About the Author: Andrea Zumbrum serves as a public diplomacy intern in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
U.S. embassies and consulates abroad are uniquely positioned to reach out directly to citizens of other countries to share aspects of American culture. Our partnerships with Binational Centers (BNCs) are one of the best means we have to do so. BNCs serve as educational hubs in both capitals and other cities in many countries. They offer people of all ages — young kids through elderly citizens — opportunities to learn English, access libraries and learn more about American culture.
There are more than 120 BNCs in 18 countries throughout Latin America. The first BNC in Latin America was established in Buenos Aires in 1927 by local leaders, including resident Americans, to promote mutual understanding between Argentina and the United States. Others were established along similar lines in virtually every major city in the region. BNCs were at one point directed and funded by the U.S. Information Agency but are today independent institutions and rank among State’s primary public diplomacy partners in the region.
To better promote this people-to-people diplomacy, State’s Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) Bureau hosted 50 Binational Center Directors and several embassy public affairs officials from Latin America in a conference on “Re-launching the Partnership” between BNCs and the State Department. The conference took place in Washington, D.C. on August 11 and 12, 2009.
BNC conference participants represented the entire region and came from huge metropolises such as Buenos Aires and Lima, as well as smaller regional cities. Brazil alone was represented by 11 BNCs, from Manaus in the Amazon to Londrina in the south. The conference received a huge boost from Franklin Fellow Marsha McLean, who brought decades of private sector management experience to the organization of a dynamic and integrated program.
Conference participants enjoyed keynote remarks from Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale and WHA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Craig Kelly. Both emphasized that BNCs offer a vital form of direct diplomacy. Ambassador Kelly emphasized the importance of “people-to-people” diplomacy achieved through the BNCs, and Under Secretary McHale stressed the importance of two-way diplomacy, where both parties act as listeners and doers.
Over the course of two days, BNC directors heard from State officials who specialize in English-language teaching, educational advising, alumni networking, exchange programs, new media, and library information resources. A conference highlight was a “Café Society” lunch that allowed attendees to participate in small-group discussions with these experts.
Enthusiasm grew over the course of the conference as participants connected and shared ideas for collaborative possibilities. At the conclusion of the conference, BNC directors and embassy representatives left with a renewed sense of direction and purpose in their relationship. BNC Director Claudionor Lobão Borges Júnior, of Maranhão, Brazil, spoke for many when he said in the closing session that the conference represented a true turning point for his BNC, for the State Department-BNC relationship, and for his own professional life.
For a better sense of the activities of a Latin American BNC, check out the website for the BNC in Medellin, Colombia.