As if the United States Food Aid program wasn't taking enough of a beating lately, the Russian Social Security Ministry this week quietly dropped yet another time bomb to undermine the program, leaking complains to a Novaya Gazeta reporter that one of the U.S. contractors to distribute the donated food-- a Jewish charity-- was holding up delivery because it was insisting that it be allowed to distribute the food through Jewish organizations.
The aid program had already been under a lot of fire, well before the Novaya Gazeta piece came out. The Washington Post, in a front-page story which ran last week, reported that the food aid offered by the program was not only late, but unnecessary, since Russia had a grain surplus of about 2 million tons last year. The article asserted what intelligent observers knew all along, which is that the main beneficiaries of the program were United States farmers, who got to unload their surplus grain on Russia at U.S. and Russian taxpayer expense. The aid program has reportedly severely damaged Russia's agricultural distribution networks, and crippled farmers who've had to watch commodity prices plummet with each wave of free food entering the country. Last but not least, the Moscow Times reported this week that the grain the U.S. was shipping in for Russian consumption wasn't normal grain at all, but animal feed.
Now it turns out that the U.S. not only screwed up the basic aspects of the aid program, but threw in an impressively short-sighted twist by making part of the program a subsidy for religious charities, whose right to even receive government assistance in the first place seems questionable at best. And now one of those charities has upset the Russian government enough to move it to leak an ugly news story to the press.
Upon further investigation, it appeared that Novaya Gazeta fumbled its story a little bit-- reporter Bulat Stolyarov wrote the story as though the contractor, the Global Jewish Relief and Assistance Committee, was insisting on being allowed to actually distribute its 25,000 tons of food exclusively to Jews. No evidence confirming that end of the story has surfaced yet. The Ministry is refusing comment for now, Rabbi Avtzon of the Committee denies it, and a U.S. Embassy spokesman involved with the aid program claims he hasn't received any complaints from the Russian government on that score. When the Ministry makes its next public announcement, which it says will come on July 19, we may know more.
However, Novaya Gazeta did have a few things right. For one thing, none of the 25,000 tons of grain allocated by the U.S. Government to the Global Jewish Relief and Assistance Committee has actually arrived in Russia yet. In fact, according to Avtzon, none of that food has even left port from the U.S. yet. This despite the fact that the food aid, as you may remember, was originally meant to alleviate potential food shortages last winter. When the deal was formally signed last December, Russian Agriculture Minister Gennady Kulik announced that some of the aid would be arriving "as early as January."
Secondly, Avtzon's committee did originally insist on distributing the food through a affiliate Russian Jewish organization. And even Avtzon admitted to the eXile that his organization had had some kind of disagreement with the Federal Commission on Humanitarian Aid over plans to distribute food to Jews. "They [the commission] kept telling us that Jews were rich and weren't needy," he said. "And we kept insisting that this wasn't the case at all."
Furthermore, Avtzon said, the commission was apparently unhappy with the Jewish charity's plans for geographical distribution of the food aid. A full 1/6 of the charity's aid was originally earmarked for distribution in central Russia, which includes, among other areas, the Ryazan, Tver, Yaroslavl and Moscow Regions. The charity had originally hoped to distribute a full 1800 tons of food in Moscow.
"They didn't want so much food in Moscow, but we told them we had some programs there we wanted to subsidize," Avtzon said.
Let's back up for a moment. When it was announced, the U.S. food aid package was ostensibly intended for delivery exclusively to the far north and far east regions, where Minister Kulik and other Russian officials, as well as U.S. officials, claimed the population was threatened with winter food shortages. The food, a full 3 million tons of it, was supposed to have been provided by the U.S. government. A few news reports, including one in the Moscow Times, noted that an additional 100,000 tons "was to be donated by various charities."
In fact, the charities were not donating the food at all. As it turns out, the U.S. government was donating the food-- along with expenses to cover the costs of distribution-- to the charities, who in turn were to deliver the food in Russia. Of the five charities which won tenders to distribute part of that additional 100,000-ton allotment, three-- Avtzon's Jewish Assistance Committee, the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), and a group called Feed the Children-- were religious organizations which intended to use affiliated religious organizations (in the IOCC's case, the Russian Orthodox Church) to distribute the food. In November we were talking about feeding cold and starving Russians in Yakutia; now we're reading about a Jewish charity upset that the Russian government is refusing to let it subsidize air-conditioning-deprived Jewish charity programs in Moscow.
Since when is the United States in the business of subsidizing the activities of religious organizations? Since very recently, it turns out. Although religious organizations like Catholic Charities have been receiving government funds to enact various programs for many years, it was always with the provision that they run the programs in a secular manner. But now, thanks to Missouri Senator John Ashcroft and a pet program entitled "Charitable Choice", the U.S. Government has begun to enter the realm of subsidizing religious organizations even if they perform their services in a proselytizing manner. Subsidizing religion for religion's sake is an idea that must get damn good poll numbers, because it's the new pet fad of both parties in the U.S. government-- the baggy shorts of this year's legislative community, its techno, its NafNaf.
Even Al Gore got into the act lately. In a May 24 campaign speech, Gore pledged that if elected president, he'd do everything he could to make sure the government provided as much assitance as possible to religious organizations. "I believe government should play a greater role in sustaining this quiet powerful transformation," he said. "We must continue to prohibit direct proselytizing as part of any publicly funded efforts. But we must dare embrace faith-based approaches that advance our shared goals as Americans."
As regards U.S. government aid to Russia, the decision to distribute taxpayer-funded humanitarian aid through religious organizations has already proved controversial, as the Novaya Gazeta article demonstrated. Privately, many people in the aid community will admit that there has long been a conflict in the aid world between non-denominational organizations and religious ones, and that the decision by the government to fund religious charities has been very troubling to some.
As one American aid worker complained to the eXile: "You'll have situations where Catholics only distribute to Catholics or Jews only distribute to Jews. You have people being proselytized to while they're waiting in line for flour. It's hard to prove, but it happens."
In Russia, the U.S. government doesn't consider the threat of spiritual chicanery on the part of its contractors very serious. There is no one involved with the aid program in charge of making sure that the contractors don't, for instance, proselytize on the job. "It's not something we ever considered a major potential problem," a spokesman for the U.S. embassy said.
As for the Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Committee, it's clear that something has gone awry with their program. Of the five charities with contracts to deliver aid, Avtzon's committee will finish a distant last in the race to begin actually distributing food. And it's clear that there has been a conflict about who will actually distribute the food here in Russia. Avtzon said this week that he will be submitting his final proposal for a distribution list to the Russian government only this week, three months after his organization won the tender. The reason it's so late is that there have been disagreements since the outset over who will actually receive the food, with the Russian government insisting on less food distributed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and demanding that Jewish middleman organizations be left out of the distribution loop.