Testimony of Ms. Jane Sargus, 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 2019
Chairman Yoder, Ranking Member Ryan, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to provide written testimony on one of the most effective American exchange programs for countries in transition, the Open World Leadership Center.
A Resource: The Open World program stands as a unique resource for Congress. By linking rising leaders and key decision makers from Eurasia to Members of Congress, our delegates can convey both facts and context that help inform members. For example, in 2017, Ukrainian parliamentarians, representing four parties and all united as “Euro-optimists,” painted the current political atmosphere for the 16 members they met. Topics discussed touched on the challenges of fighting corruption, consequences of the war in Eastern Ukraine, the need for United States leadership to unify European and U.S. policy, and the information war with Russia. Multiply that series of conversations by the over 800 delegates that have met with Members, staff and your constituents, you can see that the Open World program provides unfiltered insights from rising leaders who are fully engaged in the political, economic, educational and other facets of their country’s development. Over 80% of our participants have met with Members or staff.
An Asset: While you might not at first think about the asset side of the balance sheet, we have 27,000 alumni in strategically important countries. Ambassador John Tefft, who recently finished his time as our Ambassador to the Russian Federation, noted that in his travels throughout this vast territory, it is Open World alumni that are more open to meeting with and talking to him. In a country of managed news, our nearly 20,000 alumni in all 83 regions of the Russian Federation carry a far different and more positive view of the United States despite the Russian media’s efforts to demonize us. And they have friends and a wide reach through social networks. Finally, the Open World program directly benefits your constituents. In 2017, the program placed delegations of young professionals in 47 states and 205 Congressional districts.
An Investment: As an investment, we are hard to beat. Our overhead runs consistently at or below 7%; our cost per participant is less than half that of similar Executive Branch programs; and our responsiveness to Congressional initiatives is quick and effective. For example, one Member believed we needed to focus more on legislators. Our Board agreed and the next year, we set an objective of 20% of participants coming from legislative bodies. We met that goal by bringing over 100 legislators and staff by the end of the year.
Why Legislative Branch: Our placement in the Legislative Branch allows us to engage people of influence from more closed countries who would otherwise avoid an Executive Branch program. A question that I hear every so often is, “Why is the Open World Leadership Center in the Legislative Branch?” The most compelling answer is simply that the placement in the Legislative Branch allows our program to engage influential, democracy-minded Russians and others from more closed countries – products of the Putin Generation looking for positive change – that would otherwise choose not to travel on an executive branch exchange. What better way to support Congress than by working in countries that do not have a tradition of open debate or legitimate opportunities to propose alternatives for government to take, than by making the citizenry more knowledgeable about the legislative process that will empower them to be a force for change?
In April of 2017 Open World hosted five in-demand Middle East specialists from Russia. They were blunt in telling us that they felt secure on our program, in large part due to its legislative branch identity. One expert wrote on Facebook that publishing his article was a “result of the recent trip to D.C. and a milestone in my career.” During the Open World program in Washington, DC, this delegate visited numerous high level think tanks and policy makers. In a joint statement the six delegates had this to say about their Open World program: “Open World appealed to the members of our delegation by being nonpartisan, politically neutral, and outside of executive branch politics. The program fosters a free, open, deep and meaningful exchange of ideas between peers.”
Equally important, our Board, the majority made up of Members of Congress, provides direction and calls on us for full accountability. That solid guidance allows us to be creative, cost conscious, and able to explore themes that more staid, convention-bound programs shy away from.
The Geo-Political Challenge: The Open World program focuses on assisting Congress in its oversight responsibilities and on conducting exchanges that establish lasting professional relationships between the up-and-coming leaders of Open World countries and Americans dedicated to showcasing U.S. values and democratic institutions. The Open World program brings emerging national and regional leaders to the United States to meet their American counterparts and gain firsthand knowledge of how American civil society works. This hands-on and close up look at our processes – and the people who run them – has a unique impact on our delegates. The Open World experience provides the impetus for improvement; delegates return home and set to work creating change based on the models they have seen.
The Power of Exchange: The elected officials and young professionals from across the former Soviet states and other countries who, thanks to Congress, come on the Open World program each year have seen the best of America up close and personal. They go back to their homes with an improved impression of our country and they share that positive impression with their friends, family, community, and professional counterparts. These are the people that go into elected office, run cities, teach the next generation, and craft the foreign policy that directly affects the United States. Like a tide, their influence is steady, persistent, and mostly unstoppable.
Front Line against Fake News and Anti-American Propaganda: The Open World program is a proven effective method of directly combatting anti-American disinformation and propaganda being disseminated out of Moscow into its neighboring states as well as into other countries via sophisticated and well-funded communications methods such as the RT television channel. In the four years since Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and the subsequent illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the world has seen undisputed evidence that Russian troll farms are blanketing airwaves and the Internet with stories designed to disrupt the news cycle. Through our embassy in Kyiv and other sources we find European-minded, anti-corruption activists and young Members of Parliament that see a great opportunity in participating in the Open World program.
Similar Russian tendencies are at play in Georgia and Moldova, both European Union-oriented governments and with regions mired in frozen conflicts with Russia. Open World directly engages Members of Parliament from both countries as well as their leading NGO and social services influencers.
