Who Is Leading Russia’s Overseas Aid Programme?

All along, there seems to have been a bit of tug-of-war between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over who would have the upper hand in providing both the vision and the infrastructure for Russia’s overseas aid programme.

September 18, 2012
Patty Gray

This post originally appeared on the blog Russian Things Unpacked, and is re-published here with kind permission from Patty Gray. It is part of AidData's continuing investigations on the development resource flows of non-DAC donors. More on this series can be found here.

In an earlier post, I reported that Russia’s Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak had announced (on 16 May 2012) that a “packet of documents” that would officially establish a Russian Agency for International Development had been “agreed, signed off by the Minister, and sent to the government”.

However, on 21 June 2012, Gazeta.ru, one of the most popular and reputable online news outlets, quoted an anonymous source as saying that a new agency would not be created after all. The anonymous source seems to come from inside the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As the Gazeta.ru story phrases it, the anonymous source explained that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs corrected its position in relation to creating a new agency and now supports having the overseas development assistance function carried out by a department under its own jurisdiction, Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency on the Affairs of CIS Countries, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation).”

All along, there seems to have been a bit of tug-of-war between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over who would have the upper hand in providing both the vision and the infrastructure for Russia’s overseas aid programme, which has been in a developing phase for several years now. When I was investigating this in Russia in 2009, the consensus among my consultees was that Rossotrudnichestvo would fulfill the role of Russia’s aid agency.

The 2007 presidential document ‘Concept on Russia’s Participation in International Development Assistance’ envisioned “the establishment of a specialized state institution for international development assistance,” and when Rossotrudnichestvo was established in 2008, many of my consultees assumed it constituted that very “state institution” indicated in the Concept (in fact, some were already referring to it as ‘RussAid’ in analogous fashion after USAID). However, when I returned in 2011, I was hearing a different consensus: that Rossotrudnichestvo had done nothing toward cultivating a development aid programme, and it probably would never fulfill that function.

Meanwhile, since 2008, the World Bank had been working to cultivate Russia into the status of a DAC-like development aid donor through its DFID-funded “Russia as a Donor Initiative”. For three years, the World Bank bombarded a hand picked Russian audience with seminars and trainings and consultations, from a conference on how to set up an aid statistics accounting system to a workshop on “strategic communication for Russia’s development aid program”. Looking at the lists of participants at these events, the Ministry of Finance seems to have had a stronger presence than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And indeed, in the last year the Ministry of Finance has been the only Russian government agency issuing press releases that expressly promise the appearance of a Russian Agency for International Development.

However, earlier this year, things began to change in Rossotrudnichestvo. A new Head of the agency was appointed, Konstantin Kosachev (Косачёв), a Duma Deputy in the party United Russia who previously had a long history of employment in the Soviet and Russian Foreign Service (the original Head of Rossotrudnichestvo since its creation in 2008, Farit Mukhametshin, was released from his duties by an order signed by former President Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012 and now serves as Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova).

There is an interesting question at the heart of this about the differences between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in terms of their institutional culture and the vision of their leadership, which also links up to similarly interesting questions about the institutional culture(s) and visions(s) of the global agencies that pursue international development cooperation (such as the OECD-DAC and the World Bank).

Russia’s Aid Apparatus: Under Construction

Photo courtesy Eric Sawchak, W&M ‘14

Kosachev has been interviewed twice in the business-oriented newspaper Kommersant’, in April and in September of this year. The September interview came in the context of a rather unprecedented Moscow gathering of all the heads of Rossotrudnichestvo’s offices abroad, which was addressed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The transcript of the speeches made at the general assembly of this gathering is notable for the number of times the phrase “soft power” is used. Accordingly, in both of his Kommersant’ interviews, Kosachev talked primarily about Russia’s image abroad and the importance of branding (брэнд) to overcome negative perceptions.

In the September interview, Kosachev was expressly asked about the fact that Roosotrudnichestvo had previously been seen as the analogue to USAID. In responding, Kosachev said:

Among the proposals there does indeed exist the idea to hand over to Rossotrudnichestvo authority in the sphere of international development assistance (содействие международному развития) on a bilateral basis. Currently, in this sphere Russia acts mainly through its participation in multilateral programmes … But in such a model there are obvious flaws: the resources that Russia invests in such programmes, voluntarily or involuntarily, are depersonalized. No one, in fact, says “thank you” to us afterwards for these programmes. Therefore, we consider it necessary to strengthen the bilateral component in Russian development assistance. So that Russia directly, bypassing the middleman in the form of international institutions, grants suitable resources in the form of goods, services, or even direct financial aid (although the latter is less desirable) on a bilateral basis to those states whom we consider important.

Nowhere in Kosachev’s interviews is there any mention of the kinds of issues that the DAC donors typically express concern for, such as hunger, poverty, global health, environmental degradation. Nor is there any mention of principles that constitute almost an obsession among DAC-oriented actors, such as the need to develop methods for compiling aid statistics as a matter of accountability, or the importance of the cooperative aid agendas hammered out in the High Level Fora on Development Effectiveness.

Ministry of Finance spokespeople, by contrast, consistently pay homage to such issues and principles. For example, former Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, speaking at the 2010 World Bank/OECD-sponsored conference ‘New Partnerships in Global Development Finance’, said:

Increasing the volume of aid to developing countries in the aim of fighting against poverty in order to secure sustainable economic growth is today one of the most discussed problems at large international fora… Russia considers it fundamentally important to maintain the emerging progressive trends of the last few years in development finance. In this context, we are stepping up the volume and number of formats of our interaction with various multilateral institutions.

And Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, in his announcement in May that a Russian aid agency was imminent, said: “We do not use donor funds as a means to stimulate the export of national products; it is purely development assistance, fully in compliance with the agreements reached in Paris.”

The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just seem to be on different pages.

The one factor that does speak in favor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs taking the lead in Russia’s participation in international development assistance is that fact that it already has infrastructure in countries where Russia would provide assistance, as well as a long history of experience working bilaterally in those countries. The Ministry of Finance has neither of these, which is perhaps why it emphasizes multilateral aid over bilateral. Each ministry sees possibilities along the lines of its own strengths.

It will be very interesting to see how these developments are interpreted from outside Russia. I predict DAC-oriented actors will see this as ominous, and those who are prone to “China threat” discourse will begin to characterize Russia in similar terms. On the other hand, those involved in ‘South-South Cooperation’ may find resonance with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ approach.

For additional background on Russia’s donor activities, download this Summary Paper on the Public Face of Development in Russia (2011).

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Dr Patty A. Gray is a Lecturer in the Anthropology Department at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. She has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Russia since 1995, and is currently investigating Russia’s emergence as a donor of international development assistance.