Robert Aronson came to Russia for a greater good: he wanted to help a people and a country he has faith in. He had a 25-year history working with nonprofits and left a position as president of a medical products firm to become Program Director for MiraMed in Russia, a public charity organization that focuses on the social welfare of orphans and prevention of trafficking of girls and women from Russia. MiraMed is the founder of the Angel Coalition, Russia’s largest anti-trafficking NGO network. MiraMed’s programs for orphans include the Centers for Social Adaptation and Independent Living in 5 Russian cities that help over 1000 orphans learn the life skills necessary to more successfully transition from institutional life to the “real world.”
Perhaps no one is better equipped to discuss both the challenges faced by the Russian Federation and its people, and the potential which they both possess. Robert recently discussed these things with us.
SRAS: What is your official job title?
Robert: Program Director, MiraMed, Russia
SRAS: How would you describe your job?
Robert: MiraMed has 2 American staff, 1 British citizen and about 20 Russians. As part of a very small American/British “management” team, my function is to help train, facilitate and manage. As a program director, I also serve as project director on a particular project where I am responsible for all facets of its operation. For other programs, I work with the project director and staff to ensure that everything is running smoothly, which can include everything from strategic development to personnel to finances. In other words, there is a lot of work to do, wide ranging activities. Unlike many American NGO’s working in Russia, MiraMed has no “middle management” layer; avoids bureaucracy and expects that the people we hire to be highly dedicated and “multi-skilled.”
SRAS: How did you become involved with MiraMed in Russia?
Robert: By accident. I had been involved with NGOs in the states and was working for an innovative medical products firm in Seattle when I saw a small article about how an organization called MiraMed was looking for donations of medical supplies. I called them to donate our products and one thing led to another and here I am.
SRAS: What do you think is the greatest challenge facing Russia right now? Political, economic, social, maybe something else?
Robert: Russia IS a challenge.
Politically, the government has moved very quickly to implement what the Administration calls “vertical authority.” Others call it authoritarianism. The effect has been to cut off the people from the government – which damages the nascent democracy here – but the other effect is to build confidence that the government is “in charge.”
While there is no doubt that the economy is booming – with oil over $40 a barrel, the “fuel” is an export commodity that does not employ a lot of people and whose revenues do not tend to “trickle down” to the general population. Although Russia has a $100 billion SURPLUS, outside of Moscow and other large cities most people are still poor, living on $50 month pensions and $150 month salaries and still feel uneasy about the future. The social “sphere” encompasses all “issues” and is MiraMed’s focus.
One of our new grants, for example, is for a “tolerance” project aimed at reducing xenophobia, racism, ethnic violence, etc. in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Like America, Russia is now using “terrorism” as an excuse to validate its political, economic and social policy. I believe this is not only misguided, but is having a profoundly negative effect. Hate crimes are dramatically increasing here, neo-Fascist parties are becoming “establishment.” There’s an enormous lack of knowledge and gap between what people hear and read is “true” and what really is true. Blaming “others” for what’s going on has now become official policy. My concern is what happens when people stop blaming others and have to face their own and their government’s failure to address these issues.
And then there is Russia’s health crisis – a monstrous HIV/AIDS epidemic that nobody appears to be doing anything about and an infant and maternal mortality rate that is Europe’s highest. Men still die here at age 60-63 and twice as many people die each year than are born! With its population falling alarmingly (the government calls it a “demographic problem”), more people will be leaving the work force in the next 15 years than will enter it. So it won’t be an issue of “un- or under-employment” there will simply by NOBODY to do the work because they will be too young!
SRAS: We read on the MiraMed website that your organization has “Special Consultative” status with the U.N. What does that mean?
Robert: In 1999, we received Special Consultative status as an NGO at the UN for participation in the UN’s Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC. As such, we join NGOs big and small throughout the world who are allowed to give “input” to the General Assembly delegates and committees as well as participate in official UN functions worldwide that are relevant to our work. The process of getting this status is not easy – so it is an important recognition of the UN’s respect for our work. We have an official UN representative who attends functions, participates in meetings, etc. and this helps make other NGOs and the UN aware of our work as well as build relationships with these NGOs. Like so many large organizations however, the UN is an unruly beast and learning the “politesse” and the ins and outs of how it works, which UN agencies are or are not responsible, etc., etc. takes a LONG time. Fortunately our UN representative is well-versed and can move easily in the UN world. She and I meet several times a year and communicate weekly via e-mail to make sure she is on track with what we need and want.
SRAS: Do you think women and minorities face special challenges in the Russian job market?
Robert: Every piece of research I have read shows that women’s salaries, like those in the US, are significantly lower than men’s. Although Russia offers unlimited potential for ALL kinds of employment, the government has little experience in helping shape a modern economy. Although most people expect Russia to move more quickly into “capitalism,” the legacy of Russia’s command and control economy has been hard to shake. Many people we work with miss the good old days of socialism “where people pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them” because it did offer a strange kind of security which is now gone. Sprawling, inefficient government-owned enterprises are fast-disappearing dinosaurs. The big employers now, like in our country, are service providers. Retail and service are king.
With “terrorism” being blamed for all ills, minorities face a grim future. Those who have good jobs worry about being “purged,” those who don’t work underground – packing, shipping, driving a cab, etc. Russian colleges churn out thousands of graduates with all sorts of interesting degrees, but there are not enough Russian companies with positions to hire them, so they all try to work for Western companies whose salaries make it impossible for even progressive Russian companies to compete! Then there is the “demographic problem” I mentioned above that is a ticking time bomb that no one seems to be addressing at all.
SRAS: What can western students do to help the current situation in Russia?
Robert: Be more patient. Understand that this country may be the last, best chance to create an economy and society that truly can work without being so destructive. Students as well as ordinary Russian citizens need to understand that Russia has a LOT going for it: more natural wealth than any country on the face of the earth–and unlike the US, the government still owns enough of it to make a difference (like Norway, Russia to its credit has started a fund for the future and it putting away some of its oil revenue for a “rainy day.” It now has 8 billion in this fund). Russia speaks one language, making it easy to communicate across 11 time zones. Russia has a huge central bank surplus. Russia is the only country in the Western world whose public economy is on a cash basis – no personal debt! The self-sufficiency of most Russians, their ability to save money and make wise purchases cannot be underestimated.
It can and is however, being undermined. Rampant capitalism will ruin this country – and the push is on to make it happen, so Western students, used to conspicuous consumption and credit cards, need to re-assess the impact on this country such “behavior” may have. Students need to listen and help Russia and Russians make their country what Russia and Russians want it to be, not what we want it to be.
SRAS: Are there professional/educational opportunities for western students in Russia who are interested in helping others?
Robert: Absolutely. As interns and volunteers and as foreign students.
SRAS: Anything you would add for students looking to Russia for opportunity?
Robert: Above all, patience. Russia may have one foot in Europe and another in Asia, but it has its own rhythm. Don’t assume … listen.