Tara Sonenshine’s Remarks at the 2012 Global Diaspora Forum


It is a pleasure and honor to address so many members of the diaspora community. As you have heard from Secretary Clinton, and others, you are a key constituency for the State Department for so many reasons. And I am delighted at the progress of our International diaspora Engagement Alliance – or IDEA – as we continue to find ways to work with you, and support the great work you do.

I’d like to talk about one more important component – which is public diplomacy – and how important you are to that essential pillar of our foreign policy. I’d also like to provide some examples of the ways that we are working to support and leverage your efforts, so that you can help even more people around the world.

The tradition of diaspora communities reaching out goes back a long way. There’s a New York Times article from 1903, which tells about Swedish-Americans staging a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. They were raising money for victims of the great famine that devastated Northern Scandinavia.

In Christmas of 1906, immigrants sent home the equivalent of $190 million in remittances to Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, and Russia.

So, why do diaspora communities continue to reach out? It’s because our need for connection – with family and the countries of our heritage – is hardwired into our DNA. It’s what makes us human. It exists beyond any geography that separates us.

It lasts beyond the layers of time that separates us from our ancestors. That capacity to care is why so many members of the diaspora community – like everyone in this room – send remittances to loved ones. The numbers speak for themselves: When we add all that money together – all those checks sent to families abroad – it accounts for more than any government’s foreign assistance.

Not only that, you are the ones who tend to respond first to crises in your former homelands – and in public diplomacy terms, that’s makes all of you cultural ambassadors. That is, someone who can do the work of diplomacy or development in a very personally directed way.

When a community of people helps a community of people in another country, it means that both nations are connecting. And that is public diplomacy writ large.

At my department, our mission is to find innovative ways, as well as strengthen existing ways, to support those people-to-people connections. The diaspora community is central to that – especially when you consider that more than 62 million people in the United States are first or second generation members of the diaspora.

As the Economist pointed out, the Chinese diaspora – outside mainland China – is larger than the population of France. More than 22 million ethnic Indians are scattered across every continent. That’s a lot of people power.

So if we can take advantage of your personal contacts and local expertise, your abilities to bridge cultural gaps, and your willingness to step in, there is so much we can do.

In a broad-based way, we are working to support all people, through our many educational, professional and cultural programs and exchanges … through our outreach at embassies … and through our American Centers where we can represent our values abroad and teach English so that people can embark on new careers.

But government can’t do everything. So we have to act as goodwill brokers and catalysts – putting together partners for positive change. We convene and coordinate with partners in the public and private sectors. We identify people doing great work, like the diaspora community.

We work to support your efforts to help families, give angel funds to entrepreneurs, rescue evacuees, volunteer to teach in some of those American centers, or build schools, or invest in communities – and all those hundreds of things you do.

There are so many ways in which you can be positive influences.

Pakistani-Americans, for example, are providing us with insight and ideas into how we can reduce misunderstandings and build trust with the Pakistani people. We are working with our embassy officers in Pakistan to place Urdu-speaking Pakistani-Americans on Pakistani TV networks to provide perspectives on U.S.-Pakistan relations and life in the United States.

We are also engaging with the Pakistani-American community to examine ways to boost trade and investment ties between the countries.

Our cultural programs keep us connected too. Last month, a large Pakistani-American contingent turned out to see two well known Pakistani music acts at the Kennedy Center: Singer-songwriter Arieb Azhar and the rock band Noori.

Through our International Visitor Leadership Program – known as IVLP – we bring over 5,000 leaders from around the globe to meet with their professional counterparts in the United States.

Many of those counterparts come from the diaspora community. For example next month, ten Sri Lankans will come to the United States as IVLP participants to focus on post-conflict reconciliation. They will examine ways to encourage diaspora-financed investment in reconstruction projects in the Sri Lankan north and east.

Let me take this opportunity to urge U.S. graduate students from diaspora to apply to our Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship. This fall, we will inaugurate the first group of approximately 20 Fulbright Public Policy Fellows.

This program provides opportunities for Fellows to work with citizens of other countries to build mutual understanding on public policy challenges and strengthening the public sector abroad. Fellows will work on their academic research projects while working for a year as public policy special assistants to senior government officials in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala, Cote d’Ivoire, Thailand, Tunisia, and Bangladesh.

Through my department’s interagency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications – or CSCC – and others at the State Department, we are working to fight violent extremism by hosting online training for the Somali diaspora – bloggers in cities from Nairobi to Copenhagen.

We are also showing diaspora communities in Kenya and elsewhere a documentary called Broken Dreams. This film details the destructive effects on a Somali-American community when terrorists recruited young men to fight and die in Somalia.

These are just some of the ways we are reaching out to the global diaspora. And I encourage you, not only to continue the great work you do, but to reach out to us. Together, we can build more bridges of support, understanding and empowerment to those people around the world – who matter so much to you.

Thank you.


About Tara Sonenshine: Tara D. Sonenshine was sworn in as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs on April 5, 2012. Tara was formerly Executive Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace. Prior to joining the United States Institute of Peace, she was a strategic communications adviser to many international organizations including USIP, the International Crisis Group, Internews, CARE, The American Academy of Diplomacy, and the International Women’s Media Foundation. Ms. Sonenshine served in various capacities at the White House during the Clinton Administration, including Transition Director and Director of Foreign Policy Planning for the National Security Council and Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Communications for the NSC. Please click here to continue reading her bio.