Henderson, Sarah L. Building Democracy in Contemporary Russia: Western Support for Grassroots Organizations. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Reviewed by John A. Bernbaum.
Professor Sarah L. Henderson’s study of Western support of grassroots organizations in Russia is an articulate and sober analysis of the impact of foreign aid on a society going through a “momentous transition.” This well-researched book looks at Russia’s attempt to dismantle socialist institutions and to replace them with democratic and free market structures. Within this larger transformational process, Henderson focuses her study on the development of civil society—the realm of activism in which citizens form and join organizations that are situated between state institutions, businesses, and families.
The basic question addressed is “the degree to which Western assistance can facilitate the emergence of civil society and, ultimately, democracy in countries where domestically such impulses are nonexistent or weak” (p.1). The core issue is whether or not Western efforts have helped, hurt, or been irrelevant to Russia’s civic transformation. This question is timely and significant, considering that the U.S. government spends $700 million per year on democracy promotion programs, distributed to approximately 100 countries worldwide, and that funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is a $7 billion industry worldwide.
For those of us who work for educational or mission agencies, Henderson’s study offers valuable insights on civil society building efforts that carry over into other charitable and humanitarian fields. Her book will be helpful for those who make decisions about building non-profit programs in the post-Communist world.
Henderson discovered “four strange and paradoxical effects” of foreign aid, despite the enormous goodwill of the donors. (In my experience, these same effects can also be seen in support provided by religious organizations and Christian foundations.) First, one of the goals of Western aid is to facilitate small grassroots initiatives, yet Russian civic organizations often mimic the organizational style of the funding agencies and quickly become centralized and bureaucratized. Second, civil society groups are supposed to be grassroots, bottom-up organizations, but many of them lack a grassroots constituency. They build offices with updated computers and fancy newsletters, but they have not generated a following among the citizens they were created to serve. They also often lack oversight mechanisms or accountability.
Third, Western aid often results in a fairly distinct civic elite within the NGO community. Foreign aid creates “haves” and “have nots”—those who get outside funding and those who do not. In addition, Western aid often is concentrated in the major cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, and rarely finds its way to provincial capitals. Fourth and finally, many of the newly created civic organizations do not act very civilly towards each other, often consciously maintaining small memberships, hoarding information, and competing with other civic groups. Outside aid does not seem to ameliorate these problems, but rather makes them worse, according to Henderson.
Another helpful insight Henderson offers is her description of “principled clientelism.” She observes that over time “unequal vertical relationships” develop between donors and NGOs in which the two work to mutually justify the other’s continued existence. For example, recipients of foreign aid have to satisfy two audiences—their domestic constituency and their donors. What often happens is that recipients focus on the “voice that matters” (the donor agency) and an unequal patron-client relationship gradually emerges.
While Henderson’s book focuses on women’s organizations in Russia, her insights have broader applicability and can help others involved in private sector initiatives in Russia and other post-Communist countries. While her diagnosis is sound, she does not offer many meaningful recommendations for changing how foreign aid is channeled overseas.
Her summary is sobering and worth highlighting: “Donor policies have tended to over-institutionalize a select group of NGOs, create problems of long-term sustainability for the sector, concentrate power into a small number of activists, and further isolate groups from their own hypothetical target populations” (p. 175). These lessons are helpful and deserve consideration by the missions community as it partners with churches and Christian ministries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Dr. John A. Bernbaum is president of the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow, Russia (1995-). He formerly worked for 20 years with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, Washington, D.C.
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