unfortunately, the idea of private funding is discredited in Russia. So when people asked us, 'whose fund are you,' we answered that we are the whole community's fund and that we don't belong to any particular businessman or authority, [But they] were very doubtful."

But now, eight local businessmen have become major donors. One grant recipient this year is a local initiative seeking to promote the Russian tradition of dipping in icy rivers in winter by building a heated changing room near the swimming spot to encourage newcomers.

According to Barova, Russian rather than foreign grants are preferable because they build a sense of belonging and responsibility among citizens. She says that, by participating in communal projects, the citizens of Tyumen and its businessmen have joined together -- thereby breaking down the walls of Russia's traditionally fragmented society.

But if Russian NGOs rarely lack good ideas or dedication, they often don't know how to go about raising money. That's where organizations like Anna Delova's NGO Support Center in Volgograd comes in. At first, the center offered NGOs advice on taxes and grant applications, but now it's trying, in Delova's words, "to develop a public-relations strategy to get people to contribute."

Delova says that she is trying to resuscitate the idea of fund-raising among ordinary citizens. That was a resource rejected initially by most NGOs because of the stereotyped notion that Russians -- marked by 70 years of communists rule in which charities were non-existent -- "don't give."

Delova challenges that view. She says that Russians give to streets beggars all the time and that "people will give to charities, if we find the right approach." Her organization raises funds to help young cancer patients through charity boxes in shops, ready-made bank transfer orders, and local television ads that brought in more than $1,000 (about 30,000 rubles) in five months.

The strategy was based on the idea, new to most Russian NGOs, that a potential donor must be approached as a commercial company would approach a potential client. Incentive and transparency are key parts of the strategy.

"We invited people to visit office of the charity Children in Need. We invited them to the hospital, where they can also give money. We explained that by contributing 10 rubles, it would cover the cost of nine syringes for a sick child. No one realizes that, and so in our campaign it was important to show that even 10 rubles are important and can play a role."

Some big Russian companies, often branded as greedy capitalists, have tried to improve their image through philanthropy. Vladimir Potanin, head of Interros, set up a fund for gifted children. He also donates to charities by doubling the sum contributed by his own employees. Companies can deduct from their taxes charitable contributions of up to 3 per cent of their profits, while individuals can write off most charitable contributions as non-taxable.