Web 2.0 in Public Diplomacy - Strategic mismatch

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There's much talk about using Web 2.0 for Public Diplomacy nowadays. As I have written in this blog before, I am a bit cynical about its potential right now. It might be a strategic tool for some nations but may not be of use for some at all. There is indeed a digital divide in international relations with possibly interesting consequences.
Let's take the example of India. Internet penetration is low but the number of Internet users are very high. As of September, 2008, India had 45.3 million active internet users. This is according to the I-Cube [Internet in India] Study conducted annually by IMRB International and Internet and Mobile Association of India [IAMAI]. These figures were released in January 2009. The study also found that the number of “claimed” internet users in September 2008 was 57 million - "Claimed Users" being those who have used the internet "sometime" but not in the last one month. This is however, just 1/6th of just the Indian middle class. From the "Web 2.0 public diplomacy" perspective there may not be a mass potential here. I propose this argument keeping in mind one of the core objectives of Public Diplomacy - to influence foreign public opinion to bring about policy, behavourial, attitudinal changes in the 'targeted' nation state. Out of 1.2 billion Indians merely 45 million are active internet users! My guess is that these 45 million are not very active voters as well to be able to enforce policy changes. Voter apathy of Indian middle class is well known. To bring about changes in India, a communications campaign has to look at the vast underclasses, nearly 800-900 million of them, who also 'vote' and thus matter to the political elite.
But if we look at developed economies like US or Europe, internet penetration and usage are high. So, for lesser countries with the capability and knowhow ( I mean India, China & Brazil) it will be a lot easier to influence Europeans or Americans in a focused way with mass out reach. In a way, the strategic advantage actually lie with these countries rather than the developed West when it come to Web 2.0 Public Diplomacy. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide may be beneficial for these states. To illustrate further, we all know about Iran "twittering away" few months ago... but these twitterers are very minuscule and do not form the huge popular support base for conservative Ahmedinejad. (Read my blog post "Public Diplomacy & Social Media" in June, 2009.) For Iran, it is easier to reach and attempt to influence an American audience rather than for US to reach Iranians via Web 2.0. Naturally, the tactics have to be different and a realistic assessment of Web 2.0 potential has to be made for each country.
Web 2.0, nonetheless, can be used by US and the West to influence policy makers, lobbyists, academics & analysts in countries with low internet usage and this is where it can be most useful. I am not discounting the potential of Web 2.0 Public Diplomacy -- This is just an attempt to look critically at it's possible use in the world as it exists now.
Suggestions/Critiques welcome.
-- Madhur


Indian "Peace Corps" - Can it be an effective Public Diplomacy tool for India?

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The updates in my twitter account recently had this really interesting bit of information about the launch of "World Friends Korea" (Source: Syracuse University's Public Diplomacy Blog). According to The Korea Times, World Friends Korea is - "a group of volunteers to strengthen (Korea's) goodwill activities in underdeveloped or developing countries around the world in an effort to become a more responsible member of the international community." The report further mentions that, "The volunteers will work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations and businessmen in various areas, including education, the environment, agriculture and information technology. They will also play an important role in promoting Korea's culture and food around the world." The UN has welcomed the launch of World Friends Korea which it believes will help to expand Korea's role in the global stage, build visibility, credibility and promote goodwill. Interestingly, it is modeled on the US Peace Corps.
The US remains the only country to send numerous volunteers abroad - under a state backed initiative - to work in numerous areas ( Education, Health & HIV/AIDS, Environment, Business Development, Agriculture, Youth Development etc.) The underlying objective is to promote peace & friendship and also build a positive perception of the country overseas. Currently the US Peace Corps has 7,876 volunteers and a dedicated Federal budget of USD 340 million for 2009.
The news made me think if it is possible to have something on similar lines in India. Such a move will complement India's global aspirations and can make India more visible globally. I feel this can be very relevant in India's neighborhood, including the Indian Ocean area, where India remains and will remain the dominant power. South Asia & Indian sub continent is a problem area of the world be it human development issues or terrorism. India, with its resources, know how and skilled personnel can definitely play a role in helping countries in the neighborhood by sending trained volunteers overseas. From the perspective of strategy, it will help counter some of the animosity harbored towards India by its neighbors (Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar etc.) because of India's alleged "Big Brother" attitude. It will increase people to people contact, will benefit India's youth - potential leaders of tomorrow - in understanding India's position in the region and the world.
I am sure lot of Indian volunteers work and are working overseas in different countries. What I am suggesting here is a "state backed initiative" with dedicated annual budgets that can serve as a potent strategic tool in India's public diplomacy. I also feel it may not be entirely necessary to raise a separate group of volunteers, rather groom India's acclaimed National Cadet Corps or the NCC for such international roles in South Asia. India can start by offering such an option to NCC cadets and maybe gradually move toward raising a separate group of volunteers. NCC cadets can learn languages, know cultures & gain a global perspective to become better leaders in a globalized world. It will foster better understanding of India, especially in the Indian Ocean region & South Asia. Besides, this will also imply that India takes it position in the world seriously and is committed to make a real difference in the world leveraging its strengths and resources. How's that for Public Diplomacy messaging?
Suggestions/critiques welcome.
-- Madhur
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