Without much fanfare, exchange programs funded by the US government are starting to have a tangible impact on civil society development in Central Asia. The quiet success of the programs generates hope that, despite Central Asia's current backsliding towards authoritarianism, the region's longer-term prospects for the expansion of political and economic pluralism remain positive.
Since the collapse of communism, there has been a significant growth in educational exchanges between the United States and the countries of the former Soviet Union. During the Communist era, approximately 25,000 students participated in US-Soviet exchanges. Since 1991, however, there have been roughly 55,000 exchange students.
Participants in exchanges range from high school students to post-graduate professionals. Perhaps the most prominent government-funded exchange is the Department of State Fulbright Program. But other, less publicized initiatives, such as the Future Leaders Exchange (or FLEX) and Community Connections Programs, are also flourishing.
FLEX, which was established in 1993 under the Freedom Support Act, focuses on bringing high-school-age students to the United States and having them spend an academic year with a host family. Meanwhile, the Community Connections Program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offers three- to five-week professional internships for citizens of the former Soviet Union. Participants are placed with a wide variety of companies, ranging from family-run business to multinational corporations.
During the 2000 fiscal year, over 1,000 high school students and 1,500 professionals from the former Soviet Union are studying in the United States on the FLEX and Community Connection programs respectively. The number of FLEX participants from each Central Asian state varies. For example, this academic year 40 students are from Uzbekistan, while 45 come from Kazakhstan. A healthy majority of exchange program participants are female, coming from a broad spectrum of social and ethnic backgrounds.
In all, about 5,500 citizens of the former Soviet Union are studying in the United States on government-funded exchanges during the current fiscal year. The path also goes in the other direction, but to a lesser extent: about 800 US students during the current fiscal year are spending time in former Soviet states conducting research. In addition, there are about 2,000 Peace Corps volunteers working in the FSU.
Over time, these exchanges have strengthened the social capital of former Soviet states. In the case of Central Asia, hundreds of exchange program alumni have returned home and established strong new social networks. There are now over 8,000 young people in the FLEX alumni association.
Since 1998, the United States has launched a variety of initiatives to strengthen and expand alumni networks. The administrating organizations and local US embassies have established alumni coordinators in the Central Asian nations to help track of exchange participants and keep them connected. These range from specifically FLEX coordinators, Internet Access and Training Program and US Embassy alumni coordinators. Their jobs overlap but all coordinators work together to sponsor events that are designed to foster an ongoing interest in American culture and activate the alumni in their community. They also encourage all alumni to become involved in the non-governmental sector, and engage in local community service. In addition, these coordinators provide assistance designed to foster entrepreneurial activity.
Recent examples of alumni follow-up in Central Asia include:
Several alumni in Kazakhstan participated in a career planning workshop, sharing their own experiences on such topics as job-search skills and interviewing techniques. Alumni in Kyrgyzstan mounted a high-profile local monitoring effort during last year's parliamentary elections. Another alumni group spearheaded an effort to get authorities in Bishkek to provide public waste baskets on city streets. Eleven alumni in Turkmenistan organized a program to teach English to blind children in an orphanage. A group of Tajik alumni are in the process of forming an NGO called Youth For Democratic Development. Evidence of the success of the US government exchanges comes in the form of imitation. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have all started their own exchange programs modeled on those created by the US government. In Uzbekistan, for instance, several hundred students per year participate in such educational exchanges.
Historically, US-funded exchange programs have played an important role in the development of political elites in formerly communist states. For example, in the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall, it turned out that many of the top policy makers of Central European nations had spent time in the United States on educational exchanges. Over the coming decades, US exchanges could end up similarly influencing future generations of Central Asia's political elite.
Dr. David Mikosz is the regional coordinator of the IREX Internet Access and Training Program and is based in Central Asia.