Thank you, Kris [Balderston]. Thank you. Well, it truly is a great pleasure for me to have this opportunity to address you and to thank you. I want to start by thanking Kris. He’s worked very hard along with his extremely able staff to make this Global Diaspora Forum a reality. And as he said, he and I have been working together for a long time to try to maximize the potential impact of everything we do to improve the lives of people and to enable everyone everywhere to at least have the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential.
I also want to thank our colleagues from USAID. They are co-sponsoring this conference with the State Department. And I am particularly delighted to welcome our friends from Canada, because working together on diaspora issues makes perfect sense, since both of our countries have been blessed by having so many people from all over the world add to our diversity and our efforts. And so for me, having Canadian involvement in this just makes good sense.
Thanks also to the Migration Policy Institute, The HAND Foundation, Western Union, the OneVietnam Network, and Boom Financial for being such supportive partners. And let me say a special hello to everyone joining us remotely from the Twin Cities in Minnesota and also watching from Massachusetts to Missouri and around the world.
Now, why is this room packed and we have such interest on Twitter and through other means of connectivity? Well, it’s because we all believe that diaspora communities have enormous potential to help solve problems and create opportunities in their countries of origin, because we believe that, as the title of this conference says, we can move forward by giving back. By tapping into the experiences, the energy, the expertise of diaspora communities, we can reverse the so-called “brain drain” that slows progress in so many countries around the world, and instead offer the benefits of the “brain gain.”
Now, in terms of international development and our work to reduce poverty and improve lives, this can be a game-changing effort. But that is not all. It is also a recipe for spurring greater economic growth in the United States as well. And it holds the promise of advancing strategic interests like rebuilding societies after conflicts or disasters and improving relations with key countries.
Now, I saw this myself just two weeks ago when I visited Hanoi with a delegation of American businesses. This is a priority for us, because as I emphasized throughout my trip across Asia, economic growth and political reform are linked and we are supporting both. The business leaders were all buzzing about the opportunities they are discovering in Vietnam’s burgeoning market. But a few savvy entrepreneurs were clearly way ahead of the curve. One was Jonathan Hanh Nguyen. He had left Vietnam as a young man, lived in the Philippines, and then studied in the United States, and when relations between America and Vietnam opened up in the 1990s, he was one of the first to see the economic potential. And he built a thriving business bringing well-known American brands into the Vietnamese marketplace, from designer clothing to fast food pizza, creating in the process thousands of jobs and bringing our countries closer together.
Now, that’s one way the diaspora has and continues to make a difference, but it’s certainly not the only way. One of the founding partners of the International diaspora Engagement Alliance is the nonprofit OneVietnam Network, which uses the power of social networking to connect thousands of people in Vietnam – thousands of people of Vietnamese origin – in 30 countries, with health and development projects on the ground in Vietnam, like a cleft lip and palette clinic in Hanoi or dental missions in rural villages, that makes it easier for members of the diaspora to contribute directly to projects they care about and to see the impact of their donations.
So whether it’s a profitable business venture or an innovative nonprofit, we can see just from the example of one diaspora, namely the Vietnamese diaspora, how you can help bring progress and prosperity to a once closed country.
Now, this story can be and is being replicated in country after country. For instance, we have Katleen Felix here today. She helped launch a new microfinance organization to connect members of the Haitian diaspora with access to capital to businesses and development projects on the ground in Haiti that would not qualify for traditional bank loans. So far, they’ve raised more than $1 million, created more than 760 jobs, and helped fund everything from clean water filters to halt the spread of cholera, to a new hen house in northeast Haiti that is earning income for 100 women.
We created the International diaspora Engagement Alliance to support exactly these kinds of efforts. And I am so pleased that in its very first year the Alliance has already expanded into new and exciting endeavors. The Caribbean Idea Marketplace, for example, is a business competition sponsored by the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, along with the Inter-American Development Bank, Scotiabank, Digicel, and other partners. It is offering up to a million dollars in matching funds to finance innovative entrepreneurial proposals from the Caribbean diaspora to create jobs and economic growth back in the region. The African diaspora marketplace is a similar effort that is already starting, supporting startups like EcoPower Liberia, which distributes an affordable electrical generator that runs on plentiful and cheap agricultural waste, and Promo Tunisia, which is promoting tourism and investment in Tunisia.
And today I’m pleased to announce that we are officially launching a new business competition for Latin America. This is the result of a partnership between the United States Government, Univision, the Inter-American Development Bank, Accion, WellSpace, and Boom Financial. We’re going to find the best ideas and help them grow into successful businesses that create value and jobs throughout the hemisphere.
Now, we have other projects getting off the ground as well – a diaspora volunteer corps that will deploy highly skilled professionals on short-to-medium-term development assignments in the countries of origin; a new mentoring and networking web platform specifically for diaspora members trying to get involved and give back; an online portal created in partnership with the nonprofit Global Giving that will serve as a fundraising clearinghouse for diaspora organizations and initiatives.
We’re working on all these fronts so we can try to help you harness the amazing energy out there to help people around the world lift themselves out of poverty and create new economic opportunities and bring together more partners to take on big, global challenges.
Now, one of those challenges that is front and center right now is the crisis in Syria, where the Assad regime continues to wage war on the Syrian people. We have a number of Syrian Americans here with us today, and I want to recognize the work of Syrian diaspora organizations to shine a light on what is happening in Syria and to carry the concerns of the Syrian people not only onto the pages of American newspapers, but also into the halls of Congress. They’re helping to collect funds and humanitarian assistance for Syrians who are suffering because of this terrible violence, and they’re trying to help those who’ve had to flee their homes and communities – some of them crossing over borders into neighboring countries. They’re serving as a link between the international community and opposition activists on the ground.
