Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999
Working with Russia
The ups and downs of international environmental collaboration
John Massey Stewart
Although much time, money and effort have gone into solving Russia's vast environmental problems, not all of it has been effective. Last year an independent survey questioned a broad range of those working to save the Russian environment on what has been going wrong, what has been going right and why (see part 1, part 2 and part 3).
The survey's 55 respondents included many leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia and the West, as well as representatives of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the European Commission. Individual respondents included Russia's environmental minister, Prof Viktor Danilov-Danilyan and Russia's best known environmentalist and former Environmental Counsellor to Boris Yeltsin, Prof Alexei Yablokov. All of these respondents gave full and frank responses to a series of questions on aspects of international environmental collaboration (see disclaimer). Although they all spoke with specific reference to Russia, the vast majority of what they said could be applied to any Central or Eastern European country, or indeed to any country anywhere.
In this week's article, we will look at the frustrations that arise in international environmental collaboration and how they can be avoided, as well as the thorny question of just why is the West pouring so much money into Russia's environmental problems.
What are the problems, frustrations and misconceptions on both sides?
"Westerners donít understand the need for money. On the other hand, here the Russians donít know what they want. They produce a project which is more like a lyrical poem that wonít be considered. As a result, after a few operations, contact is snuffed out for good," says Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, Chairman, State Committee on Environmental Protection, talking about the frustrations involved for both sides
(a) Mutual problems and frustrations
Some of the difficulties that arose were mutual to both the international and local bodies involved in the collaboration. Both sides, for instance, expressed exasperation with the West's funding and interest. Outside concern can be fickle. According to Lisa Tracey ,formerly of the Ottawa Peace and Environment Resource Centre (PERC), Western funders like to follow popular trends and then tire of them and tire of funding them. "Donor fatigue" exists and one respondent believed that this can only be offset by success stories or such a crisis that people feel compelled to act.
One Russian misconception is over-ambitious expectations of what the West can do and at what speed, often fuelled by the West's "quick-fix" approach to problems and the belief that more funding will result in quicker solutions to long-standing and complex problems
Mutual lack of understanding was often mentioned. Eija Kiiskinen of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for instance said, "Donors and recipients speak a different language. They have different expectations and sometimes when you start a project the donor may have a totally different picture of the outcome of the project to that of the recipient." So the recipient may well expect a different project outcome.
(b) Underestimation and lack of mutual respect
While Russians come up against Western bureaucracy, one US NGO says "the cumbersome bureaucratic process of Russian society is almost impossible for Westerners to comprehend", and laments that Westerners tend to underestimate and undervalue the complications involved in Western-designed projects in Russia.
Another problem is non-applicability. An anonymous international funding institute representative believes the West has wrongly assumed that many Western solutions are applicable to Russia. Another self-criticism of Westerners is that many do not respect the people on the ground. But, says Elisa Klose, Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia (ISAR), the latter "have information and knowledge and experiences you donít have, and you have to go into this job with a sense of mutual respect and with a sense that you have a lot to learn from them, as they have from you". Russians for their part are criticised for their lack of flexibility and unwillingness to compromise.
(c) Lack of Communication
The exchange of information, a vital part of environmental protection, worries some Russian conservatives forces, and strong support is urged of the environmental activists trying to give information - to which there should be public access anyway - to Western organisations.
There are Western frustrations at the inability of some donor institutions to liaise directly with Russiaís regional administrations . Insufficient dialogue has resulted in, amongst other things, the absence of a unified approach to environmental management, and Francoise Belmont of the United Nationals Environment Programme (UNEP) is also concerned by the lack of data available: "It seems that monitoring systems have not been maintained properly, so many projects are not based on reliable data."
(d) Donor aid dependency
The problems of donor aid dependency concerned several respondents. "It seems," said on North American respondent "that when you have done all you can, they still want more. Countries need to learn when to let go." Laurence Mee believes the government is encouraging donor aid dependency. People are so demoralised without wages and other support from the central government," he said, "that if they ask 'Why are we not getting paid?' they will be told 'You are getting a lot of support from the West, why are you complaining?'" Donor agencies, he advises, need to sit down, analyse the situation and ask the question, Are we creating aid dependency?
(e) Foreign consultants
A frequent Russian frustration concerns foreign consultants who they often felt were "not necessarily sometimes the best qualified receiving salaries hundreds of times higher" than Russian salaries, creating mistrust and bad feelings.
Great frustration is also caused by Western consultants' endless visits and recommendations with no subsequent action. Irene Lucius of the Environmental Centre for Administration and Technology (ECAT) feels that most foreign consultants are not well-enough prepared to work in the East and are too profit-oriented, while another (Western) accusation is that consultants invariably do not have enough run-in time to appreciate the real problems of the community where they are going, so they treat it like a country in its earliest stage of development. "This really upsets the Russians, and quite rightly so."
Eladio Fernandez-Galiano (Council of Europe) finds that "every civil servant [in Russia] seems to be surrounded by an incredible amount of documents produced by consultants from the West telling him or her what to do with the money, staff and resources he or she doesn't have".
And Alexei Yablokov of the Centre for Russian Environmental Policy (CREP) questions if there is a need for foreign consultants at all. "I donít usually approve of using Western consultants, because I can't think of an area in which we donít have our own Russian specialists. I'd even go so far as to say that sometimes we have access to technology that even the West does not."
