What Can the West Do to Help Russia?

As the hopeful days of the “New World Order” give way to the despair of the emerging “New World Disorder,” a national debate is waging in the United States about the appropriate role which American foreign aid can play in encouraging the building of democratic political institutions and free market economic structures. On one issue, however, there seems to be consensus: aid from the West is only a marginal factor in reshaping the future of post-Communist societies. Internal forces in the societies emerging out of the Communist nightmare will be the key determinants.

Yet foreign aid is still important, even if only to “improve the odds,” as one observer puts it. The majority view by foreign policy experts is captured in the following summary: “What can the West do to help bring about the kind of Russia with which it can be in partnership? The first step is to be realistic. There are definite limits to the West’s ability to influence Russia directly, at least through governmental policies … Ultimately, of course, Russia will make its own history. The triple shock wave that hit Russia—the collapse of the Soviet political system, the collapse of its economy, the implosion of its empire—is so powerful that internal forces will dominate.” The authors then concede with this observation: “Western aid can help by providing stabilization facilities to support continuing reform … Aid is a bridge, perhaps over a five- to seven-year period” (Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson, Russia 1010 and What It Means for the World, 1993 pp. 256-260).

Widespread Criticism of American Foreign Aid

All across the American political spectrum, there is a growing dissatisfaction with our foreign aid programs. International financier George Soros, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to aid post-Communist societies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, has harshly criticized Western aid as self-serving and inefficient. “Most of the foreign aid has been designed to satisfy the needs of the donors and not the needs of the recipients,” in his judgment (“Soros Calls West’s Aid Inefficient,” Moscow Times, March 15, 1994).

In recent years, as both the Bush and Clinton administrations have geared up programs to assist the former Soviet Union in its reform efforts, there has been a veritable feeding frenzy in Washington, as more than 1,200 consultants applied for grants from the Agency for International Development. The problem is, under the current structure of our foreign ad programs, the aid never leaves the States. According to the Wall Street Journal, somewhere between 50% and 90% of the money given in aid is pocketed by U.S. consultants! The title of the Journal’s article tells the story: “Helping Ourselves: U.S. Aid to Russia Is Quite a Windfall—For U.S. Consultants” (February 24, 1994).

Frustration is so high among some analysts that they are calling for an end to traditional foreign aid. Russian expert Dimitri K. Simes, while describing “Yeltsin’s Twilight” and the end of his era, underlined the grave economic situation in which Russia finds itself, but then made this startling observation: “Government-to-government assistance, which is mishandled in Washington and subject to fraud and corruption in Moscow, should be phased out” (Washington Post, March 27, 1994).

Congressional authorities have also joined in the attack on foreign aid. In February 1994, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report noted that “there are major problems in the management of the assistance program” in the Newly Independent States and concluded that “it does not appear the the average citizen of Moscow, Almaty, or Bishkek—let alone the vast majority of citizens who live thousands of miles way from these urban areas—is affected by international assistance or the reforms that it is designed to foster” (“Assistance to the Newly Independent States; A Status Report,” February 1994, pp. 1-2).

The Republication and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives finally have something on which they agree: U.S. foreign aid to Russia is “strikingly insufficient … at best embarrassing and at worst destructive.” In commenting on the letter which he and Minority Leader Robert Michel sent to the Clinton administration, majority Leader Gephardt said: “This is the greatest challenge of our lifetime. It’s the most difficult civil and social transformation ever attempted, in my view. We can’t just sit around and wring our hands over the difficulty of doing business in Russia” (“House Leaders Criticize Aid-to-Russia,” Washington Post, June 12, 1994).

There Is a Better Way to Help Russia

Unfortunately, for those Americans truly concerned about Russia’s future, the diagnosis concerning U.S. foreign aid programs is generally accurate, but the prescriptions for reform do not address the fundamental issues at stake in the debate. The Gephardt-Michel letter stressed the need for greater coordination in the management of American foreign aid; others have recommended the need for greater focus on a more limited range of achievable goals.

The deeper issues, which are not being addressed in the current debate, concern the basic goals of our foreign aid efforts, goals which focus on short-term “quick fixes.” Federal funds support large-scale efforts to teach Russians economic and political techniques, without addressing the moral and ethical framework upon which the democratic political system and free market economy is built. Teaching Russians how to organize constituencies and run local election campaigns is of much less value than teaching them the importance of individual civic responsibility, the character of citizenship in a democracy, and the relationship between moral character development and public behavior in a free society. In fact, reflection on these subjects would bring great enemy in our own society!

It would also be wise to channel a much higher percentage of American foreign aid through private voluntary organizations, rather than through governmental channels where the former Communist elite skim off a large share. Private groups, including religious organizations engaged in humanitarian programs, have extensive grassroots networks which have the ability to aid needy people much more efficiently than government programs. Private non-profit organizations are also skilled in leadership training on the local level and are often highly skilled in empowering people who are marginalized. Are the results of such aid easy to quantify or measure? No. But the imapct is substantial over time, and when you are rebuilding a society from the ground up, there is no “quick fix.”