Interview with Daniel Obst, President and CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs

Working together to accomplish the AFS mission

 In October at the AFS World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Daniel Obst was introduced as the new President and Chief Executive Officer of AFS Intercultural Programs. Daniel officially joined AFS on 1 November 2016. EFIL’s Communications Coordinator, Tinna Sveinsdottir, spent time talking with the new President in his third week on the job, curious about his views on key issues and the future developments in AFS as a leading intercultural education organisation.

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 EFIL Why did you apply for the position of President and CEO of AFS Intercultural Programs?

 Daniel: For pretty much all my professional life, I have been very committed and dedicated to international education. And it wasn’t necessarily something that I had picked to do, I just fell into it. When I first came to New York I worked at a tech start-up called iAgora.com, which was an online community for young internationals who could live, work or study abroad. I continued pursuing this interest at the Institute of International Education (IIE). After 15 years at IIE, I was ready for a new experience and a new challenge. The job at AFS looked like an incredible opportunity for my personal and professional development, but also to work for an organisation with a mission and focus on creating a more just and peaceful world. This inspires me personally. I’m also very excited to work for a volunteer-driven organisation, which impacts the way you operate and makes you think about volunteer motivation, the organisation’s mission and values.

 EFIL: Having attended the AFS World Congress in October, what are your first impressions of AFS?

 Daniel: The AFS International team has helped me better understand the opportunities and challenges of the organisation. But I don’t think I could have started tackling these issues so quickly without attending the World Congress. This meeting really opened my eyes to the power of the Network. It was an incredible opportunity to meet many of the Partner Directors and Chairs, and to learn about the different needs, challenges and opportunities in each country and region. I also witnessed in person the incredible force and momentum around the Future AFS initiative, which will help us define our priorities and strategies together. I also liked the Future AFS theme, “Broader Reach, Deeper Impact, ” and that together we began answering the question: How can AFS as an organisation and a Network move forward? That was very inspiring and motivating.

 EFIL:  You were not overwhelmed by the scale of your first encounter with the Network leadership?

 Daniel: Not at all. Everyone was so welcoming and committed to advancing the Future AFS initiative and supporting me in my new role. I look forward to continuing many of the conversations I had in Rio.

EFIL: As a regional network and umbrella organisation of Europe’s AFS organisations, EFIL provides various types of services to its Member Organisations, often supported by funding we obtain from the European institutions and other sources. Also in other parts of the world, AFS organisations are clustering in regional groups, such as the AFS Asia-Pacific Initiative (AAI), AFS in Africa (AiA) and AFS Caribe. What’s your view on strengthening the regions, and how do you see the future role of regional AFS groups like EFIL?

Daniel: AFS is a unique and powerful global Network that can respond to local, national, regional and international needs and opportunities. This is what makes AFS so significant, especially compared to other international education organisations or other NGOs working for peace and understanding. I see tremendous networking opportunities through our regional groups. Here are three that come to mind:

 First, joining together to advocate for our industry can make a powerful impact, especially in times of political and economic change. EFIL does great work in this field, from what I have seen and heard.

 Second, sharing best practices, organising joint training events and spreading ideas and thoughts will strengthen AFS throughout our regions.

 And third, working together makes it easier to develop new programmes and seek funding—another area where EFIL has had a great head start.

 I also encourage regional groups and the AFS global Network to open the lines of communication and share insights and knowledge freely. We all benefit from knowing what is going on in Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin America: What are the key issues and needs in each region? And how must we adapt our thinking and programmes to address or take advantage of them?

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 EFIL: The mission of AFS to create a more just and peaceful world is as relevant today as ever in light of events like Brexit, the election of officials who don’t have the same values as organisations like AFS, the refugee and migrant crisis and the rise of international terrorism. To stay true to the mission, several AFS Network organisations believe that AFS should be more engaged in projects, programmes and discussions that address some of the world’s current burning issues—and offer our expertise, using our valuable network of volunteers and collaborating with other organisations. What’s your take on this?

Daniel: This is a very important issue. Our Global Education Week and International Education Week statement emphasised that fostering intercultural understanding is a powerful tool for building a more just and peaceful world. But what does this look like in the real world?

