Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999

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E N V I R O N M E N T:
Working with Russia
The ups and downs of international environmental collaboration
(Part 3)

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 and part 2).

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 what respondents thought were the criteria of success and failure in an environmental project and what are specific examples of each.

What makes for success and why?

Eliza Klose, for many years the very active head of the well-respected NGO ISAR(Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia), made a comment which could perhaps summarise what was said by the other respondents: "The best foreign programmes are run by people who know the language, know the culture, spend time on the ground. They don't fly in and out. They live close to the ground...it is vital that whoever is running the Western side is interested in, sympathetic to, knowledgeable about and prepared to live at the same level with the people that they are supporting. Only that way do you develop trust and understanding."

However, many respondents came up with some more precise advice for different stages of implementing an international environmental project.

(1) Getting started

Many Western NGOs recommend finding a prospective partner with similar interests and then developing a programme together. Eliza Klose of ISAR further advises:

  • travel to Russia and discuss the project with the potential partner
  • get both sides to prepare a tentative agenda
  • bring the tentative plans together and work out where you don't agree
  • continue to work back and forth via e-mail when you return home

And, she added: always be transparent about the great disparity between Russian and Western earnings - "it is bound to come out anyhow." Ensure both sides keep to deadlines at every step of the way in order to build trust. Start from reasonable expectations, so that you don't let each other down, and then build from that once you have established trust. "An absolutely crucial element is a relationship based on mutual trust – a question not of organisation or contract but whether you and that other person really trust each other enough to be sure that what was promised will be followed through," Klose advised

(2) Clarifying problems, goals and responsibilities

Many respondents stressed very strongly the need to evaluate the problem, establish clear goals and ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. "Keep well defined milestones with precise target dates. Ensure adequate time and funding are available," says Victor Shebek of ACOPS (the Advisory Committee on the Protection of the Seas). Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, Chairman of the State Committee, lists as his criteria for success the need to:

  • ensure the necessary funding – Western partners do not always realise this is essential
  • ensure concrete, realistic plans
  • be completely clear which problems need to be resolved, then a programme and its financing can take shape in a concrete fashion with the participants and their tasks defined

Targeting very specific projects is also recommended by Alexei Yablokov, who considers that "The Siberian tiger project is a very successful example of Western aid - successful because the money went directly to our reserves. They needed something very specific: transport links, better security, laying a road, a library. Thanks to that aid the tiger population has stabilised. Now the government has started supporting the parks more, but if it hadn't been for Western aid the reserves simply wouldn't have survived."

Yablokov also praises bilateral projects which are particularly specific, he believes that much more effective than World Bank loans is the approach taken by Norway and Japan. He cites the example of Japan’s recent USD 20 million grant for the construction of a factory ship for processing liquid radioactive waste in the Far East as an example of this approach.

(3) Understanding the area

A serious hindrance is not speaking the language or understanding the reality of life in Russia according to Francoise Belmont, Deputy Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Europe, who said, "The first thing is to involve the Russians, and then 'language' is the main requirement, by which I mean someone who does not just speak the language but is familiar with the way people work and how things function in Russia."

(4) Criteria for collaborative projects

The baseline for success according to one respondent from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) is "Responding to Russians' priority needs and supporting projects which are already underway."

But how can potentially successful projects be identified in the first place? Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Executive Director of the Open Society Institute donor programme in Russia, cited as his own criteria:

  • agreement on the aims and tasks of the project
  • assessing the effectiveness of the group concerned and capability of fulfilment
  • matching finance requested to tasks proposed
  • acquiring a second source of funding: "preferably from a Russian source so that the local authority helps in the project. That's very important because then we are partners with the local authority."
  • sustainability: "the certainty that the project will not die when the finance ends. We always ask what will happen when the project finishes, how will it develop then?"

(5) Local involvement

Many Western donors and NGOs agreed with Russian calls to involve local people on a closer basis. Tim Murphy of EBRD's Environmental Appraisal believes that "Local expertise needs to be built in so a project can be a joint one. Only when it's done together... are local people going to feel like implementing the outcome."

Creating local boards of advisors and ensuring the day-to-day running was done by local specialists who know the situation were among the recommendations. "The programmes which have succeeded are those which have concentrated on local initiative" - but local involvement must have grassroots support.

