Citizen diplomacy spreads the best ideas America has to offer around the world | Opinion

Leslie V. Rowe
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Citizen diplomacy spreads the best ideas America has to offer around the world | Opinion

Whether it be in Venezuela, Syria, North Korea or Ukraine, international events recently have sparked a lot of discussion about U.S. diplomatic engagement with other nations.

Although some see diplomacy as benefits that the United States provides and other nations receive, there is much more to it. As a career diplomat, and now as a citizen diplomat through Global Ties Miami, I know that Americans, and South Floridians in particular, gain as much as we give through international exchanges.

As U.S. ambassador to Mozambique in 2012, I oversaw the selection of 15 Mozambican health professionals that we sent to Miami to learn how America deals with HIV/AIDS. This was a crucial issue in Mozambique, then a country of 26 million people, where one in 10 was HIV positive. The rate was not as high as in neighboring South Africa or Botswana, where 25 percent to 30 percent of the population had the disease, but devastating nonetheless.

Before they left for the United States, I hosted the group for coffee to hear about their work with HIV-positive Mozambicans. When they returned, I hosted them again to hear what they had learned.

I thought I knew a lot about HIV/AIDS. I had overseen our embassy health grants in Kenya and Papua New Guinea. Closer to home, I lost two close friends to the disease in the 1980s and learned its devastating effect in the United States. But what I learned from our Mozambican exchange visitors was eye-opening. I gained an understanding of and a deep appreciation for the specific challenges facing health workers and their patients in Miami, New Orleans and Washington D.C., the three cities that the health professionals had visited.

On the Florida leg of their trip, thanks to excellent coordination by Global Ties Miami, there was an amazing exchange of ideas between Mozambican and U.S. health workers. Not only did they return more aware of the specific challenges in the United States, they also expressed surprise and satisfaction at how valuable sharing their own experiences had been for their American counterparts.

We sent the group to the United States to learn from us and hopefully apply our country’s best practices to combat HIV/AIDS. But we hadn’t anticipated how much that exchange had benefited American healthcare workers, as well.

For 60 years, Global Ties Miami (formerly Miami Council for International Visitors) has facilitated educational and cultural exchange tours for emerging and established global leaders in business, government and civil society. Every year Global Ties Miami hosts about 300 participants as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. Recent exchange visitors have included environmentalists and engineers from Latin America; entrepreneurs from the African continent, Haiti, Spain and Kyrgyzstan; park conservationists from India; and disability-rights activists from Taiwan and Uzbekistan.

When exchange visitors come to South Florida, Global Ties Miami organizes their professional appointments and connects them with local residents to share a meal or attend a cultural or sporting event. Since joining Global Ties Miami, my husband and I have shared dinners with exchange visitors from Argentina, the Dominican Republic, India, Kenya, Panama, Tunisia and Uganda.

I’m still learning much about the world from the people we host. Many of the visitors say that, while professional meetings are interesting, getting together socially with Americans is invaluable. In two upcoming programs, South Floridians will have an opportunity to meet educators from Germany, Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada.

Time and again, I have seen how visitors educate us as much as we teach them. In 2016, Miami received a group of African healthcare professionals whose visit happened to coincide with the Zika outbreak in Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention organized sessions to show the visitors best practices to control mosquito-borne viruses. But the meetings quickly morphed into a working group on how to adapt our visitors’ experience combating Ebola in Africa to fighting Zika in Florida.

As a former U.S. diplomat, and now a citizen diplomat, I couldn’t be clearer about the benefits diplomacy brings: connecting with talented people from around the world and with globally minded South Floridians; meeting visitors from countries I’ve always wanted to visit; brainstorming solutions and gaining insights into challenges that are best addressed through collaboration and fresh perspective.

These are the gifts diplomacy gives us.

Leslie Rowe represented the United States in nine countries as a Foreign Service officer. She serves on the board of Global Ties Miami (globaltiesmiami.org).