THIS is the story of how North Dakota grain farmers linked up with a New York lawyer with an appreciation for history and succeeded in delivering food aid to the needy of St. Petersburg.
The key, says the lawyer, Matthew Murray, was to follow the lessons of the United States's last humanitarian aid program in Russia: the American Relief Administration, set up in 1921 by then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to address Russia's devastating famine.
But first things first.
Last October, the North Dakota Grain Growers Association and the US Durum Growers Association decided to donate 100 tons of packaged flour to the people of St. Petersburg. Initial attempts to go through official channels fell flat. Poor telecommunications hindered their efforts to reach St. Petersburg city officials or the US consulate there by phone. And the response from the State Department in Washington left them stunned.
"The first question was, 'Why in the world would you want to do that? says Laurie McMerty, projects director for grain growers association. "We're a small state and just used to everybody pitching in when someone needs help."
Mr. McMerty adds that, when dealing with local people to arrange other aspects of the project, "it took no more than five minutes for each phone call" to get support.
Farmers donated grain from this year's good harvest. Citizens donated cash for transportation costs. ND Mill donated milling and bagging costs. Burlington Northern Railroad donated inland transportation. And KLM Dutch Royal Airlines provided two round-trip tickets to St. Petersburg for two association members to oversee the project.
Then the grain growers connected with lawyer Matthew Murray, who travels frequently to Russia as a trade consultant.
Mr. Murray says St. Petersburg was an appealing candidate for aid because it's a large city (the major cities have proved particularly needy, since farming regions have cut back on food shipments), it has a port, and it's not Moscow, with its added layer of government bureaucracy.
But when Murray went to St. Petersburg in November to set up distribution for the "Dakota Cares" project, there were no American private voluntary organizations operating there, he says. So he realized he'd have to start from scratch.
Enter Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Association. Through the help of the American Committee on US-Soviet Relations, Murray got copies of ARA documents and a 1943 paper by H. H. Fisher on the ARA to learn how the aid program worked.
Then, as now, a major concern was that aid not be stolen or diverted to the black market. The ARA, in its August 1921 accord with Russia, insisted on provisions to ensure that wouldn't happen: requiring that the ARA be allowed to bring into Russia any personnel it deemed necessary to carry out its work; and requiring the Soviet government to reimburse the ARA in hard currency or in kind for any stolen materials.
The ARA also paid its Russian workers in food, to lower the temptation to steal.
"Stringent conditions placed on the aid and absolute control by the ARA over every part of the distribution process were the keys to its success," writes Janine Ludlam in "New Outlook," a journal of the American Committee on US-Soviet Relations.
Murray adapted but did not duplicate the ARA concept. The North Dakota accord does not call for reimbursement for lost materials, but rather obliges the Russians to hold "accountable under the laws of the Russian Republic" any official party found to be intentionally misusing or selling the flour.
The accord also provides for the involvement of private organizations and individuals, including the Salvation Army, American students in St. Petersburg, and church groups. The flour is to be cleared through customs, duty-free, within 24 hours of its arrival at the port.
"We hit them hard to get it in within 24 hours," says Murray. It was up to the Russian signatories to the deal to ensure that the flour did not languish in the port, as with many other ships bearing foreign aid. The Russians are also in charge of supplying trucks and fuel to transport the flour to its final destination.
It was of paramount importance, Murray says, that good local officials be found on the Russian end. He is happy with his choices: Alexander Minikov of the Departmental Committee for Social Problems at the mayor's office in St. Petersburg (a new city welfare agency) and Mark Grigoriants, who runs the social welfare office for Kuibeshevsky District, one of St. Petersburg's hardest-hit regions.
Instead of threatening to punish the Russians for poor implementation, Murray says he simply made it clear to the area selected that the North Dakotans were under no obligation to keep the deliveries coming if the arrangement was not working. Murray also set up a competitive process for the North Dakota aid, taking bids from separate parts of St. Petersburg, to create an incentive for good performance.
The flour - packaged in 10-pound bags labeled as a gift from North Dakota - is to be distributed free to pensioners, the disabled, single-parent families, and families with more than one child.
The St. Petersburg social welfare department, working with the Salvation Army, is compiling a computerized list of the neediest cases - already 16,000 people in Kuibeshevsky District alone. The bags of flour are being distributed by the Salvation Army, American students, and American church groups, with Russians helping. Also, Red Cross nurses are distributing flour to wards on their regular visits.
Murray says he wants to steer clear of giving away flour to Russian volunteers as much as possible, to foster a sense of altruism. The North Dakotans decided to give flour to the nurses, however, when they learned they were being paid by the Soviet Salvation Army only 100 rubles a month (enough to buy just a few days' worth of food).
For the North Dakotans, the acid test came this week, when two of their grain officials took the KLM trip to St. Petersburg to check on the aid. So far, says Laurie McMerty of the grain growers association, the plan seems to be working. The first shipment of 4,320 10-pound bags had cleared customs and was waiting for the North Dakotans when they got there.