Saturday, November 21, 2009

Internal State Department report criticizes Africa Bureau

By Elizabeth Dickinson

Do State Department bureaus mirror the turmoil in the regions they cover? If a critical new report (pdf) on the Bureau of African Affairs ("AF" in bureaucratic parlance) is any indication, the answer may be yes -- at least for certain offices.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concludes her seven-nation tour of Africa this week, AF is receiving mixed and strongly worded reviews back in Washington. A periodic report just released by the department's Office of the Inspector General praised the work of a bureau strapped for resources and burdened with demands, while raising serious questions about staffing shortfalls, planning priorities, and a public diplomacy program that is, in the report's words, "failed." Compared with other regional bureaus, Acting Inspector General Harold W. Geisel said in an interview, the Bureau of African Affairs received a worse review.

"These guys have been operating under incredible pressure, with crises popping up all over the continent; that's the good news. The bad news is that the bureau as an entity in the State Department was not operating as well as we would expect it to operate," said Geisel.

The report seems to have elicited different reactions among officials and Foreign Service officers within AF, welcomed by some and criticized by others, who feel that their functional groups were unfairly maligned.

The OIG report, divided into sections to address policy implementation, resource management, and management controls, was released early this month and covers an assessment period between April 20 and June 5, 2009. The evaluation concluded a month after President Barack Obama's nominee for assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, was sworn in on May 7. The bulk of the research took place while the bureau was under the leadership of acting Assistant Secretary Phillip Carter III, a rumored pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. Carter's interim leadership was praised by the OIG as a time of "renewal"; Carson is likewise seen as a strong leader for the bureau.

[Update: A former senior State Department official writes in response to FP's report that "The OIG blast on AF has little to do with/against the then-Acting Assistant Secretary [Carter]." Instead, he calls the report "a massive slam" against Jendayi Frazer, who served as assistant secretary for African affairs under the Bush administration. Contacted by phone this morning, Frazer declined to comment on either the findings of the report or this particular remark.

Speaking more generally about the Bureau yesterday, Geisel also suggested that the decline began before the assessment period. He attributed shortcomings within the agency to "a matter of [dealing with] crises, but we also think it was a matter of leadership and lack thereof. As the report says, the acting assistant secretary was a wonderful leader. ... He did a wonderful job of trying to pick up the pieces and lead the bureau until Johnny Carson came in."]

Yet the report is highly critical of AF in other respects. First, it cites inadequate staffing, declining morale, lack of qualified job candidates, and a failure to mentor young officers as key shortcomings. "There is no bureau that is more difficult to staff overseas than AF," the report reads. OIG attributes the difficulty to perceptions about the poor quality of living abroad and insufficient hardship or danger pay. Hence, positions in Africa often remain vacant or are filled with candidates without the necessary experience.

Meanwhile, demands on embassy staff have only ballooned: "Embassy platforms are collapsing under the weight of new programs and staffing without corresponding resources to provide the services required," the report says. There is, for example, just one financial economist and one international economic position mandated within the bureau's economic team, rending State "an unequal partner in discussions" with other U.S. branches and multilateral institutions.

"Several embassies," according to the report, "had significant morale, performance, or leadership issues." Citing interviews and site visits, OIG notes deficiencies in leaders' abilities to facilitate staff cooperation and to mentor young colleagues. Staff survey responses demonstrated that there is "considerable dissatisfaction with the African Bureau, ranging from lack of communication from the regional desks to front office disinterest in all but the crisis posts."

In addition to leadership challenges, AF's policy planning was criticized for being largely short-term and reactive rather than strategic and broad-based. "There's always a problem in bureaucracies that the urgent outweighs the important. They were doing a good job of fighting fires ... but it was too much time being spent on the crisis of the moment and not enough time being spent on our strategy," Geisel said. The report goes further, saying that the "focus of the bureau appears to be more on the process and timeline for generative new MSPs [Mission Strategic Plans] and the new BSP [Bureau Strategic Plan] rather than on the content," a shortcoming attributed to "procrastination, a lack of buy-in to the enterprise, or poor understanding of performance measurement on the part of missions and other offices."

