A Tale from the Field about Religion, Culture, and Perception

By Gregory L. Garland

Matt's blog has become a force to behold in the discussion about strategic communication, public diplomacy, and State/DOD relations. It has shined a light on what largely was a rarified, inside-the-beltway debate symptomatic of the old USIA's domestic blank spot. What has been lacking are stories from the field outside the U.S. - examples of PD as it actually is conducted by PD professionals. Here's one from my own experience that in many ways is typical.

I've run effective PD programs that didn't cost Uncle Sam anything except my own time. I've run next to useless PD programs so flush that I couldn't spend all the money Washington showered upon me. And I've run just about everything in between those extremes. As every experienced PAO knows, basic human grit, skill, and talent will go far in assembling a program, but a little bit of cash always helps. And it doesn't have to be much, especially when compared to what other agencies spend.

There's no better example than the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, one of PD's most enduring and successful programs. Despite its name, the Fund is actually managed out of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in Washington. A relatively small program, it has about a $5.5 million worldwide this fiscal year. From a field perspective, here's how it worked when I was in Mozambique several years ago.

I had been at the job as PAO at the U.S. Embassy in Maputo, Mozambique for only a few weeks when the time came to solicit proposals for the program. Above all, that meant advertising in the print media because that's the way it had always been done. I broke out of the mold a bit by placing a notice on the Voice of America's Portuguese-to-Africa broadcast and our still infant mission public webpage (social networking? not quite yet.). I also spread the word (and background material) in my person-to-person outreach, usually the most effective communication in Africa.

Perhaps a hundred grant proposals came in by the deadline, most by surface mail and the rest by fax in a country still lacking general email accessibility. Believe me, many would never have seen the light of day in a foundation's office back in the USA. Several good ones were hand written in an elegant penmanship extinct in the United States but alive and well in Portuguese-speaking Africa. Others were simply poorly drafted.

One caught my eye. It wasn't because of the quality but the potential of the proposal. It came from the Presbyterian Church of Mozambique, itself unusual in a pool of proposals mostly from government offices or local NGOs linked to town and provincial governments. This one didn't have the smell of being drafted by a foreigner or having been recycled among the Western donors in hope of hitting the jackpot, the symptoms that every PD and USAID officer learns to recognize fast.

In a nutshell, the church proposed renovating several historical buildings in the Swiss Mission, located about a two-hour drive north of Maputo. The Swiss Presbyterian Church (Église Évangélique Réformé) established the community in the late 19th century as a teaching, health, and agricultural complex, a model common to much of sub-Saharan Africa. It quickly became a magnet for black Mozambicans in search of the schooling the colonial regime did not offer, the kind that taught literacy in their own African tongues and practical skills. It was the school where national icon Eduardo Mondlane had studied when he first left home in the 1930s and that opened the doors that made him the man he became. Part of the proposal aimed to preserve the very tree under which Mondlane (in true African style) took many of his classes. I had to clarify that particular part.

This being the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the Ambassador naturally had the last word at post, so I made the case to her for the Swiss Mission grant in the context of religious outreach (keep in mind that this was three years after 9/11). She accepted my recommendation, but we only prepared and submitted the proposal; Washington made the final decision according to the program's strict criteria. It helped that the Mozambican government had already designated the Swiss Mission a national heritage site.

In point of fact, that designation was based on the site's architectural and cultural, as well as historical, significance. The utilitarian Swiss adapted traditional African designs to introduce a new style of architecture uniquely suited to the region's hot, humid climate. Over time this style became a standard in much of the country, one that replaced the medieval Iberian stone of the Portuguese and, in the north, the Islamic forms intended for the dry conditions of the Arab heartland.

In addition, I noted that the most important single American influence in twentieth-century Mozambique was the mind of Eduardo Mondlane. Educated at Oberlin College, trained as a PhD in Melville Herskovits's African Studies program at Northwestern, and a professor at Syracuse University, he married an American woman, who founded the FRELIMO's first school, the Mozambique Institute in Dar es Salaam. The pragmatic, non-ideological, and consensus oriented approach he took to freeing his own country flowed from ten years in the U.S., his American education, and the utilitarian nature of the Swiss Mission and a similar American Methodist mission in Inhambane province, where he worked for two years as a youth minister. This was a far cry from the image of a bearded Communists' lap dog painted by much of the American media, although that impression still lingered in the U.S. 35 years after his death in 1969 by letter bomb at the hands of the Portuguese secret police.

I communicated by email and telephone with a team in Washington that appeared to like the application, but raised Constitutional concerns about separation of church and state. None of the funds could go toward renovating a building that had a purely religious function, such as the chapel. Nonetheless, where a building had a non-sectarian or even dual uses, such as for classrooms, it was acceptable. At the end of the day, some of the church's plan was deleted from the proposal, but the essential core stayed. After what seemed an interminable period, I learned that the church would receive the grant of about $30,000.

To be sure, the church was pleased but somewhat surprised. U.S. support would serve in part as seed money to attract other donors, so there was a way to go in financing the whole project. Nevertheless, we both recognized the significance of the grant. It happened at the peak of the heated rhetoric of the Global War on Terror, so church officials were "realistic" (their own word) in thinking that the supposed new American emphasis on religion was code for an obsession with Islam, and thus a bias in favor of funding Islamic, not Christian, projects. The grant nudged that perception toward an appreciation that Americans understood the importance of religion in general, not just one faith.

Speaking in elegant Portuguese at the well-publicized announcement ceremony, the Ambassador linked Mondlane both to his mission schooling and his American education, declaring him to be the emblematic American-Mozambican legacy. She added that it happened because of the work of private citizens and private organizations - churches and universities.

Consequently, word got out that the Americans were interested in the religious heritage of the country. I found myself answering inquiries from Protestant and Catholic churches in the unlikeliest of places. Moreover, word spread to the important Muslim minority. For the next cycle of applications to the program, we received hundreds of proposals, perhaps a third of which were from religious organizations of various kinds.

One smallish grant opened unexpected doors and uncovered decades of lingering goodwill toward America.

Gregory L. Garland, a Foreign Service Officer in the public diplomacy cone, is currently a Research Fellow at the National Defense Intelligence College. This comment represents his personal views and not those of the U.S. Department of State, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the U.S. Government.

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