Grassroots Civil Society Development in Siberia

By
Nancy Popson

Siberia is the leader in grassroots civil society development in Russia, and is becoming a model for the entire former Soviet Union, said Sarah Lindemann, Open Society Fellow in Novosibirsk, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 8 April 2002. The results can be seen at both the high and low end: local government officials are starting to recognize the value of citizens as partners, and NGOs are working together with citizens' groups all over the region. All of this, emphasized Lindemann, is due to U.S. government and private funding.

Lindemann, who has lived and worked in Siberia for the past decade, discussed the nature of her work with citizens and NGOs. When teaching at Novosibirsk State University in 1992, it became evident to Lindemann that although Siberians understood the freedom message of democracy, they did not grasp the equally important aspect of citizen responsibility. She therefore began searching for methods and mechanisms to encourage people to actively accept responsibility. A Eurasia Foundation grant facilitated creation of a Novosibirsk resource center. A U.S. government grant enabled her to create an NGO network with headquarters in Novosibirsk and affiliate offices in ten regions of Russia.

The network was successful, according to Lindemann, because they did not try to import anymodels or to build organizations entirely from scratch. They responded to local peoples'interests. This was supplemented by rigorous monitoring to ensure that those NGOs chosen to be part of the network were acting democratically. Lindemann claims that the network was especially effective in bringing activists together to exchange experiences, giving them
successful examples to follow and adapt to their own environment.

Lindemann quickly saw that creation of coalitions was key to the long-term sustainability ofinitiative groups. The network therefore invited activists representing a particular sector, such as the environment, to meet. According to Lindemann, although the activists appreciated the meeting, they refused to take the next step to put together an all-Siberian environmental conference. As weak organizations, they were threatened by their colleagues and therefore unwilling to go beyond the small circle of activists they knew well. Lindemann therefore began to work on strengthening institutions through development of intersectoral partnerships.

In order to do so, Lindemann and her Russian colleagues held an NGO fair at which all NGOs could present stands highlighting their activities. This would have the dual goals ofinforming the public about the organizations and demonstrating to the government that there areactive groups engaged in important issues. Lindemann claimed that the fairs helped to create a true partnership between the NGOs and the government, and notes that the mechanism has beencopied throughout Russia and in neighboring countries.

In addition to the NGO fairs, Lindemann was instrumental in including local government ingrant committees. In the past, Lindemann explained, local and municipal governments hadsupported some NGOs--primarily those held over from Soviet times. However, the funding decisions were not transparent. Including government officials (first as advisors and then as partners) on committees distributing small grants funded by U.S. and local government funds helped them to see that transparency is in their best interest. Lindemann and her colleagues alsoemphasized the importance of monitoring the grant after it is given. According to Lindemann, now regions in which the network is active offer municipal or oblast grant competitions. In somecases the government is using the local NGO resource center to conduct the competitions anddistribute the grants.

Lindemann has launched community development projects around village schools. She explained that this "community school model" consists of three components: democratization of schools and classrooms; stimulating volunteerism for children, parents, and all community members; and creating mutually beneficial community-school partnerships. To do the latter, they quickly developed community school foundations that would be run by a board elected by the community and would oversee the use of all money collected by the school. Lindemann urged the foundations to fund community projects outside the school as well. For example, a small village in Siberia received funds to put up street lights and thus cut down on crime. In forty-five villages with community schools, over 26,000 people had been involved in projects supported by the school foundations, said Lindemann. Moreover, whereas in the beginning donors would not consider such efforts part of their mandate, they are now interested in supporting it and expanding it outside of Russia.

Lindemann concluded that U.S. support is critical to the development of civil society and democratization in the region. However, it is important that programs be needs-based, respond towhat the local people want, and involve them in program development.

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