Like its peers in the BRIC economies, Russia has been aggressively scaling up its foreign aid spending over the past decade. In 2013, Russia’s official development assistance stood at $714 million, a sevenfold increase from 2006.
Until recently, as much as 60 percent of Russia’s aid spending had been channeled through multilateral organizations — in large part due to the Russian government’s own reservations about its capacity to deliver development assistance on a bilateral basis.
▪ 2012-present: Director, Russian Cooperation Agency, and special representative of the president of the Russian Federation to the Commonwealth of Independent States
▪ 2004-2012: Member, State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation
▪ 2004-2011: Chairman, State Duma Committee on International Affairs
Determined to raise the profile of its aid engagement abroad, however, the Russian government program now seems keen to channel its assistance directly to partner countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Tellingly, the change in Russia’s aid strategy comes amid lingering tensions between Moscow and Western governments over the crisis in Ukraine.
In this exclusive interview with Devex, Konstantin Kosachev, director of the Russian Cooperation Agency, makes the case for this new direction in the Russian foreign aid program. Known in Russia as Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian Cooperation Agency has been designated by the Russian government as the “head agency” for Russian bilateral assistance.
What are the key motivations driving Russia’s commitment to foreign aid?
The Russian Federation sees international development assistance as an effective mechanism [for] addressing global and regional problems and responding to new challenges and threats, thus building a more secure and reliable world. I think those are basic preconditions for the sustainable development of any country … The fact that other countries develop and grow, especially our neighboring countries, is very beneficial for the future of Russia itself.
For example, development assistance can prevent the spillover of the problems over the Russian border. Russia supports various immunization programs because we understand that any outbreak of infectious diseases in Central Asia, in a few weeks, might be in Russia … So development cooperation for Russia is both a pragmatic decision and a demonstration of goodwill of Russian people, as Russia has never stopped supporting its partners, neither when it was a recipient of aid itself, nor during the recent economic crisis. And surely we would like our effort to be visible and be appreciated, so it is also important for Russian image abroad.
Recent indications suggest that Moscow is now more eager to channel its aid bilaterally — part of an effort to “personalize” Russian aid. Could you shed light on why the Russian aid program decided to go in this direction?
You are right to notice that Russia is becoming more strategic in finding a balance between bilateral and multilateral cooperation. We are not exactly introducing something new. [The 2007 Russian Government Concept Paper on International Development Assistance] stated that Russia would make efforts to enhance its bilateral development assistance, but for the time being it will rely on multilateral channels. That was mostly due to Russia’s limited capacity in development assistance.
As for the motivation to make such a decision, we consider that bilateral cooperation enables us to work on [a] sustainable basis with our partners. And in that way, we can make our assistance more focused and effective and serve the interests of our partners. Certainly, the image and visibility also matters and we better be honest about that. As it often happens with assistance provided via trust funds and multilateral channels, nobody in partner countries knows that it comes from Russia. Providing development cooperation is about building relationships and we would like other countries to know that Russia is their committed partner.
What do you consider to be the comparative advantages of Russian aid over Western donors?
The thing is that we see development assistance not as some kind of competition with Western donors over who provides more money or does this better. The only form of competition can be with ourselves in the past. So I would better speak of Russia’s areas of strengths in relation to its partner countries, recipients of its assistance and not in relation to Western or other donors.
Russian expertise in many fields is in high demand in our partner countries, including [the Commonwealth of Independent States]. We share a lot in common with our partners; we inherited a similar national economic system from the Soviet Union. Russia has implemented many reforms and our partners are looking for that very context-specific expertise that fits their needs. For example, Russian expertise has been in demand when some CIS countries such as [Kyrgyzstan] and Armenia introduced their unified school exam.
In the next installment of our interview with Kosachev, he sheds light on the Russian government’s ambitious aid effectiveness agenda, including the rollout of partner country strategies. Check back Monday for our in-depth analysis of Russian foreign aid — exclusive for Devex Executive Members.
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