Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

“A Sea of Golden Grain”: USAID’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Georgia


In the aftermath of Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008, the National Security Council (NSC) met to review U.S. policy toward both countries.  Some urged elimination of USAID’s program in Russia. But USAID’s Russia program promoted democracy and development in Chechnya–a program Russia’s leaders would be all too happy to eliminate.  Susumu Ken Yamashita, AID’s representative at a crucial NSC meeting, had a better idea: a massive program to help rebuild the parts of Georgia that Russia had invaded and briefly held. How big?  Surprised by the positive reaction to his idea, Yamashita quickly proposed the sum of $1 billion. He was even more surprised when the number was accepted.

USAID was given only a month and a half to develop a program for reconstruction in northern Georgia, where Russia had pursued a literal scorched earth policy.  With winter approaching, USAID focused on help for refugees and internally displaced people, and helping restore the economic livelihood of the broader population.  A key component: planting cold-resistant varieties of wheat. By the following spring, the fields were a “sea of golden grains.”

Susumu Ken Yamashita was serving as the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator in USAID’s Regional Bureau for Europe and Eurasia during the time of the invasion. Shortly after, Yamashita became Acting Assistant Administrator and helped oversee the plan created to allocate funds to Georgia.  He would later serve as USAID’s mission director in Colombia and Afghanistan before retiring in 2016.

Susumu Ken Yamashita’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on May 16, 2017.

Read Susumu Ken Yamashita’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Joseph Baldofsky.

Excerpts:
“I pulled the figure out of the air – $1.0 billion”

Support Rather Than Retaliation: One of the high points of my time in the [Bureau for Europe and Eurasia] was a low point in world history, the unfortunate invasion of Georgia by Russia. It happened during the summer of 2008. Following the invasion, I attended many meetings at the White House to decide what actions we could take in retaliation. One idea raised by the National Security Council (NSC) was for USAID to stop funding programs in Russia. I objected on grounds that the bulk of the program in Russia was mostly in the Chechen Republic, or Chechnya, and it was mostly promoting democracy and governance. The Russians did not like our program and would be ecstatic if we closed it down.

Then I gave an alternative. Instead of punishing Russia, we could support Georgia with a massive assistance program to help with the reconstruction efforts and supporting the displaced population. Much to my surprise, the NSC agreed, then asked me how much I would need. Thinking about our program in Kosovo, and the relative size of the two countries, I pulled a number out of the air – $1.0 billion. Then to my further surprise, they agreed.

 

“I left…with a cool, calm, and confident face which broke down into a sweaty panic….”

 

Hitting the Ground Running: But the NSC also asked that if they came up with the funds, could I get it all programmed by the end of the fiscal year. Now, mind you this was in August. The end of the fiscal year was September 30th. We had about a month and a half to program $1.0 billion. Without batting an eye, I said yes. And it was done.

I left the NSC with a cool, calm, and confident face which broke down into a sweaty panic as soon as I got back to USAID. I called the Mission Director in Georgia, Bob Wilson, and started to plan out what we would do and how fast we could do it. Thanks to Bob’s contact with the government, his ingenuity and quick thinking, we were able to pull it off.

What we did is we focused on two things: the immediate support for refugees internally displaced, and their winter needs. You know in Georgia the winter comes early and comes hard. We wanted to make certain that everything looked ready and in place to support the displaced people when the winter came. We put a lot of resources to that and then we put a lot of resources into rebuilding their livelihoods which meant support for agriculture in the winter. By using grains that are pest-resistant and can be sowed in the late fall, the harvest in early spring can be substantial and complements the typical summer harvest. Our USDA helped out considerably, as did our military by bringing in material for the displaced families.

 

“The U.S. stood on principle and I am proud that we did.”

 

Plan in Action: We had a bilateral agreement with the government. In other words we needed to sign one agreement that would place the entire amount in one program area. We called it [the] reconstruction and rehabilitation program. This was the requirement for obligating the funds by the end of the year. Even something this simple required quite a lift, including support from many offices in Washington. The urgency voiced by the White House helped a lot! Once in this bilateral agreement, we could take our time and fund specific projects. That said, we didn’t want to take too much time, as the seasonal change was coming soon and the needs of the displaced people were many. Our relationship with the Georgian government was excellent. The president and our ambassador were totally supportive which also helped to move the process.

A rewarding moment came in the spring of 2009, during the harvest season. I had the opportunity to visit the northern province where the Russians had invaded. The fields were a sea of golden grains, with enormous harvesters busily at work. I met with the governor, who told me that when the Russians invaded, everything had been burned to the ground. The Russians employed a scorched earth policy. That is, burn everything down so that reconstruction would be near impossible. After the invasion, the governor hosted many high level visitors, including presidents and prime ministers, even royalty. There were visits by international organizations such as UN and World Bank. Every visitor commented on the terrible situation and promised assistance. But in the end, the only assistance that arrived was from the U.S. The governor pointed to the fields of grain behind us and, sweeping is arm, he said “This is all thanks to the American people and USAID. You were the only ones that came through for us.” In hindsight, I think many well-meaning governments simply did not want to annoy Russia by siding with Georgia. The U.S. stood on principle and I am proud that we did.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

 

Education

     BA in Geo. & Environmental Engineering, John Hopkins University                     1971-1975

     PhD in Population Dynamics, John Hopkins University                                            1975-1980

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                        1989

     Quito, Ecuador—Technical Advisor for Aids and Child Survival                               1989-1993

     —US Direct Hire Foreign Service Office                                                                          1993-1995

     Washington, D.C.—Deputy Chief of the Div. of Family Planning Svs.                      1995-1998

     Pretoria, South Africa—Chief of the Health Office                                                        1998-2001

     Lima, Peru—Deputy Mission Director                                                                             2001-2004

     Pristina, Kosovo—Mission Director                                                                                 2004-2006

     Washington D.C—Senior Deputy Asst. Administrator,                                               2006-2009

     Bureau of Europe and Eurasia

     Colombia—Mission Director                                                                                             2009-2011

     Kabul, Afghanistan—Mission Director                                                                            2011-2014

Retired                                                                                                                                     2016

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