International Visitor Leadership Program Builds Bridges

Standing in the destruction left by Superstorm Sandy, Eddy Satriya was deeply moved by the efforts of local residents, volunteers and officials to rebuild Breezy Point, NY in the Rockaways. Having known several people affected by the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, Satriya truly realized the full impact of his time in the U.S. “I can imagine the worst night that the people in Breezy Point faced when the hurricane hit since I also met people in Aceh, Indonesia after the tsunami,” he said.

Satriya, an official at the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs in Indonesia, and seven other government and infrastructure industry leaders from Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia participated in a U.S. Department of State-sponsored International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), a citizen diplomacy program which brings more than 5,000 participants to the United States every year for unique professional and cultural development. The three-week long program, which was also part of Deputy Secretary Tom Nides’ Economic Statecraft Agenda, began in early January, and took the group to Washington, D.C.; New York, NY; Kansas City, MO; New Orleans, LA; and Sacramento and San Francisco, CA to examine the various aspects of infrastructure development in the United States. The participants’ specific areas of interest mirrored those of many who work in infrastructure development in the United States: bridges, levees, aviation, power distribution, water and sewage management, plans for high-speed rail, as well as fiber technology for superfast connectivity. This just goes to show that challenges and questions are often the same the world around.

In New Orleans, the group was able to examine infrastructure redevelopment in a different context – through the on-going sustainability and reconstruction efforts nearly seven years after the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. One recognizable player in the rebuilding efforts is Make It Right, the foundation started by Brad Pitt that constructs healthy homes, buildings and communities for people in need. Make It Right is involved in the Lower 9th Ward Sustainable Infrastructure Pilot Streetscape Project. Satriya and his fellow colleagues were able to tour the neighborhood and see how the collaborative efforts of dedicated, neighborhood-based NGOs are enhancing the quality of life and empowering the Lower 9th Ward community.

Another area of concern for many municipalities is aging infrastructure. Even before the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was developing ways to manage old infrastructure within the city.  During a visit to the Carrollton Water Plant and Drainage Pumping Station 6, the visitors met with the General Superintendent of the plant to discuss how the city is addressing sewage overflow and leaks in antiquated water pipes. The plant and pumping station were described by one visitor as the “heart of drainage in New Orleans.  If the ‘heart’ stops pumping, then New Orleans will submerge underwater.”

As part of the IVLP, participants are encouraged to not only make professional contacts, but to also experience American culture and social life. The group participated in a community service project on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of National Service, spending the day alongside local community members and lending a hand to clean up a beloved park in Sacramento. Murugan Ramasubramanian, an Infrastructure Development Manager in Tamil Nadu, India, said of this opportunity: “It was a nice experience for me to work with self-motivated people towards the development of a park. I was so amazed by the commitment of the people to work for the betterment of the community… about 100 people—even families and children—were working in the park.  I have made the decision that I would replicate volunteer work in my country also.”

Spending even a short time in the United States allowed these participants to not only build a professional network, but to also find fresh ideas. New and innovative building materials, design technology, resolving intra-city issues through Regional Councils, creative ways of setting up and managing large infrastructure projects, the role of public opinion  when making comprehensive long-term land use plans – they are taking back these ideas to make improvements within their work and in their communities. 

But the IVLP is more than a chance to see how things are done in America. It is an opportunity for professional collaboration, for finding inspiration and for cultivating mutual understanding among cultures. For Satriya and Ramasubramanian, the staff of Make It Right in New Orleans, the volunteers in the park on MLK Day, and the countless others who have been a part of this and other programs, the IVLP provides a rare chance to approach problem solving from many different perspectives and to find commonality as we attempt to collectively answer questions and find practical, actionable solutions to global challenges.

—Stephanie Blochinger

Stephanie Blochinger is a Program Associate for the International Visitor Leadership Program at IIE