Outside Edge: Life beyond the billionaires

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

Even without the morally dubious super-rich, Russian charity is making progress, writes Nick Cater.

Today, two conferences are being held to focus on Russian charity - one organised by the Russia Foundation in London and the other, a few hundred miles south of Moscow, by the country's community foundations.

Given the recent jailing on fraud charges of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, these conferences are timely.

Khodorkovsky's charity-channelled support for greater democracy and human rights was to the displeasure of President Putin. His philanthropy may itself be in the dock soon, as there is talk of more charges - this time of using his foundation for money laundering.

The verdict against Khodorkovsky was a warning to those made fabulously wealthy by buying undervalued public assets, and to the foundations created by feeding off the scraps from the carcass of the Soviet state. But there is a silver lining - transparency and good governance are being favoured to keep benefactors out of court.

Bad news, however, still dominates in Russia. In a country where soaring capital flight hit $9.4bn in 2004, average monthly incomes are $250, a quarter of the population live below the official weekly $20 poverty line, and drink, drugs, crime, Aids, homelessness, murder and suicide have all helped send birth rates and life expectancy tumbling. Russia's respected Academy of Sciences has warned that the widening wealth gap risks unrest.

Without a second Russian revolution, the need for a dynamic civil society to help the have-nots is obvious, and real progress is being made. Tax breaks don't exist, yet mere millionaires are starting to give, employee donations are rising, corporate charity is strong, cause-related marketing is under way and the appeal for the Beslan school tragedy did well.

With support from the likes of the Charities Aid Foundation and the Ford and Mott foundations, the score-or-more community foundations meeting today offer the outline of a civil society infrastructure, with their local roots starting to attract sustainable funding. Front-runner Togliatti has $1m in capital and is spending $100,000 a year.

Of course, the sums involved remain tiny by comparison with the needs of millions of impoverished citizens of a former superpower brought to its knees by a rushed political and economic transformation. With hindsight, it recalls the Vietnam war excuse - the state had to be destroyed to save it.

Hindsight might also suggest that today's London conference should express caution about charities accepting the money and praising the motives of those who enriched themselves at the expense of every other Russian. Or should ill-gotten gains plus charity always equal new-found respectability?

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