As USAID’s Belarus Country Director for the last four years, one of my great pleasures has been working closely on the Community Connections Exchange Program. Today that program, which so effectively helps Belarusian professionals to understand and adopt best practices to strengthen and develop the country, is celebrating its 15th year in Belarus.
Since 1998, Belarusian participants – professionals and specialists across a broad spectrum of fields that are crucial to the country’s development – have visited the United States on three-week exchange programs tailored to addressing their professional needs. The programs that USAID offers these visitors focus on several sectors, including civil society, local economic development, business education, finance, agriculture, social services, environment, health, culture and journalism. The exchange programs demonstrate how these sectors work in the States and allow participants to draw on lessons learned and tailor applicable approaches for use in the Belarusian environment.
In these last four years, I have met hundreds of the almost 900 Community Connection participants. What has impressed me most is how effective these dedicated people are in bringing best practices and modern solutions to the challenges that face Belarus. I have seen firsthand the positive impact that Belarusian professionals have had on their local communities by working for change and utilizing the knowledge and experience they gained while in the U.S. Our Сommunity Connections alumni have taken the lead in advocacy efforts, contributed to public policy formulation, and conducted awareness campaigns in Belarus.
Many of our program alumni have been innovators of extraordinary initiatives and accomplishments. Sergey Drozdovsky, a lawyer and a prominent activist, launched several nationwide campaigns to promote the rights of people with disabilities. Yury Zisser founded the most popular and largest internet portal and information resource in Belarus – TUT.By. Natalya Kobrynets, an activist of the NGO, Healthy Choice, brought a model for a drug prevention program known as “Snowball” from the U.S. and launched it in several city schools. Natalia Novitskaya and Anna Pugach opened a resource center for children and young people with disabilities and their families while also designing needed educational materials.
Other Community Connections alumni contributed to the promotion of legislation that improved the business environment and implemented projects encouraging entrepreneurship. They engaged community members in volunteering activities, assisted disadvantaged populations, and initiated new services by non-governmental organizations.
One of USAID’s more successful contributions to Belarus’s development – brought to Belarus by the 2012 Community Connections participants – helped generate entrepreneurial enthusiasm by developing and transforming green tourism routes into ecotourism clusters. Going forward, this will be especially beneficial for rural development as it ensures job creation, revenue generation, and economic growth. The efforts of these green tourism visionaries have laid the foundation for the first organized and truly functional tourist routes and resulted in the creation of the country’s biggest ecotourism association, the launch of a website, and a dramatic increase in the number of private bed and breakfast sites in Belarus. Their initiatives coalesced around a separate USAID/Belarus project that is supporting local eco-tourism initiatives as a way to strengthen the private sector in local economies.
Through 15 years of focused and sustained effort, the Community Connections program has planted strong seeds for Belarus’s development in civil society, economic growth, and social services. I am happy to have had the opportunity to help guide the work of the Community Connections program as it has begun to reap the benefits of our long-term investments. As my time at this Mission draws to a close, I can say that the Community Connections alumni who have so earnestly implemented the ideas they picked up during study tours to the U.S. represent a special Belarusian resource that will continue to support the country’s development for years to come.