Donor Fatigue Deals a Blow to Siberia's Poor

ULAN UDE, Eastern Siberia -- Like the thousands of other dilapidated wooden houses covering the capital city of Buryatia, Nina Sorokina's home is a study in hell on earth. It is bitterly cold, there is no plumbing, the refrigerator is empty for weeks at a time, and the ground outside is saturated with sewage from neighboring outhouses.

Two of Sorokina's three children receive treatment for tuberculosis, which has reached epidemic proportions in the city. But with no wages and little food, Sorokina says malnutrition makes it almost impossible to fight off disease.

Nearly the only sustenance her family has are occasional packages of food aid from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which has sunk more than $60 million into Russia's polar regions over the past three years.

But with the situation in the region spiraling steadily downwards, international benefactors are beginning to show signs of "donor fatigue."How much longer, they are asking, will Russia have to depend on emergency aid?

"It's hard to raise interest among international donors for Siberian winter aid programs," said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the Red Cross Moscow delegation to the area. "It's the third year in a row that we've done it. Winter in Siberia is always cold and the main question now is how long we're going to be able to support these areas."

Last year, according to Lowry, the Red Cross asked for $20 million to provide supplementary aid to 21 of Russia's polar republics, mostly in Siberia. But this year, such "supplementary" provisions have been deemed insufficient - food parcels of oil, rice, flour and peas meant to last three months are being consumed in as little as a week by families like Sorokina's who have no other nourishment.

In response, the Red Cross has moved into "survival aid" mode - requesting twice as much money to intensively target even fewer people - and has found itself having to "justify why this increased aid is necessary," Lowry said.

Sorokina and her children alone provide a poignant argument - they often go as long as 20 days without food - but they are hardly unusual.

Over 60 percent of Ulan Ude's 350,000 residents live below the poverty line, and many have gone without wages for years.

It is economics, and not lack of potential, that keeps citizens in resource-rich republics like Buryatia fighting to survive. Store shelves are fully stocked and expensive boutiques have even sprung up in Ulan Ude's center.

"We have gold and forests and every mineral on Mendeleyev's chart," said Bair Balzhirov, Buryatia's deputy prime minister and health minister. Still, the republic's population is desperately poor and has the second-highest incidence of TB infection Russia-wide, a contradiction that has many people wondering who Buryatia's stores and boutiques are actually catering to.

"Our newspapers are always writing about how the IMF or the World Bank and others have sent us money, but I've never seen anything. It goes in officials' pockets and stops there," said Tatyana Khlebova, 40, who has gone four years without pay from the factory where she and her husband continue to work.

"I can't feed my children, I can't buy them anything," said Khlebova, the mother of eight. "My 6- and 7-year-old children already know how to work for money. It's not right."

As Lowry sees it, the desperate situation in Russia's remote polar regions is unlikely to improve soon: "Since the end of communism, state services have declined and are virtually nonexistent. Salaries, when paid, don't cover a normal food basket. Pensions are practically worthless, and now former killer diseases are again on the rise and new ones are emerging as well," he said.

An international delegation of the Red Cross was established in Russia in 1991 with the goal of assisting the Russian Red Cross in becoming self-sufficient and capable of managing its own crisis programs. But nine years into the program, it is difficult to say how much headway the organization's Russian branch has made, if any, toward building an effective parlance with the state.

The bottom line is grim: Even if $40 million in humanitarian aid is granted this year, which would make Russia one of the largest aid projects in the world, the Red Cross can only do so much.

"We can't reach everyone here," Lowry said. "To reach everyone living below the poverty level in Russia would mean reaching out to 40 million people."

Without continued aid, however, the lives of people in cities like Ulan Ude will grow even more desperate.

"I remember that I was never hungry as a child. My children will only remember starving," said Khlebova, whose only income is occasional cartons of onions she then tries to resell on the street. "Soon there will come a time when there is absolutely nothing here. In our rich country, this shouldn't be possible." (See Editorial)