Testimony of Ambassador John O’Keefe, Executive Director, Open World Leadership Center For the Legislative Branch Subcommittee Of the Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate and House of Representatives, Fiscal Year 2017
“Since participating in Open World as a journalist several years ago, I have often referred to the lessons learned and best practices that were demonstrated during my program. As Head of the Parliamentary Committee on Preventing and Combatting Corruption, I remember well that most of the Americans I've met believed they can achieve anything they want. Open World's network of alumni in Ukraine consists of a new generation of Ukrainians working to improve their country and fight corruption in these trying times. I hope that Congress continues this program as it is important for Ukraine.”
Members of the Subcommittees, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony for the record on the Open World Leadership Center. Congressional participation in our programs and on our governing board has made Open World a uniquely qualified instrument for Members and their constituents and for communities across America. All of us at Open World are deeply grateful for your support.
By the close of 2015, the Open World Leadership Center (the Center or Open World) had brought more than 25,000 young and emerging leaders from 19 countries. These talented and engaged political and civic leaders were hosted in all fifty states by nearly 8,000 families in some 2,300 communities across the United States.
As a U.S. Legislative Branch entity, Open World actively supports the foreign relations role and efforts of Congress by linking delegates to Members and their enthusiastic constituents throughout the United States who are engaged in projects and programs in Open World countries. The Open World program routinely involves Members in its hosting activities with more than eighty percent of delegates meeting with Members of Congress or their staff representatives last year.
The Center also regularly consults with the Commission of Security and Cooperation in Europe, the House Democracy Partnership, the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, the Senate Ukraine Caucus, the Albania Issues Caucus, Congressional Serbian Caucus, the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans, the Friends of Kazakhstan Caucus, the Congressional Caucus on Central Asia, the Congressional Mongolia Caucus, other Congressional entities, and individual Members with specific interests in Open World countries or thematic areas.
Open World Activities in 2015 and Plans for 2016
In 2015, the Open World program included fourteen participating countries and 864 emerging leaders who were able to benefit from direct exposure to the workings of the United States Congress; to understand the impact of legislation on all aspects of society; and to experience the robust and dynamic democracy and free market system that exists in the U.S. and makes up its form of federalism. Also of significance is that these Open World participants broke bread with their American counterparts, woke up in an American household and saw families/children getting ready for work/school. They witnessed social activism, a free and aggressive media, and the incredible volunteerism that makes up this great country.
Following is a country by country review of the fourteen nations that participated in Open World in 2015 and for which programming is planned for 2016. Open World is conducting programs in 2016 in support of the House Democracy Partnership, and at the direction of the Board has expanded its potential participating countries by 12 additional countries
Russia – Open World continues to implement one of the last remaining exchange opportunities in Russia. It has been able to operate effectively in Russia because Open World is outside the realm of executive branch politics and widely accepted by the Russian people. While Open World has had to limit its capacity in Russia due to budget constraints and limitations on the kind of delegates we can bring due to a Russian law and U.S. policy that regulates the travel of Russian government officials/civil servants, the demand for the Open World program in Russia could easily accommodate another one hundred travelers or more. At this critical time in U.S.- Russian relations, with a virtual shutdown of technical assistance programs, western donor operations, and many bi- and multi-lateral opportunities for the Russian people to interact with their colleagues in open and free forums, Open World has proven to provide critical access to reform minded citizens. Even those that are somewhat hardened are still willing to listen and see for themselves what is available and attainable in an open, transparent and democratic society with free markets, a fiercely independent media, and a legal system that provides a level playing field to its citizens and to foreigners.
Dan Nolan, Petrozavodsk Committee Chair in Duluth, MN, noted the importance of continuing a close relationship with our friends and colleagues in Petrozavodsk at a time when they feel very isolated due to foreign sanctions. "The work we have accomplished together in the past few years in the areas of reducing child abuse and domestic violence is too important to be sidelined by political differences," he stated. "Now, more than ever, we must work to stay connected."
