Sister Cities: the quintessential and yet underappreciated public diplomacy program

On September 11, 1956, three years after creating the United States Information Agency, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the People-to-People program within USIA by saying:

I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals.

Indeed, in May 1947, in testimony to Congress in support of pending legislation on the promotion of comity among nations and information programs, Eisenhower stressed that

real security, in contrast, to the relative security of armaments, could develop only from understanding and mutual comprehension.

Sister Cities International and People-to-People are products of Eisenhower’s citizen diplomacy initiative launched over fifty years ago. The mission of Sister Cities is to foster direct engagement between US cities and communities abroad with the purpose of creating cultural understanding and awareness through direct person-to-person contact by inspiring private citizens to travel abroad and to host citizens from outside America. It was, and remains, a quintessential public diplomacy program. 

Today, despite its impact, Sister Cities is underappreciated. Today, the over 650 US communities that partner with more than 2,000 sister cities in 135 countries do more than just student, culture, and art exchanges. The members of Sister Cities operate extensively in the areas of humanitarian assistance, economic and sustainable development, education, and technical assistance. This includes helping locally elected officials in Iraq develop city budgets to providing assistance to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan and Iraq to post-disaster assistance. In other words, the Sister Cities network does the work of the State Department and USAID, but at the municipal level. 

As a testament to its grassroots power, nearly all of the funding for these activities comes from outside the city councils on the US side of the arrangements. The current economic situation, coupled with a reduction in federal grants, Sister Cities programs are facing cutbacks.

The long term return on investment to the American community, the foreign community, and the US in general can easily be forgotten, especially in the absence of even verbal support from Washington. Cost effective as it is, the State Department, White House, and Congress should encourage the grassroots engagement of Sister Cities and similar programs.

While money in the way of grants or other monetary assistance would be beneficial, something as simple as a letter of acknowledgement would go a long way. For example, this could be helpful in the case of Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth is an anomaly in the Sister Cities network in that the municipality directly funds activities. Due in part of the economy but also possibly because of a lack of appreciation for the strategic value of its contribution to America’s public diplomacy from both the city and Washington, the mayor and city council of Fort Worth are considering cutting in half the city’s Sister Cities budget. The planned cut will effectively eliminate their ability to conduct any exchange programs.

President Eisenhower recognized the value of grassroots programs like Sister Cities. Today we should do more to support organizations like Sister Cities International that foster people-to-people interactions that directly leverage the strength of our nation to do more than just create awareness but help people around the world raise themselves up.

10 thoughts on “Sister Cities: the quintessential and yet underappreciated public diplomacy program

  1. Nice piece. The former USIA and State indeed have had ties to SSI from the beginning, exactly as Eisenhower intended. One of the less conspicous ways Uncle Sam cooperates and benefits from SSI is indirectly, through the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). The synergy of Sister Cities at the local level generates enormous and invaluable enthusiasm for the popular and successful IVLP, which brings future leaders from around the world to see a bit of our country at the grassroots level.A Sister Cities link is only as good as the people who are involved. Some communities operate strong programs that engage business, religion, education, and immigrant communities. Others could use help. Ft. Worth is a good example of a strong program. The City of Jacksonville, FL (where I worked) also supports several Sister Cities linkages, but volunteers are essential. As with many communities, Jacksonville manages Sister Cities as part of a broader strategy of regional economic development, emphasizing the trade benefits of such ties — a message that resonates among citizens if communicated effectively.
    Probably the most realistic task for now is to acquaint more of those within the federal government (and not just PD professionals such as myself) with Sister Cities and in general, international relations activities at the sub-national level. It’s hard for me to imagine trying to work in international affairs without understanding this remarkable phenomenon.

  2. I would like to make a personal plea to MountainRunner readers to take action to help Fort Worth Sister Cities fight the budget cuts Matt mentions above.The City of Fort Worth plans to eliminate $378,000 in funding to Fort Worth Sister Cities for FY10. This money pays for hotel/motel taxes as a subsidy that allows Sister Cities to house visiting delegations, students, and cultural leaders from its partner cities. Without this subsidy – the only line item of its kind on the Fort Worth city budget – Sister Cities would be forced to make cuts to many of its programs to sustain payment of these taxes when people from Fort Worth’s Sister Cities come to visit. In all likelihood, fewer exchanges may be arranged due to the budget shortfall, leading to fewer opportunities to expose others to Fort Worth’s unique cultural heritage and its outstanding citizenry.
    I know quite a few readers of this blog are current or former members of the Foreign Service and/or public diplomacy officers. I implore ALL OF YOU to take a few minutes to the do the following to help Fort Worth Sister Cities:
    1) Write an email addressed to Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief at
    2) Within this email, tell Mayor Moncrief how important Sister Cities is in your opinion.
    3) Repost or retweet this blog post and its comments to your own networks and seek others’ help in writing letters of support for Fort Worth Sister Cities.
    Please help Fort Worth Sister Cities. Without large, sustained grants from the State Department, it is up to each Sister Cities program to raise its own funding to execute programs. Fort Worth, thankfully, has historically been blessed with a city government that understood and supported the aims of this citizen diplomacy organization and relished its responsibility to its own sister cities. With your voices, we can remind Mayor Moncrief and the Fort Worth City Council just how important that support is.
    Many thanks,
    Christopher Dufour
    PS– Truth in advertising: My mother, Mae Ferguson, is the executive director of Fort Worth Sister Cities. She is one of the best examples of a citizen diplomat, blood ties aside. I have experienced through her actions more tactical examples of positive global engagement than in my combined time working in Washington (not saying much, I know, but still…).

