Remarks at Secretary's Global Diaspora Forum

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Loy Henderson Hall
Washington, DC
May 17, 2011

Also available in Arabic and Spanish

Thank you, Kris. And welcome to all of you. It’s a great pleasure to be here with you this morning.

Looking around this room, I see many stories with similar themes. They are stories of departure and arrival. Stories of assimilation and of distinction. Of loving a new home while missing an old one.

So let me start today by sharing with you a bit about my own story—on my life and work as a member of the Diaspora, which indeed has brought me to my current position which I hold feeling enormously honored and privileged - I am the highest-ranking Latina in the history of the United States Department of State.

The first chapter of my story begins in La Paz, Bolivia, where I was born, and where my mother and father raised me, along with my eight brothers and sisters. Nine of us children total, with me coming in as number three. Third of nine - it’s a great place in a large family - lots of authority and responsibility, but not much accountability.

In Bolivia, we attended a Catholic school, where the nuns were very stringent about our studies. But, in those days the English program was not a priority and the nuns taught us a few words they drew from a British textbook. So when we moved to Washington, I was 12 and my two best English words were “pencil” and “rubber” for eraser. You can imagine how helpful these were when trying to make friends on the playground.

For the first five years, our living room in Washington, DC might as well have been in La Paz, Bolivia. With all the Bolivians in transit, passing through, our living room talk was dominated by energetic discussion of Bolivian politics which even managed to drown out Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial not far from here. Our hearts and our minds – and our stomachs - remained in our country of origin for a long time.

Fast forward about ten years, and I had not only mastered the English language, but I literally got a Master’s in British Literature.

In the years between the playground and my dissertation on John Keats, my siblings and I lived a life somewhere between our Bolivian customs and those of a suburban American family. In the end, we each found careers that would likewise balance these two worlds.

My own career has been in the field of international economic development. At ACCION International—where I worked for over two decades, the last decade as the CEO—we built banks for the poor. I started with ACCION in Honduras, fulfilling the urge to return to my Latin roots to share them with my US born children. It was during this time that a phenomenon called microfinance was turning traditional notions of banking and development on their heads.

Many of the people ACCION wanted to help lived in sprawling cities with no education, few skills, limited connections, and almost no support system. Or they lived off of the land in rural areas with little access to anything. Without jobs, they built their own tiny businesses—from the corner kiosk in the village, to banging old metal into pots and pans, to cooking and selling meals on a sidewalk.

It wasn’t long before ACCION and other pioneers in the field started to see the poor through a new lens. No longer were they helpless. Instead, we saw them as resourceful. And smart. And creative. And determined. When I left ACCION its network was making loans to nearly 5 million people.

I have been fortunate to work very directly on issues concerning my home region for much of my career. And I know my story is not uncommon. Many of you here today share this story.

Few narratives are as ingrained in the American national story as immigration. About one-quarter of Americans are first- or second-generation immigrants and more than half actively claim some immigrant heritage. These are numbers that you all know well.

From the earliest arrivals, immigrants to the United States have made their homes in a foreign but friendly land, often—like many of you—finding fellow members of their particular Diaspora not far from their adopted city or town. And even as we have built lives here in the United States, we stay connected to the countries of our birth - to the places that have shaped our very existence in this new land.

Throughout the history of the United States, our diplomats and leaders have counted on the wisdom and energy of our Diaspora communities to help inform our relations with their countries of origin. Secretary Clinton has taken this engagement to a new level—obviously through today’s event, the First ever Global Diaspora Forum, and more broadly through our commitment to engaging with civil society as part of our diplomacy.

Of course, what the State Department might call diplomacy is what you might think of as a phone call home. For those of us who come from a different country, “foreign relations” is family relations. It is the trip home once or twice a year for special occasions. It’s sending money via Western Union or a new mobile wallet service to a cousin who needs a loan or better education. It’s watching U.S. headlines for mention of your country and calling local officials—in both the United States and your country of origin—because you know that you are the link between the two—and that your voice matters in both places.

And when your voices join together, the impact is felt on the international stage. In the wake of a disaster, the diaspora communities are the first to respond and the last to leave, demonstrating leadership and sustaining momentum throughout conflict and crisis response.

Even beyond my personal experience, I’ve seen the contributions that Diaspora communities make across our foreign policy. Diplomacy under this President and this Secretary of State is no longer confined to a conversation between governments. Instead, we are committed to diplomacy informed by conversations with the people—driven by the shared goal of achieving the best for the people.

The Department of State meets with Diaspora civil society groups and NGOs in the United States to learn about human rights and humanitarian issues in Diaspora countries of origin, conversations that feed into our own human rights and humanitarian assistance responses.

Our humanitarian responses extend to opening our door to refugees. Every year, the United States provides resettlement opportunities to thousands of the world’s most vulnerable refugees, in a program endorsed by President Obama—and every President since 1980. This program, which resettled nearly 73,000 refugees in the United States in 2009, reflects our own tradition as a nation of immigrants and refugees. It is an important, enduring and ongoing expression of our commitment to international humanitarian principles.

I recently visited refugees from many countries – like Burma, Somalia, and Iraq - in Denver and Phoenix with Assistant Secretary for Populations, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz, met with them at their homes, listened to their stories and their efforts to adjust – all of us know the hardship and disorientation of the early months in a new country. In response to our ongoing dialogue with refugee communities, with local officials who provide support, and with civil society organizations, last year we doubled the Reception and Placement per capita grant for each refugee to help refugees during the first months here.

As refugees resettle in this country, they tend to maintain social and economic connections both with other migrants in the new communities, as well as with family and friends in their countries of origin. Those best equipped to help new arrivals find their way are former immigrants themselves who really understand what setting new roots requires. Such Diaspora groups have increased over recent decades in size, organization, and influence; and they provide an organic support network to newly resettled refugees in the United States—thereby strengthening the diverse fabric of our society.

In closing, let me just say that from one immigrant to many, I appreciate you being here and helping to inform the United States’ diplomacy and development efforts in your home countries. The issues I work on – from human rights to trafficking in persons, to humanitarian aid I know are issues that are close to many of you. Working together we can send a stronger message in pursuit of our shared goals. In many ways, you are the most effective diplomats we could ever have. So thank you and I wish you all the best for the rest of this important Forum.