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The Greatest American Diplomats: International Volunteers

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Forget Condi Rice, Colin Powell, James A. Baker, and the rest. If you're like most Americans, you already have anyway.

The best diplomats the United States has are citizens who travel abroad and serve in communities as volunteers.

Policy, negotiating, trade, intelligence gathering and the like is of course best left to the politicians (and spies), but the most highly skilled, affable, and globally networked State Department official has nothing on volunteers when it comes to changing public opinion internationally. And make no mistake; the status of hearts and minds abroad is of utmost importance when it comes to successful policies, negotiations, trade, and intelligence gathering.

Similarly, while hearts and minds can be highly influenced in the negative by presidents, they are rarely - if ever - changed for the better by such pomp and circumstance. Secretaries of this or that and CEOs don't fare much better. Just ask these guys what they think of visiting diplomats.

Individual thoughts, opinions, and feelings are changed most powerfully and lastingly through shared experience; through looking at another human being in the eye and shaking their hand; through having a well-known face and name to go with what one sees and hears about a country; through working together to overcome a community's challenges as volunteers.

Having served in the Middle East pre and post 9/11, in East Asia, and most recently in East Africa, I've seen first hand just how precipitously global opinion of the United States has fallen. Americans used to be rock stars in small villages around the world. Now we're forced to tell others we're Canadians.

What's truly unfortunate (and indeed scary) is that the desire of many Americans to claim Canadian citizenship while traveling is a much larger issue than some warm fuzzy patriotic feelings. It's a matter of the economy and of national security.

On December 5 - United Nation's International Volunteer Day - Senator Russell Feingold released this statement:

...some of the greatest threats to our national security are based on, or feed upon, a false impression of who the American people are and what we care about. To reverse these erroneous impressions we need to share and make clear the qualities of empathy and kindness that are central to our heritage. American volunteerism abroad is ...one of our best resources to create greater, more meaningful interaction and common points of reference, and to build strong relationships throughout the world.

In short, as David Caprara puts it, "the role of international volunteer service in building bridges across the growing global divides has never been more critical to the future of our nation or global stability."

That's why we're doing something about it. And you can help.

Over the last few months a consortium of leading international volunteer organizations, universities and colleges, corporations, and government agencies called the Building Bridges Coalition has been working collaboratively to double the number of international volunteers serving abroad from 50,000 to 100,000 by 2010.

One of the first steps we've been working on is passing the Global Service Fellowship Act in the House and Senate (H.R. 3698; S. 1464), and you can help by calling your Senator or Congressperson to ask for their support. This is a brief description from Senator Feingold:

The bill reduces two key barriers that Americans face when volunteering overseas - cost and time limitations. First, the Global Service Fellowship Act reduces financial barriers by awarding fellowships that can be applied towards airfare, housing, or program costs, to name a few examples. By providing financial assistance, the Global Service Fellowship program opens the door for every American to be a program participant - not just those with the resources to pay for it.

Second, this bill offers flexibility in the length of time for which an individual can volunteer. I often hear from constituents who do not seek opportunities to participate in federal volunteer programs because they cannot leave their jobs or family for years at a time. The Global Service Fellowship Program provides a commonsense approach to the time constraints of many Americans who seek volunteer opportunities by offering a timeframe that works for them - from a month up to a year.


In a recent poll by the organization Terror Free Tomorrow, it was found that only 19% of Pakistani citizens had a favorable opinion of the US (down from 47% two years ago), however two-thirds said their opinion would significantly improve with the increase of American educational, medical, disaster and humanitarian assistance. I.e. volunteers. We know it works. It did in Indonesia.

It goes without saying that any efforts by (and mere presence of) the Bush Administration will only have a continued negative impact on opinions such as those of the Pakistanis. It's also unlikely that global perspective will change dramatically on January 20, 2009 - whoever happens to have their hand on the Bible that day, and regardless of what trips the elected make in the months following.

The only sure-fire ways to shift global opinion of the United States for the better is with the increased presence of international volunteers like Abdur-Rahim, Marilyn, or any of these folks. With bills like the Global Service Fellowship Program and upcoming efforts by Kevin Quigley and the National Peace Corps Association to increase the Peace Corps, we can actually make it happen.

100,000 Americans traveling abroad in service to communities will not only be more effective than any number of official envoys; it will be more appreciated too.

If you're interested in doing more, here are a couple places you can find ways to serve as an American volunteer almost anywhere in the world:

Cross Cultural Solutions

United Planet

Idealist.org

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