Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Americans can learn from the struggles and wins of Rwandan women

October 6, 2017

Swanee Hunt (U.S. Ambassador to Austria, 1993-1997; Chair, Inclusive Security)

Cross posted from The Hill

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If the hand-wringing of pundits has left you in despair that this country is beyond healing, learn from the women of Rwanda.

Most people rightly recall that small nation in East Africa as the site of a 1994 genocide of unspeakable brutality, in which as many as one million (mostly Tutsi) died in a span of 100 days. With machetes and clubs, Hutu extremists slaughtered not only neighbors, but even Tutsi in their own families. The country was decimated — the equivalent of 32 million Americans murdered this fall.

What fewer people know is that when the killing ended, the impossible happened. Women created 15,000 village councils that formed a leadership pipeline; they designed a grass-roots justice process that allowed healing; they took on influential roles historically denied them.

As chaos cracked open the culture, women surged into the breach: today they hold a world-record 64 percent of parliamentary seats. They passed landmark legislation enabling females to inherit property, which opened paths to economic opportunity.

An astounding 55,000 community health workers have been elected by their neighborhoods. Illiteracy has plummeted, thanks in part to compulsory education for girls as well as boys through the 9th grade.

These advances, forged primarily by women, have made Rwanda the gold standard for development in Africa. Virtually free of corruption, the nation’s annual economic growth has averaged eight percent.

Over the past two decades, Rwanda’s women have built bridges across the deepest chasm imaginable. To put a lid on strife, the government forbade the use of ethnic labels. And women took transformative reconciliation an unfathomable step further, adopting hundreds of thousands of orphans of the other group.

Why should this matter to Americans? Of course we should care as humanitarians. But there’s another reason. It’s at the heart of our security, our well-being, and our pocket books.

It’s a matter of insistent cooperation. Compared to men, American women co-sponsor more bills across party lines, and the huge majority declare to researchers that they’re more willing to reach across aisles. The examples are usually little known, but sometimes front- page “above the fold.” A few weeks ago, women in the Senate joined hands to protect healthcare for the poor. And remember 2013, when they dramatically banded together to avert a government shutdown.

Of course, we’ve seen only hints of what collaboration can mean in our Congress. That’s primarily because women’s representation the United States doesn’t come close to our Rwandan counterparts. Just 20 percent of our Congress is female, far from the “critical mass” (around 30 percent) that can reshape an institution.

Embarrassingly, 120 countries have a higher percent of women legislators than we do.

How do we change this? Americans aren’t going to formalize a gender quota, which is a matter of course in most countries. But our political parties could adopt minimums to reduce the huge disparity of men to women. In fact, one-third of Congressional Democrats are female; the problem is that the GOP women’s caucus has only eight percent. Republican women do run, but they have a very hard time getting out of their primary races, which are closely guarded by good ol’ boys.

Apart from quotas, we can embrace other Rwandan strategies. There, women rose because of a pull from the top and push up from the bottom. Cues from leadership matter; in both parties, high officials should be urging specific women to run, then supporting them with money and top talent to break through and win.

But let’s take apart our situation further: As Rwandan women graduated from their village boards to climbed a ladder of councils, they built a knowledge base of issues as well as the political process, and they formed professional connections. Likewise, we can support an unruly female crowd to step onto political rungs from city-wide boards to major municipal and state-wide offices. Every one of us could join organizations like She Should Run or Running Start, and encourage women we know to throw their hats in the ring.

The good news is that U.S. women compete evenly in open-seat races. Our structural problem is that Congressional incumbents (mostly men) are re-elected at a rate well over a whopping 90 percent. Some doors may open in 2018 since an unusual number of Republican men are likely not to run again, in part because home district resistance to President Trump’s policies is so vociferous.

Genocide has no silver lining. Still, Rwanda is our teacher. If women there reinvented a country out of smoldering ashes, surely we Americans can clear the way for women to break gridlock, embrace differences, and restore civility in our country.

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The U.S. Should Take a Lesson from Hungary

September 7, 2017

April H. Foley (U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, 2006-2009)

This Letter to the Editor originally appeared in

The Wall Street Journal

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The US should take a lesson from Hungary when it comes to unwanted statues. After the fall of communism, Hungarians were angrily destroying Soviet statues. The government wisely decided to move them all to a museum/park called Memento Park. Students of history can now visit these haunting symbols of fallen communism and a most despised era and value system.

Art and meaning and ties between cultures – 140 Twitter characters will only get us so far

July 18, 2017

Nancy Brinker (U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, 2001-2003; U.S. Chief of Protocol, 2007-2009)

Cross posted from Fox News Opinion

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Inside the ever-evolving world of communications it is clear that technology sits at the center of our conversations. Never before has it been so easy to share information with someone anywhere at anytime. But just because we are talking to someone, doesn’t mean we are talking with them. It’s this challenge that sits at the heart of an ever-widening divide between America and the rest of the world.

A recent international survey spearheaded by the Pew Research Center found that favorable ratings of the United States have decreased from 64 percent of people across all countries surveyed in 2016 to 49 percent this spring. The decline in regard for how much foreign nations hold America is especially pronounced among some of our closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada. Those looking for an answer to rectify this crisis of confidence in American leadership, would be wise to look to the words of American educator Steven Covey, who said we must “seek to understand before you can be understood.”

In 1963, President Kennedy founded the “Arts in the Embassies” program, a public-private partnership between the U.S. State Department and more than 20,000 partners from museums, galleries, collectors and others that enable thousands of artists to show their art at U.S. embassies abroad. Every president and secretary of state has embraced this program since. The universal language of art has become an important part of American foreign policy and continues to play a leading role in strengthening ties between nations.

On September 11, 2001, shortly after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as America’s Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary, I was on my way to the airport to board a flight for Budapest when the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The car was turned around. That day my travel itinerary changed along with the norms that had come to define U.S. foreign policy for generations.

After my arrival in the Hungarian capital we set to work on establishing ties between our two nations. Enhanced security and safety concerns resulted in delayed approval to acquire American art. So instead of waiting to decorate the residence with American art, artists from Budapest were invited to loan their art to adorn the walls. That gesture, which sought to personify a communicative bond and respect for culture between two peoples, went a long way toward gaining the appreciation of the Hungarian government.

The artwork, which encapsulates creativity in the face of duress, allowed me to better understand the unique history of the Hungarian people. Together, our progress included newfound cooperation with security initiatives in the Global War on Terror; resolved commerce transparency issues; and the establishment of the first conference on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers, which was attended by neighboring Balkan States.

My return to the United States in 2003 and subsequent posting as the Chief of Protocol for the White House offered the opportunity to welcome foreign heads of state and educate a wide audience on Hungarian art. The collection, which is shared with my son Eric, spans more than 150 years, from just before the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the present. One of the largest collections outside of Hungary, it includes the works of the acknowledged masters of modernism, as well as artists of more modest reputations who never would have gotten the recognition they deserve if we had not been able to share their works with American universities and museums that have featured our collection.

In this time of complex communication and diminished respect for American ideals among our allies, 140 Twitter characters will only get us so far. My experience as an ambassador bears this eternal lesson: if you want to know a people, you need to take the time to learn about who they are and where they came from, their hopes and aspirations, their art and culture.