Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 171

John Varoli, an American living in St. Petersburg, cautions that many of the large aid agencies active in Russia “spend too much money, get little done, and rarely make a difference.” Varoli speaks from personal experience since he headed a small humanitarian organization directed at Moscow’s homeless for three years in 1992-5. His conclusions, he stresses, are based on the experience he gained then, and notes that the situation may since have improved. But he urges donors to big aid agencies (especially taxpayers when the donor is a government) to monitor their activities strictly to ensure that abuses do not occur.

Varoli cautions western donors not to be taken in by propaganda campaigns claiming that the big aid agencies make a difference. The reality, he says, is that many large international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are ineffective. Their overhead costs are so high that only a fraction of the aids gets through to the needy. Humanitarian aid is often stolen, sold for profit or otherwise ends up in the wrong hands. Some gets through, but a great deal does not. Some NGOs, in Varoli’s experience, are organizations of dubious honesty which extort money from western governments and other donors with threats that millions of Russians are “on the brink of starvation.”

Varoli says that some of the small and mid-size NGOs, staffed by volunteers and other individuals, do make a difference, despite the very small amounts they are able to contribute. Varoli was shocked by “confidence tricks” pulled by some of the larger NGOs, both western and Russian. Many of the aid workers were aware of the extent of the corruption going on, he says, but kept quiet because they had to produce “results” for their superiors. They also had to justify their own salaries. Some aid officials who tried to blow the whistle found themselves punished for their pains.

The “truth” about poverty in Russia, Varoli maintains, is that most Russians have been living in abject poverty for decades, if not centuries. Most Western scholars did not, after all, “discover” the Russian lifestyle until 1992, when the country opened up to unrestricted travel. Ignoring the reality of age-old poverty does not contribute to a helpful discussion of what should now be done about the problem, Varoli argues. He stresses that he bases his conclusions on his experience from 1992 to 1995. He hopes that the situation may have improved since then. He is not arguing that aid should not be sent. He is, however, saying that strict control needs to be exercised over its delivery and dispersal.