(5) Continuity of personnel

The importance of continuity of foreign personnel was stressed by Jennie Sutton of Baikal Environmental Wave. A British woman working in Irkutsk for 20 years, she has the unusual perspective of both an insider and an outsider. At Baikal, "the same German specialists who have been working on a specific project over a long time have come out again and again and there has been a lot of exchange. Russians have gone to Germany to see the way things are done there. This has been an important exchange of experience."

(6) Small Grants

While large grants are essential for big projects, many respondents commented on the cost-effectiveness of small grants. For instance, a USD 1000 grant from a US NGO to both the Altai and Sakha (Yakutia) republics allowed public citizens' organisations to hold environmental impact assessments and media campaigns on pollution by toxic rocket fuel. This resulted in public protests, demonstrations, media attention, support from the Sakha government and finally a lawsuit brought by the Sakha president against the Russian Federation in March l997. Lisa Tracey of PERC (Ottawa Peace and Environment Resource Centre) said that "if you have grassroots citizens' involvement at a very local level, public hearings that drag in local people and make the environment something close to them and bring in the local and national media, you can create an issue almost immediately. And then, of course, it gathers momentum."

Even small sums can allow for the purchase of, for example, tape-recorders or video-cameras or help individuals pursue small projects (as happened in ISAR's extremely successful Seeds of Democracy programme).

Success Stories

There were a number of projects which were cited as being successful. The following is a brief selection which illustrate how the principles outlined above have led to success in practice:

  • Ecojuris, a Moscow NGO which, "quietly and with considerable success managed to raise the environmental issue onto the legal agenda, ensuring that the Constitution, nominally a declamatory document, was enforced to ensure that basic environmental rights were upheld. This was notably reflected in a recent High Court judgement in Moscow on the change of use of forest lands in Western Russia." (anonymous international funding institute representative)

  • The Russian-Norwegian energy efficiency project, North West Russia. This cleaner production programme has trained some 500 Russian engineers to diploma standards, many of them are now training others and some are setting up as individual consultants.

  • Sacred Earth Network's Environmental Telecommunications Project (ETP) which "gave access to electronic mail to more than 100 NGOs in the countries of the former USSR."

  • According to V Lagutov of the Centre of Co-ordination and Information AzovBass, part of the NGO Regional Ecological Movement "Green Don" in Novocherkassk, "The success of ISAR's "Seeds of Democracy" cannot be overstated. It has helped sustain the activist sector of the population."

  • Milieukontakt Oost-Europa, a Dutch NGO, is arguably the most successful of all environmental NGOs working in Russia. A major success has been its four-year Volga project, working with environmental organisations which it united along the river to combat the industrial pollution of the basin. It attributes its success to "real co-operation between Russia and the Netherlands as equal partners."

  • The Conservation Foundation's Law Programme. Over three years, a total of 43 environmentalists, scientists, lawyers and government officials from Russia and other NIS states have attended a four week programme in the UK to observe and study the implementation of European environmental law. Results include new and proposed legislation in their countries.

What makes for failure and why?

Although there are many large-scale projects in Russia by world-renowned organisations, they do not always yield results. Prof S I Baranovsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Green Cross Russia had particular criticism for these large organisations: "The activity of international organisations such as the World Bank and TACIS (Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States) cannot be described as successful. The reason for their failures is lack of a thorough understanding of the situation in Russia and the lack of professionalism on the part of their Russian counterpart organisations."

Other respondents were more specific, and from their answers it is possible to build up a picture, not just of why these projects have failed, but what can be done to prevent it from happening in future projects.

UNEP's Francoise Belmont considered the main cause to be the West's inadequate knowledge of the real situation coupled with "the lack of proper investigation beforehand on the capacity to receive assistance and manage the project effectively." A Western representative of ECAT (Environmental Centre for Administration and Technology) in St. Petersburg backed this up, saying that "Technical Assistance projects often don’t consider investment needs and most plans are not implemented for reason of lack of financing or lack of knowledge how to access financing."

