Dec 10 2008

NGOs or the Foreign Service? Or does it even matter?

by at 5:37 pm under The World at Work

Reader Garrett Kuk (who blogs himself on “focused communication”) writes in response to my post on changes in the Foreign Service:

With all of the pre-election parallels drawn between JFK and Obama , it will be interesting to see how/if Obama’s foreign policy harnesses the enthusiastic young demographic. JFK created the Peace Corps during his administration, and the global worldview of Gen Y seems to suggest the right sort of strategic foreign policy will yield tremendous volume of talent and impact. Are we better off encouraging private NGO involvement rather than Foreign Service?

I hope it’s a “how” and not an “if.” Obama undoubtedly has the influence, the hipness, and all the right conditions to call upon an enthusiastic young demographic to “ask not what your country can do for you…”. But unlike in the Kennedy era, when it was the Peace Corps, the Foreign Service, USAID and that was about it, there are infinitely more opportunities out there for meaningful international work, whether it be at NGOs/nonprofits, universities, foundations, consulting firms, etc. The Foreign Service is certainly a place where meaningful international work is done (and it seems like that will be especially true in an Obama administration: they’ve got this weird notion that we should talk to other countries…). I’ve tried to encourage international job seekers not necessarily to lean one way (the government) or the other (the private sector) but rather to expand their notion of international work. No longer is it solely the Foreign Service, the World Bank, and the UN. There is so much more. So as long as you are aware that the Foreign Service is but one choice among many, I suppose it doesn’t much matter where you end up throwing your enthusiasm for international work, as long as you throw.

After the jump, a mini-rant of some other thoughts Garrett’s question provoked.

It seems that there are signs of a “rebirth” of optimism and idealism among young people, and all Obama has to do is ask, and listen, to us to harness that energy in order to make an impact in foreign policy and beyond. I’ve mentioned to more than one person that I would, if Obama came forward and asked me to (which I suspect he will), significantly change my lifestyle for the greener. I would make sacrifices and alter the way I live for the ultimate benefit of the country if Obama asked. I would never have done that for any other president (not that any other president would have asked), but I would do it for Obama. Why? Because there would be a sense of a higher calling involved, a “we’re all in this together so let’s act together” kind of feeling that surrounded Obama’s campaign and continues in his transition days and has inspired so many of us.* I think this same feeling will drive young people, because of our global worldview and because we know how important this stuff is and because of a compelling urge to serve, to even further deepen our involvement in international affairs. And whether we do this through the Foreign Service, the UN, the World Bank, or an NGO, it really doesn’t matter. Because in the end we’ll all be involved, and that’s what does matter.

*While flocking to President Obama’s call in this way strikes me as neither sheep-like nor silly, we musn’t abandon our capacity to be critical. While we may be inspired by this man in unfamiliar ways, for everyone’s benefit he doesn’t deserve a free ride. He wants to push us to be better; I think he deserves to be extended the same courtesy.

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