USAID Russia Lessons Learned

USAID From the American People Logo

Date: Thu, 4 Oct 2012
Subject: USAID Russia Lessons Learned
From: Sarah Lindemann-Komarova <>

USAID Russia Lessons Learned
by Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, Siberian based civil society development activist.

Almost everyone knew it was time for a USAID end strategy in Russia.  The possible exception to this maybe a few organizations that did not leverage years of generous support from the American people to cultivate a Russian constituency.  Hope for a strategic exit evaporated when the Russian government demanded USAID stop its operations on October 1st.  This, in development terms, is characterized as an unintended negative result.   It was also an unnecessary result but what is done is done and, again in development parlance, the key issue now is lessons learned.

In Siberia the development process began with the question “what is democracy”.  The almost universal response in 1992 was “freedom” .    Unfortunately, a devastating decrease in the quality of life was being experienced by most people as they were supposed to be reveling in their new found freedom to speak, travel and practice any religion.  This meant the link between the “case” for democracy to “improved quality of life” had to be made with actions that yielded visible, practical results.   Freedom alone was not yielding this result, responsibility had to become part of the equation.   As an American raised on the traditional democratic development paradigm it was natural that I suggest a get the vote out event to launch our USAID supported program in 1996.  My Siberian colleagues response was horror and they politely informed me that if the work were in any way associated with politics, or the strategy involved challenging and criticizing, regional government would simply “squish us like a bug”.  Instead, they developed a new mechanism to demonstrate the value of NGOs, an NGO Fair.   I will never forget the anxiety in the car as we drove to the venue that morning with emotions ricocheting between the Russian pessimism assuming no one would show up and American optimism praying for the best.  We arrived to a hall filled with NGO activists setting up stands showing for the first time in public who they are and what they do.  Lower ranked government flaks were overheard making a call to the Mayor of Novosibirsk telling him it was important for him to come. He did and cut the ribbon officially opening the first NGO/government partnership event in the country.

Since that time I have seen many wonderful things happen in the Russian regions thanks to this support from the American people.  The community development NGO “Green House”  was responsible for creating new small businesses providing over 60 jobs in one of the most challenging social and economic environments imaginable, Far Eastern villages.  The PoVolje NGO was key to the establishment of a comprehensive program to provide citizen participation and oversight on the budget process in Samara, one of the biggest cities in the country.  That NGO Fair was followed by the Siberian Civic Initiatives Support Center asking the Regional government to match 500 US taxpayer provided dollars and conduct a grant competition to support civic initiatives has evolved into an annual $1 million grant competition in Novosibirsk.  In fact, the initial Siberian Center Program supported by USAID in the mid 90’s consisting of grant competitions, NGO resource centers and the NGO Fair, is now fully financed by the regional government.  That is not a bad return on the US investment.

The lessons learned from how these successful results were generated is summarized in the form of a new paradigm for democratic development. The paradigm emerged over the years based on funding from USAID to civil society development organizations in the Russian regions and reflects two primary objectives:
Provide opportunities for people to be active: Establish and strengthen an infrastructure to support civil society that includes mechanisms, policies and procedures that not only allow for, but, mandate citizen participation in all aspects and levels of government.
Encourage more people to take advantage of the opportunities to be active: Increased understanding among the people that they must assume responsibility for the quality of life in their communities and the country and that good governance is only possible when they are involved in the process.
The following is a comparison of the focus for the traditional and new democratic development paradigms:

Old paradigm/New Paradigm

  • Freedom/Responsibility
  • Human rights/Quality of life
  • Elections/Other forms of participation
  • NGO development/Community development
  • Civil society=human rights and NGOs/Civil society is anyone who chooses to take advantage of the space available to be active
  • PR/One on one organizing
  • Speaking/Not just listening but hearing what people are saying
  • Criticism and demands/Partnership
  • Being against something/Being for something
  • Pro-active and reactive/Innovative and responsive
  • Assume the worst from government initiatives/Non prejudicial assessment of government initiatives
  • Programs designed to support a specific target group (government, business, NGOs)/Programs designed to support synergy, understanding and trust among various groups
  • Developing a cadre of high priced consultants/Developing a cadre of highly skilled activists
  • Program development without participation of regional or target group representatives/Participatory program and budget development
  • Access to information/What to do with information
  • Funding for non-local organizations/Capacity building for local organizations
  • Providing training/How training and skills are applied
  • Accountable for activities/Accountable for results from activities
  • Representing people’s interests/Empowering people to represent their own interests
  • Assumptions/Observations
  • Information gathering through a small circle of stakeholders/Information gathering by always asking who is not in the room and where can we find them and ask what they think?

It would be sad and inappropriate if the legacy of USAID in Russia is characterized by the circumstances of its exit.   How would this account for the comprehensive Russian government funded NGO training program taking place in which local experts that had been supported by USAID were asked to conduct the training?  In fact, two days before I flew to Moscow for the final USAID partner meeting I was introducing the Eisenhower Matrix to seminar participants.  The week before I calmed a participant from a Kazakh cultural group outraged at “western culture destroying our youth”  by suggesting  it was probably not within the capacity of her NGO to stop western culture but she could host a meeting with young people and talk about it.

13 years ago USAID took a chance and supported this American girl’s dream (a dream she never dared dream during duck and cover drills at school during the Cold War) to support democracy in Siberia .    One result of what followed came last spring when the Yemal Netnetski Government asked me and a Siberian Center colleague to conduct seminars for NGOs in 3 towns in the Far North.   Not only did an Imam from the Wahabi Islam community participate in both days of the seminar on social entrepreneurship, but, he and I spent much of the break time talking. A favorite memory will always be our goodbye when we agreed that, sometimes, developing respect and understanding is really just that simple, a conversation. The resonance from the US taxpayer Russian investment will continue to be felt, as it has throughout the years, quietly beyond the headlines.   Therefore, a more logical and useful legacy of this 20 year history  should include enlightening the US government approach to other countries starting on their long and difficult journey towards democracy by integrating the lessons learned outside of Moscow.