(f) Lack of donor coordination
Time and again respondents mention lack of co-ordination with the inevitable danger of wasted resources. "Donors", said Laurence Mee, ex Black Sea Environmental Programme (BSEP), "need to be able to coordinate because one frustration I'm hearing from my colleagues in Russia is that two donors are funding the same thing". Dariusz Prasek of the European Board for Economic Co-operation and Development (EBRD) further comments, "American and European donors don't talk to each other enough about what they have done and plan to do, and I think thereĎs a kind of competition among them. Unless we talk we are going to duplicate, complicate and basically slow down this very important process that weíre all engaged in".
Westerners are often frustrated to find their motives treated with suspicion, particularly in small Russian towns - "Either they are spies for some foreign government and they want to get something out of the local populations, local information or whatever, or they represent some form of foreign business and they want to make a profit." Indeed, one Russian respondent referred to Western help as "cheese in a mousetrap," to lure Russia into doing business on the West's terms.
Anti-Western feeling has increased, particularly in the Duma, according to Lisa Tracey (PERC). In 1992, if there was some environmental threat, she said, an international letter-writing campaign would be organised with Westerners writing letters to the Duma, which would take notice. "Now you get just the opposite reaction. If you send a letter to the Duma saying 'I oppose the high-speed railway project [from Moscow to St Petersburg cutting through protected areas]', then the first thing they think is 'Why are those Western spies organising opposition to a railway project?'" Many respondents felt that security considerations are tightening, particularly on nuclear issues involving the military. Elisa Klose (ISAR) finds there is an extremely dangerous present tendency in Russia to return to a Soviet-style mentality on environmental issues concerning military contamination. One anonymous respondent confirmed that access to contaminated sites has been increasingly restricted.
The problems of Russian suspicion with Western environmental projects in Russia is graphically illustrated by the arrest in February 1996 of Alexandr Nikitin, a local representative of the Norwegian NGO, Bellona, which is investigating the safety of nuclear reactors.
This leads to the question of just why the West is being so generous to Russia.
What are the West's motives in environmental collaboration?
A large number of respondents did list altruism as the main reason. Happily, not all those who thought this were Westerners. Christopher Le Breton, formerly of the Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States programme (TACIS) declared the bottom line: "We have a moral right to help them out. They've had this ghastly social experiment for the last seventy years. We just can't ignore them."
However, not everyone saw the West's motives so simply. Several respondents thought that the Western governments, and particularly the US Government, see environmental co-operation as a way of fostering democracy in Russia by encouraging civil society (ie NGOs).
Bill Pfieffer of the Sacred Earth Network points also to the West's interests in expanding into the CIS which can only yield profits if the area is environmentally and economically viable and sustainable. Another Western respondent points particularly to Japan as having had very much an eye on future trade in contrast to, for instance, Sweden, which makes a practice of employing the best experts, regardless of their nationality.
Commercial objectives with Russia, both long- and short-term, are cited as a massive potential market for environmental technology. One well-known Western consultancy was accused of deliberately getting involved in less necessary projects in the Far East in order to sell its own technology. While according to Alexei Yablakov (CREP) "Western firms often buy superior, secret, ex-military technologies just to keep them secret, so as not to lose their traditional market share."
Employment in the donor country is also an important consideration. "You provide on paper x millions of dollars of support," said Laurence Mee, "but in the small print it says 'This support will be given by providing consultants or technology from our own country.' It's a way of maintaining employment."
Lyudmilla Shmatkova (of the Sakha Republic's Ministry of Nature Protection) believes that Western motives range from being humanitarian to political and that they include creating a specific image. The desire for publicity and an image back home can over-attract foreign NGOs towards the more appealing issues, says Lisa Tracey (see last week's article, especially the section on duplications).
With all the frustrations, problems, misconceptions and suspicions of motives, does any effective environmental collaboration get done? In next week's article we will look at how effective respondents thought environmental collaboration had been.
John Massey Stewart, 27 September 1999
A few copies of the original survey, International Environmental Collaboration, Russia: A case study are still available from the author, priced GBP 15 for institutes and GBP 10 for NGOs and individuals. Prices include postage and packing.
More About the Survey
Considering the vast amount of money and effort involved in the West's involvement in attempts to solve Russia's environmental problems it seemed extraordinary that no survey seemed to exist on its effectiveness Ė or lack thereof. The London Initiative on the Russian Environment resolved to fill the gap. The result was a ground-breaking 38 page booklet International Environmental Collaboration. Russia: A Case Study, (chief editor John Massey Stewart), published for distribution at the major "Environment for Europe" ministerial and NGO conference at Aarhus, Denmark, in June 1998.
This was almost certainly the first comprehensive study of international collaboration on Russiaís environment and was aimed at both politicians and practitioners as well as presenting itself as a replicable model for the NIS as well as CEE. Compiled in association with Eco-Accord, a Moscow NGO, and the Central European University, Budapest, it was funded by the UNEP Regional Office for Europe, Reuters Foundation and an anonymous donor.
Founded in 1993 by John Massey Stewart (a Russian specialist, environmental activist, writer, consultant, and lecturer) - and the Conservation Foundation (a UK registered charity), the London Initiative on the Russian environment's aim is to help encourage, facilitate and co-ordinate the Western response to the Russian environment, working with government officials, international organisations and NGOs. It organised what is thought to have been the first ever conference between European and Russian environmental NGOs (Suzdal,1994), has arranged lectures and workshops, facilitated visits and built an international network of contacts among environmentalists working in the region.
Seven hundred original copies - and 100 photocopies of a Russian translation - were distributed at Aarhus, and EKOS, a leading Russian environmental magazine, has since devoted virtually a whole issue to a reprint in Russian.
The donors, facilitating organisations (Conservation Foundation and its London Initiative on the Russian Environment, Eco-Accord and the Central European University), or the organisations cited in this text do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed herein, which remain purely the personal opinions of those quoted.
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