Meet the corps of volunteers boosting soft power
WHEN Jim Byrum returned to America in 1970 after a two-year tour of Chile with the Peace Corps, he found himself hankering for Chileans to hang out with. Then he discovered the Columbia Council for Internationals, a volunteer organisation that receives visiting scholars, students, journalists and foreign government officials on State Department fellowships. Half a century later, Mr Byrum remains closely involved with the council, which has 100-odd members. They organise meetings and field visits, potluck dinners and Sunday brunches, and sometimes become friends with their guests.
Mr Byrum is one of thousands of what the State Department call “citizens diplomats” at nearly 90 non-profit organisations in more than 40 states. Each year about 5,000 foreigners visit the United States on the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Participants are chosen by embassies and invited to America for tailored tours. Alumni include more than 500 current or former heads of state or government, including Margaret Thatcher, Nicolas Sarkozy and Indira Gandhi. The programme is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), which also runs the Fulbright programme. But visitors’ hosts are everyday people like Mr Byrum. The State Department reckons some 40,000 Americans participate in programming IVLP.
The scheme has its origins in 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Nelson Rockefeller to be the first coordinator of commercial and cultural affairs. Rockefeller invited Latin American leaders for two-month tours of America, meeting local businesses and officials. The first visitor, Father Aurelio Espinosa Pólit of the Colegio de Cotocollao in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, arrived in December that year. In 1948 Congress made the exchanges official in the Smith-Mundt Act, which laid the groundwork for the IVLP. From the outset, the State Department recognised that volunteer-run groups would be more effective than government propagandists. Even today, says Mr Byrum, visitors “think it’s phenomenal that we’re not told what to say.”
The visitors’ programme provides plenty of bang per buck. In 2017 the ECA spent about $18,000 per participant, almost all of which went back into American pockets. In return, future national leaders go home with new friends and warmer feelings towards America. (Mrs Thatcher once remarked that “the excitement which I felt has never really subsided”; F. W. de Klerk, a former president of South Africa, credited his visit with changing his mind on race relations.) Yet the White House, in its enthusiasm to cut spending, this year proposed slashing the ECA’s budget by 75% to $159m. Congress responded by raising its budget from $629m to $646m. Nearly $100m of that goes to IVLP.
The problem facing the visitors’ councils is not money but manpower. Many of the volunteers who staff them are retired or elderly. Councils do attract some younger members, says Joseph Jastrzembski, who runs the Minot visitors council in North Dakota. But they usually get busy with work or with their own lives, or move away to bigger cities. The pipeline of volunteers is a national problem, says Katherine Brown of Global Ties US, the national co-ordinating body for the councils.
For those who stay, the visitors councils provide a window on the wider world—and on their own regions. “I haven’t travelled a lot,” says Mr Jastrzembski. “So this is my surrogate travel. I get to interact with all these visitors. I get to make friends with people from all over the world. And I get to do things with them in Minot that I normally would not have been able to do.”