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ASPA Collaborates with People-to-People on India Ambassador Program

Chester Robinson

With the collaboration of the Indian government, ASPA embarked on an academic and professional exchange to promote better cultural understanding of mutual public administration issues. The U.S. Delegation was led by Don Klingner, a past president of ASPA, under the auspices of the People-to-People program. The delegation traveled to India during the week of February 22-March 2, 2010. Largely self-nominated, the delegation represented Federal and state governments, non-governmental organizations, and several university public administration programs.

People to People, originally sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency, has been preserved since 1961as a non-governmental organization. Today, it has a presence in 135 countries with more than 80,000 participants. It is dedicated to enhancing international understanding through the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures. At its creation in 1956, President Eisenhower expressed high hopes for the program when he said ‘…I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals’.

A common perception of India by most Americans is that it is a powerful emerging world market force, but lags in modern governmental and societal development. The delegation found this perception is largely correct. In the end, however, the delegates observed why this is the case and, appreciated how other transforming forces helped to shape present day India. These include a very long history, unique geography, diverse demography and culture. The rudiments of India’s heritage were significantly shaped by the rise and decline of Buddhism, a series of invasions from Central Asia, European colonization from 1498–1947, and the rise of today’s Indian nationalism. Governance in India reflects an amalgamation of diverse sub-cultures spread over the country and traditions that are several millennia old.

Professional Program
A series of professional exchanges took place with Indian academic, governmental, and not-for profit counterparts. Discussions were held with representatives of two national agencies: The Institute of Applied Manpower Research is the only multidisciplinary institution of its kind. Created after India’s independence, it functions as a clearinghouse for policy research and informs governmental decision-making. The second was the National Institute of Science, Technology, and Development Studies, which is mandated to study the interaction among science, society, and the state. NISTADS is involved diverse fields such as water resource management, entrepreneurship development, science policy, and resource mapping.

Conferences with academic institutions included the Indian Institute of Public Administration and the Rajasthan Institute of Public Administration. These institutions focus on enhancing leadership and managerial capabilities of government officials through training and other educational activities. Both are extensively involved in research to improve management of public programs.

The final organization visited was the Consumer Unity and Trust Society, a not-for-profit agency that grew from a small voluntary group of concerned citizens operating from a garage on a zero budget in 1983. Today, they operate five program centers and an advocacy center and centers in Africa, United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Switzerland. Their work focuses on consumer protection and safety issues, human development, international trade, and economic regulation.

The manifestations of democratic dialogue in meetings with all five professional groups were apparent. Individuals expressed themselves openly and acknowledged the difficulties our respective countries face in combating poverty, bringing development to rural areas, and the pressures of migration to urban areas. There was recognition that we all benefit from sharing different approaches to solving common public administration problems. This openness was somewhat expected, given that our respective countries constitute the world’s two largest democracies and we share common features, such as federal structure of national, state, and local governments with elections at all levels. India regularly elects 3.2 million officials, primarily local. While we take pride of our diversity, India has 13 official languages with hundreds of additional spoken languages across the country. Despite these similarities, our two countries differ in their domestic and international challenges.

Cultural Component
It would be impossible to fully capture the culture of India in a succinct narrative. Moreover, with a group of 12 very diverse delegates, it is unlikely that a consensus could be reached to describe each person’s cultural experience. India’s languages, religions, dance, music, architecture and customs differ from place-to-place, nevertheless posses a commonality. This cultural richness is reflected in the following delegate comments:

…. People say there is ‘unity in diversity’. Prior to traveling to India, I had not behold the phenomenon because I don’t believe that humans, unlike angels, have what it takes to faithfully and spiritually abide by the principles of ‘unity in diversity’. I was wrong! There is unity in diversity in India.–Sunday Odezah

…It was amazing to see the harmony of the multifaceted transportation venues. What would appear to a U.S. citizen as utter confusion seems to work efficiently in India.–Montrelle Caldwell

…I was struck by the vitality of markets that rim major thoroughfares. The buying and selling of goods and services is pervasive. Neighborhood markets are small shops, hardly more than cubicles, six-to-eight feet wide, and possibly twice as deep. They function independently, no franchises apparent, no evidence of regulation.–Ed Flentje

…Personal space is not a relevant concept in India…. not on the roads, not in communities, commercial areas, not anywhere. We Americans sure can learn some things from India. We lack patience, courtesy and understanding in dealing with others. We probably whine too much about our own privations, which seem quite small in comparison.–Don Klingner

…Women are doing advanced work in the fields of science, engineering, and medicine. I know when my dad entered medical school in India over 50 years ago; half of his class was women. This was not heard of in the U.S. until recently.–Usha Narasimhan

…In India, saying no to the purchase of an item is not the end of the transaction; rather, it is the beginning of the negotiation process. In other words, rejecting the item means rejecting the current price, not the bartering process.–Chanel Winston

…I never thought there were so many uses of cow dung. It is not only used as an agricultural fertilizer, but caked and dried, it is a heating fuel. It is also used to produce a methane rich biogas to generate electricity.–Larry Wright

Final Notes on India
The delegation proved that the ambassador program model can be an incredibly effective mechanism for promoting professional exchanges. People self-select for this type of trip, wanting more than a guided tour and willing to participate actively in order to get a better international experience. We listened to and learned from each other; no one put a strain on the group; and we made lasting professional relationships. The delegation was diverse in many respects–gender, age, race and ethnicity, professional background, country of origin, etc. In this respect, we probably contributed to a better understanding of the U.S. on the part of those we met. Finally, we learned much about how our differing histories, values and conditions shape the way we view public administration as theory, research, practice and teaching.

The program has exceeded what President Eisenhower sought in establishing the program. Over the succeeding decades it has vastly expand and become exceedingly popular. Today, as in the 1950s, there is a continuing need to understand other people and cultures on a personal level. Particularly for us Americans who sometimes view other countries through our own ethnocentric vision. Now when we hear news reports about something happening in India, a comment from a colleague, etc, we will have a deeper contextual understanding. We are now better able to formulate our own independent opinions. So yes, this was a transforming experience that changed the way we think about India. Doing this “walks the walk” on international professional exchanges.

ASPA member Chester Robinson is an associate professor at Tennessee State University. Email: [email protected]

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