In 2015, Open World fielded 264 Russian participants from a majority of its 83 regions. The 2016 Russian cohort is expected to be some 240 travelers. The delegates represent all of Russia from the European land mass, to the rough and beautiful North Caucasus, to the Eurasian Steppe, and the enormous open spaces of Siberia and the Russian Far East and North. Much of our Russian programming is aimed at fostering existing partnerships, such as sister city relationships or partner Rotary clubs, and each year’s program includes two large delegations from the Moscow School of Civic Education which is hosted by their American partner, Supporters of Civil Society in Russia. Open World’s Russia programming is aimed at “non-controversial” themes and seeks to foster and strengthen partnerships and encourages self-sustaining professional ties and connections. These themes include women entrepreneurs, ethnic minorities, environment, energy (and energy efficiency/alternate energy), agriculture, social issues, and some governance, media, and think tank programming.
To illustrate the impact of Open World programming in Russia, it might be best for a delegate to speak about his impressions:
As for the lessons of civil wisdom that I learned . . . they certainly inspired and encouraged me! I always believed that there must be a society that does not tolerate lies, does not subdue memory, but fights for the facts and the right to one's own opinion. . . Yes, it is a battle that meets with varying degrees of success; yes, not everyone cares about it; yes, there are kinks to work out. But this society is alive, real, strong!
In addition, Open World Russia alumni are well-integrated into U.S. Embassy follow-on programming such as the Peer-to-Peer program, and Open World alumni and their American partners have been successful recipients of funding for their joint projects, such as the one between Syktyvkar State University and the Montana School for Deaf and Blind on a project called the “The Socialization of Children with Visual Impairments in Special Education.” The project includes site visits for Russian and American teachers and students, regular on-line video conferences, live streaming events, the development of manuals on the education of blind children, and competitions in both schools called “Hello America” and “Hello Russia.”
In summary, the words of an alumna who is a well-regarded journalist in the Northern Karelian republic say it best:
My main impression from the trip is that we do have much in common: similar emotions and problems, our aspiration to lead a better life, our ethical values, and our desire to get to know one another better. It is at least unreasonable to doubt the use of cultural exchanges. Every nation has something it can be proud of, and this is what can and should be borrowed for the benefit of your own country.
This came from an article the alumna wrote following her program in Hendersonville, NC titled “My Discovery of America.”
Ukraine – In response to events in recent years in Ukraine, Open World has more than doubled its Ukraine program. The Center regularly works with U.S. Ambassador Pyatt and his team, and consults with the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus, the Senate Ukrainian Caucus, and other key stakeholders to design programming that is responsive to the needs of the Ukrainian people. Recent alumni are among a new generation of leadership that is working passionately to make Ukraine a country that is economically sound and that can readily integrate into the European Union and the Western community of free nations. Program themes over the past two years have included legislator to legislator programming, accountable governance, decentralization, anti-corruption, energy efficiency and alternate energy development, independent media, social issues (with concentration on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and serving Internally Displaced Persons), agriculture, and education and innovation.
In addition to having Open World alumni rising in the ranks, including those in the top leadership, Ukraine’s leading reform bodies like the Committee on Preventing and Combating Corruption of the Parliament, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and many leading civil activists groups, Open World alumni are frequent recipients of competitive grants from the U.S. Mission in Ukraine so that they can build on the experiences they had while in the United States. Such projects have been focused on e-governance, promoting a positive image for Ukraine, and providing support for those disabled, those suffering PTSD, and internally displaced persons resulting from the war in the East and in Crimea. In the last two years, Open World alumni have been awarded seventeen grants from the U.S. Mission in Ukraine to conduct follow up activity based on their Open World program.
Illustrating the courage and depth of Open World alumni in Ukraine, one alumnus, who is now the Deputy Minister for Education, widely publicized a recent attempt to bribe him by the Rector of a University that wanted him to cover up serious violations of academic ethics such as fake grading. The Deputy Minister reported this bribe attempt to the newly created National Anti-Corruption Bureau’s Oversight Council, on which sits three additional Open World alumni. The Deputy Minister praised Open World and said:
“Participation in Open World provided me with the opportunity to see first-hand how transparency in higher education works. The program inspired me to fight against corruption in my work and provided me with the tools and resolve to work to improve my country. Open World alumni have risen to key positions in the Ministry of Education and Science and are proud of their work in reforming this crucial sector for Ukraine’s successful development.”
