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'No diaspora to match Indian American community in US'

December 14, 2011 16:49 IST

Indian American community's activism and energy has made India's caucus on Capitol Hill the most influential, says Robert Blake. Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington DC.

Robert Blake, the Obama administration's point man for South Asia, on Tuesday night declared that "there is no diaspora community that is more successful and more inspiring that the Indian American community in the United States."

Blake made the statement at the annual American India Foundation's annual fund-raising gala in Washington, DC where he was the keynote speaker.

"All of you know the facts," he told the audience. "There are some 3 million Indian Americans here and Indian Americans have, if not the highest, among the highest per capita incomes here among all immigrants groups in the United States, and increasingly, they are seeing their influence grow," Blake said.

"You see people like Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, you see people like Nikki Haley, who is the governor of South Carolina, you see people at every single level of government, at the highest levels of business, academia and everywhere else," Blake pointed out.

"If you look at the growth of the India caucus, it is the most influential caucus on Capitol Hill, and the reason for that is because of the activism and the energy of the Indian American community," he said.

Blake recalled that "my experiences in India and elsewhere in South Asia, really taught me that there were tremendous opportunities for the US government to work more closely with the diaspora and try leverage their talents and, yes, to leverage their resources as well."

He said that one of the very first things he did when he became assistant secretary of State for south and central Asian affairs, was to hire somebody to work on diaspora efforts.

"First, to develop relationships and dialogue that did not exist, not only with Indian Americans, but with all of the diaspora communities that we work with. But just as importantly, to try and build and leverage public-private partnerships, so that again US government dollars can go further and all your dollars can go further too."

Blake said that one such partnership that was particularly relevant was India's 1.5 million non-governmental organisations. "A lot of their work is not known in the United States, and in many cases, even in India," he said.

Blake said that whenever he speaks across the country about all the work "we are doing in India, Indian Americans always come to me and say, 'we want to help, tell us how we can engage, how can we do more'. And, so, this is really our response to them – that we are working with an Indian non-profit called 'Guide Star India' to create an online, searchable date base of all Indian NGOS that have been vetted by an independent third party to make sure that they are accountable, to make sure that they are transparent, to make sure that you can really be comfortable supporting and that they have clean and open books."

He said that this project would list all of the intermediary institutions, "including with your permission, AIF, who can facilitate tax-deductible donations to Indian organisations in India. And, by matching a list of certified Indian NGOs with potential American donors, we aim to create basically an online philanthropy marketplace where donors can go and find out what are the full range of things that they can support, including AIF, and get more involved with this wonderful partnership that we have been the United States and India."

Blake argued that in today's budget constrained environment, such public-private strategies were really important to buttress international development efforts and the crucial people-to-people ties "because that's what really underlines the friendship between countries, particularly between India and the United States".

"Our people-to-people ties form a network of partnerships that undergirds everything we do, and our people are our greatest resource and you are our greatest resource to help drive all the progress that we are making," he added.

Earlier, Blake showered kudos on AIF and recalled his first meeting with AIF when he was the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in New Delhi.

He reminisced that "one of the first things he had to do was to brief a group of young, mostly Indian American, but not all Indian Americans, who were coming to do their service in India."

"I had never heard of the AIF before and I was really struck by what a wonderful group of young people this was," he said. "They were doing amazing things. Some of them were working on things like Dalit rights, some of them were working with street children, a lot of them were working on HIV/AIDS, and they were working all over India in some of the really furthest regions of India."

Blake said that in many cases, people who'd never been to India before and had come to India to give a year of their lives, under the aegis of the AIF. "I became a big fan of the AIF from then on and then every year after that, I was very happy to brief the incoming class and tell them a little bit about what we were doing in our bilateral relations, but also to hear from them about what they were doing because in many ways they represent the best of American," said Blake.

"They represent our tradition of service, community service, service overseas, and also our idealism and our optimism," he said.

Blake said that programs such as Clinton fellows underline the important role that diaspora communities and organisations like AIF make in the lives of people.

It was on the initiative of President Clinton in 2001, that AIF was founded as a development organisation focused on helping the poor in India and is acknowledged as a trusted bridge for Americans to channel their philanthropy towards India.

Since its inception, the AIF has sent more than 200 Clinton fellows to serve at 115 high-quality Indian NGOs. Clinton serves as honorary chair of AIF, while Nobel laureate and Professor Amartya Sen chairs the advisory council.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC