2016/Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) Exchanges Summary
MEPI Exchanges Program Evaluation
This evaluation was conducted between March 17, 2016 and June 16, 2016, and the final report was submitted July 8, 2016.
The United States Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is a program managed by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ Assistance Coordination Office (NEA/AC) that provides citizens, organizations and government officials with the tools and training necessary to advocate for shared common interests. Within MEPI’s portfolio are exchange projects that have three core goals: enhancing education, strengthening civil society, and developing professional networks. The three flagship exchange projects under the MEPI program – the Student Leaders program, Leaders for Democracy Fellowship, and Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholarship – provide an opportunity for citizens of MENA countries to attend U.S. and regional academic institutions where they are presented with opportunities to enhance their leadership skills and expand their understanding of civic engagement with the ultimate goal of creating positive change. These projects boost economic and civic development by enhancing professional skills and establishing valuable relationships, dialogue, and collaboration among professionals.
Purpose of the Evaluation and Questions Addressed
NEA/AC contracted a third party evaluation team to conduct an evaluation of the three MEPI educational and exchange projects to: (i) provide evidence of results and determine what contribution stems from those results; (i) determine the cost per student of each of the three projects, and list and compare (with respect to other Department of State-funded education/exchange projects, e.g., Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and USAID) the pros and cons of each project; and (iii) provide specific and actionable programmatic recommendations that could be used for future project design modifications. There were four main questions that this evaluation sought to answer: (i) In relation to project design, are NEA/AC recruitment efforts appropriate?; (ii) What are the outcomes/results of these projects?; (iii) Has there been a wider contribution in the region?; and (iv) How does NEA/AC shape the next phase of programming? In which areas (both in terms of sector and comparing short-term versus long-term programming) should NEA/AC continue to fund projects?
A mixed methods approach was employed for the collection of primary and secondary data. Primary data was collected through a web-based survey of, and focus groups with, program participants (current and alumni), while key informant interviews were conducted with stakeholders to understand the long and short-term results and contributions of the program. Field visits were conducted in the U.S., Kuwait, Lebanon, and Tunisia to gather on-the-ground information about MEPI alumni, their networks, organizations, and communities. Secondary data consisted of a review of existing program-level background documents of each of the three projects.
A host of recommendations, both overall and program-specific, were included within the report. Outlined below are those recommendations that focus on how to improve the overall programming of all three NEA/AC exchange programs. As with every evaluation that NEA/AC conducts, an Action Plan will be created to ensure that the recommendations provided by the evaluation team are implemented.
1) Strengthen and standardize pre- and post-program orientations/de-brief: Pre-departure orientations serve a useful purpose in preparing participants for the program by providing information on the logistics of the program, the academic component, and the cultural norms and expectations. While embassies do conduct these orientations, there is a sense that they need to be standardized in terms of content and topics covered, to make sure the same information is being provided to the participants in each country and that a sense of community among the participants is built. The embassy websites must also be standardized to cover a basic set of topics and ensure the information corresponds to what was provided during the orientation.
Similarly, it is necessary for all participants to receive a de-brief after their participation in a MEPI program. The excitement of wanting to implement their projects can very quickly turn to frustration if expectations are not tempered. These standardized debriefs should ensure the participants are: (i) connected with the local embassy; (ii) provided with resources that keep them motivated while tempering expectations, especially the “Founder’s syndrome”; (iii) provided with information on how to deal with issues of culture shock to mitigate disillusionment with their own country; (iv) provided with strategies to mitigate barriers to project implementation, especially gender barriers; and (v) receive information on formal or informal MEPI networks, and contact information for local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) with whom they can partner and collaborate.
2) Strengthen and update what students learn: To better prepare the participants for working with CSOs and to engage in civic activities, CSOs in countries where fieldwork was conducted recommended that the programs expand to cover skills such as strategic planning; communication skills; teamwork; drafting reports; projects design; financial management and regulations; advocacy campaigns; understanding the meaning of volunteering (focusing on the commitment being made; providing participants with information on CSOs in their own home countries; teaching the participants to be followers (so that they can become leaders); critical thinking; and workforce readiness and entrepreneurship skills.
3) Strengthen alumni networks: The evaluation team did not find any evidence of participants from one MEPI program interacting with participants of another or of participants from one cohort of a program interacting with participants from other cohorts of the same program in a systematic way. This is a missed opportunity for strengthening networks and maintaining cohort connections. The MEPI Coordinator or Embassy Public Diplomacy officials could help connect participants across all in-country MEPI programs and offer opportunities for mentoring, and information and resource sharing. Some suggestions for improved communication include: (i) Ongoing communication/contact: For shorter-term alumni, offer a way for individuals who cannot attend the alumni conference in person to join via Skype; establish an active alumni page (either set up by an implementer or by the Embassy) for the program as a whole for networking and sharing information; and encourage new participants to get in touch with alumni. (ii) In-person events and support: Bring alumni together in person, which would maintain a link and expand contact; invite a large group (10-20) to an alumni conference every year; offer periodic “next step” trainings or a “next step advanced program” that focuses on higher levels of management, negotiation, and communication; and run programs like the University of Delaware’s MEPI COMM program for alumni every three to five years as to re-engage could be a powerful connection. (iii) Remote events and other support: Offer webinar trainings, including a model where participants can invite colleagues to join. (iv) Connect the informal networks for all three MEPI programs: This will enable the MEPI exchange program alumni from a particular country to know of each other and be a resource.
4) Strengthen data and reporting: Several measures are recommended to support NEA/AC with better reporting and the ability to respond to requests for information from internal and external stakeholders, including Congress. These measures include: (i) expanding the current database to include more demographic information on the participants, as well as their interests and goals; (ii) instituting an annual report that contains a narrative on what was actually accomplished by the project, challenges faced, courses taught, workshops attended by the participants, internships, etc.; and (ii) the institution of a catalog of success stories/alumni achievements from these programs.
5) Rename MEPI Exchange programs and strengthen their promotion: The evaluation found that MEPI scholarship programs are not as well-known as, for instance, Fulbright scholarships. The evaluation team recommends improving the promotion of MEPI programs through additional avenues, such as: at college fairs; exam venues (TOEFL, SAT testing, etc.); university student and/or career centers; with student counselors (both at the high school and university levels); and in public and private schools across the country. NEA/AC may also want to consider re-naming the programs. Perhaps the programs could be renamed after some political leader from American history, after other figures who have made important contributions to the field of human rights, or after the people that designed the program, giving the programs a new identity.
6) Increase collaboration with other USG agencies: Given that the Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau (ECA) and USAID are also implementing exchange programs in the MENA region, participants for programs tend to overlap. Both in DC and at the embassy level there is a need for interagency synergy and joint planning to ensure there is awareness of who the programs are supporting, how they are supporting them, and the kinds of support provided. These meetings will also provide an opportunity for the three agencies to share information on whether participation in any program is causing an increased security risk, or if there is a reason to increase or decrease support. At the Post level, this synergy between officials will help develop a common strategy for alumni relations and a plan for tracking the outcomes of all participants, regardless of program. This increased collaboration will reduce duplication of effort and help make more efficient use of available resources.
 Those recommendations that the project team concurs with. The project team includes the Program Officer, Program Assistant, M&E Specialist, Grants Officer, Grants Management Specialist, and Division Chief
 An intensive three-week workshop for SL alumni on public speaking and persuasive skills hosted by University of Delaware (2011).