Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Happiness: A Private Matter?

Last night I turned in my final paper--three memoranda addressing U.S. public diplomacy for the twenty-first century.

Among the many changes I proposed with all the audacity and brio of a first-year M.A. candidate was the establishment of an independent body, along the lines of the Goethe Institut or the British Council, to oversee cultural diplomacy. Several students made similar recommendations, and in our final class, we discussed our suggestions and debated their merits and disadvantages.

Even though I supported the establishment of a non-governmental American Cultural Center, I'm a little leery of letting the private sector assume the mantle of U.S. cultural diplomacy, particularly after seeing how little they've accomplished at the Shanghai Expo. Is the free market really equipped to promote public and cultural diplomacy?

In response to a recent post, Paul Rockower of Levantine sent me this link to a site chronicling the year-long adventures of three Coca-Cola "happiness ambassadors." Their mission, according to the site, is to visit all 206 countries in which the fizzy elixir is sold ("14 more countries than are represented in the United Nations!") and discover "what makes people happy." Presumably in the less-than-48 hours that an itinerary of 206 countries in 365 days dictates.

Among the earth-shattering discoveries uncovered by these intrepid ambassadors are that Czechs enjoy having fun, Rwanda is the spot to see mountain gorillas "kick back," Colombians enjoy living passionately and pursuing their dreams, and the people of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, enjoy running, walking, and maintaining good health and positive attitudes. Evidently the happiness survey didn't target any of the glue-addicted street children I remember from my last trip to San Pedro Sula.

Sarcasm aside, this program exposes one of the main disadvantages of entrusting public and cultural diplomacy to the private sector. Companies are experts are selling images, ideals, dreams. They market happiness, or the illusion thereof. But they're less committed to exposing unpleasant truths, which leaves them open to accusations of propaganda and whitewashing.

My paper's turned in, but my mind's still not made up. I recognize that the private sector and NGOs have skills and resources the government lacks--but their motives and methods are significantly different. So what's the right balance?

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