That lack of foresightedness plays out in several specific Africa policies, including food aid ("the United States helps feed Africa, it is not focusing as it might on helping Africans feed themselves") and HIV/AIDS ("programs spend more on medication than prevention"). OIG cites staff worries that, while HIV/AIDS occupies a large portion of embassies' humanitarian attention thanks to the massive and widely lauded PEPFAR program, comparatively little time or attention is paid to other development priorities such as promoting education and combating corruption.

Another sticky issue addressed in the report is the initially antagonistic relationship between U.S. embassies and personnel from the Department of Defense's new military command for Africa, AFRICOM. "The activation and role of the command was misunderstood at best, if not resented and challenged by AF," the report finds. While the report notes improvements between the two teams, misunderstandings remain. Embassy staff received little instruction as to how they should integrate and work with AFRICOM officials, for example. And within the department, there is "considerable internal debate about the wisdom of military funding of U.S. development and public diplomacy activities in Africa" -- things like combating HIV/AIDS.and building wells for drinking water.

Resentments may be exacerbated by the fact that AFRICOM's funding often far outstrips that of AF. "The military deals in resources that the State Department can only dream about, either in a pleasant dream or a nightmare," Geisel said. In one instance, a military information support team (the military equivalent to an embassy's public affairs staff) was funded with $600,000 for their campaign in Somalia, while the State Department had to make do with a mere $30,000.

"It's a totally different scale," said Geisel. Perhaps for this reason, OIG suggests that the State Department's overall very successful peacekeeper training and support programs be transferred to AFRICOM if State fails to receive adequate funding and staff for them.

The report's most strongly worded criticism goes to AF's public diplomacy office, which the report deems utterly failed, devoid of long-term strategy, marginalized within the wider bureau, and technologically ill-equipped. So poor was its performance, the OIG determined, that AF should commission an independent review within 90 days to examine the roots of the shortcomings. Asked why he felt the public diplomacy shop had performed poorly, Geisel blamed management: "The leadership of the bureau in my opinion took its eye off the ball," he said.

That notion, however, is disputed by some within the bureau. One official, who declined to be named, explained, "Public diplomacy is seen by some State Department officials as conveying a message. That is 10 percent of what we do. Probably 90 percent is to create relationships and mutual understanding with the public in other countries. What they [OIG] are commenting on is their understanding of 10 percent."

The report offers several other insights into the workings of U.S.-Africa policy. The much-touted Africa Growth and Opportunity Act -- passed in 2000 and since amended four times to offer trade incentives if African economies liberalize -- has had a limited impact, according to the report. "Poorly developed infrastructure, a lack of affordable credit, weak merchandising, and an inability to meet U.S. phytosanitary regulations are among the many factors that thus far have limited the intended trade promotion and diversification effects of AGOA." So although trade between the United States and the continent has risen almost fourfold between 2001 and 2008, non-oil trade accounts for just 4.9 percent of 2008's $104.7 billion trade figure.

Also of note was the report's observation that Somalia remained "the hottest of many policy fires burning within the bureau."

The report is both good and bad news for the Obama administration as it tries to craft its policy toward a continent that expects much from the first African-American U.S. president. Obama campaigned on a promise to boost foreign assistance and revamp the State Department, the need for which seems substantiated by the OIG's report. Much hope rests with new Assistant Secretary Carson, who is almost universally held in high regard by State Department officials.

Compliance procedures under the OIG require the Bureau of African Affairs to follow up with progress reports on its compliance with the 19 recommendations mandated in the report. The first reporting period concludes toward the end of this month -- 30 days after the final OIG analysis was circulated to AF staff, though most in the bureau had seen earlier drafts.

Elizabeth Dickinson is assistant editor at FP.

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