The plastic bags that had been printed specially for the festival were emblazoned with the message “Pokupai mestnoe!” or “Buy local!” Having come to understand the strength of this concept during an exchange to the US as part of the US Russia Civil Society Partnership Program (CSPP), Sergei Pleshakov, director of the NGO Green House, brought the idea back to Russia. When Pleshakov’s organization put on Khabarovsk’s second annual jam festival, he put to practice what he learned in the US to grow the festival’s size and impact on the community.
At the sprawling open air market, producers from the region set up tables overflowing with homemade jam, local honey, fresh produce, and pickled vegetables. Through interacting with local producers, festival-goers learned that buying local can be inexpensive and that it directly supports members of their community. With this simple and effective concept, Green House demonstrated the benefit of cooperation and cohesion for local socio-economic development.
The factors that drive successful community development efforts – strong messages, well-articulated strategies, citizen engagement, and cooperation between NGOs and governments – are not always a given. To bring together groups to exchange effective answers to local issues, the CSPP Community Development Working Group developed a project connecting organizations from 17 regions in Russia and 23 states in the US.
The “Local Community Development Organizations” project culminated in an April 2013 conference in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, which was attended by 50 community development experts, government representatives, and local residents. Titled “Active Citizens Resource for Community Development,” the symposium was led by CSPP Community Development Working Group co-chairs Marina Mikhailova, director of the Arkhangelsk Regional Centre of Social Technology “Garant,” and Debra Martin, director of Community Development for WSOS, an Ohio-based community action agency.
The conference capped off a study tour of Russia for US community development experts and followed a visit to the US in August 2012 by the project’s Russian delegation, during which they attended the “Small Towns, Big Future” conference in Ohio. “There is really no substitute for this kind of face-to-face interaction,” Martin explained. “[The exchanges] gave us the foundation for building a strong trainer network that will greatly benefit the communities we serve.”
Following introductions by Anatoly Migunov, minister of Regional and Municipal Policy for the Nizhny Novgorod Region, and Olga Shchetinina, deputy chairman of the Legislative Assembly of the Nizhny Novgorod Region for Information Policy, Regulations, and Development of Civil Society Institutions, the Russian and American participants presented case studies from their own projects, detailing their successes and challenges.
Practitioners from Morgan County in rural Ohio showed how value chains could be used to spur economic recovery in areas plagued by high unemployment and poverty, giving specific examples for how the same model could be applied in Russia. Conference participants from Nizhny Novgorod showed how the annual two-week “Kind Nizhny” festival motivates citizens to become more engaged in their communities through volunteerism and other beneficial activities.
As Working Group co-chairs, Martin and Mikhailova have worked together on various projects in recent years and both know the importance of exchange tours and seminars for expanding the capabilities and creativity of local practitioners. “We have already seen the Russian participants implementing some of the ideas they gleaned in the US last year,” Martin said. “And here in the US, we are intent on replicating some of the practices that we saw in Russia this year.”
In addition to the fresh ideas they took away from the conference, the Russian and American participants strengthened their own professional networks, connecting with their colleagues. “One of the biggest things gained from the CSPP project is that we were able to cement relationships between NGO leaders on both sides,” Martin explained. “[These relationships] will last well beyond the scope of this project, and will lead to future mutually beneficial partnership efforts.”