Exchange Matters / March 27, 2014

Connecting the Dots: International Exchange as a Key Foreign Policy Tool

An interview with Assistant Secretary of State Evan Ryan, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Can you highlight some of the strategic priorities for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) for 2014-2015?

First, I will say that in 2014, ECA will see a focus on youth. More than 60 percent of the world’s population is under the age of 30. And at the State Department, we recognize that we live in a world where young people are more educated and connected than ever before. We realize that we’re at a crucial moment in time when it is critical to listen, engage, and support this dynamic demographic. One example is the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), the Obama Administration’s new signature effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders and empower them to lead in their own communities. We had tens of thousands of applicants for only a few hundred spots in the program, so we are looking at ways to grow our engagement with all of the applicants through virtual exchanges, social media, and mentorship.

At the State Department, we recognize that we live in a world where young people are more educated and connected than ever before.

Another priority is our environment and addressing climate change. Secretary Kerry recently outlined climate change priorities for the State Department, and noted that advancing these priorities is personally important to him. He sees it as a moral responsibility for our planet, as well as a means to create jobs and economic growth in every corner of the world. ECA can play a big role in advancing these climate change priorities through new programs, as well as existing programs, like the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), that bring top scientists and nonprofit leaders to the United States to explore environmental issues.

Finally, ECA will increase our overall number of exchanges by doing fewer long-term exchanges and more short-term programming. This will maximize the number of participants we have each year. We’ll be looking at every program to ensure it targets strategic audiences and topics. More short-term, directed programs will allow the U.S. government to have increased impact on foreign policy outcomes in the near and long terms.

How do these priorities connect with the larger foreign policy goals of the United States?

Our ECA programs have always tied closely to foreign policy by building the skills and relationships among participants that make a difference in communities around the world, including in the United States. Public diplomacy—building people-to-people connections—is something we’ve done for over half a century, and now we’re expanding and enhancing international exchanges to make them a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

We have to be able to tell the stories about how international exchanges are moving the needle for America’s goals and relationships around the world

For example, I’m excited about creating a Rapid Response Fund. Public diplomacy efforts must be able to more quickly respond to political turmoil and changes as they happen in any corner of the world, at any moment. We’re seeing the value of this capability right now in Russia and Ukraine. We have already experimented with this type of rapid programming through our “On Demand” programs. When the United States reestablished relations with Burma, it was an ECA exchange that allowed the leaders in that country to write the first-ever media law. And just a few months ago, we were able to use our exchange alumni in South Sudan to get the message out about stopping the violence there. This new fund will allow us to expand our current efforts, increase our flexibility, and make ECA the “go-to tool” for policy makers in crisis situations.

What do you see as the role for technology in supporting international exchange programs?

Last year, we set up a new virtual exchange unit in ECA, called the Collaboratory. The Collaboratory is allowing us to reach new audiences, in new mediums, with partnerships with NASA and U.S. schools, among others. The Collaboratory and new virtual connective technology will also provide opportunities for sustained engagement with exchange alumni, who now number more than one million—it really allows us to extend the personal relationships created during exchange programs.

Also, between our website and social media properties, I feel the 350,000 Department of State exchange participants know us like a friend. Our focus on participant stories and our engaged social media strategy has really allowed people to see inside our programs.

Global Ties US members are the key to exchange program success

There is a lot of discussion on maximizing the return on investment (ROI) for international exchange programs. What does a high return on investment look like to you?

To really be successful and get our full return on investment, we need to stay continually engaged. Individuals at the local level, like the citizen diplomats associated with Global Ties U.S. and IVLP, have always done an excellent job of making connections. Certain Embassies have done a great job of connecting with their alumni. Going forward, we want to ensure that our exchange participants return and have a personal plan about how they can be change agents in their own communities. We have to be able to tell the stories about how international exchanges are moving the needle for America’s goals and relationships around the world. This will mean not only tailoring our programs to be action-oriented, but providing follow-on opportunities for participants when they return home, ongoing connection with ECA and the United States, providing mentorship opportunities, seed funding for projects, and plugging them into networks that will expand their reach.

From your perspective, how can the Global Ties network be responsive to some of the emerging trends in international exchanges?

My advice is to look at ways to partner with each other and also with larger organizations in your communities. Those organizations often have monetary resources and expertise that can really give you a boost as you look to attract new members to your organizations. We do such great work together, but often people aren’t familiar with your role or how little time they need to commit to expand their world and the world of our exchange participants. In addition, the Global Ties network has recently engaged with ECA to support our high school exchange efforts in identifying host families for students who study in the United States. Your knowledge of local communities puts you in a strong position to encourage families and schools to help teenagers from over 50 countries experience the diversity of American society and culture firsthand.

To really be successful… we need to stay continually engaged

Will you and the leadership team within the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs continue to focus on engaging domestic audiences around the importance of international exchange programs? How can the Global Ties network help with these efforts?

First, Global Ties U.S. members and other local connections are the key to exchange program success. We need you to continue to share U.S. values and experiences with participants by creating great programs, introducing participants to Americans from all walks of life, hosting wonderful hospitality events, and everything else you do to make exchanges special and authentic. The little above and beyond touches you add, like tours of your hometowns, make all the difference. And overall, the best way you can help us is to help your organization thrive. We need you to be our local advocates for exchange programming with Congress and your community.