Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Public Diplomacy: A Way Forward for South Asia

Shah Meer, thediplomat.com

An initiative by the Swedish Institute is having a profound impact on its participants.

Image from article, with caption: The India-Pakistan Wagah Border Closing Ceremony. The flag ceremony happens at the border gate, two hours before sunset each day.
Regional integrity seems a distant dream for South-Asian nations, at least when it involves what is known as Track 1 or “official” diplomacy. Three decades have passed since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was established with the aspiration of bridging the gaps between South Asian countries, while providing them with a platform to discuss regional issues and come up with practical solutions. Unfortunately, SAARC has proven to be a lethargic platform that has been able to bring close neighbors together, let alone more distant ones. Political grudges, blame games, and a deficit of trust have consistently proven to be stumbling blocks to regional integration. Rivalries among states instill negative thoughts in the minds of naïve citizens as well. Conflicts among the states are rarely limited to the government level; they sow the seeds of hate in the hearts and minds of citizens as well.
South Asian countries have been pushed many times by external powers to set aside their political grudges and strive for peace and prosperity in the region. All such nudges have been in vain. But rarely have external powers been motivated to try initiating people-to-people contact as an alternative path to regional unity and connectivity. People-to-people contact or “public diplomacy” remains the unfulfilled agenda of SAARC.
In 2013, the Swedish Institute – a public agency of Sweden – began an interesting initiative, creating the Young Connectors of the Future (YCF) program, a fellowship for young leaders of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The program has already proven productive, with participants continuing to advocate for lasting peace in the region while doing their utmost to eliminate preconceived prejudices that people have about their neighbors.
Ulrika Rosvall, the project director of YCF, says that the purpose of the program is to invest in young leaders of the South Asian region – the best investment one can make. The idea is to create a network of young leaders with strong bonds within South Asia, to instill democratic values and to promote human rights, while developing a bond within the network itself. The Swedish Institute strongly believes in the power of public diplomacy. To date, the YCF program has produced around hundred alumni who are now working on regional peace. ... 
One thing worth mentioning is that before the end of the fellowship participants are trained for project works. Groups of at least four participants select projects that will help to bridge gaps within the region. One group, which included the author and Smriti Nagpal (India), Mehnaz Khan (Bangladesh), and Abdul Ghafoor (Afghanistan), all delegates to YCF 2015, started a project titled “Tales Beyond Borders.” It aims to bring the region closer by sharing online the stories of the people of South Asia with a mind to helping eliminate prejudices and stereotypes. This represents our “investment” in public diplomacy, surely a win-win proposition.

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