The failure to make the recipients feel the project is really theirs was also cited as a problem. Projects are often designed by the West without firm commitment by the Russians, who therefore do not perceive them as their own programmes; Western solutions for Russian problems without the latter's participation are very alienating. Laurence Mee, formerly of the Black Sea Environmental Programme (BSEP), was more critical, thinking "the West sometimes focuses on 'what we can put our flag in.'"

Mee also was out-spoken about the West's obsession with technology and quick-fix solutions: "Americans have a belief that technology can always come up with a solution." As well as the possibility that technology might not be the best answer, there is always the concern that it might not be correctly maintained once it is installed. Worryingly, "it's now got to the point that Russian officials have been infected with this (technology) mania."

An anonymous representative of a well-known and highly respected international funding institute said that "not understanding the various subtle connections at national and regional levels of why projects are put up for funding is a cause of failure." In addition, "large donor programmes are not going to be successful unless there is a considerable effort in supervising and monitoring."

However, despite the many failures of Western funding of projects in Russia Alexei Yablokov was adamant that "Virtually all Russian NGOs only exist thanks to foreign aid. If it weren’t for Western aid then there wouldn’t be any Russian green movement."

Stories of failure

The expense of projects and the debt they can leave was cited in two clear instances. Alexander D Remizov of Eko-service in Ukraine stated that the "Clear Water" programme, a Russo-German project in Perm, "cannot be called successful because the water-purifying stations involved were much more expensive than Russian ones, and, what's worse, we have ended up in debt to the Germans for the next decade to the tune of USD 200 million as a result. When things are decided by civil servants, the result is always debts."

The second example was quoted by Prof S I Baranovsky "Our children will have to repay millions of dollars of the World Bank "loan." It is not clear what this money has been spent on. The TACIS programmes have been completely ineffectual for the Russian side as, in the first place, as much as 70 per cent of funds ended up going to Western firms, and the remainder to unprofessional Russian organisations. There has been no public supervision."

In addition, Prof Baranovsky noted that "Some American NGO programmes were ineffectual due to the low qualifications of the experts and the poor selection of those who would implement them."

Laurence Mee also cited a case where inappropriate technology was the cause of failure. Sochi local government decided to build a modern garbage incineration plant with outside support. "An Italian company, I think, studied the situation and built the plant. The only problem was that it didn't work. They hadn't studied the local trash, which isn't like trash in the West. They don't use much packaging, so it doesn't burn at such a high temperature. In fact, it burned at a low temperature, causing huge clouds of black smoke, and they had to close it down immediately."

Sometime projects fail because there is an inappropriate allocation of priorities. Vladimir V Zykov, Director of the South-Kamchatka National Park, noted that, whilst there was funding for the creation of three new national parks (which were very much needed), one of the oldest national parks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is "in a catastrophic situation:no funding, its territory is now practically not protected and the long-term scientific research is under threat."

UNESCO itself came in for criticism for its operation of the "Man and Biosphere" programme which led to the creation of 21 "Biosphere Zapovedniks," special national parks of UNESCO-certified international biological significance. A representative of the Man and Biosphere project in Moscow said that scientists have not begun implementing joint projects and that the planned global network of these new national parks does not function as a unified whole "because UNESCO has failed to set up a unified centre for the collecting and processing of data collected in the parks." Furthermore, UNESCO was unable to provide standardised equipment and funds needed to complete the environmental projects. In fact, all the parks received that distinguished them from ordinary national parks was a variety of questionnaires.

Russian bodies were also criticised, notably the Ministries of Fishery and Water Resources. Their programmes were described by one local environmental worker as "a pure waste of money." It was also felt that there was no sustained or significant dialogue with Russia's Ministries of Finance and Economics. According to one respondent, this has meant that all programmes which have tried to ensure that the environment becomes an integral part of policy-making and a means to sustainability have failed.

Such factors are a source of considerable frustration for Westerners. However, Russians are no less frustrated with Western bodies. This culture of mutual frustration is in itself damaging and a hindrance to success. In next week's article, we will look at frustrations and misconceptions on both sides and how to avoid them. In addition, we will analyse what respondents thought of the recent "demotion" of the Ministry for Environmental Protection to a State Committee.

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 – 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 Russia’s 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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