This week, international civil society leaders from the Standing with Civil Society International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) return home following two weeks of citizen diplomacy meetings and discussions in Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York City. During their time in the United States, these civil society leaders shared innovative approaches to advancing citizens’ rights and responsibilities with American citizens and each other.
One phrase of President Obama’s remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York summarized the message they will take home: “The most important title is not president or prime minister; the most important title is citizen.”
Throughout the exchange, the participants explored what it means to carry this title. They examined the concept of community philanthropy at the Greater New Orleans Foundation, where average citizens mobilize their own ideas and local resources to come together to build their own city. They took part in donated food distribution efforts at Feed My Starving Children, recycling at Bridging the Gap, volunteer construction at Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, and community park maintenance with Peace Day Philly. Felesia Muyia from Kenya noted how the “remarkable spirit of volunteerism is taught from a young age. One child was spending her birthday volunteering at Feed My Starving Children. That is how she wanted to spend her birthday.”
Discussions throughout the exchange emphasized the critical role of civic participation in improving government responsiveness, effectiveness and accountability. Haris Azhar from Indonesia remarked, “You can have a high-level discussion, but at some point you need to show your solidarity with concrete action.” Such concrete actions were recognized at the Open Government Partnership’s Open Government Awards, where successful initiatives geared toward increasing citizen engagement in policy-making were celebrated. And through a meeting with the Community of Democracies Governing Council, participants shared their own ideas for concrete actions the Community can take to support, defend, and sustain the work of civil society overseas.
Even on a project management level, the participants took interest in the State Department’s partnership with civil society to implement the International Visitor Leadership Program through the Global Ties network. Raif Mokretar-Karroubi from Algeria observed, “I knew I was coming on a State Department program, but I was surprised to discover that IVLP is a partnership with NGOs and civil society. It shows the team spirit among government and NGOs; they are part of the same team.”
Returning home, the participants now have a deeper understanding of how citizens, ordinary men and women determined to forge their own futures, are the true agents of change and progress. At the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, it is our role is to empower them through citizen diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges.
About the Author: Augusta Babson serves as a Program Officer in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. For more information about the IVLP program and international exchanges, follow @ECAatState on Twitter.