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#25 - JRL 2008-79 - JRL Home
Date: Fri, 18 Apr
From: "Sarah Lindemann-Komarova" <echosiberia@gmail.com>
Subject: NGO Amendments

The Parallel Universes of NGOs in Russia
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova (ECHOSiberia@gmail.com), a Founder of the Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center

I am sure most people reading this think that the biggest threat to NGOs in Russia today is the amendments to the NGO laws. You believe it because you have read or heard endless press announcements, commentary and interviews telling you that and demanding action, "This law should be not amended but abolished," according to Moscow Helsinki Group leader Lyudmila Alexeyeva. For the most part, the people promoting this opinion are not NGO development specialists, nor are they recognized representatives of the Third Sector (the term to collectively refer to NGOs) since the Sector has yet to establish a legitimate organ for local self-governance as exists in many countries. They are certainly entitled to express their opinions and their energy and enthusiasm is to be admired. However, there is a parallel universe of NGO experts and organizations less prone to using PR as a mechanism for change and, thus, less visible to the media They disagree with the recommendation mentioned above and the promotion of less transparency, accountability and professionalism as a recipe for strengthening the non-profit sector in Russia. Their experiences do not lead them to support the need for such an alarmist tone and to question the threat assessment as expressed by activists such as Alexeyeva, . many NGOs now have to do paper work and prepare reports. For NGOs with small personnel this spells death. They can't cope and have to close down,".

Maria Obrasova, the head of a tiny NGO in a village in the Republic of Altai, does not share this fear. When asked about the reporting process she said the paper work took about two days and the whole process a month. She did not feel it was particularly burdensome. I want my organization to grow, I want it to be professional and for people to respect and trust us so we can attract increased support for our work and I consider this part of that process. This attitude towards the NGO amendments was shared by representatives of NGO resource centers from 14 Russian regions in February when I asked them how the amendment implementation was going in their regions. No one reported any noteworthy problems. The Federal Registration Service was doing everything possible in these regions to locate organizations and notify them of the new requirements.

They agree with the activists in the parallel universe that the amendments will result in a fewer number of registered NGOs. However, the reasons and impact differ from what is being reported. There were two primary reasons presented by the NGO experts I interviewed. The first is that a large number of dead organizations will now officially disappear. The second reason is that the reporting process brought to light numerous organizations that were using non-profit status as a cover for commercial activity or other financial machinations. Everyone felt that the liquidation of these NGOs was essential if the Sector was going to gain the respect and trust required to generate the financial support necessary for individual NGOs to become sustainable and for the Sector as a whole to be a stable and strong force in society. Thus, they saw the amendments as a net positive.

This image problem has hounded NGOs since the Third Sector movement began in the mid-90s. Today, the depth of that problem in Russia has been codified by a wide range of sources. These include the 2007 Edelman Business Trust Barometer where Russia was one of only two (out of 18 countries) where NGOs were rated as the least trusted institutions in the country. Most other countries rated NGOs as among the most trusted. In the 2007 Public Chamber Status of Civil Society Annual Report survey data was presented indicating that 55% of respondents knew nothing about NGOs. It is almost impossible to image a strategy for increasing trust without increased transparency and accountability. Likewise, it is impossible to dramatically increase public awareness and appreciation for the work of NGOs without increased professionalism and funding.

These are the issues most of the NGO experts I spoke with have been addressing since 1995.

At that time there wasnt a single ruble available to NGOs in competition. The only support going to organizations was done behind closed doors and only to groups with close ties to the local administration. The strategy chosen to open up the process was to promote NGOs as effective mechanisms for addressing the issues that people in Russia care about and as equal partners to local government in improving quality of life in communities. As a result of these efforts there are now open government competitions to support NGOs and other citizen initiatives in many regions. For example, competitions in Novosibirsk Oblast and Krasnoyarsk Krai this year will each distribute almost $1,000,000 and NGO representatives are included on the judging committees.

Obviously, there is still a long, long road ahead to achieve a well-known, respected and stable Third Sector in Russia. This need for improvement in procedures on the NGO, as well as the government side, was documented in the 2007 ICNL survey on the implementation of the amendments. Here is was reported that NGOs were unable to track and measure overhead charges and other indirect costs, which indicate a much deeper challenge relating to internal recordkeeping, accounting, and management practices. All are still a challenge for many NGOS; which ultimately weakens their sustainability, as they are vulnerable to government audits. The survey also indicated that there is no evidence that the amendments represent a big threat to the Third Sector as a whole or any segment within the Sector. Respondents did not identify a change in the number of audits, presence of uninvited state representatives, or requests for information, since the Law went into effect. It appears that the number of audits has always been very high, and that certain regions have always had a higher degree of government intervention. It also reported that, Neither survey respondents nor focus group participants state that Law #18-FZ has been disproportionately applied against human rights or advocacy groups; rather, the law is causing the same kinds of problems across the board due to over all ambiguity and lack of clarity of certain provisions.

The NGO experts I spoke to offered similar observation and, based on this, believe that the new registration and reporting process are both a positive and necessary step towards achieving their goal of a powerful Third Sector. They do not think the process is perfect but there has been an open and on-going dialogue between them and the local Federal Registration Service representatives to assess how it can be improved so it meets the needs and interests of both sides. At this time, based on the current situation as they experience it working with NGOs in their regions on a daily basis, this is an adequate procedure. Should the need arise, they will adapt their response to defend NGOs. For now, they think it makes most sense to concentrate on building the Sector. This means spending their time on promoting a more transparent and effective process for the distribution of over $63,000,000 to NGOs in the 2008 Federal Competition that was just announced.

Thanks to the admirable PR skills of our parallel universe inhabitants, an enormous amount of resources (time and money) are now being directed towards supporting a position that other NGO experts believe is counter-productive to the interest of the NGOs by continuing to hold them to slim or no standards of accountability. It is time to unite these two universes towards a shared goal. Imagine the possibilities for change if the PR skills of one universe were combined with the strategic development skills of the other towards encouraging NGOs to adhere to the same standards of accountability and transparency that are being demanded from government? It could be the beginning of a new phase where we work together so that NGOs are recognized in the media for excellence and effectiveness rather than for complaining about having to do paper work.