Kristin Lord

Q&A with CPD: Kristin Lord

Kristin M. Lord has had a long and varied career fostering international relations in the arenas of science and technology, international health, education and conflict management, among others. Currently, Lord is President and CEO of IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board).The following is a recent interview conducted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

What has been the most exciting part of your work at IREX since becoming President and CEO in October, 2014? Please share how previous positions in government, at George Washington University, USIP and other think tanks, prepared you for this role. 

For me, the most exciting aspect of my new role at IREX is having the opportunity to lead an organization that works every day to advance the values I’ve spent my entire career working on across the foreign policy, national security, public diplomacy, and peacebuilding communities. These values include human development, cross-cultural understanding, access to quality education and information, and societies that are just, prosperous, inclusive, and secure. 

My career appears odd to many people. It spans “think” organizations in academia, the think tank sector and the policy community and “do” organizations that implement programs on the ground in countries around the world. It spans communities that rarely work together: those on the “hard power” side of national security on the one hand and those on the “soft power” side who focus on issues like education, development, technology, and global public engagement on the other. To me, though, it is all inter-connected. It is simply not possible to address global challenges effectively without engaging all of these dimensions.

Describe the challenges of managing a global, multi-site public diplomacy program.

Managing global programs carries an array of challenges ranging from the geopolitical to the mundane. I will highlight one challenge in particular: learning. Organizations like IREX strive to be learning organizations that derive lessons from work in one area and apply it to others. Though we and other NGOs take learning seriously and invest in it, learning is nonetheless a challenge for several reasons. The most important is that, while donors do support various levels of learning and evaluation for individual projects they sponsor, few donors support broader learning initiatives within organizations and even fewer support learning agendas across organizations. An exception, which I applaud, is the Gates Foundation, which my organization has found to be exemplary – but rare – in this respect. A second challenge is logistical. When working with an extremely busy, globally dispersed staff that is focused on a wide range of complex issues, designing knowledge management systems that efficiently capture lessons in ways that makes them easy to find in the future is just plain hard. Different organizations may be more or less successful at learning, but I have yet to find a single large global organization that says it does this well.


"...it is simply not possible to advance international development (not to mention national security) objectives without addressing the health, employment prospects, political inclusion, and general well-being of youth."

How can the U.S. better employ cultural and educational exchange in its public diplomacy strategy?

Effective cultural and educational exchange programs need to operate at a large enough scale to have the desired effect. This is a challenge in public diplomacy because resources are often insufficient to the challenge at hand.

One exception, which IREX is proud to work on, is the Young African Leaders Initiative (also known as YALI or the Mandela Washington Fellows program). This program brings 500 rising African leaders from the public, private, and non-profit sectors to the United States for six weeks of leadership training and then provides them with an additional year of professional development once they return to Africa. This program invests in the very people who will shape Africa’s future and also builds strong relationships between them and American counterparts.  The demand for the program is enormous, with 80,000 applicants for 1,000 openings in the last two years alone. The program is expected to double in size, to 1,000 participants per year, starting in 2016.

YALI is noteworthy not just because of the number and caliber of its participants, but also because of its strategic value. U.S. foreign policy leaders have rightly recognized that Africa’s successful growth and development is a critical foreign policy objective for the United States. This valuable public diplomacy program contributes directly to that objective, at a scale significant enough to make a difference. However, I think this sort of scale is more exceptional than it should be.

You recently co-wrote a thought-provoking piece on the topic of International Development in Foreign Policy. What role does development aid have in U.S. public diplomacy? What do you consider to be the pitfalls of using development aid as PD?

The article you reference is an article entitled “International Development’s Awkward Stage” that I co-authored with my Alliance for International Youth Development co-chair, Patrick Fine. Patrick and I argue that rhetorical concern about burgeoning populations of young people in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia is simply not matched by resources since international development spending tends to prioritize young children. However, it is simply not possible to advance international development (not to mention national security) objectives without addressing the health, employment prospects, political inclusion, and general well-being of youth.

International development and public diplomacy can be mutually reinforcing in many circumstances. Teacher training and youth leadership development programs sponsored by the U.S. government, for instance, often bring groups to the United States for extended visits. Such programs serve a dual purpose. First, they serve public diplomacy objectives by giving foreign opinion leaders a deeper and more nuanced understanding of America, its institutions and values, while helping them to build long-standing relationships with American counterparts. Second, these programs serve an international development purpose by giving individuals skills that they can use to improve educational and economic opportunities for their communities at home.

International development and public diplomacy are not synonymous, however. For instance, many people assume that providing international development assistance will improve perceptions of the donor country in the eyes of a foreign public. With the important exception of emergency humanitarian assistance (for instance after a tsunami or earthquake) our best research on this matter suggests this is not the case. That does not mean international development assistance is not valuable -- indeed, it helps to foster economic growth that leads to more imports from the United States; support good governance that serves both humanitarian and national security interests; prevents the spread of disease; and relieves human suffering. However, it does mean that we should not assume there are public diplomacy benefits from international development activities. 

What advice would you give to students of public diplomacy interested in working with NGOs or civil society groups?

To students who seek an enriching career in public diplomacy, I would advise them to gain deep experience and expertise on a particular country or region or in a particular issue area such as traditional or social media, education, measurement and evaluation, or another functional area. Public diplomacy professionals do need a certain amount of flexibility as well as more broadly applicable skills (such as teamwork and cross-cultural communication), but I believe that students who pair such capabilities with a real area of specialty have the most to offer.

About Q&A with CPD

In this series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. For more information about the Q&A with CPD series, click here.

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