Monday, November 2, 2015

Public Diplomacy, not Development

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Sunday, November 1st 2015
Public Diplomacy, not Development

Donald M. Bishop

There are many definitions of Public Diplomacy, but in my view all center on communication, information, the media, facts submitted to a candid world, ideas, opinion, and advocacy.  Exchanges, education programs, and the other “cultural affairs” portfolios undergird the focus on ideas and communication, aiming for better understanding of the United States, its government and society, and its policies.

In a speech I gave two years ago, I expressed an anxiety – that Public Diplomacy has been drifting into other areas.  I said:

In my view, Public Diplomacy has also become the farm team for development, where it is up to Public Diplomacy to organize programs to reform journalism, run scholarship programs, and provide opportunities to the dispossessed.  Let’s be candid:  Public Diplomacy doesn't have the resources to make a lasting dent in any of these areas.  And this puts Public Diplomacy into the broad field of social change, not the focused world of communication.  To my mind, it's a professional distraction, a diffusion of effort.

An article in Foreign Affairs, "Development Bloat" by Marc F. Bellemare of the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, helps round out what I said.  Some points of his critique of development might be applied to Public Diplomacy too.

Professor Bellemare argued that over the years, "economic development morphed into something else: a multi-billion dollar industry characterized by mission creep."  He noted:

  • The work of development agencies like USAID are now joined by NGOs and philanthropies, and "as the number of actors has grown, the definition of development has expanded." 

  • Once the focus of development was to increase the incomes of the poor.  Now it includes much more:  universal primary education, gender equality, maternal health, independent media, government transparency, cookstoves, ecotourism, microfinance, political reconciliation, and a global partnership for development.  The array of programs includes the Global Soap Project, Teddies for Tragedies, and Clowns Without Borders.  According to Professor Bellemare, however, the "links with one another are scarcely explained." 

  • Development specialists know that "there are no silver bullets," and when they are candid, they know that many development projects do not provide what the poor want.  Rather they give what the rich countries think the poor need.  And the range of programs continues to expand.

Professor Bellemare’s article and his belief that development needs to concentrate on “higher, more stable incomes” prompted some pushback in the development community.  The comments and critiques of his article on the Foreign Affairs website opened a window on a vigorous debate on the fundamental purposes of development.  Even so, can those of us in Public Diplomacy draw some lessons?

Read Professor Bellemare's article and substitute "Public Diplomacy" for "development."  To my mind, it’s suggestive.

  • There are now more actors in "public diplomacy," not to mention "soft power," than before.  USIA once owned the brand.  Now more countries have added Public Diplomacy to their diplomatic tasks.  There are many new graduate schools, foundations, and NGOs engaged in public diplomacy.  Not to mention that films and television vastly outreach any government effort to affect how America is viewed in the world.

  • Just as there are more actors, U.S. official public diplomacy now has more, and more expansive, goals.  For decades, Public Diplomacy programs could mostly be grouped around democracy and human rights, economics and trade, security, global issues, and understanding the United States.  Now the goals include the green agenda, climate change, empowerment, the digital divide, and youth.  Exchanges now include programs in disability rights, sports visitors, international music, women’s mentoring, online exchanges, youth exchange and study, study of the U.S., MOOCs, international performing artists, celebrity envoys, entrepreneurship, community colleges, and a culinary partnership, to name a few.

  • Public Diplomacy work traditionally focused on opinion leaders, influencers, and rising stars -- parliamentarians, editors and journalists, professors, policy institute scholars, and the like.  Ambassadors still expect Public Diplomacy officers to know these influential leaders.  As goals and programs have proliferated, however, so have audiences:  athletes, musicians, performers, archaeologists, aspiring entrepreneurs, the marginalized, women, girls, and chefs.

Here’s my concern.  The possible goals for Public Diplomacy are infinite, but money and the time of American FSOs are dear, so Professor Bellemare’s caution against the proliferation of objectives seems warranted.  Here’s one man’s list of takeaways for Public Diplomacy.

  • The first is to ask sharp questions about proposals for Public Diplomacy initiatives, both in Washington and on Country Teams.  Development agencies have, over the years, been gripped by many ephemeral fads:  infrastructure, population control, civil society, microfinance, sustainability, bridge the digital divide, and so on.  Proponents hailed each as a breakthrough; Washington jumped on the bandwagon; each taught some lessons; but achievements were more elusive.  In Public Diplomacy as well as development, then, healthy skepticism of fads – “flavor of the month” programs funded by Washington -- is warranted.

  • Are Public Diplomacy programs with development objectives giving the people of other nations what Washington thinks they need?  In my view, Public Diplomacy posts' priorities should rather be determined by the Integrated Country Strategy document.  This allows those closest to the problems of another society to determine Public Diplomacy’s priorities.

  • Public Diplomacy is not development, and developing its own small projects or exchanges aimed at development or social change misuses it.  Serious development requires benchmarks, analyses, multi-year timetables and goals, pilot projects, budgeting, training, long term work with ministries and NGOs, and evaluation.  Public Diplomacy can't do any of these.  Public diplomacy typically issues small, one-time grants.  This is the "drop in the bucket" issue in Public Diplomacy planning. 

  • Said another way:  Compared to USAID's millions of dollars, PAOs have mere thousands.  Public Diplomacy resources are paltry, and diverting a share to development to demonstrate good intentions makes scant impact.

  • The time devoted to minor league development projects, moreover, keeps PD officers away from their communication and exchanges work.  When can an officer fit in reading opposition texts or watching Hezbollah videos when arranging travel and visas for participants in Washington-conceived programs absorbs so much time?  When is it possible to think through how to combat the rumors that polio vaccines are an anti-Muslim plot?  Most PAOs will admit that they have no time to spend at opening and closing ceremonies.  When can they strategize?

The debate in development should, then, prompt us to examine Public Diplomacy programs for our own "mission creep."  Public diplomacy goes through its own enthusiasms -- American corners, American shelves, providing internet access, training in investigative reporting, narrative or storytelling, branding, messaging, the social media, and culinary diplomacy to name a few.  Startup diplomacy and entrepreneurship are other new initiatives.

Once Washington offices and posts have committed time, programs, and money – given momentum -- to programs that aim for development outcomes, moreover, Public Diplomacy’s response to the challenges of propaganda and disinformation will necessarily be sluggish.  Farm team development programs and grants are a distraction from Public Diplomacy’s core goals and expertise.

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