ICC Aid to Chukotka

April 1999

Helle Valborg Goldman, ANSIPRA
(News review, from articles collected by Peter Jull, Brisbane, Australia)

A Canadian relief mission to Inuit in Russia's Chukotka region in January has been criticized for being too expensive, according to several articles by Geoffrey York in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper (18-19 January 1999). The project totalled roughly US$ 400 000, but the 14 tonnes of supplies - primarily food - cost only US$ 30 000. One of the biggest expenses was that of transporting the goods from Canada to Chukotka.

In Canada's Nunatsiaq News (4 February 1999), Terry Fenge of the ICC (Inuit Circumpolar Conference) reacted strongly against the notion that the effort had been driven by hidden, self-interested motives. He explained that the mission was designed by a Canadian steering committee with representatives from three federal agencies, the Canadian Red Cross and the ICC. The steering committee worked closely with its Moscow counterpart, comprising Russian federal and regional government agencies, RAIPON, and the Russian Red Cross. According to Fenge, who emphasized the importance of helping indigenous people manage their own crises, the capacity-building fostered by the project is among its enduring successes. The mission was expensive, Fenge said, but buying and transporting the supplies within Russia could have entailed costly leakages into the hands of corrupt officials or criminals.

With stockpiles of walrus meat, the Inuit in Chukotka are not facing imminent starvation. But their chronically worsening poverty demands attention, according to York. In decline since the 19th century because of disease, conflicts with Chukchi reindeer-herders, displacement from sea mammal hunting, and Soviet collectivization, Chukotka Inuit are dependent on scanty government subsidies despite efforts to regain their economic footing. Unemployment, alcoholism and the death rate are all high. There are shortages of medicines, hunting supplies, winter clothing and some staple foodstuffs. Such hardship severely affects the local Inuit culture.

January's relief mission may not have supplied the most-needed items: there were only some medical supplies and no baby food or clothing. But Fenge stated optimistically, "we are poised to go back to this region and to northern Kamchatka to help Canada implement a larger humanitarian assistance and capacity-building project." Fenge promised that the team will try to "get the maximum amount of supplies quickly into the hands of the neediest people at the lowest possible cost".

Meanwhile, there are fears that planned US/EU food deliveries to Russia amounting to US$ 2 billion will be diverted to crooked officials and distribution companies, will not reach remote regions, and will have a negative impact on Russia's economy.