Sister Cities: the quintessential and yet underappreciated public diplomacy program

On September 11, 1956, three years after creating the United States Information Agency, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the People-to-People program within USIA by saying:

I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals.

Indeed, in May 1947, in testimony to Congress in support of pending legislation on the promotion of comity among nations and information programs, Eisenhower stressed that

real security, in contrast, to the relative security of armaments, could develop only from understanding and mutual comprehension.

Sister Cities International and People-to-People are products of Eisenhower's citizen diplomacy initiative launched over fifty years ago. The mission of Sister Cities is to foster direct engagement between US cities and communities abroad with the purpose of creating cultural understanding and awareness through direct person-to-person contact by inspiring private citizens to travel abroad and to host citizens from outside America. It was, and remains, a quintessential public diplomacy program. 

Today, despite its impact, Sister Cities is underappreciated. Today, the over 650 US communities that partner with more than 2,000 sister cities in 135 countries do more than just student, culture, and art exchanges. The members of Sister Cities operate extensively in the areas of humanitarian assistance, economic and sustainable development, education, and technical assistance. This includes helping locally elected officials in Iraq develop city budgets to providing assistance to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan and Iraq to post-disaster assistance. In other words, the Sister Cities network does the work of the State Department and USAID, but at the municipal level. 

As a testament to its grassroots power, nearly all of the funding for these activities comes from outside the city councils on the US side of the arrangements. The current economic situation, coupled with a reduction in federal grants, Sister Cities programs are facing cutbacks.

The long term return on investment to the American community, the foreign community, and the US in general can easily be forgotten, especially in the absence of even verbal support from Washington. Cost effective as it is, the State Department, White House, and Congress should encourage the grassroots engagement of Sister Cities and similar programs.

While money in the way of grants or other monetary assistance would be beneficial, something as simple as a letter of acknowledgement would go a long way. For example, this could be helpful in the case of Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth is an anomaly in the Sister Cities network in that the municipality directly funds activities. Due in part of the economy but also possibly because of a lack of appreciation for the strategic value of its contribution to America's public diplomacy from both the city and Washington, the mayor and city council of Fort Worth are considering cutting in half the city's Sister Cities budget. The planned cut will effectively eliminate their ability to conduct any exchange programs.

President Eisenhower recognized the value of grassroots programs like Sister Cities. Today we should do more to support organizations like Sister Cities International that foster people-to-people interactions that directly leverage the strength of our nation to do more than just create awareness but help people around the world raise themselves up.