Center for Strategic Communication

The School of International Service Building at American University, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Jeff Watts

The School of International Service Building at American University, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Jeff Watts

By Jeremy Taylor

In 2009, President Obama outlined a vision of sending 100,000 Americans to China for study abroad programs by 2014. This vision would require a robust public-private exchange between the United States and Chinese governments, in concert with nongovernmental organizations. Six years later, the 100,000 Strong Education Initiative has evolved into a fully operational and independent non-profit known as the 100,000 Strong Foundation. The organization has surpassed its goal of sending 100,000 students and continues to experience five percent year-over-year growth in the number of students being sent to and from China.

Behind this success story of international education exchange is the Department of State’s Office of Global Partnership (S/GP). The S/GP exists simply to further diplomacy and development through public-private partnerships (PPPs). It claims to be the “entry point for collaboration between the U.S. Department of State, the public and private sectors, and civil society.” The purpose of having just one single entrance point is to provide sufficient resources and political support while maintaining a narrow scope for each project.

Such collaboration and reliance on the non-government sectors is critical according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America Foundation and former State Department official. She suggests,

Governments will be in the business of negotiating agreements, resolving crises and solving problems with one another for a long time to come, but top-down efforts cannot stimulate the widespread behavioral change that is required to address social and economic challenges.

From a social science perspective, there tend to be three broad categories for PPP that are determined by the amount and type of engagement between stakeholders. First, philanthropic partnerships (e.g., charitable trusts), exemplify the least amount of engagement and typically occur when an entity donates something out of charity. Second, transactional partnerships are those that build mutually beneficial business relationships such as international shipping services. Third, transformational partnerships are those relationships which tend to be the most complex and resource intensive, and usually result in the closest relationships. Under the transformational model, the level of engagement, strategic value, and scope of activities all tend to be much higher than philanthropic and transactional models.

The 100,000 Strong Education Initiative represents a transformational partnership since both the U.S. and China remain committed to the project’s goal of sending and receiving students for language, cultural, and academic exchanges. The transformational aspects of the initiative are most apparently visible in the role of American University (a private university) as host of the 100,000 Strong Foundation on its campus. In serving as a hub of engagement between the United States and China, the university’s School of International Service receives and sends some of the most talented and ambitious students in hopes of expanding U.S.-China educational exchanges.

The relationship is mutually beneficial. In exchange for providing a well-established platform and furthering the White House initiative of sending U.S. students to China, American University is bolstered by the government’s backing. As an associate dean at the university’s School of International Service says, “The partnership with SIS is a natural fit. The school was founded on a commitment to wage peace around the world and collaborations like the one with 100,000 Strong Foundation honor that. It’s with that knowledge that we’re involved in these types of public-private partnerships.”

The initiative’s transformational outcomes, however, may not be witnessed until participating students enter the workforce with the unique skills acquired abroad. From this perspective, 100,000 Strong views itself as a broker of goodwill, personal diplomacy, and a professional developer for the U.S. government and U.S. companies.

Operating as a nonprofit organization under the assumption that that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, the 100,000 Strong Initiative also relies on the private sector for donations to expand America’s collective understanding through study abroad, language, and cultural programs. However, financial independence from the government can certainly present its own set of challenges. Having moved out from under the umbrella of the State Department, the initiative must be savvy in drawing donations and participation in a highly competitive environment.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reasons that PPPs such as the 100,000 Strong Initiative can be “game-changing mechanisms” for solving development problems by introducing market-based solutions. However, these PPPs must be established in ways that allow for fluidity in the decision making process. The fact that this office has reports directly to the Secretary of State is a positive sign of future accountability. But for partnerships to be game-changers, true collaboration must take place utilizing the expertise of those on the ground, like the partnered U.S. and Chinese universities.

For the 100,000 Strong Initiative, it is not entirely clear how the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships retains influence over the program that it envisioned, funded and implemented. While the office may be the entry point for academic exchanges such as the 100,000 Strong Initiative, it will be necessary for it to define transitional and exit points along the way to success in further diplomacy and development.

PPPs like the 100,000 Strong Education Initiative undoubtedly play, and will continue to play, an indispensable role in U.S. foreign policy. The challenge for building on this success will be continuing this focus in the next administration. As Secretary Kerry recently said, “While government has a clear role to play in confronting them, the best way to promote development and economic growth and security is with an approach that puts partnerships at the absolute center.”

Jeremy Taylor is a fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He serves as a public sector strategist for the federal government and has 10 years of project management experience.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.