1,500 exchange students – and more

Throughout 2015, the US Department of State has been Celebrating 75 years of international exchange programs. The Department administers exchange programs for more than 50,000 participants each year. Immediately after the end of World War II the United States recognized that information and ideas can have greater impact and sought to improve international relations by bringing people of different countries together. The US Department of State formed a Division of Cultural Relations, which launched a program of travel grants for visits to the United States by leaders in various fields. This program marked the beginning of what would become the International Visitor Leadership Program. Eventually, other programs like the Fulbright Program and the Mandela Washington Program commenced. Bruh Yihunbelay of The Reporter sat with David Kennedy, Public Affairs Officer at the US embassy in Addis Ababa, for an exclusive interview to discuss the anniversary, future programs and other pertinent issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Can you tell us about the exchange programs in the United States? How did it start and what were the main reasons?

David Kennedy: Exchange programs and public diplomacy in the United States have a long history. They started formally after World War II. The goal was focusing on connecting Americans with foreign audiences around common values. It's what we call people-to-people exchanges. Early programs such as that were the Fulbright Program, which was established in 1946. There is also the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

These were early programs whose goal was to link Americans with emerging leaders – preferably young people in foreign countries – around common values. And I think the reason for that is that the United States always feels that people-to-people exchanges around common values are an incredibly powerful tool. There is your traditional foreign policy tool and there is that tool which has been a key element of US foreign policy since World War II. It has grown through the years to include multiple programs. It now includes cultural exchanges, music exchanges and art exchanges but originally started as a core element of just connecting peoples. And it has grown significantly over the years.

What was the nature of exchange programs during the Cold War with particular reference to Ethiopia?

It's very interesting you asked that question because I think Ethiopia captures some of the changes. The Cold War did play an important role in this and there is no doubt about it. The original exchanges were between the United States and countries in the western hemisphere but then expanded. In the Cold War it was a battle of ideas – communism vs western-styled democracy and that's where the United States felt that people-to-people exchanges and free exchange of ideas were very important because we felt and still feel that ideals of democracy were strong, were the right ideals for a society. So what we had back then was something called the United States Information Agency, which was a combination of cultural programs and educational but also information programs including the Voice of America.

That's not what we are focusing on right now in terms of cultural exchanges but it was an important part of exchanges of ideas. I, for example, started my career in the 1980s working on cultural exchanges in the Soviet Union. I was on an exhibit program that toured the Soviet Union on cultural programs; just talking about American society because we felt that all we had to do – in that respect – was to talk about America and that was a very powerful message to a closed communist society. And the power of images and words continus to be very important and we believe that even today. When we come to Ethiopia, back in the days of Emperor Haile-Selassie you didn't have as much the battle of ideas, I mean there was a very open exchange of people between the United States and Ethiopia. There  were sports people that came, educators came; there was a very robust exchange of ideas that in many ways today formed the basis of continued cooperation and good will between our two countries. There was an interruption during the Derg and then continued afterwards with a very robust educational exchanges. Many of the presidents of the universities in Ethiopia studied in the United States on US exchange programs.

There were cultural figures like Duke Ellington – a jazz great who played with Mulatu Astake. More recently even this year we had a very famous vocal group – Sweet Honey In The Rock – come to participate in a cultural program. It's in the same tradition of touching between two peoples. Ethiopia and the United States have very long relations, which is over a hundred years, and the first exchanges were in the 1920s and 1930s; that is in a different sense, and then formally in the 1950s. And they still continue today. For example the current Prime Minister of Ethiopia is an alumnus of an exchange program. We hope that it was a good program for the Prime Minister. And we hope it helps him and leaders understand us. Part of the goal of an exchange program was not to convince somebody of something but just have them understand how the United States works. So leaders of Ethiopia can understand that better so that we have a better common understanding of each other.

I would like to follow up on that. When we look at the alumni it is quite an interesting bunch. We have Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, Professor Mesfin Woldemarim and Professor Beyene Petros. These individuals have different political views. It seems that the exchange programs are accommodative irrespective of political orientations. Would you care to reflect on that?

We have a range of exchange programs. One of the most important ones is one that the aforementioned individuals participated in – the International Visitor Leadership Program. That's a global program and what has been good about that program is that it is designed for people who aren't fully leaders yet but even though the Prime Minister was the president of the Southern Regional State at that time. However, many of them are younger people with potentials to be leaders in their society. They could be in the cultural area, they could be in the journalism area, civil society, political or even business. It's a good program because often-times people are involved in it before they are too important but are rising. Hopefully, we can find people who would become influential; not just to influence them but so they understand the United States better.

In these programs they do some work in their area of profession like it could be on how governments work or municipal governments work. It also involves programs like visits to American families or visits to American cultural events in different regions. So these people come back with a better understanding of how the United States works; how rural and urban America work. I think it goes back to the original question. It's a foreign policy tool and we think that's important because it helps inform people better and they can make their own decisions. I would also like to add that there are other exchange programs for young people and college students. We even have high school programs here. Sometimes not as much exchange but we invest in high schools to teach students American English and learn about the United States and participate in regional programs. And, of course, there are many programs for university scholars to go study at American universities. Generally, these programs are for people who are seeking to advance in a professional sense.

