Mark Schlakman: Florida's outreach to the Americas is put in limbo


Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.

Florida is unique in many respects, and boasts one of the more diverse populations in the nation with proud and equally diverse heritages and strong cultural and economic ties throughout the world, particularly within the Americas.

International trade and commerce is a key factor for Florida's economic growth and prosperity, including insofar as agriculture, natural resources and the life sciences for which UF/IFAS has developed an international reputation.

Gov. Rick Scott's trade missions to Chile, Colombia, Brazil and Panama underscore the importance of expanding trade relationships within the region.

Curiously, however, when Florida's Legislature had more revenue at its disposal than at any time in recent memory, legislative leadership defunded Florida's International Volunteer Corps, an agile and very lean not-for-profit launched in 1982 under then-Gov. Bob Graham. As a casualty of the 2013 state legislative session, it's now struggling to survive.

Better known in the region by its acronym FAVACA than by its official name, the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas facilitates sustainable relationships between private and public-sector interests in response to “in-country” requests for assistance.

It received state funding at varying levels over the past three decades. The relatively small annual investment of several hundred thousand dollars within the context of the state's overall budget paid substantial dividends and was leveraged to secure federal and host country funds, foundation grants, corporate and individual contributions, sometimes from the international community.

A significant portion of this funding was spent in Florida.

Jimmy Buffett's Singing for Change Foundation is one of FAVACA's principal strategic partners.

Govs. Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush called upon FAVACA to help facilitate their respective Florida/Haiti Initiatives.

Florida's first lady, Ann Scott, visited a women's empowerment project in Bogota during the governor's trade mission to Colombia last December for which FAVACA leveraged U.S. State Department funds that also brought Colombian officials to Florida.

The U.S. Southern Command collaborated with FAVACA to sustain certain Humanitarian Assistance Program objectives.

The Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute recognized FAVACA for its unique approach to “smart development” in a USAID funded report, noting that it delivers demand-driven, short-term technical assistance and training, and facilitates engagement by diaspora groups and individuals essentially to improve the quality of life.

Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam remarked during International Days in Tallahassee earlier this year that FAVACA was an example of the state's unusual capacity to project “soft power.” Simply put, there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. A convergence of compelling circumstances in the Caribbean and Central America that impacted Florida during the early 1980s, including spikes in migration from Cuba and Haiti, prompted Gov. Graham to establish FAVACA, believing that Floridians could play a meaningful role in shaping the stability and prosperity of the region.

From small island nations like Grenada and Dominica to Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama, the region faced significant challenges, sometimes the kind that highly skilled Floridians, many with regional ancestry, could help address.

Since its inception, 3,000 FAVACA volunteers have trained 30,000 people in 30 countries and territories to prepare for and respond to hurricanes and other natural and manmade disasters, target gang violence and an array of transnational threats, including disease vectors and agricultural blights that, if left unchecked, could adversely impact Florida.

Toward these ends, FAVACA has collaborated with UF/IFAS as well as UF's Center for Latin American Studies from time to time.

FAVACA also has trained air and seaport managers and customs officials; helped advance preventive health initiatives, including HIV/AIDS; worked with small farmers to increase productivity and eliminate medfly, and local authorities to protect fish stocks, coral reefs and mangroves.

Sometimes, host nations enter into contracts with FAVACA volunteers for longer-term support, generating revenue for Florida businesses and institutions of higher learning.

Visit FAVACA's website to learn more — www.favaca.org.

A Haitian proverb says, beyond mountains there are mountains. Given today's increasingly interdependent world, ensuring that FAVACA's engagement on behalf of all Floridians can continue is a mountain worth climbing.

Mark Schlakman, senior program director for FSU's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, is FAVACA's immediate past board chair.

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