Armenia – A delegation of deputy mayors and a government media representative from southern Armenia were hosted in 2015 for a program concentrating on freedom of information law, transparency, and democratic governance with an emphasis on municipal government in an effort to promote capacity building, economic development, and democratic values in Southern Armenia.
Three Armenian delegations are planned for 2016. A delegation of young judges will observe American law practices in Detroit, MI. Elected officials, government specialists, and NGO leaders will see how the United States has worked to build an inclusive society that respects and values Americans with disabilities in a social-inclusion program in Cambridge, MA. In anticipation of parliamentary elections in 2017 and presidential elections in 2018, Open World will host Young Armenian political leaders from various parties to study youth’s role in the U.S. elections and political/elections processes in Granada Hills, CA.
Azerbaijan – In 2015, Open World brought three delegations of emerging leaders to collaborate with their American counterparts and to gain first-hand exposure to American democratic governance and the working of the free market. Farmers from Azerbaijan visited with agricultural enterprises in the state of Iowa, specialists dealing in the fight against trafficking in persons met with their counterparts in Pittsburgh, and specialists who work with internally displaced persons met with their counterparts in Buffalo, NY. In 2016, Open World plans to bring three more delegations from Azerbaijan. For one delegation, Open World programming will address that country’s deteriorating civil rights situation by: bringing defense lawyers, legal experts, and representatives of the Azerbaijani Collegium of Advocates to meet with their American peers. Other programs will concentrate on the need for economic diversification in Azerbaijan through a program on entrepreneurship and tourism management, and the lack of practical experience in school management through a program focused on secondary and higher education administration in response to Azerbaijan’s recently developed strategy for educational reform.
Estonia – Since 2013, Open World has hosted a delegation of Estonian judges and prosecutors each year through our judge to judge program in an effort to promote international judicial relations and best practices in the judicial systems of both of our countries. In 2015, the Estonian delegation was hosted by U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. in Columbus, Ohio. The April 2016 Estonian delegation will be hosted in Raleigh, N.C. by Judge Allyson K. Duncan of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Judge Duncan is also the Chair of the International Judicial Relations Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, Open World’s key partner in its rule of law programming.
Georgia – Open World hosted seven delegations from Georgia in 2015. Their programs included such themes as legislature to legislature development, inter-ethnic cooperation, rule of law, municipal development and the use of public space, and higher education administration. One highlight of the 2015 program is that the Chicago host of the inter-ethnic cooperation program that took place in Chicago was able to receive U.S. government funding to visit in Georgia with his 2014 religious tolerance and 2015 inter-ethnic cooperation delegations to follow up on their programming and establish long-lasting ties. In 2016, Open World’s Georgia program will feature legislature to legislature programming, role of civil society in promoting accountable governance, and inter-ethnic cooperation. Open World also intends to host a diverse group of young parliamentarians from Georgia in the Fall of 2016, following that country’s Parliamentary elections.
Kazakhstan – Open World hosted seven delegations from Kazakhstan in 2015, including programming in the themes of environmental protection, energy efficiency and green technologies, consumer protection, entrepreneurship, and mediation and arbitration. Looking ahead to 2016, Open World is planning to host another seven delegations. Themes include: entrepreneurship in small towns, makers paces, access to information/use of social media, building capacity in civil society, and nonproliferation. We also intend to bring a delegation of members of Parliament from Kazakhstan in program year 2016 once the planned March elections take place. The 2016 Makerspaces group will highlight sister city relations between the cities of Arvada, Colorado and Kyzylorda and the entrepreneurship program will highlight partner relations between Mauston, WI and Pavlodar. The relationship developed as a result of Open World between Mauston and Pavlodar has resulted in several self-funded follow-on visits from Wisconsin to Kazakhstan and from Kazakhstan to Wisconsin. For example, the host in Mauston is now the co-chair of the Leadership Wisconsin International Seminar that is going to Kazakhstan for their International Seminar in March of 2016.
