By Megan Soller
Stories of innovative disruption from across the economy is a common discussion point in today’s tech-driven society. From transportation to lodging to retail, it can seem like no sector is safe from radical change. This is especially true for diplomacy.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. government was the primary global development actor, with official development assistance accounting for 80 percent of U.S. capital flowing to the developing world. Today, however, official development assistance accounts for less than 10 percent of U.S. economic engagement with the developing world.
As globalization has accelerated over the past few decades, so has the flow of U.S. private sector capital to the developing world. The flow has expanded by a factor of nearly 40 and now supersedes U.S. foreign assistance ten-to-one. In short, diplomacy is being disrupted.
As in other industries, disruption necessitates new ways of doing business and creates new opportunities. By embracing these disruptions, the Department of State is leveraging private enterprise to build cross-sector relationships that can help foster a more secure, stable and prosperous world.
The Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships (S/GP)—now part of the Economic Growth, Energy and Environment Bureau led by Under Secretary Keith Krach—is focused on leveraging the innovation and resources of the private sector, part of the under secretary’s three-point strategy to tackle economic development.
“The innovation and leadership driven from America’s private sector will continue to be one of our most formidable competitive advantages on the global stage,” said Krach. “A resolute partnership between the public and private sector will ensure that all nations benefit from the long-standing traditional American values of fairness, transparency and a level playing field.”
Private sector engagement is changing the status quo and redefining diplomacy efforts in a variety of ways. Women’s economic empowerment continues to be a high-priority across the globe and not only a focus of U.S. foreign policy but also for U.S. private sector entities. With the support of several big names in the private sector, S/GP, led by Thomas Debass, is engaging the private sector to promote women and youth empowerment through summer camps that provide high school girls access to Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Design, and Mathematics (STEAM) education, leadership training and cultural exchange.
The Women in Science partnership was created in 2015 when private industry entities approached the Department seeking to work on ways to close the gender skills and education gap in sub-Saharan Africa in high-tech fields. The Department’s private sector partners are so invested in the program that they help create and curate the camp curriculum, send their staff and equipment from around the world to deliver it, and provide approximately two-thirds of the total camp costs.
Together with multi-sector partners such as Intel, Google, the U.N. Foundation’s Girl Up program, Millennium Challenge Corporation, the American Society for Microbiology and NASA, this private sector-driven program has offered support for more than 800 girls with the goal of providing inspiration and empowerment for leadership positions in STEAM fields and beyond.
While forming public-private partnerships to codevelop and coimplement programs is on the rise, so are other methods of engaging, coordinating and collaborating with the private sector to advance the Department’s foreign policy objectives. Convening private sector stakeholders to share information, expertise and coordinate efforts are other ways the Department is leveraging the private sector.
For example, the Department recently convened the Ethiopia Partnerships Forum (EPF). EPF brought together more than 400 private sector leaders and policymakers from the United States and Ethiopia to explore business opportunities in Ethiopia’s transforming economic landscape. Prominent Ethiopian government officials highlighted the economic reforms, business opportunities and investment potential in Ethiopia today, while business leaders and investors explored opportunities in infrastructure, agriculture, startups and creative industries.
Building on the momentum established at EPF, S/GP and the Bureau of African Affairs are planning a Partnership Opportunity Delegation to bring American investors to Ethiopia during Global Entrepreneurship Week and partner with private stakeholders to produce a pitch competition where Ethiopian-focused entrepreneurs can present their business proposals to American and African investors.
By directly engaging with private sector stakeholders, the Department used its convening power to facilitate private sector investment for sustainable development in Ethiopia that reinforces the United States’ support for Ethiopia’s reform agenda.
Private sector engagement for sustainable growth might seem like a no-brainer; however, economic development is by no means the only portion of statecraft that the private sector is disrupting. On issues ranging from youth empowerment to human rights, including religious freedom, the private sector’s role is continuing to grow.
In support of the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department in 2018, S/GP conducted its Boldline partnership accelerator program, which provides resources and mentorship to stakeholders of nascent public-private partnerships to help them scale impact.
Six organizations brought their partnership ideas for a three-day, intensive schedule of partnership education, rapid brainstorming sessions and valuable networking opportunities. Participants heard from mentors throughout the program who shared insights on different elements of religious freedom, including Brian Grimm, president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation (RFBF). Grimm led a discussion on how businesses, and the countries in which they operate, benefit from religious freedom. According to research conducted by RFBF, religious freedom has an outsized economic impact, annually contributing nearly $1.2 trillion of socio-economic value to the U.S. economy.
By providing these connections and mentorship, the Department was able to take commitments from the Ministerial and provide unique solutions that help to advance religious freedom around the world.
Engaging the private sector in the development of policy and program design requires a reimagining of how diplomacy is conducted. One of the biggest hurdles can be identifying potential partners and reframing U.S. foreign policy objectives into a rational and appealing business case. Nowhere is this challenge starker than with national security, an issue widely seen as the exclusive purview of government.
During a recent Communications Working Group meeting of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, the Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), together with S/GP, helped representatives from 80 member states and participants from the U.S. to think through these challenges.
The GEC created the agenda of the Communications Working Group to focus on public-private partnerships that can design and deliver programs to counter extremist narratives. Government representatives worked in small groups to deconstruct specific objectives of the working group’s counter-messaging strategy—all in an attempt to pinpoint which private sector entities might have a stake in this critical work. Each group then discussed approaches to pitch programs to the private sector stakeholders they identified.
Members of the working group came away with a clearer sense of how to identify partners, how to reframe security issues in an appealing way to the private sector, and how to take the first steps in engaging potential partners to develop and deliver real solutions.
As statecraft continues to evolve to keep pace with an ever-changing global landscape, the role of the private sector in the Department’s foreign policy efforts continues to grow. From national security challenges to sustainable economic growth, and from women’s empowerment to religious freedom, the Office of Global Partnerships, along with other bureaus and missions across the Department, is taking the lead on private sector engagement. By embracing this disruption and reimagining how diplomacy is conducted, the Department is positioning itself to more effectively advance America’s core interests.
Megan Soller is a communications and outreach associate in the Office of Global Partnerships.