Going the Distance
Mapping the global reach of a local nonprofit
For most Vermonters who watched Viktor Yushchenko being sworn in as Ukraine's president, the news likely felt far removed from the Green Mountain State. But for the staff of the Montpelier-based Institute for Sustainable Communities, the event had personal resonance. The nongovernmental agency has been building Eastern European democracy since just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, while the ISC's good works have earned recognition abroad, where the nonprofit focuses its activities, and in Washington, D.C., where most of its funding originates, they've gone largely unnoticed at home.
A simmering controversy, though, could push ISC squarely into the spotlight at home. Alternately, the Institute's weaknesses, combined with inauspicious political and financial trends, could further diminish its profile -- perhaps even to the vanishing point.
Founded in 1991 by former Governor Madeleine Kunin, ISC has carried out 35 social, educational and environmental projects in 14 countries, mainly in the former Soviet bloc. Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians sloughing off deadening decades of repressive rule have been achieving self-determination with the help of ISC's community-building initiatives. These and other Eastern Europeans have also been bettering their social circumstances through ISC partnership programs addressing domestic violence, homelessness, unemployment and industrial pollution.
All of the Institute's projects are designed and executed in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. "That can be a fudgy term," allows Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, an ISC board member for the past 10 years. "People's eyes tend to glaze over because it's almost a cliché." But, Clavelle continues, the Institute consistently gives substance to this piece of PC rhetoric, and even skeptics are impressed when they see the real-life results.
Listening to locals and empowering them to change their own lives and societies is the key element in ISC's approach, adds Kunin, who still serves as the Institute's chair. She cites a seminal visit to Bulgaria with a U.S. election-monitoring team soon after communism's collapse. "The people were so pleased to see us writing down their ideas on a flip chart," Kunin recalls. "They had never been listened to before."
That experience inspired the retired governor and her former planning director, George Hamilton, to establish an aid organization predicated on practices of self-help and environmentally responsible development. "The basic concept of the Institute," Kunin explains, "is not to go somewhere, do something and then go home, but to create capacity indigenous to the local community."
Hamilton puts it this way: "In our theory of change, if you get people involved in activities like advocating for treatment of breast cancer and improving conditions in orphanages, that's the best way to build a more stable, just and peaceful world."
ISC's successes abroad have earned it a reputation in Washington as an effective instrument for advancing U.S. interests in Russia and its former sphere of influence. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an arm of the State Department, was the source of nearly all the $11 million in project funding awarded to ISC in 2003 -- the Institute's best budget year to date.
The ISC's 20-member Vermont staff works in stylish Montpelier offices overlooking the Winooski River. Its board roster reads like a Who's Who of progressive Vermonters. In addition to Kunin and Clavelle, members include Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley, ice cream magnate Jerry Greenfield, former state Environmental Commissioner Jonathan Lash and retired Vermont Law School dean Douglas Costle. ISC was also the facilitator of Burlington's highly participatory Legacy Project, and it has organized 25 study tours of Vermont by Eastern European entrepreneurs, farmers and environmentalists.
Still, "The average Vermonter probably has never heard of us," Hamilton concedes.
The ISC received some unprecedented attention within the United States last month when The New York Times reported on possible political meddling in Ukraine by U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations. Critics, mainly among American conservatives, were exercised by images of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians loudly protesting what they claimed were rigged elections. The demonstrators were demanding that the undemocratic, pro-Russian government step down, or at least permit new elections that would presumably result in an opposition victory.
"Russian leaders, many Ukrainians and even some members of Congress are asking whether the $58 million the United States spent to promote democracy in Ukraine over the past two years was actually intended to oust the government there," the Times piece began. It went on to quote ISC's Ukraine project director Leslie McCuaig as acknowledging, "It has become particularly tricky to walk a very thin line" between empowering citizens and organizing opposition to the ruling party.
ISC sees its mission in Ukraine as helping to bring about a "fundamental cultural shift from a passive citizenry under an authoritarian regime to a thriving democracy with active citizen participation." The Institute was awarded a multi-year, $11 million USAID contract partly in order to achieve those objectives.
It's not just the right wing in the United States that's raising questions about the role played in Ukraine by U.S. government agencies and the groups they fund. Edolphus Towns, an African-American Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, has joined conservative Texas Republican Ron Paul in calling for an investigation into how U.S. funds were spent in Ukraine.
Progressive British journalist Jonathan Steele, writing last month in The Nation, charged that seemingly nonpartisan civic-action projects financed by Washington and carried out by private American groups may actually be aimed at toppling rulers the Bush administration opposes. There's a historical context for what apparently occurred in Ukraine, Steele noted. The United States has engineered two other successful subversion campaigns in Eastern Europe in the past five years, he contended. And a similar operation resulted in the removal of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, according to Steele.
