He aha te mea nui?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

What is the most important thing?  It is the people, the people, the people.

There is little or nothing that contributes more to mutual understanding between peoples than visiting each other … getting together … hanging out with each other … working on projects together. All that allows us to appreciate one another better … to talk to each other … to exchange ideas … to see each other as we really are, and not as middlemen choose to portray us to suit whatever their own agendas might be.

So, in my view, one of the coolest things about the State Department is the vast amount of resources and effort devoted simply to bringing people together. We run, sponsor, and facilitate a broad array of exchange programs.

A group of International Visitors from the Sichuan (China) Mountaineering Association celebrating a successful rescue exercise during their visit with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Colorado. State Department Photo.

A group of International Visitors from the Sichuan (China) Mountaineering Association celebrating a successful rescue exercise during their visit with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Colorado.

The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) is the State Department’s premier professional exchange program. The IVLP seeks to build mutual understanding between the American People and the Peoples of other nations through carefully designed short-term visits to the U.S. for current and potential foreign leaders in a variety of fields including education, the arts, government, politics, business, philanthropy, community organizing, and the media.

Students at a school built by Elijah Musenyente upon his return to Uganda, spurred by what he  observed in the U.S. during his 2002 IVLP trip. State Department Photo.

Students at a school built by Elijah Musenyente upon his return to Uganda, spurred by what he observed in the U.S. during his 2002 IVLP trip.

The visits are organized to reflect the International Visitors’ professional interests and are consistent with the foreign policy goals of the United States. The programs are typically 2 or 3 weeks long. Airfare, accommodation, and reasonable per diem living expenses are covered by the Department for the visitors during their trips.

More than 4,000 International Visitors come to the United States from all over the world each year. Since its inception in 1940, the program has hosted more than 200,000 people from around the world … including more than 290 current and former Chiefs of State and Heads of Government … thousands of cabinet-level ministers … and many other distinguished leaders from the public and private sectors.

The IVLP isn’t a secret. It has a webpage. Many of the International Visitors put the visit on their c.v., write about it on their blogs or websites, or otherwise publicize their selection.

The aim of the International Visitor Leadership Program is upfront, honest, and direct – to allow participants to gain a first-hand understanding of the People, diversity, culture, and nature of the United States. We do not ask for anything in return. If participants understand the U.S. a little better based on their personal experiences during their visits, we consider the programs a success. We simply seek to increase the odds that participants’ opinions of the U.S. are accurate and based in reality … not supportive .. not effusive … not even positive … but simply drawn from direct, real, personal experience.

In even the friendliest of places, anti-American prejudice is often reflexive and tarted up intellectually as supposed objectivity or independence. It is also too often based on one-dimensional caricatures or cartoonish distortions passed along second- or third-hand. The IVLP simply seeks to pull opinion-formation into the first-person perspective, where it belongs. Take a look. Have a conversation. Wander around a bit. Kick the tires. Look under the hood. Make up your own mind. And if the experience seeds new ideas, creates new networks, and leads to new projects that help people, then we’ve hit a home run.

103 participants from 95 countries celebrate the start of an IVLP program on volunteerism. State Department Photo.

103 participants from 95 countries celebrating the start of an IVLP program on volunteerism.

So, who exactly gets to be an International Visitor? Some participants are the kind of leaders you may never hear of, but they are people who make a profound impact within their communities. Participants from New Zealand have included environmentalists, university academics, religious leaders, NGO leaders, historians, primary and secondary school teachers, and journalists. There have been leaders from the Pasifika community, from Federated Farmers, and from the Maori Women’s Welfare League. We have sent trade unionists, writers, artists, economists, museum directors, judges, and scientists on such programs.

1982 IVLPer David Lange. Click through for image source.

1982 IVLP alumnus David Lange.

The names of other International Visitors will be very very familiar to you … such as former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange (in 1982), French President Nicolas Sarkozy (in 1985), Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai (in 1987), former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark (in 1998), and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (in 2006). Over the years many New Zealand ministers and party leaders have participated in the IVLP.

We always seek a diverse bunch, because that’s as it should be. Some are friendly to the United States … some, well, not so friendly. We don’t care. We are not asking the leaders and emerging leaders to like us. We just hope that from a little first-hand experience, our respective peoples and nations will get to understand one another better … even, quite frankly, if that exposure results in well-informed loathing.

We hope that connections will form and that the exchange of ideas will occur at all levels of society. We try to choose leaders, potential leaders, and other people who will be able to share their experiences with others when they return to their home countries.

A group of International Visitors exploring America. State Department Photo.

A group of International Visitors exploring America.

One group of people that is especially well-placed to share their first-hand impressions – positive or negative – is the media. Over the years I think we’ve included journalists from just about every mainstream media organization in New Zealand. Folks from TVNZ and TV3 are on the list of past participants. The radio networks are represented. NZPA is there. So are the NZ Herald, the DomPost, the Christchurch Press, the ODT, the Sunday Star Times, and the Herald on Sunday.

And, because journalists are so important, in 2006 the State Department began running a specially tailored IVLP for the media known as the Edward R. Murrow Program. In just the few short years since then, the Murrow Program has welcomed to the U.S. more than 750 foreign journalists from at least 125 countries.

A few non-media International Visitors, participating in a Washington-area civic volunteerism project. State Department Photo.

A few non-media International Visitors participating in a Washington-area civic volunteerism project.

Participants write to us saying things like:

“I didn’t want to waste any time in thanking you all for what was a fantastic program and – excuse the cliché – an opportunity of a lifetime. Not only was it a great chance to look at how the US was dealing with journalism at such a pivotal time for the industry, but also an invaluable experience to meet and interact with Americans from all walks of life. There were so many highlights, which I’ll make sure I get to share with you all soon.”

Former California First Lady Maria Shriver with a group of International Visitors. State Department Photo.

Former California First Lady Maria Shriver with a group of International Visitors.

I am so very proud that our IVLP program allows some of New Zealand’s most incisive, perceptive, and objective minds to see and judge for themselves.

I am also very proud that American programs like this can be found on the sponsors’ public websites, for everyone to see. There is no need to rummage around in trash cans in back alleys, to hack or tap, or to tail politicians leaving the country in dark glasses and false moustaches to find the info.  For more information please simply visit: exchanges.state.gov/ivlp/ivlp.html.

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.