We are obviously hoping to work to further a transition that will be bringing the people of Syria together to help form a new government, helping to rebuild the country, helping to avoid sectarian conflict. These are all extremely difficult challenges, but I think our efforts are enhanced by having the members of the Syrian diaspora, the Syrian Americans and others, being able to advise us.
The fact is that the United States has always benefited from the influx of talent and dynamism that diasporas of all kinds bring to our shores. And if you pick up The Washington Post today, you see that Baltimore, among other countries, is actually finally recognizing the importance that immigrants can play in revitalizing cities. And so they are reaching out and inviting – opening the doors of that venerable American city to immigrants from everywhere. Because in fact, we are well aware that our diversity is one of our greatest assets in the 21st century.
I met yesterday with the Prime Minister from – yes, the Prime Minister from Haiti, and he was very clear that they need more support from the Haitian diaspora. We saw that when the earthquake devastated Haiti, communities from New York to Miami and elsewhere in the world sprang into action. And Haiti has the unfortunate standing of losing more of their college graduates per capita than any country in the world. So reversing that, finding ways for people to help and even to move back, is one of the priorities.
Now, when countries across North Africa and the Middle East threw off autocrats and dictators and cried out for skilled professionals to help them build modern economic systems, modern political systems, Americans of Arab descent have been answering that call. And each year, Americans send billions of dollars in remittances throughout the world. In fact, remittances are the largest form of inflows into many, many countries. And what we’re trying to do is figure out how to harness those remittances to do even more than what they are currently doing in supporting individuals and families.
So through the International diaspora Engagement Alliance, through this forum, we’re asking you for your ideas. We’re asking you to help us. Give us the benefit of your experience and insight. We see so many places around the world being torn apart by ethnic, religious, racial, sectarian divides of all kinds. When I walk down the street, as I love to do in New York, and I see people living together and working together whose relatives back in the countries from where they came hate each other, kill each other, it just – it makes me so grateful for our country, but it also makes me so heartbroken that other countries don’t have that opportunity, don’t see beyond moving beyond the past. And I think Americans, like all of you, have such an opportunity to talk with, to support these kinds of changes in minds and hearts. Because democracy is not just an election; democracy is changing the way people relate to one another, work with one another, listen to one another. And there’s no place that has more experience, since we are now the longest-lasting democracy, than we do. And there are no people with more credibility than all of you.
And that’s why we have focused in on the importance of our own diaspora to our efforts here at the State Department. But we can’t do this without your constructive criticism, your ideas, your support. And I hope that out of this forum we will get many, many more ideas. And all the ones that I’ve mentioned today you will learn about and come up with your own, because we have to send a clear, unmistakable call to action to people everywhere. They really can have a better life; they really can see their children do better than they have done; they really can live in peace, one with the other.
I know we have friends from the American Irish diaspora, and I remember meeting with a group of women in Belfast, Ireland about 15 or so, 16 or so years ago from both communities. Now Northern Ireland, as many of you, has been divided not on racial grounds, not on tribal grounds, not on any grounds other than two different branches of Christianity – Protestants and Catholics. And they have been at each other for a long, long time. And then they made a lot of tough decisions to try to figure out how to live with each other.
But in those early days, they really didn’t see each other as fellow human beings. They were different creatures, one to the other. And I remember going to Northern Ireland for the first time and getting together a group of women from the two communities who had never been in the same room with each other. They lived in different neighborhoods; their children went to different schools; they avoided each other every way they possibly could. Each thought the other was illegitimate.
And we started the discussion, and nobody really wanted to say anything. And finally, I just called on a woman. I said, “What are you afraid of?” And she said, “I’m afraid that when my husband goes to work in the morning, he won’t come back alive.” And then I pointed to another woman and I said, “What are you afraid of?” She said, “I’m afraid when my son goes out at night, he won’t come back alive.” I said, “It sounds like you’re afraid of the same things. So there’s got to be a way to reach across the divide of history and begin to talk about what together you can do to ensure that your husbands and your sons, your daughters and your friends, and everyone else has a chance to have a better life.”
When I travel around the world that is what I see as our biggest problem. I see people in one sect of the same religion intimidating, harassing, and even approving of the killing of somebody in the same religion but in a different sect. I see people in different tribal backgrounds convinced that they are going to kill or be killed. What a waste of the great gift God has given us to live our lives in peace, to pursue our own dreams. Are we so insecure about our own beliefs that we have to marginalize and even kill those who don’t share them? I mean, ultimately we’ll all found out who was right, but we’re not going to find out on this earth. (Laughter.) And frankly, I think it’s a pretty big tent up there, where people will be judged individually more than by sect or religion or faith or ethnicity.
So these are big issues. And as part of our diaspora, you have lived in a place, with all of our problems and challenges, that has given more opportunity to more people over a longer period of time than anywhere in human history to live out your own dreams and your own hopes. And one of the great challenges we face in the world today is to convey that to others.
Now, many of the reasons many of you are here is because you did not want to stay where you were from, or your parents didn’t, or your grandparents didn’t, which was my case. They left seeking better economic opportunity, a better future. Some come seeking religious freedom, freedom of conscience, a chance to stretch your own ambition. And it is part of America’s ongoing mission to try to help more people everywhere to have that same chance.
So I thank you for taking time out of what I know are very busy schedules for every one of you to come and trade ideas about how to alleviate poverty and suffering, how to open up doors and minds, and to be part of this ongoing mission of giving every person in the world the chance that you and I have had because of the blessings in this country that I never, ever want us to take for granted.
So I’m looking forward to seeing the results of your work. Thank you all very much.
This post was originally posted by the U.S. State Department, the page can be viewed here.