"In short, intervening in foreign elections under the guise of an impartial interest in helping civil society has become the run-up to the postmodern coup d'étât, the CIA-sponsored third-world uprising of Cold War days adapted to post-Soviet conditions," Steele wrote. "Even if conducted impartially around the world, this heavy use of money in another country's elections (which would be illegal in the United States and most Western countries) raises serious questions."
The Bush administration denies there is anything nefarious about U.S. funding of democracy-building projects in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. "We provide support to nongovernmental organizations and other international organizations all over the world to assist in making sure that there are free and fair elections," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last month.
The ISC itself rejects suggestions that it may have played a part -- perhaps unwittingly -- in a U.S. regime-change strategy for Ukraine.
"I don't think that's a legitimate concern," says Kunin. "We're very careful not to take sides. We teach skills for how to use democracy. We don't endorse candidates or foment revolutions."
The ISC would not get involved in an effort to oust a government because "the integrity of our program" depends on steering clear of partisan politics, Hamilton says. Grants that ISC gives to partner organizations in countries such as Ukraine "are based entirely on merit," he adds. "One criterion is, you cannot be a political party and get assistance from us."
Hamilton tells of one instance in which the Institute was asked by a U.S. official to shelve these principles. The American ambassador to Bulgaria suggested a couple of years ago that ISC should provide some grant money to a specific Bulgarian political party, Hamilton says. "The State Department sometimes wants to support a particular party or perspective," he notes. But the Institute did not comply with the ambassador's request -- and it was supported in that stance by USAID, Hamilton reports.
In Ukraine, ISC has helped several local organizations involved in citizen-advocacy projects and in efforts to promote legislative reforms. The Institute has also given grants to Ukrainian think tanks, some with the purpose of deepening public debate on election issues. In addition, research groups have gotten ISC instruction for conducting polls and organizing focus groups.
Activities of this sort may not be as purely public-spirited as they seem, Steele warned in his Nation commentary. "The pattern is that U.S. diplomats orchestrate a campaign of financial help and marketing advice to civil groups, which is described as nonpartisan although in practice it is only put at the service of one side," Steele wrote. "Using consultants and poll experts, they explain how to choose catchy slogans and punchy logos and organize street comedy and rock concerts to create attractive grassroots campaigns to mobilize young people."
At the same time, virtually any sort of citizen-empowerment work in a country as undemocratic as Ukraine can be interpreted as threatening to the existing order. As the Times observed in its piece about U.S. groups working in Ukraine, "Teaching the principles of democracy to citizens in a semi-authoritarian system may, on its face, work to empower the government's opponents."
In any case, most of ISC's work in Ukraine stays well away from the "very thin line" cited by its country director. Skating much more closely to that edge are groups such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which work abroad with selected political organizations on behalf of the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.
The former Ukrainian regime never objected to ISC's programs there, notes Montpelier-based program officer Susan Stitely, in part because "a lot of our work is focused on the local level, and that's much less threatening than the national level." ISC projects mainly seek to provide services to disadvantaged persons, such as pregnant teenagers, who got little help from the previous government, Stitely says.
USAID is pleased with the Institute's work in Ukraine, she adds, suggesting that funding is likely to be extended beyond its scheduled expiration next year.
But U.S. foreign assistance is gradually shifting away from Eastern Europe. And in a world generally lacking in hopeful developments, this movement reflects one of the greatest political achievements of recent times. The despotic and impoverished Soviet satellite states of Europe have almost all progressed -- by whatever means -- toward democratic governance and greater prosperity for many of their citizens. The Institute for Sustainable Communities can fairly claim to have played a role in this historic success story.
At the same time, a USAID turn away from Eastern Europe would be bad news indeed for ISC, which has been focused on that region since its inception.
The Institute's budget has already begun to shrink -- to roughly $9 million in its current fiscal year, $2 million below the peak reached in 2003. ISC did come close last year to landing a few major USAID grants, Clavelle notes, suggesting, "We were bridesmaids at four different weddings." Those missed chances and their negative effect on ISC's budget "demonstrate the dangers of being dependent on erratic patterns of funding," adds Clavelle, who gained international aid experience in Grenada when he spent time there during the two years in the mid-'90s when he was out of office.
Kunin acknowledges that the Institute is facing serious challenges. "There's more competition for a smaller amount of money," she says, citing the possibility that the Bush administration may shift some aid funds to faith-based organizations with which it is politically allied.
U.S. development money is already flooding into Afghanistan and Iraq, with many aid experts predicting that funding will soon be diverted from Africa and Eastern Europe in order to prevent the federal budget deficit from swelling further.
In addition, notes ISC consultancy director Roger Clapp, USAID is starting to channel more of its grants and contracts to larger NGOs because such arrangements are easier to administer. That trend exacerbates the competitive disadvantages of smaller groups such as ISC.
