Russian NGOs need to rethink their strategy

Sakharov memorial .jpg

Russia’s voluntary sector, faced with growing government interference, needs to be more open about its aims and operations if it wants more public support.


Andrei Jvirblis
10 December 2014

Opinion polls show a long-term decline in public trust in the Russian voluntary sector, which, fearing media attacks, has become less open about its operations.

This situation has left the voluntary sector outside the world of open communication and freedom of information which characterises multi-million crowd funded projects elsewhere. 

The third sector in Russia

Transparency International Russia (TI-R), an NGO, has set up a project to look into the transparency of Russian rights organisations.

My colleagues and I at TI-R are in frequent contact with our counterparts around the world. Although most of us speak good English, no one is immune from slips in translation. We are not alone here: even the Russian legislator that drafted the infamous ‘Foreign Agents’ law conflated the two concepts of ‘politics’ and ‘policies.’

And we in the voluntary sector have the same problems. The standard Western term 'NGO' (non-governmental organisation) is usually rendered in Russian as 'NKO' (not-for-profit organisation); and that is how Russian legislation also defines us.

Even the Ministry of Justice doesn’t seem to know the exact figure of NKOs

The term NKO covers an enormous number of organisations: even the Ministry of Justice doesn’t seem to know the exact figure.

Many of them may have been registered back in the pre-digital, paper era, and their legal certification is buried somewhere in the Ministry’s archives. The most common estimate puts the number of NKOs in Russia at 200-300,000 — an enormous figure.

But if we subtract all the dacha, allotment and garage co-operatives that build and maintain properties, also officially classified as NKOs, this figure will go down by two-thirds. And two-thirds of those left, exist only on paper, and are inactive. Then if we discount the organisations set up with direct government involvement of one kind or another (the so-called GoNGOs), we are left with perhaps several thousand organisations of various sizes and with an enormously diverse range of activities.

A couple of hundred of these can be defined by their concern for human and civil rights. This area of focus emerged from the activities of Soviet dissident groups in the years leading up to the collapse of the USSR.

Back then, ‘human rights activist’ was, for some, a badge of honour whose wearer was in some sense part of the nation’s public conscience. Rights activists commanded wide media coverage and had a significant influence on public opinion, particularly during the First Chechen War. But then times changed: Vladimir Putin came to power and the government began to exercise increasing control over print media, while the internet transformed the dissemination of information.

Russians don’t understand what voluntary sector organisations are or what they do

Now a generation is growing up who have never heard of Andrei Sakharov, have no idea why a street in Moscow has been named after him, and why he should be remembered. Nor do they remember the rallies and marches attended by millions during perestroika or understand why they are necessary.

Rights organisations have no access to traditional print media, and the government propaganda machine that seeks to discredit NKOs is growing stronger year by year.

Every opinion poll reveals that Russians don’t understand what voluntary sector organisations are (apart from those involved in charity work, which they more or less understand and accept), what they do and what their aims are; and thus they have no problem when the government takes action against them.

Large Sakharov _0.jpg

Grave of Andrei Sakharov 1921-1985.

Why openness is important

This lack of communication can also be partly explained by tensions within the sector itself. For a number of reasons, Russian NKOs usually rely on funding from various (mostly foreign) grant-giving foundations.

Until very recently, NKOs received no financial help at all from Russian sources. And although the situation has changed, experienced voluntary sector operators are wary of government funding, fearing it will limit their freedom. Hardly anyone (apart from charities) uses donations from the public, although the situation has been slowly changing in the last few years given the difficulties of funding from other Russian sources and the emergence of crowd funding.

The NKO old guard cannot get used to the idea of telling the public about their work.

The NKO old guard, however, cannot get used to the idea of telling the public about their work. As they see it, once information is in the public domain, it can be used by anyone (including the media, the police and pro-Kremlin organisations), and this factor does not encourage transparency.

But the problem with this defence is obvious to any communications specialist: if you don’t tell people about what you are doing, either someone else will do it for you or the information gap will be filled by all kinds of untraceable rumours.

This is why we at Transparency International Russia have set up a project aimed at increasing the transparency and openness of Russian civil and human rights NKOs (and for the first time in 15 years of operation, we received government funding for it). We believe it is important for our colleagues to be able to disclose as much information as possible, to protect themselves from misunderstandings, conjecture and distortion of the facts.

The project

Launched this September, our project will last nine months, and we are running it in collaboration with Information Culture, our partner NKO. In its first stage, we analysed methods of self-regulation used by voluntary organisations in other countries.

We do not, however, plan to introduce norms from elsewhere. This just wouldn’t work, given that each organisation needs its own specific code of practice. Meanwhile, our project partners carried out a similar analysis of information divulged by other voluntary sector organisations.

While Russian NKOs are quite open about themselves when they present reports and grant applications to the government, it seems that they will remain secretive about their work in public until their activities and funding are clearly linked to transparency. Some of this information is already in the public domain, and we have collected all of this information in a single place.

In the framework of the project we now plan to:
• Assess information transparency in Russian rights NKOs
• Develop a method of increasing NKO transparency
• Compile a checklist of what information must be published and what should also be published
• Run training sessions for NKO staff
• Produce a draft code of practice for rights NKOs
• Pilot this draft code of practice in three rights organisations

Regarding this last point, we shall basically work as unpaid consultants. We see a code of practice not as a list of abstract norms and rules of good form, but a practical tool that regulates the daily activities of an organisation and can be used to resolve difficult situations. Most organisations already have unwritten agreements and ideas about how things ‘should be done,’ but we are codifying these ideas in an internal document, which effectively makes us unpaid consultants for people in the voluntary sector.

The response

I have to admit that our target audience has reacted pretty negatively to our project. The factors I mentioned above stop NKOs being open with the public; and we are seen as agents of government policy, which has been clamping down on the sector in the last few years.

Civil and human rights organisations are so scared that even the word ‘code’ makes them suspect us of producing some draconic statutory regulations; and our source of funding for the project only confirms their suspicions.

Our target audience has reacted pretty negatively to our project.

We, however, believe that we are moving in the right direction. If we can make the results of the project (and its unthreatening content) public, then the positive effects of a new era of transparency in the not-for-profit sector will be observable for a long time to come.

In the first place, openness is a preventive measure against any further tightening of the law, which is perfectly possible in the near future. And if we don’t open up by ourselves, 'they' can force us to do it. In the second, these changes could revive trust in the voluntary sector, both from the public and between organisations themselves (only people on the outside believe that we are united as a sector — the situation is far more complicated…).

The trust of the public and of corporate donors, their readiness to support NKOs and participate in their work, will create both a stronger foundation for the future, and more financial resources for Russia’s beleaguered voluntary sector.

With this strategy, we believe that this can open a new chapter in the history of Russian civil society.

Standfirst image: Grave of Andrei Sakharov. A. Savin via Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

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