1. THE PEOPLE-TO-PEOPLE SIDE OF INDIA’S GRIM PANDEMIC NEWS: The COVID-19 statistics that continue to come out of the United States and many countries are numbing. The depressing death figures for India the other day, for example, were hard to comprehend. The country reported more than 4,500 deaths in one day — the worst single-day, COVID-19 death toll anywhere.
That figure was reported about the time a group of former U.S. Embassy public diplomacy officers and staff from the U.S.-India Education Foundation (USIEF) informally received some other sad news from India. Amidst the surge in new infections and deaths, the loss of one individual stood out. On May 18, 2021, a good U.S. Embassy contact and friend, Renuka Gupta, died of COVID-19. She was well-known as the dynamic principal of an innovative girls school and an advocate for educating, training, and empowering rural girls and women in the very poor village of Anupshahar, Uttar Pradesh, an area where many girls drop out of school before completing eighth grade, and either get married or work in the fields.
For almost two decades, Renuka demonstrated her single-minded dedication to a school established in 2000 with 44 girl students by a nonprofit, the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES), which she served as CEO. Its founder was a native son of the village, Virendra “Sam” Singh, retired president and managing director of DuPont South Asia, based in India, and a past board member of the USIEF (Fulbright binational commission) in New Delhi.
Over the years, a number of Embassy personnel visited the village and saw firsthand how the school had developed into a model of how to bring change to a rural community in poverty by giving opportunities to its girls. In an effort to reach younger, non-elite audiences, the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section — through modest donations and a grant — helped the school establish a computer room and improve English teaching. By 2013, the school could proudly boast that it had one of its graduates studying in America. Also, not only did the school grow under the leadership of Renuka and Sam, but the PPES welcomed other partners, including American and other volunteer teachers and development workers, and expanded its activities into health care and livelihood enhancement that reached more than 100 villages.
Renuka’s legacy is a reminder to PD practitioners that ultimately they are in the business of building relationships, connections, and friendships that span “the last three feet.” Renuka and her many eager-to-learn girl students understood — and welcomed — such face-to-face contact. For background on PPES, go to: pardadapardadi.org/about-ppes/
2. BIDEN SQUELCHES “REBRANDING” OF FOREIGN AID: On December 10, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order to “rebrand United States foreign assistance” with a single logo that USAID, State and nearly two dozen other U.S. departments and agencies were expected to use to promote “awareness about the compassion and generosity of the American people around the world.”
The order, issued late in the Trump Administration’s final year, was vague and had career public affairs and public diplomacy personnel, as well as development experts, scratching their heads about how to proceed and what a common, government-wide logo might look like. State was supposed to take the lead. Of course, USAID — which is responsible for implementing the largest amount of U.S. foreign assistance — was especially concerned because so much effort since 2004 has been spent on its current “handclasp” logo and branding and marking requirements so that the clear, consistent message is that “our assistance is from the American people.” For background on USAID’s famous logo, visit: usaid.gov/branding.
On May 14, 2021, President Biden — with no fanfare and little media attention — put the doubters out of their misery by signing a new executive order revoking President Trump’s Executive Order 13964, which was supposed to “advance American influence” through rebranding, but seemed to only confuse those who actually have to explain and administer U.S. aid. (Old PD and USAID hands may remember that in 1992 USAID tried to change its logo to a modern image of the globe, U.S. flag, and USAID prominently displayed. The effort was considered “too radical” and was dropped.)
3. CHINA’S NEW “GOODWILL AMBASSADOR” REPORTS TO WORK: Finally, there is some positive news in U.S.-China relations. May 21, 2021 was a historic day for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which not only reopened to the public, but also introduced its new superstar, giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji (“Little Miracle” in English).
The baby panda, which legally is owned by — and loaned from — China, was born last August 21 to mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian. Xiao’s birth was streamed live on the Zoo’s Giant Panda Cam (http://nationalzoo.si.edu/
In terms of “animal diplomacy,” the baby Panda is not the Zoo’s only so-called “Goodwill Ambassador” to be newly on view since May 21. Indonesian Komodo dragon juvenile Onyi and South American Andean bear Brienne are among other new creatures at the Zoo, which has been closed since November 23, 2020.
Giant panda viewing requires a separate free ticket that you can only get in the Zoo on the day of your visit. For Zoo hours and entry pass information, visit: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/
4. UNITED STATES FARES WELL IN LATEST ASEAN SURVEY: The third annual “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report” has been issued by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. It has some encouraging news on how opinion-makers, policymakers, and thought-leaders in the ten ASEAN nations view the United States.
The findings showed that the region is preoccupied with COVID-19 and the recovery process, but when it comes to topics like “issues of concern,” “perceptions of trust,” and “soft power,” the United States does relatively well. For example, the results show that “the United States makes a surprising turn-around with a 18% jump in trust ratings while the Chinese trust deficit is trending upwards from 60.4% in 2020 to 63% by 2021.” The findings show that “the reservoir of trust in the region towards Washington is surprisingly resilient.” If forced to align in the U.S.-China rivalry, 61.5% would choose the United States, with China dropping from 46.4% in 2020 to 38.5% in 2021. When it comes to preference for tertiary education, the United States remains the region’s top preference (29.7%), followed by the U.K. (19.9%), the EU (13%), Japan (12.4%), and Australia (12.3%).
For the full report, go to: iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/
5.TIPS ON HOW TO HAVE BETTER CONVERSATIONS: Public diplomacy practitioners often cite Edward R. Murrow’s famous “last three feet” remark about the art of effective public diplomacy through face-to-face conversation. They all seem to agree that meaningful conversations are important, but they don’t give much attention to learning how to make quality conversation happen. When, for example, did the Foreign Service Institute train our diplomats on how to converse more effectively so they can be better understood and really connect with their audiences? Whether chit-chatting at a social event or participating in a program, meeting, or negotiation, we can all learn how to have more meaningful human encounters.
Lucy Foulkes, a U.K.-based psychologist and honorary lecturer at University College London, has written a useful article titled “How to Have More Meaningful Conversations.” Although not directed at any particular group, it offers a few new approaches to how individuals can have substantive exchanges that go beyond small talk. Her practical tips on how to “get to the meaningful stuff faster” include “Ask better questions,” “listen to the answers,” “be willing to share something about yourself,” “come ready to learn,” and “be prepared to give and take.” Her conclusion: “Good, deep, meaningful conversations allow us to share something about ourselves, to explore and understand who we are, and to connect with and learn from others. When we get them right, conversations are a fundamental source of pleasure. We just need to try to have them more frequently.”
For the text of the article, which was recently recommended as a “best idea of the day” by The Aspen Institute, go to: https://psyche.co/guides/how-
Dr. Michael H. Anderson is a public diplomacy and Asian affairs specialist with nearly 30 years of Foreign Service experience serving in the US Department of State and the US Information Agency (USIA) and working in South Asia and Southeast Asia. His Public Affairs Officer (PAO) postings included New Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Singapore, Manila and Port Moresby. He also has been a journalist, a teacher, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia, an information officer with UNICEF, and an East-West Center grantee. He is a member of the PDC Board.