Last April, a group of construction industry businessmen hailing from Russia's frigid interior made their way to the more balmy clime of Louisiana's Gulf Coast. But the 10 men had little time for sunbathing.
For three weeks the Russian constructors were taken, at forced-march pace, on a guided tour of building, American-style. They saw everything from brick companies and home building sites to hardware stores and real estate agencies. "I kept them real busy," Rebecca Kennedy, an interior designer who organized the visit for the Slidell Rotary Club, says with a laugh.
Under the Productivity Enhancement Program (PEP), groups of Russian businesspeople have come for training - from cheesemakers visiting Wisconsin to chicken farmers touring Arkansas.
This innovative program of citizen-based, cost-effective foreign aid traces its origins to the plan for the postwar recovery of Europe, announced on this day, 50 years ago, by Secretary of State George Marshall at Harvard University.
The PEP is modeled on a little-known part of the Marshall Plan, which from 1946 to 1954 brought more than 24,000 non-English-speaking managers and owners from 16 countries on missions to see how American businesses were run.
That program, "now largely forgotten, showed that effective assistance need not be expensive," Charles Weiss Jr, president of Global Technology Management Inc., wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine. It consumed only about 1.5 percent of the Marshall Plan's $13 billion in assistance, but it is widely credited with helping to spark the economic recovery of Europe and the Far East.
Mr. Weiss wrote a report for the World Bank advocating that the West bring tens of thousands of Russians, Eastern Europeans, Central Asians, and others to see how to create new production and how an open society works.
The idea immediately appealed to Sharon Tennison, the dynamic head of the San Francisco-based Center for Citizen Initiatives.
As an adviser to the large-scale US aid program that began in the early 1990s, Ms. Tennison grew disenchanted with what she saw as widespread waste. Western consultants racked up huge fees staying at luxury hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while the Russian elite trooped over on exchanges that amounted to paid shopping trips. "It's nothing but corporate welfare," she says.
Inspired by the Marshall Plan, Tennison proposed a very different approach, initially meeting no interest. But with support from congressional leaders upset over the US aid program, the PEP idea got backing for a three-year pilot program that aims to bring more than 750 study visitors by 1998.
Through offices in six Russian cities, PEP selects non-English speaking businesspeople and groups them by industry, such as food production, construction or clothing. It focuses on products that can improve the quality of life for ordinary Russians.
These small groups are matched with a US community to host their visit. Though the program has $3.5 million in US government funding, it depends heavily on the voluntary contributions of US businesses and community organizations.
Russian visitors get an intimate view of American life. Last fall for example, a group of dairy farmers spent a month in the rural Louisiana town of Franklenton, home to 4,000 people. Typically, visitors stay in homes, communicating with families with the help of everything from index cards to computer translation programs.
The information passed on tends toward the very practical. The visiting constructors in Slidell wanted to know whether employees got paid vacations or how to interview people for hiring.
The most successful seminar for the dairy delegation was on financial management. "They were curious how banks determine how much of a loan a farm could get," says Mike Gill, a Farm Bureau official who chaired the Franklenton Rotary Club's hosting team.
PEP officials report many success stories. Galina Azotsova, owner of several small bakeries in the city of Dubna, picked up a tip during her tour of San Francisco bakeries. On returning home, she put an ad in the paper with coupons for 100 rubles off new breads baked from American recipes. Sales have boomed. She may open a new store.
The program is premised on the Marshall Plan experience that a change in surroundings can change thinking. "Until you take a Russian out of that environment, they can't see all the possibilities," says Tennison.
For US hosts, the visits also have a profound impact. "Everybody involved is ready to do another one," reports Ms. Kennedy. "We felt we got more out of it than they did. You turn yourself over to help somebody else." Kennedy now scans the evening news for overseas stories. And Mr. Gill has a new appreciation for foreign aid. "This plan here - we're seeing our dollars work for us," he says.
Of course, these trips aren't all work. Delegates to Louisiana did slip into the Big Easy. And no trip to that state would be complete without cultural exchanges of the culinary variety. "They had plenty of crawfish," says Kennedy, though there's no report yet of any Rus- sian visitors opening up a Cajun restaurant back home.