Open World Alumni Aim to Boost Civil Society
Moscow Times (Moscow, Russia)
Posted on December 15, 2004
By Anna Smolchenko
|James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and an Open World trustee, speaking at the conference in Golitsyno last Friday.|
"What gives you the moral right to run for another term?" she had asked O'Malley, who was seeking re-election on the same day as U.S. President George W. Bush.
O'Malley had to give Ten, an NGO leader from Irkutsk on a civil society exchange in the week of the U.S. presidential election last month, a finger count of his reasons.
Ten's trip to Baltimore, organized as part of the U.S. Congress' Open World program and hosted by the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County, also took in the local Democratic Party headquarters, City Hall, The Baltimore Sun's editorial office and WYPR radio.
Ten said it was a chance to see the American political process up close, and although she had been to the States before, this visit was quite different. "This time, I discovered America for myself," she said by telephone earlier this week.
In Irkutsk, Ten heads the Yury Ten charity fund, named for her late husband, a three-term State Duma deputy for the city who started the fund eight years ago. Ten said she felt "lost" after he died last year, but that the Baltimore trip had helped to give her a new sense of purpose.
What struck her most, she said, were the concepts of food donation she learned at the Maryland Food Bank and charitable dinners organized by the Washington-based Women's Campaign Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps pro-choice women win political office.
"I never heard about charitable dinners in Irkutsk," she said, adding that she now plans to throw her own fundraiser to support disabled people in the city. "We have already done our math and calculated that 1,500 rubles [$50] would be realistic." Ten said she hoped to attract hundreds of local businesswomen to buy tickets.
Ten's Baltimore trip, which she took with four Russian women working in local government, came about through Open World, a U.S.-Russia program that was born as a result of a longtime friendship between two renowned historians: James Billington, librarian of the U.S. Congress and author of "The Icon and the Ax," and the late Dmitry Likhachyov, a key figure in Russian reforms in the 1990s who was a leading expert on the 12th-century literary classic from Kievan Rus, "The Lay of Prince Igor's Campaign."
In April 1999, Billington presented the idea of Open World to Congress, and the program was launched a month later. The U.S. legislature's only exchange program, it was designed to bring Russian civil society leaders to the United States to meet their American counterparts and give them firsthand experience of how American civil society works.
Open World is currently the only U.S. government program that allows Russian officials to go on exchange trips to the States. It focuses on leadership in seven areas: rule of law, the environment, health, youth issues, women as leaders, elections, and culture.
Since 1999, Open World has hosted more than 8,800 leaders from all of Russia's 89 regions who now continue cooperation through seminars, conferences and other activities. In 2003, the program expanded geographically to include Lithuania, Uzbekistan and Ukraine, and has so far hosted 285 leaders from these countries.
So far, Congress has appropriated a total of $64.5 million for the program.
The program is aimed at helping nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, which "pick up the functions that governments cannot or do not perform," said James Collins, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001 and a member of Open World's Board of Trustees, in remarks to an Open World conference in the Moscow region town of Golitsyno last Friday.
The event brought together program alumni from central Russia to discuss the prospects for Russian NGOs in the near future.
Hospital administrator Yevgeny Belyayev, one of the conference participants in a health workshop, hails from Vyshny Volochyok, a town of 88,000 in the Tver region. Last year he visited Clearwater, Florida, where he learned about the town's municipal health system and family medicine policy.
He came to Golitsyno to discuss substance abuse and ways to curb Russia's growing rate of HIV infection. In Vyshny Volochyok, 606 people have been diagnosed with HIV, with seven having already died of AIDS, Belyayev said, adding that "a huge traffic in drugs" is aggravating the problem.
Drug abuse is one of the many problems where the NGO sector can help the state, the conference participants said.
In Russia up to 6 million people are drug addicts, including 2 million heroin addicts, said Olga Bessolova, head of the Institute for Social and Gender Policy, in her presentation to the conference. A daily half-gram fix for each addict adds up to 1 ton of heroin consumed nationally, she said, adding that the State Duma has recently discussed these figures.
Bessolova said that tax laws on the nonprofit sector and charity do not encourage commercial activity by NGOs, while the government's contribution of 1.2 percent of NGOs' income is their smallest source of funding.
But while the problems facing Russian NGOs may appear daunting, the Open World alumni, with their can-do attitudes, may be one of Russia's greatest potential assets, said Geraldine Otremba, Open World's Washington-based executive director.
"Everyone who comes [to the United States] says, 'I wish I could stay longer, but I can't because I have to go back and get on with my work,'" Otremba told the Golitsyno conference. Compared to the rate of civil society development of many other countries, "Russian society is rocketing along," she said.
[Reprinted with Permission]