What follows is an article from Economist
Magazine, www.economist.com, of August 15th 1998.
Russian love in a cold climate
One piece of good news from Russia is that charities are flourishing.
Is there the germ of civic society in the making?
FEW places need the milk of human kindness more than crisis-ridden Russia
- and few countries have been less hospitable to altruism. Although it preached
humanity and comradeship, in practice communism encouraged Russians to be
beastly to all but their own friends and families. And even then, the poverty-stricken
daily grind and the intrusiveness of the state - its bullies and sneaks
- often made harshness and deceit a way of life within the home too.
All the more reason, therefore, to welcome the growing weight of independent
do-gooders. Not only do they help cripples, orphans, drug addicts, army
conscripts and other pitiable groups in Russia. More widely, they stand
for such rare, important ideas as common human values, a civilised concord
between the state and society, and capitalism with a conscience.
Starting virtually from scratch ten years ago, there are now more than
60,000 independent charities in Russia. They are becoming more competent,
better organised, and thus more influential - especially in dealing with
local governments. "They manage not only to survive in this awful economic
situation but they're also getting stronger and stronger," says Elena
Topleva, director of the Social Information Network, a news agency for voluntary
They expand in a moral vacuum. Communist ideas about social welfare were
primitive: a mix of window-dressing and punitive deterrence. This has left
a dreadful legacy of hostility and ignorance towards the worse-off. The
idea, for example, that parents of handicapped children might want to cherish
them at home rather than dump them in an institution remains unfamiliar
- despite charities' efforts.
The most promising sign is that cash-strapped local governments are beginning
to realise that contracting out social services to charities may mean better,
cheaper and more popular provision. More than a dozen cities and local governments
have made "social contracts" laws to let charities bid against
state organs, for example, in providing care for addicts; a similar law
is winding its way through the federal legislature. "Regional governments
want to get rid of their problems," says Oleg Zykov, who runs NAN,
one of Russia's biggest charities for addicts and their families.
There is still a huge way to go. Russians are suspicious of organised
do-gooding, thanks to the legacy of fake charities from the Soviet era,
when voluntary work meant occasionally being told to give up Saturdays to
tidy the streets and when contributions for causes such as British miners
and American farmers - we were told they were starving," remembers
one charity worker - were deducted compulsorily from payrolls. Not that
post-communist charities are spotless. Too many are dodgy. Some, such as
some army veterans' groups and sports clubs, have been covers for criminal
gangs. Other state-backed bodies have been crony-ridden and ineffective
- except as ways to evade taxes and customs duties on imports such as alcohol.
This makes it difficult for charities to get money and time from the
public. Many do not even try. Most are run, heroically, by the passionately
committed, usually with a direct connection to the cause - for example,
the mother of a maimed conscript or of a handicapped child. Part-time volunteers,
who in the West are often middle-class people who want to help out in their
spare time and are often the mainstay of charities, are all but unknown
in Russia. So are individual donations, which are rarely sought or made.
This is partly the fault of a primitive banking system: there are no cheques,
few credit cards, and paying by bank-transfer means an hour or so in a smelly
Charitable giving by businesses is growing - although, unlike in the
West, it tends to be anonymous, impulsive generosity rather than part of
a sustained effort to polish a corporate image. This is due less to inherent
modesty than to an understandable desire by entrepreneurs to avoid drawing
the attention of the taxman or his even more grasping cousin the gangster.
But Russia's charities are rapidly becoming more solidly run. Groups
like the Charities Aid Foundation, sponsored partly by the British government,
teach fund-raising and "social market ing" (meaning public relations).
Mrs. Topleva estimates that there are around 40 full-time centres
in Russia where charity workers are now being trained.
The first big question for Russian charities is whether they can turn
from being small impressive organisations into big impressive ones - something
which requires administrative skills that are exceptionally scarce in Russia.
The second is whether corrupt vested interests in the state system will
let them flourish. Bureaucrats who have grown fat on maladministering the
current arrangements will not take kindly to outsiders who try to replace
them. Most foreign charities in Russia have already found this to their
cost. Campaigning charities dealing with sensitive issues, such as human
rights and environmental damage, are also likely to fall foul of officialdom
as they become more effective.
And for all the growth at grass-roots, Russia's federal government remains
on the whole disdainful. The larger charities ridk being hassled by the
tax police. And a fresh tax code about to come into force looks set to make
things worse: one new rule, for instance, could make a soup kitchen liable
for VAT on the imputed value of the food it dishes out.
Still, with government across the board often venal and invariably incompetent,
the growth of philanthropy among ordinary citizens may inject a vital new
ingredient of humanity into the new Russia. And that would be progress indeed.
Blavatsky Net home
| up | top