Where are the limits of donor accountability?

Alliance magazine

Should Western donors who supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine be accountable for the new NGO Law in Russia? Maria (Masha) Chertok of CAF Russia believes that they should. She debates the question with Pavol Demes of the German Marshall Fund, Bratislava office. Finally, Svitlana Kuts of the Center for Philanthropy, Ukraine gives her perspective on the issue.

Maria Chertok
Looked at very broadly, the accountability of grantmakers extends to a variety of stakeholders – governments, grantees, end beneficiaries, foundations’ own boards and staff. It is a framework for planning our activities and evaluating the outcomes. However, we have recently witnessed a situation where the unexpected impact of grantmakers’ efforts was at least as significant – in a negative way – as the intended outcomes. The lessons of this experience could be very helpful for broadening the current discussion on accountability in international grantmaking which is being developed by a joint working group of the EFC and the Council on Foundations.

It is difficult to evaluate the real role of Western foundations in bringing about the Orange revolution in Ukraine (and the previous political change in Georgia), and I don’t propose to try. Obviously, their contribution was important and helpful, but it would be naive to say that Western donors were the driving force behind these events. Nevertheless, they were proud enough of the results to acknowledge their role in the ‘victory of democracy’.

For we in Russia who last autumn had to face the draft of the new NGO Law, which severely restricted the activities of foreign donors and international NGOs and those Russian NGOs which receive foreign funding, it was obvious that the state was scared by the Georgian and Ukrainian precedents. The new law was developed as a preventive measure before the 2007-08 parliamentary and presidential elections to make sure that no foreign powers would intervene in the domestic political process.

Should Western donors working in Ukraine be blamed for the new Russian NGO Law? No. They did their job in Ukraine believing that they were promoting democratic values and civic engagement. Should they be accountable for the new NGO Law in Russia? Yes. They were buoyed up by the euphoria of people’s democracy (everyone who breathed the Maidan air in November 2004 was) and paid no attention to the wider consequences, which would put at risk their own position and activities, and those of their grantees, in Russia.

Two years on, it is debatable how material the democratic changes in Ukraine have been. With the adoption of the new NGO Law in Russia on 17 April 2006, however, foreign donors and their grantees now face difficulties they never experienced before.

Pavol Demes
With all due respect to Masha, I must say that I have serious problems with her position. Rather than admitting that her country has a government which does not respect the rules of democratic behaviour and has passed another law limiting the freedom of its citizens, she effectively blames Western donors (while eschewing the word ‘blame’ and using instead the word ‘accountability’) because they supported democratic forces in neighbouring countries.

I remember very well that after 1968, when Moscow-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded my country (Czechoslovakia), Western donors did not give up, nor did they later during Meciarism in 1993-98, and now my country is happily in the EU. Nor do I believe they will be discouraged by Russian government attacks on them. Rather, they will support those Russian individuals and groups that continue their struggle for freedom and democracy in spite of restrictive NGO and other laws. But at the end of the day it is up to Russia what kind of regime it will have.

But my main question to Masha is this. What is she saying Western donors should or should not have done? Does she agree that NGOs and foundations should be involved in democratization?

Maria Chertok
I will make two points in response to Pavol. First, it was not my intention to get into a discussion about the qualities of any government. I think there are issues – and accountability is one of them – that donors should address for their own sake, regardless of what governments think or do. I believe that honest analysis of the Ukrainian experience can help to foster a long-term and broader perspective on accountability, particularly regarding donor efforts aimed at a major system change in another country.

Second, I am very concerned about the distinction between policy and politics, particularly as the same word means both things in Russian. Policy change is a legitimate area of work for foundations and other NGOs, but I would be very sceptical about NGOs and foundations that aim to change political regimes in foreign countries – not least because it is exactly on the grounds that this is happening, or likely to happen, that President Putin bases his justification of the new Russian NGO Law.

As to what Western, or for that matter any other, donors should or should not do, I would set out for Pavol’s consideration this simple criterion. I believe that the minimum standard for donors, particularly foreign donors, is not to support any partisan projects or take sides in party politics.

Pavol Demes
I must say that I am not sure I understand your reasoning. Changes in Ukraine and other CEE countries did not come about because of Western donors, but because local people and organizations fought for them. International aid agencies, public and private, helped in varying degrees. Some can support only charitable or other non-political activities but, as you know, there are some, including German political foundations, the American National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute, which are assisting political party development all over the world. Of course they have to do it openly, respecting the laws of their country of origin and of those where they operate.

I must admit, though, there is a thin line in this area. German Marshall Fund, for example, never supports political parties as such, but in fact the civic groups and NGOs that we have supported, let’s say in Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus, have had to get involved in ensuring the fairness of the electoral process and in mobilizing people to vote.

Lessons from post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe show that if you have a government which does not respect standard democratic principles, including fair political competition between parties, decentralization of power and civic engagement in the political process, it will attack domestic and international players that challenge it. Such governments are scared to lose power and will do anything to maintain it. Everything that potentially threatens their position will be called partisan, unacceptable interference in domestic affairs.

We also have the same word for policy and politics in my language, which is Slavic like yours, but by now we have a feel for what is authoritarian and what is democratic. And if the new Slovak government were to violate the basic principles of democracy, we would surely not blame outside forces but use all the instruments of democracy to hold them accountable.

Svitlana Kuts
I understand Masha’s position pretty well. The ‘threat of the West’ was an instrument of the communists’ propaganda when they wanted to justify any action against civil society in the old Soviet Union days. In 2003, a year before the Orange Revolution, communists in the Ukrainian Parliament introduced legislation to evaluate the activity of Western donors and NGOs and their impact on domestic policy.

The good news for Russia is that the Orange Revolution happened despite all the measures to prevent it, so in the end the new Russian law may not help Putin’s government keep the reins of power. The bad news for Russia is that Ukraine had a very strong opposition that was able to mobilize Ukrainians for protests, which is obviously not the case in Russia now. Summing up, I think that totalitarian governments will use any excuse to suppress civil society until this suppression is socially accepted. The myth about Western-made revolutions is promoted in the Russian media and it is up to civil society to withstand it.

There is no link between donor accountability and Ukrainian events. Accountability is about assets and liabilities, and Western donors’ assets were not on a scale to have in any way brought about the events in Ukraine. In three weeks, Maidan collected the equivalent in local currency of $4 million, not counting donations in food, clothes, gasoline, etc. I think that Mr Putin is very well aware of this. Finally, while I think that Western donors should be accountable for what they are doing in the societies where they provide support – and also for what they are NOT doing – attempts to trace a connection between the Russian NGO Law and Ukrainian revolution should not be allowed to cloud this issue.

Maria Chertok is Director of CAF Russia. Email mchertok@cafrussia.ru
Pavol Demes is Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Bratislava office. Email pdemes@gmfus.org
Svitlana Kuts is President of the Center for Philanthropy, Ukraine. Email skuts@ipnet.ua

The ‘Maidan’ Alliance is an informal association of individuals and civic organizations who are seeking to coordinate their efforts to develop civic society in Ukraine, as well as a state structure based on law and answerable to the public.
See http://eng.maidanua.org

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