Testimonial of Fiscal Year 2024

Chairman Valadao, Ranking Member Espaillat and Members of the Subcommittees, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony for the record on the Congressional Office for International Leadership (the Office, COIL). Congressional participation on our governing board and in our programs has made the Office uniquely qualified to support Members’ conduct of Congressional diplomacy and to serve Members, their constituents and communities across America. All of us at the Office are deeply grateful for your support.

I appreciate the opportunity to testify on behalf of the Congressional Office for International Leadership. The Office administers the Open World program, which is a legislative branch program that has brought international leaders to the United States since 1999. Our program is dedicated to engaging rising leaders from post-Soviet countries, and to building mutual understanding and informal networks between our nations. Since then, we’ve responded to congressional interest and have expanded to 24 countries throughout Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, bringing hundreds of delegates annually to meet their professional counterparts across the United States. 


Our program is centered on the American community – showing Open World program delegates how Americans work and live for ten days. COIL coordinates with on-the-ground partners in each participating country to nominate young, rising leaders in the thematic area of the program. Once selected, the delegates visit the United States for ten days. Two days are spent in Washington, DC, where experts introduce concepts of American culture, history, and civics, and delegates meet with Members of Congress and their staff. The meetings are generally arranged around common issues – their constituency, their committee assignments, and their approach to government. The balance of the program is spent in a host community, where a local grantee arranges a rigorous professional program during the day, centered around the theme of the delegation. A unique feature of the Open World program is that participants stay in the homes of the local community, gaining an intimate view of the lives of their American colleagues. Our experience has determined that this model, of bringing together Americans and their peers, is an extremely effective way of building a successful program, and a network that supports both professional and social connections that stand the test of time, and lead to notable results that improve lives both at home and abroad.

Serving Member Interests

COIL’s mission is centered on its service to the Congress and seeks to support the legislature however it may through the Open World program. What started as the Russian Leadership Program in 1999 has now expanded to 24 active country programs through the process of congressional requests. Our programming closely adheres to the concerns and priorities of the Members, and we frequently add program themes to track ongoing challenges that the United States faces. Our Baltic countries feature strong cybersecurity programs as their infrastructure, as well as ours, is challenged by malicious digital actors. Concerns over security and trade issues related to an increasingly aggressive China resulted in our Indo-Pacific parliamentary program, which will encompass five key regional players by FY2025. COIL, and its Open World program, exist as a means of delivering poignant, unfiltered information directly to the decision-makers on Capitol Hill.

Benefit to American Communities

The Open World program has worked with local partners to host delegates in over 3,000 communities in every state across America. The program has broad appeal, and demand is so great that the agency can only accommodate 25% of all proposals yearly. Local organizations like Rotary clubs, world affairs councils, and community colleges host programming year after year, encouraged by building relationships with interesting delegates, pride in their community, and a modest but important revenue stream. As a program that is proudly American, nearly all appropriated funds are spent in the United States – reinvesting American dollars into American communities.

Strengthening Constituent Collaboration with Open World Countries

COIL’s programming leads to tangible benefits for American communities, and lasting partnerships with the agency’s 30,000 strong alumni network. After returning home, Open World delegates advocated for the creation of a sister city partnership between Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Ferizaj, Kosovo; worked with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to develop a medical scholarship for Ukrainians; formed a research collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, and much more. Host families frequently engage in reciprocal travel, maintain correspondence with their visitors, and develop projects together. One delegate even helped rescue an American Open World contact’s extended family in Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2022. The bonds created on the program are durable and enriching. Below, quotes from a variety of Open World hosts are included, discussing the importance of the program to themselves and their locality.

Regional Update: Poland

Since COIL’s first delegation from Poland in September 2022, 72 participants have travelled to

the United States on the Open World program. In October 2023, three of those alumni we reelected to the Sejm (parliament) for the first time, representing a new generation of Polish leadership.