Kosovo – Open World welcomed five delegations from Kosovo in 2015. The groups included Members of the Parliament of Kosovo, young women leaders, and specialists in agro-business and municipal development. Open World is planning to host at least four delegations in 2016. The planned themes are promoting/attracting investment, government transparency/access to public information, technology and e-government against corruption, and preventing domestic violence.
Kyrgyzstan – Open World hosted eight delegations from Kyrgyzstan in 2015, including parliamentary staffers, women leaders in science and technology, legal/judicial professionals, and specialists in business mentoring, border security, and water management. Open World’s 2016 Kyrgyzstan program will consist of five delegations. These programs will include a delegation of Members of Parliament, and delegations looking at the role of local legislators/staff, civil society oversight/public finance, young entrepreneurs, and water irrigation/dry climate. Our April 2015 delegation in Colorado Springs, the sister city of Bishkek, was able to get first-hand experience with modern irrigation methods, crop production and water law issues, and the Helena, MT-bound 2016 dry climate delegation will further explore these critical issues. Open World’s ongoing relationship with the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan has resulted in that legislative body’s sharing their experiences with the students of Kyrgyzstan by hosting students from cities and villages throughout the country in the Parliament. According to a Parliamentary staffer who is an alumnus “they took the idea from the U.S. Capitol staff on how to work with citizens and cooperate with the general population . . . These students represented no less than 20 ethnic origins.” In addition, Open World parliamentary alumni in Kyrgyzstan have managed internships for Model Parliament students from throughout Kyrgyzstan.
Moldova – Open World hosted four Moldovan delegations in 2015. In April, one group observed the marketing of produce through producer organizations in San Francisco, while another learned best practices for combatting international crime in Reno, NV. In September, a delegation of nurses visited Greensboro, NC and was able to gain useful knowledge and experience at various nursing schools, health centers and geriatric facilities to share with their colleagues in Moldova. Also, in September, a delegation of young analysts worked with their colleagues in San Diego to explore various methods of successful economic analyses. Open World currently has no plan to host delegations from Moldova in 2016 due to budget constraints and the cost of programming in that country.
Mongolia – In 2015, Open World hosted two delegations of judges from Mongolia. Open World has already hosted a delegation of members of Parliament from Mongolia early this year, and plans to host two more delegations of judges from Mongolia in 2016.
Serbia – Open World hosted twelve Serbian delegations in 2015, specializing in areas such as policy development, sustainable agriculture, media businesses and youth innovation. Open World plans to host two delegations of judges from Serbia in 2016, and has already hosted a delegation of members of the Serbian Parliament.
Tajikistan – Eight Tajik delegations, specializing in areas such as e-governance and transparency, health care for women, domestic violence, youth empowerment, and legal defense advocacy, were hosted in 2015. Open World has already hosted one delegation of women entrepreneurs from Tajikistan in 2016, and plans to conduct programming for four more delegations in themes that include sports for at-risk youth, eco-tourism, youth in civil society, and women in border security.
Turkmenistan – With great support from the U.S. Mission in Turkmenistan, Open World was able to host a delegation from Turkmenistan in 2015. The delegation consisted of specialists in tourism management and was hosted in St. Louis. Open World plans to host at three delegations from Turkmenistan in 2016 in the themes of water management, earthquake/fire management, and library services.
While the above country program descriptions provide an overview of the incredible activity and goodwill fostered by Open World, below are some examples of the type of results and feedback that we continually receive from our constituent hosts and new friends and colleagues form our participating countries throughout Eurasia.
In February 2015, an Open World delegation was hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University. During their visit, the group visited the General Assembly, a variety of government agencies and public policy organizations, cultural sites such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Colonial Williamsburg, and a local TV news station covering the Super Tuesday presidential primary elections. The program is valuable because everyone – both the Ukrainians and the Americans – learn from the experience, said hosting committee member Jeff South, an associate professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies at the Robertson School. “As a member of the hosting committee, I personally learn more than I teach from the Open World visitors,” he said. “I learn about other models of government and that there are many things we could do to improve our democracy in Virginia and the rest of America. We also see the many things we have in common with people in Eastern Europe – a commitment to an open government that truly serves the people.”
