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staffer on her first overseas posting: “I got

out more in the beginning, but it’s very

hard to do. I’m being asked to support

an approach with partners, but don’t

know really what’s going on out there and

who they are. You’re always led by other


Also typical is the complaint by a

young USAID officer who had spent four

years in Zambia and was then posted to

a French-speaking country, without any

knowledge of the language. Though he is

taking weekly courses at USAID’s expense,

he said: “By the time I’ll be able to com-

municate with someone in this country,

I’ll be ready to leave.”

The isolation of USAID personnel has

an effect on those with whom the agency

would like to establish close working rela-

tionships. “Why bother?” they ask them-

selves. As an Asian government health

official who works with USAID projects

told us: “I’m getting tired of having to edu-

cate anew each new USAID health officer

who comes in every two or three years.

We don’t get anywhere because we always

need to start from scratch.”

In our conversations with more than

70 USAID staff in overseas missions,

we detected an underlying patronizing

attitude. Use of the term “the locals” is

common; and after a year at post, some

staff begin to cast their hosts in terms of

two-dimensional stereotypes that tend

toward a dismissive throwing up of one’s

hands, if not contempt. There is frustra-

tion at the difficulty in convincing “them”

to do things our way, and exasperation at

certain native habits. Rather than trying to

penetrate a foreign culture, many surren-

der to a “that’s just how they are” mantra.

Perhaps the most constant refrain was

that we are being “ripped off”—“they” just

cannot be trusted with our money. A civil

society leader in East Africa who has had

experience working with the agency told

us: “They [USAID] are all about the ‘gotcha.’

That’s how they are recruited and, more

important, that’s how they are trained.

They need to listen—the starting point

[with local partners] has to be ‘we both

want the same thing.’ But instead, they go

in [to an agreement or a contract] with the

belief that ‘you’re trying to screw us.’ They

are simply not going to be able to get into

a relationship of understanding with local

organizations with that mentality.”

Back in Washington, a recently retired

officer with 30 years at USAID asked

reflectively: “Are we good listeners? Is our

decision-making based on evidence? Or

do we appear arbitrary or ideological?

Do we appreciate and respect a given

country’s political and economic accom-

plishments? Or do we appear dismissive,

disrespectful, untrusting and arrogant?

Are we distinguished by our presence—

are we out and around, easy to find, see,

speak to and understand? Are our agendas

and processes clear? Or are we invisible,

distant, impossible to reach and under-

stand, opaque?”

Security Constraints

There are a number of reasons for both

the isolation and the related hints of con-

tempt that we found. Most lie in the physi-

cal, bureaucratic and human resource

realms, and so there is some hope for

change, at least in the latter two. As for

physical isolation, this key constraint has

to do with 9/11 and the perceived need to

reduce the risks to U.S. official personnel

overseas—and it is unlikely to change.

The architecture of embassy com-

pounds, into which more and more

USAID offices have been required to

move, has become fortress-like (if not

prison-like); many have slit windows

and 300-pound steel doors and on the

outer perimeters, razor wire and concrete

barricades. Significantly, the FY 2016

budget request for the Department of

State included $4.8 billion in “Support to

Embassy Security”—that’s the equivalent

of one-third of USAID’s entire budget.

It is hard, even for visiting Americans,

to get into the compounds. People from

local civil society, municipal government

units and private firms who have gone

through the experience tend not to want to

do it again. Visitors must be accompanied

everywhere (even to the door of the rest

room, though thankfully not inside, or at

least not yet). Passports and cell phones

are surrendered. Muscles are strained

opening the heavy doors.

Leaving the compound, essential for

USAID staff to be able to develop those

close relationships, is almost equally

daunting. The joke we heard a few times

fromUSAID personnel is that it is as hard

to get out of the embassy compound as it

is to get in.

Surely something could be done about

the bureaucratic constraints against more

spontaneous outside visits. At the least,

the current process could be stream-

lined. Traveling to a rural area for four or

five days, for example, requires (in most

cases) submitting an application, justify-

ing it, waiting for both budget and senior

management approval, and then applying

to the transport office for the allocation

of vehicle and driver, and sometimes a

security detail—all of which takes a lot of

time and paperwork.

Moreover, the nature of the routine

workflowmakes superiors reluctant to

allow any extended interruptions. Accord-

ing to the Tanzania mission director, inter-

viewed in late 2014, as much as 60 percent

of staff time goes to reporting and routine


In a few places, the logistics of travel

are made still more cumbersome. When

we visited Angola, it was policy that any

official going on a field trip needed two