Florida's Volunteer Program Gives the State a Foreign Policy

Last year at this time, Art Clawson was an adviser to the Haitian government, training the prime minister's staff to run better aid programs.

But don't look for Mr. Clawson's face in the next Peace Corps brochure. He was a volunteer for the Florida government - an ambassador for the state.

Clawson, now associate director of a health-education center in Tallahassee, Fla., is part of Florida's bold move to carve out its own foreign policy on issues that directly affect the state. Set up to respond to the influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees in the 1980s, the Florida Association of Volunteer Agencies for Caribbean Action (FAVA/CA) seeks to help raise the quality of life in several Caribbean and Central American countries to give potential migrs a reason to stay home.

The program mobilizes everyone from highly trained professionals to eager college students to provide government officials short-term training and technical assistance. It is a model for other states as they look to take up the mantle of a downsizing federal government.

"I have seen some outreach programs, but most were scattershot efforts that weren't really successful. Florida has gotten really professional about its efforts," says Carol Conway, director of international programs for the Southern Growth Policies Board in Raleigh, N.C. "States can play an effective role in foreign policy. The question is, can they get organized and do things properly?"

Some point to Florida as an example that this can be done. "I think this initiative could be implemented in other states, particularly those on the Mexican border," says George Fauriol of the the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It is a good idea because it allows local communities to respond to a problem more quickly and efficiently than a huge national response."

Since 1986, FAVA/CA's Florida International Volunteer Corps has sent more than 400 missions abroad and trained 8,000 people in 19 nations. It will organize 23 volunteer missions to Haiti next year.

"Professionals ... receive short-term training under our professional exchange program in order to learn about Haitian culture and issues affecting the Haitian people," says Holly Hill, international programs manager for FAVA/CA. "We anticipate dealing in disaster preparedness, sexually transmitted diseases, and justice system improvement."

For the Haitian government itself, Florida's programs are a breath of fresh air.

"Since the return of President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide, we have required assistance because of the problems caused by the [1991] coup d'tat and the resulting economic sanctions," says Jean-Gabriel Augustine, consul general for Haiti to Miami. "The cooperation of the international community in helping us improve our situation is appreciated."

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