Most of the exchange programs focus on leadership, academic subjects and culture. Are there any programs that focus on business, trade and commerce?

Most of the exchange programs can address business equally well. But there is no specific focus on commercial areas. However, last year and this year we had a program in the IVLP where people from Ethiopia traveled to the United States to study about developing entrepreneurship in a region. It could be a government approach but covers areas like how to establish trade associations or chambers of commerce. It is not directly commercial like sending businesspersons to the United States but it can benefit significantly. Still there is the Mandela Washington program, which has three parts. One is governance, the other is civil society and the last one is economics. So you can have people who have worked either as entrepreneurs or people who have started businesses participate in that. Commerce is a strong part of it but I wouldn't say it's the core.

The focus is on governance, civil society, education and youth. I will say as you very well know in the United States we have a very strong focus on the private sector and it's a very strong partner in the United States government so all components include a very strong exposure and involvement with the private sector. We have other parts of the embassy that work on that much more in developing private sector approaches.

Let's talk about funding. Some members of Congress did not see the relevance of having  exchange programs anymore. Are there any issues when it comes to funding?

In the United States we always have a problem with funding. We're always having to explain and justify our budgets to Congress. It's a hugely important dialogue in the executive branch and the congress because they give us our money. So we have to constantly explain the relevance and importance of these programs. Let me give you an example. The United States for many years and up to the Cold War had a very active program of cultural centers around the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union Congress thought it wasn't that important anymore so many were closed including one in Addis Ababa. There used to be an American Cultural Center in Piazza. However, that has changed and now we have explained and returned to the point of convincing Congress of the importance of centers like that. They are foundations for linkages between young people, for people to come and see culture and learn about one another. Right now we are in the process of launching a new center in cooperation with the National Archives and Library Agency. The center will be open to the public providing information and a lot of programs targeting young people in particular.

It's an example how things come and go. Another example was Congress was questioning the relevance of Fulbright programs in today's digital and internet world and the value of sending a scholar to another country for 10 months when people can just do everything by skype. Well I think the State Department and the White House argued successfully against that and preserved that. Some money was shifted to support digital outreach but still the bulk of it remain very strong. Congress, rightfully so, ask questions and we had to show the value of these programs. So we still have a good Fulbright program and a lot of exchange programs. However, we think we can have a bigger one because Ethiopia is such a dynamic, vibrant country of 100 million people and it's up to us to continually explain why we seek a bigger program. The Mandela Washington Program is a good example of why it should be a larger program for a country of Ethiopia's size and we are working hard to explain that.

So we always have that dynamic and Congress is always looking to move money elsewhere. I will say for Congress in strong defense of them that it is the right role for them. In fact they come and visit here and there was a delegation that came here to visit a few weeks ago. They had a very good visit and understand our policies and programs better.

You said that a new American center is going to be established here in Addis Ababa. Will you have similar setups in the regions?  

This is something that we are trying hard to expand and make more dynamic. We do have some smaller partnership in the regions. They are called American corners and we have small ones in Jimma, Bahir Dar, Dire Dawa and Harar. They are in partnership with local institutions that offer access to American information, small libraries and internet for students and any members of the community for that matter. The one in Addis will be a flagship and will be a larger one.

There is already an American corner there in the library so when this renovation is completed it will be a larger, more dynamic platform for programs. This gets back to the original discussion of establishing the foundation for good engagement between youth and young professionals whether they are lectures, seminars, exhibitions or movies. We have this one in Addis and hopefully will be fully renovated and be ready in a few months.

Considering the number of years the two countries started diplomatic relations do you think 1500 is a good number of alumni from Ethiopia who participated in the exchange programs?

Exchanges in Ethiopia aren't a full 75 years and it was interrupted for a little less than a decade during the Derg regim. Regardless of that, it is not enough and there is tremendous room for growth. So what we are doing the course of September is highlighting the exchange programs. We started out with an exhibition at the National Museum. We also sponsored the premier of a film by Ethio-Amercian filmmaker, Yared Zeleke, Lamb, which hopefully would compete in the Oscars next year; that would be fantastic.

This is an example of the exchanged we would like to build on. We also have a large event at the end of the month where we are going to bring many of these alumni together to talk about how can they contribute to strengthening these programs and how can we as partners work with the alumni and other organizations to do more of these and expand these. 1500 is a good number but it is by no means a sufficient number for a country of this size so we would like to expand that. And at the end of the month we also have another program to highlight some of the cultural programs. We will have an American dance group coming as part of the Crossing Boundaries Festival. All these are examples of a very vibrant cultural exchanges between the United States and Ethiopia which has tremendous potential to grow significantly and that is what we are hoping to do.

Was John Robinson part of an exchange program?

John Robinson is a great example but he was not part of any of the official government programs. However, he was a classy example, who happens to be an inspiration to many Americans, of what people-to-people exchanges can be. The US government promotes people-to-people exchanges and John Robinson followed his own ideals and came to work with Ethiopia in the 1930s and I am sure you know that he helped Ethiopia develop some capacity in air power while fighting the fascist Italians. That was a great example of a people-to-people interaction. He volunteered to do that and helped build trust between our two countries that continued today. The Ford family is another example of Americans who came here to establish a school. These were done outside of the government but that's where we in the government take inspiration from and hope to foster more Robinsons and Fords and strengthen our relations.