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From the Ground Up: USAID in Post-Soviet Russia

Six months after the fall of the Soviet Union, James (Jim) Norris became the USAID mission director in Russia. Not long before he set foot on Russian soil, though, the hammer and sickle flag was still flying over the Kremlin and Mikhail Gorbachev was still in office.

Fall of the Soviet Union  (2011) Wikimedia Commons | Foreign Policy
Fall of the Soviet Union (2011) Wikimedia Commons | Foreign Policy

However, the Soviet Union fell just as quickly as it had risen sixty-nine years prior, and with its dissolution came a great deal of local and regional transformations. Boris Yeltsin assumed the presidency, Russia grappled with its new identity in the post-Soviet space, and former Republics embarked on the path to regain independence. Jim arrived just as these transformations—and more—were underway, allowing America to be right there on the ground in the midst of it all.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Russia, USAID was ready to hit the ground running. Program officers, led by Jim as their mission director, began strategizing about how to promote long-term political and economic development in Russia. That said, the team ran into a considerable number of roadblocks—everything from bureaucratic red tape to finding viable office space.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” Jim Norris discusses what it was like to build a USAID program in Russia from the ground up, all while sharing the insight his team gained about successful development policies and programming in Russia.

James Norris’ interview was conducted by Ann Van Dusen in April 2018.

Read James Norris’ full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on building USAID programs, click HERE.

Drafted by Natalie Schaller

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“We always used to joke that if the KGB had really bugged our offices . . . .”

Yeltsin, Boris; Collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) Reuters/Newscom | Encyclopedia Britannica
Yeltsin, Boris; Collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) Reuters/Newscom | Encyclopedia Britannica

Setting up Shop: We had a program of $125 million. . . . Indeed, Washington was putting together the program, and they developed some new instruments that facilitated developing a program where you had to act very rapidly. But, the embassy put a freeze on all new U.S. direct hire arrivals shortly after I arrived.

Q: Their concern was they might be spies?

NORRIS: . . . Yeah, they were still back in the Cold War. What is a spy going to find out in an AID mission, really? We always used to joke that if the KGB had really bugged our offices, the people who had to listen to that would probably be doing so as a punishment that was allocated to them by the KGB. In any event, that was security’s position. No FSNs and no fraternization. No Americans going out with Russians. . . . I wanted both FSNs and U.S. direct hires. We needed them right away. So, I was not happy, but . . . . we put up with it. It only went on for a couple of months and then we started to get direct hires. . . .We eventually had an adequately sized and very talented Russian staff and a good number of locally hired U.S. personal service contractors.

It was also a great struggle to get adequate office space. . . . Initially, the challenge was to have at least a chair for every staff member. Then we worked our way up to a desk for each one. And after quite a while we got to the point where everyone also had a telephone. We spent a lot of time the first few months looking for other office space in the Moscow area. We were offered Stalin’s dacha compound by a Russian official, but decided the optics of having the AID assistance program in Stalin’s dacha might cause talk. Eventually we did get all the floors in the on compound building and a new building for several of the agencies was finally built on the compound and we moved into that.

“It was essential that we had to be thinking about what it made sense to do.”

Strategic Planning: At the beginning we were actually forbidden by the State Department to do any strategic planning. . . . On the basis of two things. One, there was the idea Russia would be a quick in and out program. So, you didn’t need strategy. And, second, if AID did prepare a strategy, it was just a hidden vehicle for a long-term presence. So that was not helpful. But, obviously, it was essential that we had to be thinking about what it made sense to do. . . .

Q: While pretending not to. Exactly.

NORRIS: And, fortunately, that didn’t last for too long, but it lasted long enough to be very awkward. But, during the first two years I was there, on the whole there was broad enough support for the program in Congress and the administration, and the budgets were sufficient for us to be able to respond quite robustly to reform opportunities that developed. So we could not only provide advisory support, but also fund pilot programs that laid the basis for the Russians to roll out significant programs leading to systemic change.

“AID looks at a development situation and we ask ourselves what is important in terms of transforming this economy and society.”

Making Meaningful Change: You know, AID looks at a development situation and we ask ourselves what is important in terms of transforming this economy and society. . . . The trick to proceeding usefully in Russia, and this is the case in any developing country. What is important to change and to support in this country? Who can we work with in those areas? And where are the targets of opportunity that we can bring our resources to bear on?

I think it is true that everyone would have been better served if the people who were advising and recommending macro policy changes, which God knows was not the AID mission, had a longer-term presence in Russia. If we had had long term advisors work with the Russians on a day to day basis, rather than deputy secretaries of the treasury coming in for a week every six months. . .That is just not the way you do it. You have got to get intimately involved in what is happening on a day to day basis and help manage it from that perspective.

U.S. Agency for International Development (Seal) (2020) | USAID
U.S. Agency for International Development (Seal) (2020) | USAID

The Strategic Use of AID: The less AID is seen as associated with U.S. short term political objectives and interests, the easier it is for us to be effective in supporting long term U.S. objectives. That worked very well in Bangladesh and very well in Pakistan where, while obviously the host countries knew AID was part of the U.S. government—we were not hiding that—they saw us as really almost exclusively interested in their developmental problems. So, you could establish a professional relationship and you could interact with them as professionals on developmental issues. As a result, AID had a much greater impact than would otherwise be the case. You also could come to an understanding of issues that could be very useful to the State Department as background. But you only get that when you are not seen as a short-term arm of U.S. political objectives. That is a problem.

It is certainly true that AID’s justification for a long time was that we were perceived to be helping to win the Cold War. In addition, just as ambassadors are interested in what are the immediate foreign policy issues, Congressmen are interested in what they should be doing to get elected in two years or less. Neither of those perspectives relates very much to long term strategic development programs. I do think right now there is more of an appreciation of AID’s role. . . . I mean, one can only hope that in some fashion there will be an understanding that development is something that is important to stability in the long term.

Q: Right. We have a stake in it.

NORRIS: And for that reason it is worth supporting. There needs to also be recognition that while we can do things as well or better than anybody else that has a short term impact, that is really not developmental. I mean humanitarian assistance is short term and can be very important. It is obvious that to benefit from development people have to be alive. If they are starving to death there is no use talking about the long term. But the long term does require programs that are focused on systemic change. That takes decades.


B.S. in Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1955-1959
PhD in Chemistry, University of California
Postdoctoral in Chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
M.A. in Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1963-1965
Joined the Foreign Service 1965
USAID/Egypt—Program Economist 1976-1980
USAID/Bangladesh—Mission Director 1982-1984
USAID/Pakistan—Mission Director 1988-1992
USAID/Russia—Mission Director 1992-1996