Standing together rather than standing alone is a concept promoted in the modern globalized world. No country can survive in isolation devoid of the influence of the powerful states. As a developing country, Sri Lanka is no exception to this general trend. Under these circumstances, it is of utmost importance that we inform ourselves as to the foreign policy, political mechanisms, socio-economic and cultural dynamics of powerful nations.
As a Sri Lankan journalist representing one of the leading print media in the country, I was fortunate to be selected as the Sri Lankan representative for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) which enabled the participants to obtain a comprehensive and timely knowledge as to the inner political mechanisms of the global superpower; United States of America.
IVLP is a program with seventy three years of history and I was selected to represent Sri Lanka in the year 2014. The program ran for about one month mainly based on Washington D.C, California, Jackson, New Orleans and New York. The theme of the 2014 IVLP that I took part was “Journalism and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
The program was initiated from Washington, D.C and topics of discussion included the role of free press in a civil society, impact of social media on foreign news reporting, media coverage of foreign policy and diverse perspectives on defense and security. Mr. Akram Elias, President and CEO of Capital Communications Group, Inc. conducted a special lecture on ‘Overview of the U.S. Federal System of Government’. As an expert of U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic relations and being a direct correspondent with the American Government, Mr. Elias presented a balanced and independent opinion, while not hesitating to raise relevant criticism of the American political and constitutional structure, which indeed was a novel experience as to demonstration of administrative autonomy.
Among many invaluable discussion, one that stood out was the one concerning the direct relationship between the government and the civil society. American civil society exerts a strong influence over public policy making through non-government organizations. These organizations are established by the civil society and voice public interests and concerns at relevant forums thereby ensuring that expectations and needs of the civil society are heard in policy making forums. One major difference between these organizations and the NGO’s in Sri Lanka is that in U.S. NGO’s are mainly focused in articulating the demands of common people or mainly advocating for common people while Sri Lankan NGOs are restricted within their narrow political agendas.
We could had the opportunity to meet some officials who represent the main ‘Think Tanks’ in Washington. Though Think Tank is a novel concept for us, there are many such units actively functioning in America. These organizations are responsible for introducing and recommending new policies to the government. Intellects from political field and other expert areas contribute to the policy development in these organizations and it is of significant value that all these organizations being non government bodies and functioning without the influence of the government or political bodies. I felt the necessity to establish such Think Tanks in Sri Lanka including intellects from various fields to help policy making which will have a significant impact on developing policies for the country.
We were fortunate to visit United States Department of State and The Department of Defense commonly known as the ‘Pentagon’ during our stay at Washington. At the Department of State, we had the opportunity to meet Ms. Katherine Schalow, Director, South and Central Asia Press and Public diplomacy Office, Ms. Emily Horne, Press Adviser and Spokesperson and Ms. Holly Jensen, International Media Specialist, Public Affairs. I also managed to have a one to one discussion with Ms.McKenzie Miller, the Sri Lanka Desk Officer. The tour of the Pentagon, was a highlight of the program with its sheer size and grander stretching though acres of land.
After the completion of successful first leg of the program in Washington, we continued to tour San Francisco, California, Jackson, Mississippi, New Orleans, Louisiana and New York over a period of twenty five days. The observation tours were made to a number of government , non-government institutions and meet ups with many government dignitaries including Congressmen and Senators and even the agents of the FBI.
One short article like this cannot by any means do justice to the experiences related to the program we participated. Therefore I would like to conclude this brief write up with what inspired me most during this program and which I believe would enrich the Sri Lankan society as well. That is the freedom of press and the freedom of expression and the extent to which it is practiced in United States. It is evinced of the heights to which democracy is practiced in U.S. and which must be indeed a feature of any advanced and civilized society.
By – Pathum Wickramarathne