  3. Just one more example of how the State Department fails to understand the importance of bolstering community connections both in terms of educating Americans about foreign policy and in developing constituent support for budget and personnel battles in Congress.In my view, State has largely abdicated the field to the Pentagon.
    This approach permeates throughout way too much of the Department from public affairs and human resources to ECA (a few examples there: the earlier cancellation of support for university to university linkages, lack of oversight of youth exchange programs, and lack of adequate support or oversight of grass roots organizations that supply the community links and programs for the International Visitor Program.
    Then there’s the Hill. While the Pentagon and the various military services are well ensconced on the Hill, State has only one office – if I remember correctly – on the House side. State all too often lets the contractors lead the Congressional budget fight – which is one reason some ECA programs are designed for the good of the contractor, not the country.
    I’m not so sure that there is much of a relationship between Sister Cities and the CIVs here but 1) I certainly agree with Greg that strong ties would make both organizations better and 2) so much depends on the local leadership of the organizations. Strong ties and strong local leadership should be the norm across the board – not the exception. State should be leading the way – not shirking it.

  4. Rather than focusing on big, costly programs, why not focus on less expensive, more flexible alternatives?For example, why don’t we use social media to link up interested US Citizens with folks in foreign countries to share ideas and expereinces?
    Using a screening process like “” people (or groups of people) of like interest across the globe could be introduced and person-to-person dialogue could begin. Soybean farmers in middle America could “talk” to soybean farmers in Africa to share crop tips, discuss challenges and talk about the family farm. School teachers (or classrooms) could link to other school teachers (or classrooms) in India. Bankers in Manahattan can link to bankers in Iraq and talk about electronic banking. Power generation professionals in the US could link to their counterparts in Guatemala to talk about maintenance practices and grid switching.
    In the same way, governors, mayors, city councilmen, etc. in the US could be linkded to their counterparts around the globe to share ideas on development, crime control, corruption, etc.
    The benefit of this is that it would:
    – Foster engagement between the US and others around the world in peer-to-peer discussions (and we all know that peers are more credible sources of information than the authoritative message delivered by the offical source)
    – Be “near real time” dialogue that makes the exchange of information relevant and timely.
    – Low cost and high ROI (given the relative maturity of social networking technology and the rapid adoption of social media)

  5. Matt– thanks for highlighting Sister Cities, definitely one of State’s hidden jewels. Having written my masters thesis while living in my sister city, and worked locally nationally and locally with and for Sister Cities for 15 years, I can confirm that: 1) sister cities partnerships are underappreciated and underleveraged by State; 2) sister cities partnerships are hit and miss (and that status can change from year to year); 3) often the partnerships are (unfairly) seen as boondoggles for city hall travel; 4) the partnerships are aging and the older generation, for which sister cities are physical travel programs, have not engaged a younger, Internet-savvy, virtual exchange generation to sustain their sister cities partnerships; 5) Related, the one-to-one municipal linkage is often tenuous– US cities with multiple links that network all its partners are much more robust and seem to sustain activity better from year to year (Also, cities that are networking multiple cities seem to have more young people involved)Sister Cities and People to People remain two enduring program beloved by millions worldwide, with tons of potential if supported and leveraged adequately by ECA, USAID, and other USG agencies.

  6. So much depends on the will of the local politicians involved. I heard recently of a mayor west coast city whose sister mayor flew in from East Asia for dinner only to find that the US mayor had blown off the event. Well that sends a message!

  7. If I remember correctly – Greg Garland should know the current State Dept annual grant to SSI – Sister Cities is so much cheaper to State to help fund than the costly IV programs or many other exchanges – particularly one way programs it’s a sad joke.Furthermore, from what I’ve seen the CIVs and local SSI do not operate hand-in glove here at all. More often, they simply seem to operate in different orbits.
    You ask where is the younger generation? Excellent question. From my experiences in NM it is trying to make financial ends meet while obtaining a higher education at the same time. This does not leave time for much volunteer community involvement along the lines of either SSI or the CIVs. And those organizations (excluding CIR in Santa Fe which runs the CIV there) haven’t seemed to want student interns despite the tech skills the students could bring – and these organizations certainly don’t have the money to provide paid internships – which is what I think should happen. Would benefit both. Web social networking is nice and should be part of the communications mix particularly as follow-on – but it does not replace the engagement and benefits of the “last three feet.”

  8. I generally agree with all the comments made here. Sister Cities are relatively cheap programs that rely on volunteerism more than any public sector contributions. The trade development aspect is crucial, but should not be allowed to drown out the many other components of broad–based community effort.Where are the young people? My own experience in Jacksonville tells me they some are engaged, and can be engaged easily. But it takes leadership to reach out to the institutions where young people are and to encourage their activity. Jacksonville does this in one key way through involving the University of North Florida in community-wide programs. Former Mayor John Delaney now heads up UNF, and personifies the synergy between the area’s major campus and the region’s international agenda that he made a priority as mayor. In any case, exchange programs at the college and high school levels are an essential part of an overall successful Sister Cities outreach. A community leadership that understands the need for young people to join the Sister Cities process is truly thinking of the future, and not just the next trade promotion sojourn overseas.

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