Funding civil society in tough places

Alliance magazine

The prospect of working in a country with a repressive and unsympathetic government shouldn’t put donors off – it is often these places that need assistance the most. The experience of one American donor working in Belarus demonstrates some of the numerous problems and pitfalls – and how they can be overcome.

The current programme in Belarus began in March 2001. The aim: to promote civil society development and the democratization process. Since 2001 was an election year, there was a special emphasis on civic education and mobilization during the first half of the programme.

The presidential elections on 9 September 2001 saw the re-election of President Lukashenka by a big margin (75 per cent for him; 15 per cent for the democratic opposition). Although most agree that the election was not free and fair and that there was some fraud, most also agree that he would have won anyway. It seems that he still enjoys substantial support – or else people see little viable alternative to his authoritarian, repressive and reactionary regime. For civil society, the elections provided good practice in public outreach – to try and overcome overwhelming voter apathy – but also a clear demonstration of how little influence the sector has in Belarus.

Hostility to NGOs

NGOs in Belarus have often been targeted by the authorities because of their perceived connection with the political opposition. In extreme cases, NGO leaders have been detained and equipment seized. This process accelerated over the past year and does not appear to be abating in the post-election period.

More often, the authorities have targeted the NGO community with decrees aimed at curtailing their ability to function – a sort of death by bureaucracy. The infamous Decree 8, passed in spring 2001, concerned ‘Certain Measures of Regulation of the Procedure of Receipt and Use of Foreign Gratuitous Aid’. The decree was purportedly to ‘improve the procedure’ of receiving and using aid provided by foreign donors. In practice, it limited the ability of many NGOs to function by further bureaucratizing an already very bureaucratic process. Decree 2, passed in 1999, required NGOs to re-register within six months (subsequently extended), as a result of which many NGOs ceased to be legal entities. Additionally, the decrees make it more difficult for new groups to work officially, thus stifling the growth and development of the sector as a whole.

Getting round the problem

The problem this raises for donors is obvious: do you continue working with trusted partners or do you cooperate fully with the authorities, even if it means limiting the scope and effectiveness of your work? More generally, when working within the context of a repressive government there are really two options: cooperate with the authorities or do your best to ignore them.

This donor found both registered and unregistered organizations with whom they wished to work. This situation had clear repercussions for the way they worked. For one thing, they had to assume that their email was being read and their telephones tapped. Since certain information could potentially harm their partners in the country, they were careful about what they said.

Working with unregistered organizations or initiative groups naturally raises issues of transparency and a higher risk of default. Increased monitoring of grantees can help with the latter, but there also has to be increased sensitivity concerning open and direct contact with grantees. The donor is there to help – not unnecessarily to expose partners to unpleasantness. Though this approach can at times be irritating and lead to misunderstandings, in this donor’s experience it generally worked. They encountered few serious problems and these were eventually solved.

Lack of information

But the single greatest problem for programme development in hostile environments is lack of information, often leading to a lack of understanding. Understanding the social and political realities of the territory you are working in is crucial to running an effective programme. Working in a country such as Belarus is complicated by the fact that reliable information is hard to come by. Official news sources contribute little to a better understanding of events within the country, while opposition papers also have their own interpretation. Most news is traded by word of mouth long before it is published anywhere, so the simplest way of finding out what’s going on is to ask questions. Personal networks are essential in such places – but these are also time-consuming and require personal investment. Information gathering can also help avoid the common pitfall of treating all ‘problem countries’ in the same way. There is no template for working in such environments. Though certain problems are common, it is the differences that are often more relevant.

Eventually, it became no longer possible to maintain foreign in-country staff (the director’s visa was revoked last year, with no official reason given). But this is not an insurmountable problem – it simply increases the challenge of monitoring and remaining in the information loop. This donor had been in Belarus long enough for good relationships to be formed. Above all, communication and coordination among the donor community is crucial. Experiences and information from other donors can be invaluable.

Despite the difficulties, this donor considers its programme in Belarus successful and has not been dissuaded from continuing work there in the future.

Case study: making a grant to an NGO in Belarus

A recent attempt by one UK grantmaker to transfer funds to a Belarussian NGO for a straightforward environmental project proved a frustrating experience. The bulk of the project activities were carried out over summer 2000, and the project report and accounts – from both the Belarussian NGO and their partner organization – were received in summer 2001, on completion. These were examined and approved in the usual way and the final payment agreed.

“It was then that we began to realize the difficulties of transferring the funds. We aim to be transparent in our grantmaking and always work within the national laws of the country involved. However, this seems to be almost impossible in the case of Belarus. In theory, if the grant money is for legitimate work, which is within the stated goals of the NGO (which must be non-political and non-threatening to the state), there should be no problem. In practice, it appears that the authorities can be very unpredictable in their interpretation of Decree 8, and can impose crippling fines on the NGO – or even close it down – simply for receiving funds from abroad. Having spoken to other funders, we discovered that legitimate grantmakers are being driven to send money through private accounts in Belarus, via banks in neighbouring countries or even in suitcases of cash.

We considered transferring the funds as if it were payment for a service; one element of the project was the publication of a manual, so this seemed reasonable. However, if we did this, the money would be considered as commercial income, and would have been liable for 35 per cent tax. We would have paid this, but the NGO would still have lost its status as a non-profit organization and the privileges such status provides. As a commercial organization, the taxes and office rent would have increased many times over and effectively bankrupted them.

It seems that, in this case, the best solution will be to pay the funds directly into the NGO director’s personal bank account (with written guarantees that the funds will then be given over to the NGO). This at least avoids having people physically taking cash over the border. The funds will, of course, be taxed as personal income (at a rate of 20 per cent, which we will pay) thereby adding considerable extra cost to the project overall. This is something we’ve never done before, and we see it very much as a last resort, but it seems better than the alternative: abandoning the idea of supporting NGOs in Belarus altogether.

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