Russ Webster (MPA ’81) has had a long and successful career in international development, his work has taken him all over the world from volunteering in Bangladesh, working with local governments in the former Soviet Union, and to rural Zimbabwe. Russ is from St. Louis, Michigan, a small town at the geographic center of the state and received a BA in philosophy at Albion College in 1976. After spending a year in Germany he returned to Michigan and enrolled in the Masters of Public Administration program at MSU where he focused on agricultural economics and rural development administration. Within a month after graduation, he moved to Bangladesh to volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee, the development organization of the church. His work in Bangladesh as MCC’s Agriculture Program Director was aimed at helping rural poor get access to the means of production for agricultural projects. Later he moved into microfinance aimed at increasing the capacity of small businesses and expanding access to resources. While working in this area he had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, pioneer of microfinance and the founder of the Grameen Bank. Russ’s policy training helped him work on improving the relationships between local governments and small businesses. He worked with small businesses to encourage them to join the formal market and pay taxes, while simultaneously working with governments to improve regulations to make businesses more willing to join the formal market.
In 1984 Russ moved to Washington DC where he began expanding his consulting career in governance and economic growth with several USAID implementing partners. Russ presently serves as Vice President of Program Development at CNFA, a non-profit that focuses on food security and helping the private sector be effective in agriculture. A current project in Zimbabwe typifies the kind of work Russ’ organization does: building new social, cultural and economic relationships among farmers, traditional leaders, local government officials, and private businesses to improve livestock production and nutrition. Russ believes that development projects cannot exist in isolation, so he focuses on raising the standards of the relationship between the private sector and the government in order to create a level playing field for private businesses. He has written on the topic in a chapter titled “Corruption and the Private Sector” in the book Fighting Corruption in Developing Countries: Strategies and Analyses (Kumarian Press, 2005)
One anecdote from his consulting experience took place in a former Soviet Bloc country where he was advising the government on aspects of its program towards gaining membership into the European Union. Russ was advising a public official in the former Soviet Bloc country in the ministry of public works who was part of the opposition party working on improving the method for determining how to invest capital in improvement projects. The current system heavily favored areas controlled by the ruling party, resulting in little investment in areas where the opposition held office. The reforms focused on making the system more transparent for the public allowing the public to follow proposals through the system. As they were making progress in improving this system of developing capital improvement projects, the official was abruptly reassigned by the ruling party, undermining the reform process.
Russ stresses that there can be a productive tension between the public and private sector in development. The public sector needs to provide clarity and transparency when creating regulations and partnerships with small businesses but this partnership should always have some tension which can lead to innovation. While at MSU, Russ learned the dynamics of the roles of the public and private sectors in promoting development. His academic training provided him with an understanding of the role of an effective government and how important that role is in development, and these lessons were reinforced in his experience around the world.
Russ has also been invited on numerous occasions to meet with young professionals and speak on international development as a career. What he always advises is to appreciate that everyone’s path is different – the only formula is work hard, listen, communicate well, share your ideas, and be a team player. He’s open to chatting with MSU grads who visit DC about their interests and experience. He’ll even buy the first cup of coffee.