#1 - JRL 2009-205 - JRL Home
Moscow News
November 9, 2009
Thinking small ­ to help those in need
By Andy Potts

Social welfare in Russia doesn't have the best of reputations - but after almost two decades of working in the non-profit sector, Juliette Engel is starting to wonder whether the future of imaginative support programmes might lie in the East, rather than the West.

Having set up three not-for-profit groups in Moscow, she's well-placed to assess how things have changed from the "absolute disorganised chaos" she found on arrival in the early 90s to a surprising emphasis on supporting grassroots projects today.

And, with her background in the US - where her umbrella body Miramed still derives most of its funding - she's spotted a role reversal as the West gets tangled in new webs of red tape.

"There's a change in US and EU policy," she said in her office in the Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya apartment block. "They want to fund one organisation, creating huge international organisations which become huge layers of bureaucracy."

"But strangely in Russia funding is going in the opposite direction. They are funding more and more smaller, innovative proposals. It's like the West is becoming more Soviet and Russia is becoming more capitalist. All over the regions they are starting up these small, innovative project. ... At the moment the financial crisis is getting a lot of attention, but I wouldn't underestimate Russia ... In social welfare and trafficking it's already doing a lot."

Typical of the projects in Russia is one set up by Women and Children First, a group Engel is involved in, to provide support for single mothers.

Russia's orphanages have long been a repository for children of unmarried parents, with a child abandonment rate of 90 per cent among teenage single mothers - many of whom were encouraged, or even pressured, to sign away their parental rights as soon as the child was delivered.

Against that grim background the Prevention of Abandonment project began in 2002 in a handful of Moscow community centres.

"We started working with single teenage mothers in community centres - and there were lots of people who wanted to get involved," said Engel, who quit a comfortable job as a doctor in Seattle to come and work in Russia nearly 20 years ago.

"Within two years we were working with 750 mothers and babies in four locations. We built systems of community support, helped by people from local businesses and volunteers. We tried to create a kind of Russian village, and got great community involvement - even down to planting gardens and raising goats. The Orthodox Church got involved with spiritual education."

After six years, Moscow city authorities took over the project and expanded it. Now it runs in 23 centres, and by 2012 it's due to be in more than 200.

Of course, not everything about working here is straightforward. That Yeltsin-era "chaos" has evolved into a complex bureaucracy of its own, which requires organisations to "trudge along" through the paperwork.

"It takes a lot of time and effort to even get people's attention," said Engel. "There's a lot of reluctance to admit there's a problem, because then you have to do something about it. If the problem doesn't exist, it doesn't need a solution.

"In Moscow a lot of credit has to go to Mayor Luzhkov and his team. It's one of only a few cities that support really innovative projects."

And, while high-profile conflicts with groups like the British Council have grabbed headlines, Engel doesn't believe the authorities are fundamentally obstructive.

"When they are not receptive it's not like you run into a brick wall," she said. "They just don't respond. It's not like they threaten you, they just ignore you."

"At the same time, we've had a great response from the Interior Ministry, and we've helped them train more than 3,000 officers to work in trafficking cases."

Meanwhile, the crisis has had a big impact on the work of Miramed, Women and Children First and anti-trafficking group Angel Coalition.

Having been through the 1998 crash, Engel is confident that Russia is coping much better this time.

"In 1998 everything descended into chaos. You couldn't access the banks - our bank just closed with all our money in it," said Engel. "People are handling it much better now. They understand they have to preserve the institutions and businesses, even if it means losing money in the short term, so they have something to rebuild. They want them to be there when things start to improve."

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