Budget Request Summary
Open World spends its appropriation in two categories: Direct Program Costs and Administration Costs. Direct Program Costs includes: a logistical coordinator contract; grants to host organizations across the United States; Memoranda of Agreements with U. S. embassies in most of the Open World countries; and the salary and benefits of the Center’s D.C. and Moscow staff.
The Center’s fiscal year 2017 budget request breaks down as follows:
A. Direct Program — $ 5,550,000
1. Logistical Contract 1,900,000
2. Grants/Other Hosting Costs 2,300,000
3. Embassy Agreements 875,000
4. Salary/Benefits (Program staff) 475,000
The logistical services contract with a Washington-based NGO is the single largest expenditure at Open World. This contractor is responsible for coordinating the delegate nomination and vetting process and is tasked with obtaining visas and other travel documents; arranging and purchasing airfare; planning and executing the two-day D.C. orientation, and coordinating with grantees and placing delegates in American host cities, among a host of other duties.
Grants/Other Hosting Costs refer to national and local hosting organizations (such as Rotary Club, Friendship Force International, and community colleges) that plan and execute an 8-day local program for each delegation.
B. Administration — $ 388,000
1. Salary/Benefits (Admin Staff) 275,000
2. Other Admin Operating Expenses 113,000
The salaries/benefits of the Executive Director, the Deputy Executive Director, and the Outreach Officers are included in this category. It also includes an interagency agreement with the Library of Congress for infrastructure services, small contracts for professional services, postage, telephone, cell phones, and office supplies and materials. The Center benefits from lower administrative costs due to its physical location in the Library of Congress. Finally, agreements with other agencies for infrastructure services or for printing, webhosting, or graphic design are included here.
TOTAL BUDGET: $5,938,000
The good news is that the Center has learned the art of doing more with less. While working under shrinking budgets has its challenges, the Center’s response to this series of cuts is to work harder at finding savings and increasing cost shares. As an example, two years ago, the Center changed the way that interpretation costs are covered in the program which yielded us an astonishing estimated $250,000 in savings due to the elimination of any indirect cost being applied to the total as well as more efficient handling of the interpretation pool.
Another important source of savings was in engaging with the U.S. embassies of Open World countries as much as possible. This eliminates the cost of logistical support we are paying in our more expensive big contract.
Finally, for every dollar in grants awarded, the Center receives matching cost shares dollar for dollar, with the 2015 estimate looking like it will hit $2.3 million. Meanwhile, to emphasize our successful efforts from working closely with each grantee to arrive at the fairest budget possible, the demand for Open World delegations remains at a high of four slots requested for every one slot available.
With careful management we can proudly claim that for every appropriated dollar received, we have been able to leverage that dollar by an additional 35% which makes it possible to continue providing dynamic, current and relevant, and high quality programming this fiscal year.
Open World offers Congress an extraordinary “bang for the buck” as well as deep commitment to being a model agency dedicated to the most efficient and cost-effective use of its resources. The Center’s overhead rate has remained a steady 7 percent in large part due to the steadfast pursuit of savings and cost shares while maintaining diligent fiscal stewardship. All the while the Center never compromises program quality.
Open World employs best practices in an effort to achieve the most cost-efficient and effective means to accomplish our mission. Early on, Open World established internal controls to ensure program quality, including pre- and post-program report follow-up, weekly teleconferencing with our logistical contractor, and regular contact with grantees and local hosts. Open World also uses a zero-based budget approach to every contract, every grant budget, as well as our annual operating budget.
Furthermore, Open World actively seeks cost-sharing partnerships with other government initiatives whose missions complement ours. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Energy, the Department of State, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the U.S. embassies in Armenia, Kosovo, Mongolia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan have all joined with the Open World Leadership Center in directly funding a number of delegations.
Funding at the requested level of $5.8 million will enable Open World to fully respond to Congressional interests in the region and beyond while continuing our proven mission of hosting young political and civic leaders who return home to launch projects and programs in cooperation with their American counterparts and hosts. The Board of Trustees believes that maintaining a robust grassroots-based Open World presence in the region is necessary and important for future U.S. relations in these politically significant countries.