We all know that many world challenges we face today, especially the political ones, are often rooted in the fact that people find it hard to accept differences and different opinions. Intercultural learning helps people find better solutions to various challenges. And AFS programmes and learning materials help individuals, families and groups engage with people who think differently. We also help them understand the importance of appreciating and valuing these differences.

EFIL: So for sure there’s an opportunity, but do you feel there’s an obligation as well to use our intercultural learning expertise “outside” of AFS?

Daniel: AFS organisations are dedicated to educating active global citizens. These days we also must encourage AFSers to use their intercultural skills to bring communities and cultures together and work through their differences and conflicts—no matter what profession or volunteer activities AFSers choose to pursue. We also must advocate boldly for intercultural learning, global citizenship education and the value of studying abroad. International educational experiences prepare people to build better diplomatic relations, strengthen economic ties between countries and regions, and foster mutual understanding—all necessary skills in an increasingly global world.  

EFIL:  Over the past decade EFIL has been committed to grow AFS in Europe by setting up AFS organisations and launching AFS programmes in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.Some partners would like AFS to focus more on helping AFS organisations that require support, rather than expanding the Network to cover new territories. What’s your view on this?

Daniel: The power of AFS is our global network. So we must ensure that the AFS Network is strong, healthy and growing to remain viable and relevant. We also must be smart about how we manage and expand our 101-year-old organisation, setting the right balance between support and expansion.

Trust and solidarity are critical elements for keeping networked organisations together in good times and tough times. The AFS Articles of Partnerships emphasise that every Partner is responsible for keeping the Network healthy as a whole, as well as supporting other Partners. That principle inspires me to think, plan and work strategically as we allocate our efforts and resources. I look forward to collaborating with the Network Organisations to better understand their individual needs and realities. Together with the AFS Board of Trustees, regional associations and the Partners themselves, AFS International can address these critical issues you have raised.  

EFIL: Although AFS has a worldwide network, our presence is less prominent or non-existent in certain parts of the world, Africa being the most notable example. Having an international Network Meeting in Ghana in 2017 is a step in the right direction. What ways do you see to put Africa on the map for AFS?

Daniel: I’m very excited that the next Network Meeting will take place in Ghana and I’d like to compliment AFS Ghana for the very strong effort put forward in making this meeting happen there. This will be a fantastic opportunity for our AFS in Africa regional organisation and for the whole AFS Network.

I believe there are some distinct opportunities on the African continent and in the individual countries. We need to explore ways to build broader partnerships and alliances with other organisations, and look for more funding from global and regional foundations, as well as from governments and multilateral organisations that support education and youth development in Africa. Now is the time to also figure out where we fit in the dialogue around the key issues that affect the continent: education, youth employment, workforce development, leadership development, access to educational opportunities and the notion of active and global citizenship. We can and should play an important role leveraging our intercultural learning tools. However, we must always keep in mind, especially as we are looking at funders, the importance of being donor-centric. How can we help respond to real needs and circumstances in the region, and how do we work together with donors and partners to respond to those needs?

EFIL: In some places, AFS is losing market share in “traditional” English-speaking destinations. As much as we promote diversity, it cannot be denied that the demand for English markets remains very high. In order to play a significant role in the UK and Ireland, AFS may have to get rid of one of its ‘holy cows’, and agree to introduce a system to compensate host families. How do you feel we should deal with this changing reality?

Daniel: This is a great question, but covers an area where I still have a lot of learning to do about the realities of the Network before I can respond. But no matter what, we must discuss this topic openly throughout the Network to identify and debate possible solutions. Our industry is growing more competitive and complicated every year. So our decisions must consider new ideas in context of the complicated set of realities we face and our very important mission. Future AFS strategic planning will help us put key challenges like this on the table so we can tackle them together. At the same time we must also brainstorm how we can influence the industry in our favour. I am delighted to work with EFIL on this and many more initiatives in years to come.

EFILife thanks Daniel for taking the time to answer our questions. We look forward to keeping the conversation going through more interviews in the future.

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Photos: 1&2 Daniel Obst at the AFS World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (©AFS International). 3  Daniel Obst, Ulrik Wehner, National Director of AFS Denmark and Paul Claes, Secretary General of EFIL at the AFS World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (©EFIL)

For more information: Tinna.Sveinsdotti@afs.org