THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Gintė Damušis, newly appointed Ambassador at Large for relations with the Lithuanian World Community interviewed by Aage Myhre, VilNews Editor-in-Chief
After recently completing her posting in Ottawa as Ambassador of Lithuania to Canada, Gintė Damušis returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Ambassador at Large in the Department of Lithuanians Living Abroad in charge of relations with the Lithuanian World Community. Her duties include strengthening ties with Lithuanian organizations abroad, engaging Lithuanian communities through joint projects in the implementation of the “Global Lithuania” strategy, also rallying diaspora support for strategic Lithuanian interests. This is our interview with Ambassador Damušis.
Congratulations on your new position and duties. What is your vision for this important job?
I discussed the goals of this new assignment with the Minister. The vision is to actively engage the diaspora by promoting joint projects and activities for maintaining Lithuanian identity through educational, cultural, economic and other programs. We want to expand connections by encouraging communities to think locally, but act globally by sharing expertise and building business and other professional networks for promoting trade, investment, scientific and other cooperation. We are encouraging direct engagement with Lithuanian civil society so that the Lithuanian people can benefit practically from more active ties with the diaspora. More people-to-people contacts will open doors and expand horizons. Promoting volunteerism and the sustainability of diaspora activities abroad are issues that will continue to receive attention, also help raise public awareness about the diaspora. These may sound like ambitious tasks, but many fine initiatives in the diaspora and Lithuania alike are already underway, an entire Foreign Ministry department is dedicated to facilitating this work and 13 Government agencies are mandated to support these and other programs under a “Global Lithuania” action plan. We need to build upon these initiatives, strengthen and expand these efforts, multiply their scope and impact, so that the untapped potential of the diaspora is better utilized.
“We have to turn the idea of Global Lithuania into reality and take the relations between Lithuania and Lithuanian diasporas to a new quality level”, the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Asta Skaisgirytė Liauškienė, said in a recent meeting with Danguole Navickiene, the newly elected President of the Lithuanian World Community. What should, in your opinion, characterize such a new quality level?
A new quality level can be reached through more mutual respect, recognition and understanding of what each partner has to offer. This includes open dialogue about the added value of specific activities, also more broad-based recognition that the diaspora is Lithuania‘s natural ally and support system. Each partner needs to have realistic expectations about the other, also better awareness of mutual needs and requirements.
My own experience in Canada was very positive. The Embassy worked hand-in-hand with the Lithuanian Canadian community. We turned to the community for useful information and contacts, the community lobbied Lithuanian interests with local and federal representatives. Our main partner at Embassy business, cultural, press and other public events was the Lithuanian community.
We also need to recognize that the diaspora itself has changed over the past 20 years. It consists of people of different ages, life stories and experiences, with vastly varying needs. There are diverse interests, priorities and traditions between and within the different waves of emigration. The Government’s role is to shape a long-term strategy, which strengthens Lithuania’s connection to a multifaceted diaspora and interconnects the experience of old and new waves of emigration.
“Global Lithuania” is based on the approach that regardless of where we live, we can contribute to the progress of Lithuanian society and build a modern State by interconnecting knowledge, ideas and experience. Every motivated Lithuanian is important and can play a positive role both individually or within a broader framework like the Lithuanian World Community.
I personally believe that outstanding issues, such as dual citizenship, should not be a hindrance to pursuing practical cooperation and the strengthening of Lithuania-Diaspora ties. This would be counterproductive.
At this meeting between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and LWC, both parties agreed to continue strengthening cooperation in pursuit of common goals. Seen from the outside, it seems as if there has been a lack of close cooperation between Lithuanian authorities and global Lithuanians. Are we now seeing an increased interest and understanding from the national leadership?
I dispute the perception that there is a lack of cooperation. Solid cooperation exists, as many Lithuanians abroad will attest, but communication could be better. Upon arrival at the MFA, I was surprised to see just how active interaction is with Lithuanian communities abroad. This cooperation is underpinned by a clear government commitment to maintain the program and strengthen relations despite the consequences of the global financial crisis. It is no secret that Lithuanian institutions are competing for limited resources. Also not all diaspora programs go through the MFA. As coordinator of „Global Lithuania“, the MFA plays a coordinating role, but it is by no means the only government agency implementing the program. For example, informal Lithuanian education – a leading LWC priority – is being transferred, as of 2013, from the MFA to the Ministry of Science and Education. Lithuanian embassies worldwide are actively supporting the establishment of Lithuanian schools abroad and will continue to do so.
Other initiatives that the MFA supports include the projects of Enterprise Lithuania and Global Lithuanian Leaders (GLL), which are building up networks of connected professionals around the world with the assistance of Lithuanians living abroad. GLL has also established a mentoring program for students and young professionals known as LT Big Brother. „Made in Vilnius“ is targetting social media and Lithuanians living abroad in an outreach campaign promoting tourism to Lithuania called „Invite a Friend to Lithuania“. Lithuanian International Student Services (LISS) has been organizing short-term internships in Lithuania for North American students and is looking to develop this popular program even further.
The World Lithuanian Economic Forum (WLEF) can serve as another good example of a successful Lithuania-diaspora partnership, which unites business professionals through a vibrant networking platform. It allows them to share experience and establish new business relationships, while contributing to the development of Lithuania. The WLEF network gives us access to the talent, expertise, contacts and other creative resources of highly qualified professionals, who have taken an active interest in our country. We are very grateful for their confidence in us and thankful to those, who have used their personal and professional connnections to draw major investments to Lithuania.
