Diplomatic Pouch / March 15, 2011
By Larry Luxner
Chinese gay rights advocate Hua Jiang, Czech dissident Jiri Payne, Burmese educator Nant Esther and Afro-Brazilian minority rights activist Humberto Adami Santos all enriched their careers in the United States — thanks to a program that’s just turned 50 years old.
The three were among 18 alumni of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in attendance at a Feb. 17 luncheon celebrating the 50th anniversary of IVLP’s partnership with the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV). Also in the audience were 60 ambassadors representing countries from South Africa to St. Vincent to Sweden.
Judith McHale, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, welcomed the foreign envoys in the audience and thanked NCIV for its dedication over the years.
“The world has come to rely more than ever upon the ever-expanding networks of people-to-people relations we’re building. We could not have built those important relationships without important organizations like yours,” she said. “I would also like to thank the Gold Stars, a very special group of exchange program alumni who have returned to the U.S. to share their stories.”
NCIV’s board chairman, Alexander P. Durtka Jr., who is also president of the Milwaukee-based International Institute of Wisconsin, presented McHale with an award of appreciation for the State Department’s support of international exchange programs.
“For five decades, NCIV has practiced citizen diplomacy, one handshake at a time. Government officials come and go, but personal connections remain strong, across oceans and borders,” said McHale in accepting the award. “When you think of another country, you think of the people you know from that country, and NCIV makes the United States real for thousands of visitors a year.”
Noting the pro-democracy upheavals currently reverberating across the Arab world and beyond, McHale said America’s relations with the rest of the world must reach beyond government leaders “to engage directly with women, men and young people, social activists, teachers, students, artists, writers, media professionals” and others.
“We quickly realize there are commonalities that can bring us closer together, even when we hold different views. From Indianapolis to Islamabad, people share the same priorities for their families,” she said. “This does not stem from starry-eyed idealism, but rather that in this age of transnational threats — when we enter into relationships with those around the world — we have a better chance of creating something useful through cooperation rather than antagonism.”
McHale added: “We seen time and time again that nothing can replace the power of personal interaction. We fund those programs because they directly support the State Department’s foreign policy initiatives.”
But she cautioned that the looming federal budget deficit threatens to unravel programs such as IVLP, to the detriment of U.S. interests abroad. “If enacted,” she warned, “the proposed budget cuts will be devastating to our national security.”
At a subsequent panel following the luncheon, U.S. government officials discussed the selection process for candidates to the IVLP.
Marta Etienne, a program officer with the State Department’s Office of International Visitors, recently returned from Brazil, where she was acting cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia. One of her responsibilities there was to oversee the volunteer visitor program.
“This is a very elaborate, time-consuming and complicated process,” she said. “Our preference is for people who have not traveled to the United States before. This is not a VIP program, this is not a reward, and it’s not a subsidy.”
Chris McShane, chief of the Africa branch, said “you want to pick people who are influential or who are on their way to being influential.”
McShane, who’s served at U.S. embassies in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Brazil and Mozambique, said the program strives to attract “up-and-coming” young people.
“When you’re at the University of Cairo and there’s a new assistant professor you can tell gets it, and is not judging you on, for instance, American policy on Israel, there’s the kind of policymaker you want to invest itn. The beauty of the IVLP program is that it’s only three weeks, whereas a Fulbright is impossible for a lot of people.”
Etienne said one of the Brazilian students she selected to participate in the program came from a tribal region in the Amazon.
“He came here, learned about Google and is now able to use that technology to track illegal logging operations in the rainforest,” she said. “He made Google very proud, and that’s a great example for Google Corp. helping these communities overseas. That’s why this program is so popular and effective, because it can address so many priorities. Fulbright scholarships are not as versatile or nimble, and they can’t really address such a broad array of goals.”
She said that ultimately, the chief of mission at a U.S. embassy reviews the final list of nominees and gives the final case, even at a large post such as Brasília.
“When our chiefs of mission are canvassed as to the effectiveness of various public diplomacy programs, the IVLP for years has been selected as their most important tool. These people are very coveted and taken very serously in the embassy. It’s an investment we’re making for the long term.”