Discuss NGOs the Way We Discuss Mathematics
A conference at HSE on 11th & 12th November discussed the issue of relations between the state and non-profit organisations. In the column ‘An Academic’s View’ HSE Vice-Rector Lev Jakobson considers how to approach this problem as subject matter for academic discussion.
The role and position of NGOs is one of the most discussed issues recently, and not just in Russia. I would say these discussions have been in a socio-political genre, but they are important and necessary as the relations between the state and NGOs in Russia, as in almost all countries, are not easy but in our country are more fraught with difficulties than in countries with more established democratic traditions.
Our conference was an academic discussion of the subject. We were joined by researchers from the USA, France, Italy, Japan and Kyrgyzstan as well as from many Russian research centres and universities. There are not so many specialists in this area but we tried to invite them all.
Not everybody came, but there were a lot of us nevertheless. The people at the conference are united by an interest in the same subject but approach it from different angles through different disciplines. To be honest, I was worried when we devised the forum that people wouldn’t understand each other but it turned out to be both fascinating and productive with an enriching effect on all sides.
An academic approach presupposes objectivity
We didn’t talk about the impoverished relations between the state and NGOs (you don’t need to call an academic conference for that), but rather focussed on analysing the actual challenges, obstacles and possibilities for interaction between the parties. An academic analysis needs to be objective, as distinct from the socio-political discussions where bias and even passion are appropriate and essential. We see a lack of objective pronouncements and a shortage of discussion of things which lie below the surface, which are not an aching wound. There is a lot of talk about ‘foreign agents’ - which is obviously an important topic - but at the same time, hardly anyone is mentioning that in the regions, regional and local administrations are building relations with socially oriented NGOs.
There are no political obstacles to similar interactions at the moment, central authorities are calling for them and in some places they are being established, in others not, but we need to analyse the objective and subjective reasons for this. Here a critical look at the experience of other countries can be helpful. We need to study the experience of others, and by putting it into the context of contemporary research, make comparisons, find our path to a solution and propose it to colleagues.
I think that we had some degree of success with this task. The reports by academics from home and abroad raised questions of new technologies and examples of interactions between states and NGOs, how a specific NGO worked with a mayor or a governor’s office and why they sometimes found a common language and on other occasions, didn’t. It’s one thing to blame everything on bureaucracy and another - when a researcher from Chicago University shows which tactics enable local NGOs to get the ear of the authorities in the USA and which don’t. We could try projecting their experience onto our own situation with all its peculiarities.
By the way, we also have something to declare. The Laboratory for Non-Profit Sector Studies, NPSS, (the conference organisers) have been researching in this area under the guidance of the leading American specialist Lester Salamon and we presented our initial findings at the conference.
On June 19th Charles Buxton, manager of regional programmes in Central Asia and post-Soviet countries of the International NGO Training & Research Centre — INTRAC, spoke at the HSE on ‘Civil Society at a Crossroads: View from the Development Sector’ at a seminar organized by the HSE Center for Studies of Civil Society and Nonprofit Sector (CSCSNS).