We are trying to interconnect all these fine initiatives with other interested partners such as the Lithuanian World Community, Lithuanian World Youth Association, Lithuanian communities in Europe, North and South America, and elsewhere, also individuals, who have an interest in Lithuania and want to get involved in one way or another. I should note that support is traditionally allocated not to the organization itself, but towards the implementation of good ideas and projects.
There is no scarcity of projects, initiatives or goodwill. We just need to do a better job at spreading information about the possibilities. The question of funding also needs to be addressed – and not just from the government side, but from the private and nongovernmental sectors as well. More innovative approaches are needed in funding arrangements to ensure the sustainability of diaspora institutions and activities, particularly among the younger generation of community leaders.
The World Lithuanian Youth Association has demonstrated savviness in this regard by approaching Lithuanian companies to fund the expenses of a recent youth conference in Lithuania, which was attended by 3000 participants from 30 countries, mostly Lithuanian students living or working abroad. The companies realized the added value of their involvement. No doubt they recognized the benefit of investing in an event, which attracted so many young people, many of whom may turn out to be potential job recruits in the future.
The Government is also interested in these young Lithuanians, is encouraging their return to Lithuania where they can apply their new experience and knowledge, or is motivating them to maintain the centrality of Lithuania in their roles as future community leaders.
“No LT leaders called to tell they love me,” said Rimgaudas P. Vidziunas (65) from Arizona (see http://vilnews.com/?p=13633). He is one among thousands of Lithuanians born in German camps for displaced people after World War II. Why do you think nobody called him or sent him a note of recognition and appreciation?
Mr. Vidziunas‘ life experience is one of so many thousands of interesting, unknown stories. It never fails to amaze me just how important and central Lithuania is to so many people like him. We need to build bridges to reach him and other motivated Lithuanians, to optimize those emotional, professional and other ties more effectively, because Lithuania and the diaspora are inextricably linked.
The Harvard Business Review Blog Network just carried an interesing article about the meaning of home in a globalized world (“Moving Around Without Losing Your Roots”, http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/10/moving_around_without_losing_your_roots.html). In the article, blogger Gianpiero Petriglieri concludes that „without a local home we lose our roots, without a global home we lose our reach“. „Global Lithuania“ seeks to keep Lithuanians connected to their home country, or ancestral homeland. Hopefully, it will better position us to tap into those connections and to strengthen the Lithuania-Diaspora relationship.
What do you see as the main challenges ahead?
One of the biggest challenges is the perception that the Government is indifferent about the diaspora. Much is being done to address diaspora needs and concerns, and to include Lithuanians abroad in the life of Lithuania. The Government is approaching the diaspora in a more coherent way, thanks to “Global Lithuania”, and systematizing support and developing cooperation through many different programs, initiatives and networks.
Despite the enthusiasm from diaspora communities, strengthening Lithuania-Diaspora relations is admittedly a much more challenging task than it was 20 years ago. The main reason, as some community leaders allege, is the lack of a common denominator. Even so, the Government remains committed to identifying common goals and interests with the diaspora, also working in partnership to advance the interests and development of a modern Lithuania. The goal is to raise „Global Lithuania“ to a new level, so it becomes a living breathing plan and does not just turn into a paper tiger.
For generations there were certain code words that were part of the Lithuania-Diaspora relationship. These included freedom, human rights, Soviet occupation and the right to self-determination. Memories from the first years of Lithuanian independence kept the hope alive, and the euphoria of democratic change and reform, particularly during the days of Sajudis, was a major motivator for dramatic change.
A well-defined common issue at one point was EU and NATO membership for Lithuania, which rallied the diaspora around this important foreign policy goal.
Today Lithuania is so diverse across many lines – ideological, political, social, economic, etc. The benefit of such diversity is that every Lithuanian in the diaspora who is interested in Lithuania can find his or her counterpart. The disadvantage is that there is no single unifying cause as in the past for both Lithuania and the diaspora. Even so, opportunities to cooperate abound through specific areas of interest – along professional lines, in university student associations, through diaspora organizations, growing business and science networks, cultural, educational and charitable activities.
Lithuanian interests and democratic values can be advanced through a stronger Lithuania-Diaspora relationship, which works toward a more secure and prosperous Lithuania. As a global umbrella organization, the Lithuanian World Community can play an important and unique role in this regard, particularly by maintaining Lithuanian identity abroad and promoting the centrality of Lithuania in its global activities. Personal and emotional connections to Lithuania should not be underestimated and need to be nurtured.
We also have to recognize that the average Lithuanian knows very little about the realities of diaspora life. Many do not realize that community efforts are primarily based on volunteerism, or that Lithuanian families abroad actively maintain their identity through generations, that there are many charitable groups that support Lithuania-related causes, or that diaspora institutions promoting Lithuanian identity and culture abroad, such as community centers, youth camps, archives-museums, etc., are privately funded through individual donations and fundraising campaigns.
Hopefully, more Lithuanians will learn that life in the diaspora is not just about cepelinai dinners and other social events. It’s important to have some idea of what’s going on in diaspora life and Lithuania-Diaspora relations. The best way for people to feel that they are one united and undivided family is by doing things together and interconnecting interests. This is what we are aiming to facilitate.
VilNews e-magazine is published in Vilnius, Lithuania. Editor-in-Chief: Mr. Aage Myhre. Inquires to the editors: editor@VilNews.com.
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