Recently I attended the annual conference of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in San Antonio, Texas. One interesting panel examined Russian/East European development assistance to the Third World during and after the Cold War, a subject I had done some work on in my 2013 book Aiding Afghanistan: A History of Soviet Assistance to a Developing Country. Of particular interest to me was a paper by Patty Gray of Maynooth University in Ireland, which discussed Russia’s move from being a recipient of development assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union to once again being a donor.
Russia’s contemporary aid agency is Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cooperation in English). Gray pointed out that this organization evolved not from the Soviet institutions which were involved in development assistance but rather from those which handled cultural ties and exchanges with foreign countries. Because of this, Rossotrudnichestvo has to date focused on cultural matters. However, the organization’s website recently added a section devoted to ‘international development assistance’ which speaks of providing ‘financial, technical, humanitarian and other aid, helping the social-economic development of states’.
As yet there is not much evidence to indicate what this will mean in reality. In Soviet times, development practice closely tracked academic theory. With this in mind, I asked Dr. Gray whether there even was any modern Russian development theory. Her answer was revealing. There are apparently a handful of contemporary Russian textbooks on development theory, but there are no university programs dedicated to the subject and very few academics are paying any attention to it. To overcome this deficit, the European Union (EU) has been running courses on the subject for Russians and others from Eastern Europe. According to Dr. Gray, the EU courses do not present different concepts of what development is and how it can be helped, but rather teach a single model (the EU’s model) which it is assumed students will apply once they go home. In practice, though, said Dr. Gray, students do what is expected of them and parrot what they are taught in order to pass the course, then when they go home mainly ignore it all in favour of their own country’s traditions and experiences.
This story neatly encapsulates the arrogance of much of Western ‘capacity building’. In theory, we know that local institutions matter and that you cannot impose the same template on every country. But we keep on acting as though you can. Soviet development assistance was not notably successful, but its results weren’t generally any worse than that provided by its Western competitors. As it takes up this activity once again, Russia needs to start thinking seriously about how it can make its aid effective. This means doing more than simply copying a template provided by the West.