“The Open World program is a critical effort that demonstrates Congress’

commitment to spreading the values of legislative democracies to countries

shedding the yoke of their communist pasts. Through its unique exchange of

like-minded leaders, the program develops relationships and networks among

Liberty’s champions around the world," said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur

(OH-09), co-founder and co-chair of both the Congressional Ukraine and

Congressional Poland Caucuses. "This exchange is critical as the next

generation of democratic leaders takes the reins to advance the edge of

freedom in their countries as demonstrated by election of three Open World

alumni to Poland’s Parliament in the recent and historic national election.

Having hosted Open World participants, Northern Ohio has witnessed the

power of this exchange firsthand, and I wish the program and its newest

exchange members continued success for the security of democracies around

the world.”

COIL’s mission to bring rising leaders and build relationships between countries is clearly enabled by a robust nominating network in Central Europe. In 2024, COIL will host the inaugural Open World delegation from the Polish parliament, representing a further institutionalization of connections between Congress and the Sejm. Going forward, the agency plans to work closely with the U.S. Embassies in the region to maintain robust, relevant programming focused on supporting the rule of law and civil society, as well as building bilateral parliamentary relationships.

Regional Update: Indo-Pacific

COIL’s Indo-Pacific program just completed its second year. To date, COIL has hosted two delegations of Parliamentarians from Papua New Guinea, one delegation of Members of the National Assembly and one delegation of parliamentary staff from Vietnam, and one delegation of Judges from Indonesia. In 2024, COIL looks to build on momentum in Vietnam by hosting another delegation of Members of Parliament, while hosting the first delegation of Members of Parliament from Indonesia, and the first delegation of Members of Parliament from Vanuatu, further expanding COIL’s footprint among the Pacific Islands.

During the 2023 program for Members of Parliament from Papua New Guinea, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament noted that the group was very impressed by the system of government in the U.S. and their view of federalism. The Deputy Speaker even recommended inviting a U.S. expert on federalism to Papua New Guinea to conduct a series of lectures and seminars as the country is currently undergoing a constitutional review on the form and system of government. Furthermore, one of the MPs participating who is also Minister for Community Development, Religion and Youth was so impressed by a meeting with the Nevada Youth Legislature on ways to creatively involve the youth in PNG and how such a leadership program can shape society that he has made mirroring a similar program under his ministry a priority upon his return to Papua New Guinea.

Regional Update: Ukraine

Since the start of the war in February 2022, COIL has hosted some 300 Ukrainians that are playing key roles in informing Members of the U.S. Congress of the situation in Ukraine, treating the wounded, supporting anti-corruption efforts, investigating war crimes, and preparing Ukraine for reconstruction after victory. COIL is proud of the partnerships it has developed with the legislatures, leading military/humanitarian aid organizations, and local communities of both Ukraine and the United States.

As part of this programming, in November 2023, COIL hosted three delegations of polytrauma specialists bound for medical facilities in across the United States, including six Nelson Fellows bound for the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in Omaha. Due to this visit, UNMC has announced a funded scholarship for Ukrainian medical professionals to earn a certificate or master’s degree in emergency preparedness. One of the delegates, a key figure working on the psychological rehabilitation of war veterans, said the visit gave the delegation a different angle to look at the world. She described UNMC’s attitude as humane and focused on positive values, support, and protection. “The importance of this experience is tremendous,” she said. “People are getting killed, and destruction is inflicted upon institutions, including medical institutions and many other places.” UNMC’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Engagement said “We learned so much from them, and I know that they’ve learned a lot from us, and that’s really the value of doing this . . . It’s been heartbreaking to hear their stories and to learn how much they work and dedicate their own volunteer time to their country.”

COIL’s parliamentary programming for Ukraine has provided Ukrainian MPs, two of whom serve in the Special Forces, the opportunity to disseminate firsthand information to U.S. lawmakers and other key stakeholders. They met with more than 100 Members of Congress to discuss timely issues, such as the status of U.S. supplied weaponry and other defensive and offensive capabilities. COIL supports a strong rule of law program, working with the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group to conduct a day of Congressional meetings for a Ukrainian delegation of prosecutors and investigators.