Keeping Russia Close: U.S.-Russia relations continue to be strained. In fact, it is reminiscent of a time 18 years ago when our founder Librarian of Congress Emeritus Dr. James H. Billington grew increasingly concerned about our two country’s relations during the NATO action in Serbia and Kosovo. He envisioned a mini-Marshall Plan to keep goodwill strong at the grassroots level, when our diplomatic efforts were at a stalemate. Dr. Billington took his concerns not to the State Department, not to private international funders, but to Congress, to the Appropriations Committee, in fact, because it was his vision that a new model of exchange program would support the international oversight activities of U.S. legislators. The Committee and Congress agreed with Dr. Billington, in effect creating a new support agency for the Congress. In 1999, the nascent Open World program brought over 2,000 Russians to the United States for professional programming hosted by their American counterparts, including Members of Congress, all across the country.
Today, the Open World Leadership Center continues to conduct a highly-regarded international exchange program in the United States Legislative Branch and plays an increasingly vital role in the political landscapes of many countries throughout Eurasia, and in particular, Russia and Ukraine. Open World has supported leaders who, early in their careers, have become influential within their communities and in the national arena. For example, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most well-known Kremlin critic was an unknown 29-year-old lawyer when he came on the Open World program in 2005. Mr. Navalny was hosted in Dallas, Texas on the Local Governance theme and went on to create a strong and active movement against abuse of power and corruption. Mr. Navalny is only one example demonstrating Open World’s expertise in selecting the most promising individuals to come on the program usually right at the moment that they are about to ascend in their profession. We communicate with these alumni, track their results, and present them to Congress to show how effective our exchange model is.
One profound insight our delegates derive from their experience in the U.S. is that elected officials truly are accessible and accountable to the citizens of their jurisdictions. Another powerful element, again consistently praised by our delegates, is the impact of home stays—delegates living with American families while in the United States. One delegate succinctly described “seeing an America I didn’t know existed.”
Congressional leadership helps advance democracy and U.S. values worldwide. With Congress’s support, Open World is a strategic long-term investment in our security and a crucial source of our international influence and strength. Open World is committed to these efforts while recognizing the possibility of uncertainty and setbacks, understanding that progress requires our persistent dedication to our enduring principles and goals.
Open World’s Powerful Alumni Network: Open World maintains a vast alumni network across Russia, Ukraine, and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Many members of the 27,000-strong alumni community are active in their communities, regions, and often at the center of government. They are a valuable resource to our diplomatic missions abroad. The positive communications’ multiplier effect is a major result of the Open World program. Our alumni dispel myths and untruths about the United States and help promote an effective message about America.
For Open World’s Russia program, the objective is to have participants return to Russia with a more positive view of America; to add to their professional skills through direct contact with U.S. citizens engaged in similar work; and to counter the Russian information war by providing a direct view of the American people and our society. These programs are intense ten-day thematic visits to the U.S. that expose young and emerging Russian leaders to democratic practices, civil rights, good governance, transparency in media, sound health and education policy and practices, the provision of social services, and economic development strategies.
Open World has had enormous success in Russia due to a continuous low-key presence there since 1999, providing our colleagues from Russia with broad exposure to American democratic and free-market institutions.
Open World’s Ukraine program helps Ukraine mature in the aftermath of revolution and enhance its leaders’ skills and capabilities to advance the country’s agenda. These programs come at a time when part of Ukraine has been annexed and as it faces Russian interference in the East and South.
The Open World program also focuses on the institutional development of civil society and promotion of economic reform. The subthemes of the program aim at fighting corruption, promoting transparency and accountability in governance, furthering decentralization of power, and improving the business climate to grow the economy and enhance trade capacity, particularly as it relates to the agricultural and energy sectors.
Our more than 3,200 outstanding alumni now serve in leadership positions throughout the country. In 2017, Open World’s 239 Ukrainians were hosted in 40 U.S. communities in 30 states, providing them with broad exposure to American democratic and free-market institutions. As part of these 40 programs, ten aimed to not only assist Ukraine during these trying times, but also to further existing partnerships to support long-term sustainability. Open World’s 2017 programming included Ukrainians from all of Ukraine’s current 25 regions (not counting the two regions in Crimea). Open World alumni work on legal reform, media fact checking, supporting victims of war, and furthering reforms in education and health.
To exemplify some programmatic results:
Open World is supporting our parliamentary alumni and others in the legal field to move actual judicial reform forward. Through the International Judicial Relations Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States (whose Head is chosen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), we create intense U.S. programs for Ukrainian professionals that draws a practical path toward judicial reform.
Two members of the new Cabinet of Ministers are Open World alumni. Open World alumni are in top leadership positions in the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and Science, and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The Prime Minister is a strong supporter of the project and has been a very active supporter of the Birmingham (Alabama) -Vinnitsa partnership program that Open World implements.
Open World alumni are among the leadership in Ukraine’s Parliament and many others serve as key staff members. These dedicated alumni are eager to work with Open World to expand partnership with Members of Congress and state legislators.
In summary, your investment in Open World brings returns every single day, from delegations talking with you and being hosted by families in your districts, to alumni helping our embassies abroad work effectively.