Different Form Of Foreign Aid Concentrates On Depth, Scale
MICHEL MARTIN, host: As you just heard, the State Department has a number of programs to encourage positive relationships between the U.S. and a number of countries around the world. Now we want to tell you about another program with the aim of using American financial clout to support overseas development. But it's a little different.
The U.S., of course, is a nation of immigrants and many here still help financially support loved ones in their native countries. Last year Americans sent nearly $48 billion to their families and friends outside the U.S. to pay for food or school fees or medical expenses and things like that.
Now the U.S. State Department is starting a new program to encourage first and second generation immigrants to donate money to their home countries in a more formal way to development projects. We wanted to know more about this, so we've called upon Thomas Debass. He's the State Department's director of Global Partnership Initiative and he's the leader of its new Diaspora program. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
THOMAS DEBASS: It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: So, where did this idea come from?
DEBASS: It's mostly from Secretary Clinton when she arrived at the State Department. One of the things that she focused on is the convening power. Obviously the State Department has a tremendous amount of convening power. And what, you know, what do we do with that convening power in terms of other partners, other like-minded organizations that are doing things in the countries that we operate?
And the office of the Global Partnership Initiative was set up by the secretary to focus on the partnership angle. And one area she gave us a mandate on is Diaspora communities. And what can we do with these communities that are doing a tremendous amount of work? And as you've just mentioned on the data, the amount of resources that are flowing from the U.S. to the developing world is - dwarfs the official development assistance that the U.S. government puts on those countries.
MARTIN: Could you just say that again? Because I'm not sure that everyone knows that. You're saying that the amount of money that people send to other countries are in the form of remittances.
DEBASS: Yeah, within the context of the developing world.
MARTIN: Within the context of the developing world actually dwarfs the amount that's actually sent through aid formally.
DEBASS: Exactly. And that's essentially the context that we begin. And once you look at that, then you look at the communities as a partner.
MARTIN: How do you expect this actually to work? What is the concept first of all? Is it the idea that there are certain development projects that someone would identify that people would contribute to? For example, in this country, many schools have the tradition of a brick - an alumni can buy a brick. But it's actually a symbolic contribution to a capital project.
MARTIN: For example. Is it something like that?
DEBASS: It isn't. We're not in the business of identifying projects, in a sense. What we're recognizing is the contribution that these communities are making to the countries - of their countries of origin or heritage they come from. What we're talking about is a scale issue. Obviously these are very grassroots type of projects that these communities are working on.
What is there that we could bring to the table by bringing other partners? Because of the convening power that we have, we can bring in the private sector, foundations and other organizations who can support that type of endeavor that these organizations are doing, then deepening that type of engagement that we want to occur.
MARTIN: How do you deal with the question of attitude that many people have about the countries that they left? I just want to play a short clip from one of our listeners. When we knew that you were coming in, we reached out to many of our listeners. Hayat Abdul(ph) was born in Egypt. She moved to the U.S. when she was 18. She know lives in Kansas City, Missouri. And we asked, you know, what do you give now and what do you think of this idea? This is what she had to say.
HAYAT ABDUL: We send approximately 100, $200, wherever we can afford to send we send. Easier to send it directly to family and that's what we trust - for the money to get into their hand directly, but not to government, charity or any of that. Family needs it more.
MARTIN: Two points she made is I think my family needs it more. And I don't trust these people to spend it.
MARTIN: How do you address that?
DEBASS: Yeah. And our focus is not about remittances. What we're focusing on are other engagements. There are tremendous amount of network and infrastructure where Diasporas are organized around philanthropy, around volunteerism, around other things that are beyond their families, per say, their core families.
These grassroots type of organizations who are engaged in these countries of origin, these are something that we should be commended by the State Department.
MARTIN: So is your office mainly to commend people for doing what they're already doing? Or is there some added value that you're hoping to provide?
DEBASS: No, it goes beyond that. I mean, but, first, you have to convene organizations in a sense in terms of what the broader goal of engagements are. In the forum two weeks ago, the secretary launched (unintelligible) called idea (unintelligible) ideas called International Diaspora Engagement Lines. And we brought in together about 10 organizations to work with us in encouraging and supporting these type of concrete engagements that are happening on the ground.
We're talking about organizations like Envia(ph), Western Union, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank's Africa program, the U.N.'s international fund for Agricultural Development in Rome. So we brought in very strong players to work with these communities to kind of bring scale and sustainability to their engagements.
MARTIN: So, what do you hope to be different, say, a year from now, five years now, as a result of these efforts?
DEBASS: I mean, the key issue I want to bring is the scale issue. Some of these engagements are happening, but these communities are very small in scale. And by bringing in the attention and the partners that are needed - let's say the Iraqi American Doctors Association was doing a small clinic in the middle of somewhere in Iraq, if we can bring the partners for them, then they're doing hospitals rather than small clinics.
So it's - we're bringing essentially depth and scale to the engagements that are already happening on the ground.
MARTIN: So, what's your measure of success?
DEBASS: I mean, the first success if obviously just putting together the form itself. Be as - now, how do we encourage and support these type of activities with our own work? Obviously, as I mentioned that the kind of the data point shows you that their engagements seem to be, at least financially speaking, much more bigger than ours through a development assistance point of view. How do you leverage that? How do we work together?
Because we've done tremendous enough good job in creating partnerships with the private sector. Be that be with the Microsofts, but what have you. Now, we're trying to look at the Diaspora communities from the same lens. They are resourceful, they are engaged. And what are the common denominators that we have, in essence of that - projects that can have common interest.
MARTIN: Is in part your job to get people in these Diaspora communities to view themselves differently? As not just people who are helping out family and friends, but people who are philanthropists?
MARTIN: Is that, in part, what you're trying to accomplish?
DEBASS: But they're not actually doing that. These communities do recognize themselves as multidimensional. The issue is that the broader development community does not view them in such a manner. But obviously it goes beyond our accomplishment. And I will try to take the conversation from pontification to kind of partnership between the Diaspora communities and these private sector organizations, international institutions and the U.S. government and what have you.
MARTIN: OK. Thomas Debass is the director of the State Department's Global Partnership Initiatives. He's leading its effort to encourage Diaspora communities to invest in their home countries and to see that investment in a new way. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios.
Mr. Debass, thank you so much for joining us.
DEBASS: Pleasure. Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.