Regional Update: Balkans

COIL launched its first-ever regional programming in 2023 where delegations included participants from multiple countries. The inaugural regional delegation from the Balkans focused on Museum Management and was hosted in conjunction with the Field Museum and World Chicago in Illinois. Following the success of the first delegation, COIL initiated another regional exchange, this time with the theme of Investigative Journalism. Each of the delegations included participants from Kosovo, Serbia, and North Macedonia, reflecting strong collaboration between the Office and Open World embassies. Participants from Kosovo who participated on the regional program focusing on investigative journalism reported that they appreciated the opportunity to exchange points of view with other journalists from the region and share best practices. They also mentioned that the program encouraged cooperation across borders. In 2024, COIL will sponsor additional events in each Balkan country to multiply the impact of our programming by facilitating further dialogue among alumni on a variety of pressing issues. With the success of these delegations, we look forward to continuing our regional program for the Balkans and launching a regional program for Central Asia in 2024. In FY2025, we hope to further expand the regional programming model to other areas where we conduct the Open World program.

Regional Update: Baltics

As part of the Helping the Helpers initiative, COIL expanded its Baltic programming to include all three Baltic countries in 2023. The inclusion of these critical nations in the Open World program offers Congressional leaders’ direct opportunities to discuss key issues such as the war in Ukraine and an increasingly aggressive China.

During travel to Estonia in October 2021, COIL Executive Director Jane Sargus was introduced by the U.S. Embassy in Estonia to the leadership of the Estonia Riigikogu (Parliament)-U.S. Parliamentary group. Resulting from this meeting and in response to a 12-Member CODEL to Estonia in 2021, COIL hosted a delegation of four emerging leaders of Estonia’s Parliament in November 2023. During their program in D.C., the parliamentarians met with Members of Congress, attended hearings on Arctic strategy, and visited the U.S. State Department. In 2024, Estonia will have three programs: Transparency in Governance, Municipal Leadership and Community Engagement, and Green Solutions for Cities and Local Communities.

COIL initiated its Open World program in Latvia in 2023 with two delegations: one on civic participation and another on inclusivity. According to the U.S. Mission in Latvia, “the exchange has helped strengthen existing professional contacts in the U.S. to develop collaboration with the American partners. It was also very useful to develop contacts between delegation members, as they have already arranged meetings through these contacts, specifically on developing sunshine laws – laws that require certain businesses and government agencies to maintain transparency and disclose their activities to the public.” In 2024, Latvia will have three programs: Judicial Rule of Law, Green Solutions for Cities and Local Communities, and cybersecurity.

COIL traces its programming in Lithuania to pilot programs run in the early 2000’s due to a request from Senator Richard Durbin (IL). With the onset of Russia’s war against Ukraine, COIL re-started its Lithuania program in March 2023, bringing delegations dedicated to inclusivity in education and civil advocacy. These programs have seen strong interest from American communities, with the US Embassy lauding the impact of the program on both delegates and hosts. COIL, responding to the progress made by the Lithuanian alumni, will have three programs in 2024: Regional and Municipal Leaders and Climate Change, Treating Victims of Sexual Violence/Trafficking in Persons, and Regional Journalism/Fighting Disinformation.

COIL’s Future

In a continually shifting geopolitical and socioeconomic landscape and Congress’ considerations along with it, COIL will continue to bring relevant, impactful delegations to brief Congress and to build relationships with ordinary Americans. With a fully funded budget in FY2025, we plan to expand our programming in the Indo-Pacific to heavily emphasize trade and security issues. The agency will also devote additional staff support to forming the critical partnerships and projects that become the legacy of the Open World program. COIL also will expand its regional model, bringing multinational delegations on common issues, giving programs a novel, holistic element to the common challenges that are discussed. Finally, COIL will increase the overall delegate count to counter the attrition caused by inflation over the past several years. This will allow the agency to connect with more host communities, and create a broader, stronger hosting base. Understanding the stewardship and responsibility that comes along with public funds, COIL has exercised cautious judgment about requesting an increase. FY2025 is the first time in 11 years that the agency has requested an appropriation above $6 million – despite cost saving measures, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain optimal operations. We respectfully request an increase of $1.2 million in FY2025.

