Writing on Open Democracy Russia yesterday, Almut Rochowonski argued that Kremlin’s repression of NGOs could work in their favour by encouraging domestic giving. Her mistake was assuming Russian NGOs are able and free to replicate Western membership-based fundraising models, which they are not.
It is no accident – as the Marxists used to say – that the Kremlin’s offensive against civil society followed the most extensive, sustained and dramatic protest movement in post-Soviet Russia. Authoritarian regimes in general look to harass activists, impose restrictions, and seek to de-legitimise indigenous actors as foreign agents when they want to stop activists from engaging with the wider public (an engagement which, by the way, might generate much membership-based funding). It is precisely in such states, where providing support for civil society is a potentially hazardous political act, that international donors can step in to address the domestic donor deficit.
Already fragile and underdeveloped as a consequence of the repressive Soviet legacy, Russian civil society is facing an intimidating array of legal and financial challenges. With the active cooperation of the State Duma, the Putin administration has employed several legislative measures to undermine the country’s civil society organizations……………
The response to these challenges has varied, with most NGOs adopting a ‘wait and see’ attitude, citing specific wording in the Yakovlev Law as evidence of the government’s plans to target only a select few national-level groups. Well-established NGOs are pursuing more proactive measures, including taking domestic and international legal action against the government. In early February, eleven leading NGOs lodged a formal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, asserting that the ‘Foreign Agent’ Law violates Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect freedom of association and expression. ………..
Against this backdrop of growing authoritarianism, the funding environment for civil society organisations, which was never healthy, has deteriorated rapidly. The Kremlin’s expulsion of USAID last September left a large number of civil society organisations with constricted budgets, necessitating programmatic and staff cuts to remain active. Meanwhile, USAID’s exit has had a chilling effect on the international donor community, with many US and European donors revisiting funding strategies in the hope of avoiding a similar fate.
‘USAID’s exit has had a chilling effect on the international donor community, with many US and European donors revisiting funding strategies in the hope of avoiding a similar fate.’
The donor community obviously needs to adjust to new challenges by exploring new funding models and showing greater flexibility in managing grantee finances. In particular, donors should reconsider the traditional ‘call for proposals’ model of grant-making, which not only lends credence to government claims of undue donor influence on NGO activities, but may also lead to mission creep. The alternative, a demand-driven model of grant-making, incentivises highly-adaptable, grassroots projects that avoid many of these programmatic and financial issues.
This is the model that informs National Endowment for Democracy’s approach in supporting Russian civil society projects. From regional human rights initiatives to national-level transparency programs, our work homes in on popular local issues or pursuing the protection of fundamental freedoms and norms that may have yet to gain traction in the wider society. ……….
Of course, genuine donor pluralism would be hugely beneficial to Russian civil society: if only the country’s beleaguered non-governmental groups were able to draw on a diverse range of funding sources, from individual members and indigenous philanthropic foundations to corporate and even government funding, international funders would not need to compensate for the domestic donor deficit.
But the Putin regime is manifestly hostile to pluralism of any stripe, as demonstrated by the authorities’ current efforts to stifle the donor community ……….. The most sensible response to this overt effort to choke off resources for dedicated individuals and groups working against the odds in Russia to bring greater justice and accountability is not to acquiesce but rather to let a thousand flowers bloom and to enable open and transparent funding from domestic and international sources alike.
This an extract from a longer article on Open Democracy. RTWT