U.S move to win Muslim youths
LAHORE, Aug 21: The US State Department is launching what it says will be
the first comprehensive public diplomacy effort targeting children, hoping to
shape the views of Muslim youths ages 8 to 14 with a series of summer camps and
enrichment programs designed to counter negative images of the US, The Boston
Globe reported on Monday.
The report said the new initiative was the
brainchild of Karen Hughes, a confidante of President Bush who has become the
most powerful public-diplomacy czar in decades. Hughes has argued forcefully
that the US government must reach out to children younger than age 14, a
population the State Department has largely neglected because they are too young
for traditional exchange programmes.
"By the time kids get to high
school, their impressions are already pretty well shaped," Hughes said in an
interview. She said she began to plan the initiative last year when she realized
that the US government's programmes for young people "weren't reaching down
really young enough".
As a test of her idea, Hughes asked embassies in
14 Islamic countries this summer to come up with pilot programmes for that age
bracket, and spent nearly $1 million on projects that involved about 6,000
youths and hundreds of local partnering organisations. Participants included
more than 2,000 girls in Turkey who attended a basketball camp and 80 children
from rural schools in Malaysia who learned about Thomas Jefferson and other US
heroes on an American-style camping trip with embassy staff and families.
But the programmes also carry risks in nations with virulent
anti-American sentiments, which are where most of the programmes are aimed. For
example, 41 Iraqi students learned about baseball and the English language for
three days this summer in Baghdad. A photo of the group meeting with US
Ambassador Ryan Crocker hangs on the door of Hughes's office at the State
Department – but it cannot be publicly released for fear that the children may
be harmed by terrorists.
Nonetheless, some foreign policy specialists
praised the notion of targeting public diplomacy efforts at average people,
rather than elites and opinion-makers, and said children often develop their
world view during ages 8 to 14.
"There is a generation, in the Middle
East in particular, of 15 to 22 year olds, that during the most formative years
of their lives has only seen the US as an imperialist nation," said Joshua
Fouts, director of the University of Southern California Centre on Public
Diplomacy, a Los Angeles-based think tank. "If kids aged 8 to 14 are all that's
left, then it is important that we engage them."
executive director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy
group, said he believed many Arab families would embrace this kind of outreach.
But he also said the programmes would not significantly improve the United
States' image abroad unless accompanied by a change in US policies.
Hughes said she hoped to greatly expand this summer's pilot project with
$8.5 million she received from Congress this year. State Department officials
will plan the expansion of the project after seeing exit interviews with the
children. Daily times