But some bright spots puncture the gloom surrounding ISC's prospects. Even if bigger groups do elbow aside the little guys seeking a turn at the foreign-aid trough, "They may still need the kind of services we can offer," Clapp says. Sub-contracting, in other words, presents new possibilities for ISC.
Some U.S. aid money is still available outside of conflict zones in the Middle East. The United States continues to invest significant sums in countries where ISC has developed expertise, according to Clapp. "The war in Iraq and certainly the 9/11 attacks have served to increase concern about maintaining good international relations," he says. "I haven't seen any dramatic decrease in funding."
And being small does have some advantages: "We don't have a lot of overhead, and we're able to move quickly and strategically," says Clavelle. Being headquartered in the northeast corner of the country, far from political power centers, also is not necessarily a handicap, the Burlington mayor suggests. "In some ways, being outside the Beltway is an asset," he argues, because a locally based organization may be more aware of grassroots issues and practices. But ISC does maintain an office in Washington, and it wants to heighten its presence in the capital.
ISC staffers are also busily prospecting outside of Eastern Europe. The Institute is, in effect, following USAID money to China, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, looking for projects that could use the skills it possesses. "The work we've done in building civil society is definitely transferable," says Clavelle. "We can develop in-country expertise as we proceed."
But ISC lacks the disposable income needed to dispatch squadrons of supplicants to USAID missions in the far corners of Asia and Africa. Decisions on grant allocations are now frequently made in the field rather than in Washington -- a shift that may make sense from a local project's perspective but which tends to deny newcomers a piece of the action. If being on the scene becomes a key criterion for winning a USAID contract in, say, Mongolia, then American nongovernmental organizations not already at work there have little chance of breaking in.
International political dynamics also are not working in ISC's favor. Even prior to the invasion of Iraq, there was a common perception overseas that "Americans come in and want to control situations," observes ISC board member Jerry Greenfield, who once ran an ice cream parlor back in the USSR. "And I must admit I sometimes feel that way myself."
The conflagration that the U.S. ignited in Iraq has increased suspicions in regard to American organizations working abroad, says program director Stitely. "We're now asked a lot more frequently, 'What is your real motive in being here?'" Stitely notes. "Americans have an image in the world of being out for themselves."
Outside the narrow confines of the Coalition of the Willing, much of the world looks with disgust and dismay at what the United States has done in Iraq. As a result, says ISC chief Hamilton, "It's harder to attract money from non-U.S. sources -- from European sources. We have to explain ourselves more."
ISC is striving to identify and tap alternatives as federal aid money becomes harder to find. But while the Institute's board brings together several global policy wonks, its corporate contingent is pretty puny. Greenfield is among the few board members with a record of success in the private sector. He was recruited two years ago partly to extend ISC's reach into the realm of socially responsible corporations. But Greenfield notes, half-jokingly, "There are people on the board who seem to have much better contacts than I do."
Foundations are another potential source of funding for ISC. In fact, it was a planning grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that got the Institute going in the early '90s, after Kunin and Hamilton returned from their election-monitoring outing in Bulgaria. But in comparison to USAID and other federal contractors, foundations provide only low levels of funding for an organization's administrative overhead. ISC finds it hard to run projects under those constraints.
As options narrow overseas, the Institute is looking for ways to apply its skills at home. It's already a partner in a program intended to strengthen links among the New England states and to devise regional responses to environmental and educational challenges. Such an involvement builds upon ISC's work in Burlington five years ago. It coordinated the city's Legacy Project, which was especially notable, Clavelle says, for enlisting young people in discussions about the city's future.
Money may be available for similar endeavors in other U.S. locales. Helping to steer those endeavors will be Elizabeth Humstone, who this week was named director of U.S. programs. Humstone has developed a strong reputation through her smart-growth advocacy on behalf of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl.
Working inside the United States has the important side-benefit of enhancing ISC's credibility in countries where it is already active and where it is seeking contacts, notes Hamilton. "People say to us, 'If you're so committed to sustainability, why aren't you working in the most unsustainable country in the world?'" Hamilton recounts.
The ISC should certainly develop a stronger presence in Vermont and in the rest of this country, Clavelle believes. "The work being done and the lessons being learned are as important here as in central and Eastern Europe," he says. During his own forays to Hungary, Bulgaria and Macedonia as an ISC board member, Clavelle observed that "People there are more engaged in creating a vision for their countries than is the case in most communities in the United States. I've been struck by how much Americans have come to take democracy for granted."
Vermont values underlie the Institute's work at home and abroad, adds Kunin. "Right from the start, I thought we should use Vermont as a model," she says, citing the state's tradition of participatory democracy and environmental stewardship as well as its paired attitudes of neighborliness and self-reliance. With such a foundation, the former governor says, ISC will surely continue to find its way in the world.