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 outfits.

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 queue.

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.


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