Mojgan Sami ’91 Warming Up the Economic Climate in Siberia

Mojgan Sami ’91

Mojgan Sami stepped off the plane in Siberia and was immediately struck by the warm October weather. For most Westerners, Siberia conjures up images of immense frozen tundra or the infamous gulags of the Stalinist era. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Siberia, like the rest of Russia, has been struggling to transform its economy. 

Last fall, Sami spent two weeks in Siberia with the Farmer-to-Farmer Consortium—a development partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Winrock International, Land O’Lakes, and Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance. These entities formed the consortium to provide volunteer technical assistance to struggling communities in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia.

While in Siberia, Sami conducted workshops on project planning and management and on grant writing for partners planning a resource/training center for rural entrepreneurs and farmers. She worked with government officials, farmers, business and lending organizations, and university students.

The training sessions were challenging.

“How do you transform the Soviet legacy of central planning into a market-driven economy?” Sami asks. “Many of the people I met were interested in the basics of organizational development—decision making, team building, and running meetings. I worked with groups to establish priorities and develop action plans.”

Not everyone in Siberia is thrilled with changes brought on by the new market economy. “Some of the older farmers and peasants were opposed to recent democratic reforms and miss the old days,” says Sami. “At least then, many of them did not have to struggle for food and heat. I see the key to the transformation of Siberian society in the hopeful expressions of their young.”

Sami discovered the world of development by accident. She spent five years in Haifa, Israel, working as a photographic archivist at the Bahá’í World Center, which works closely with the United Nations on international development projects. Through her work at the center, Sami became friends with people who were interested in doing development work in Uganda—and she tagged along.

The expertise Sami gained in Africa ultimately led to the development opportunity halfway across the globe in Siberia.

Sami, now a trainer for the World Bank’s programs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has learned much in her travels. “In conversations with the people I worked with in Uganda and Siberia, we found out together that a lack of money does not automatically imply powerlessness,” she says. “Empowering communities to help themselves is the cornerstone of my work.”

—by Shannon Smith