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Quotes from Hosts

Sheila Offman Gersh, Lehman College, Bronx, New York

“I have been involved in Open World for about 8 years hosting young Eastern European professionals. Not only have these professionals been introduced to professionals related to their careers, but also to members of the local communities and in some cases, long lasting friendships. Lehman College recently hosted a group from Moldova where they were provided with expert information about their counseling program and how they prepare future counselors. This interaction was a “two-way” experience as Lehman College learned from the group and the group learned from Lehman College.

“Working with Open World has provided me with an outstanding experience of meeting young professionals from Eastern European countries. It’s always a highlight of my professional life to meet the outstanding delegates. I am so happy to be part of the Open World team.”

Judge Suzanne Mitchell, U.S. Magistrate Judge, OKC Rotary Club, Oklahoma

“Over the past decade, Oklahoma City and Rotary Club 29 have hosted delegations from Azerbaijan, Georgia, North Macedonia, and Armenia, to name a few. We have made lasting friendships, continuing correspondence via email and in person, as I was fortunate enough to visit Skopje and continue discussions with our Macedonian colleagues. Currently, we are in discussions to create a Sister City relationship between Oklahoma City and Yerevan. COIL’s programs inevitably lead to better understanding, lasting relationships, and unforeseen positive outcomes!”

John Kun, Vice President, U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, Falls Church, Virginia

“In early 2019, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation administered a Ukrainian “Renewal Energy”themed delegation. Ms. Oleksandra Tryboi was one of the Ukrainian delegates who was hosted by Ken and Sonja Ruffner, who reside just a few homes away from mine in Fairfax County, VA. Their bonds were very strong and in 2023, when Oleksandra and her family became refugees, it was the Ruffners who welcomed and sponsored her family’s pathway to the United States under the 2-year temporary Federal program, Uniting for Ukraine. 

“The Tryboi family resided with the Ruffners for about six months until they were able to find employment and suitable, affordable housing in Herndon, VA.”

Sherry Wileman, President, Friendship Force of Big Canoe/North Georgia, Georgia

“Our club has been fortunate to host 6 Open World (OW) delegations. The delegates always ask the hosts to visit them in their own country. Our club was able to respond “yes” to that invitation from the three delegations from the Republic of Georgia. The delegates arranged memorable experiences for us and proudly shared their accomplishments since returning from their visit with us. All repeatedly expressed their gratitude to the OW program and our club members. We believe the impact the OW program has on the delegates is one they will never forget. As hosts, we treasure the relationships with the young people who visited us.”

Carl Johnson, Kiwanis Club of Lansing, Kansas

“As recently as last week, 18 months after the delegation, I heard host families sharing news and details, (wedding, new babies, job promotions etc,) of the delegates they had hosted. News from the delegates suggest that their careers have advanced very rapidly following their return, in part, I am sure, because they are remarkable individuals, but I like to think also benefited by the experience with the U.S. District Court and the Kansas Court system and homestayst with Kansans.” 

Olya Czerkas, Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, Florida

“Americans have greatly benefited from the Ukrainian team’s visit to the United States. Medicine was advanced as professional contacts were established, medical care systems were reevaluated, the delegation presented on their methods of surgery and patient treatment, and the impact of weaponry on victims. There were also non-medical benefits to our organization; hosts observed cultural differences, learned Ukrainian life during the ongoing war, connected with interested political officials, and established relationships with three other local organizations during the visit.”

Elena Seitz, International Cultural Education Association, Illinois

“The impact of the Open World program on our subsequent activities has been enormous and strongly educational. I personally coordinated a program in Boston for university librarians. My mother was the head of a library in a small Belarusian town for 40 years, and I grew up surrounded by books. It was a blessing for me to get into the famous libraries of Harvard University, MIT, Boston Public Library, etc. This program influenced my future choice of activities.”

Excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.