US Embassy Juba: Dear Congress, This Facility Puts Employees “At Risk” But Hey, Waivers

By Domani Spero

The South Sudan gained independence on July 9, 2011, after being at war with Sudan for nearly 40 of the past 57 years. USCG Juba became an embassy the same time.  In early 2013, State/OIG conducted an inspection of the USG’s newest embassy in the world. The mission is headed by Ambassador Susan D. Page who arrived at post in December 2011; DCM Michael McClellan arrived at post in September 2012.  At just one paragraph, the leadership section of the OIG report is a haiku and the shortest we’ve seen ever.

For all those folks in Congress almost tearing their hair silly over the Benghazi talking points, here is one for you – Juba.  And this one is actually an embassy not a special mission like Benghazi.

Map of Juba, South Sudan

Map of South Sudan

Backgrounder excerpted from the OIG report:

The United States invested significant high-level energy and funding in the process that led to South Sudan’s 2011 referendum and subsequent independence. The South Sudan Government and people have a positive opinion of the United States for its role in their independence. However, the country faces severe and long-standing security, economic, and development challenges supplemented by worrisome government measures to restrict human and civil rights.

South Sudan is among the world’s poorest countries. The literacy rate is 27 percent, and half the population of 10.6 million is under the age of 18. The population of Juba has expanded to 1 million, a tenfold increase over the past decade. Although South Sudan has substantial oil reserves, exploitation requires trans-shipment of the crude oil to the Red Sea via Sudanese pipelines. The economy has deteriorated since January 2012, when the government shut down oil production as the result of disputes with Sudan. There is very little manufacturing or commercial farming, and most products are imported. The country suffers from a severe shortage of foreign currency. The United States and South Sudan have no significant bilateral trade.

The United States is the largest bilateral donor to South Sudan, providing $632 million in FY 2012. Since 2005, the United States has provided $10 billion in humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and reconstruction assistance to South Sudan and eastern Chad. In South Sudan there are an estimated 212,000 refugees, 114,000 of them displaced, and since 2010, 691,000 returnees from Sudan. Fighting across the borders continues, resulting in new refugee flows.

One of the OIG’s key findings is that the Department has been unable to staff Embassy Juba adequately, “preventing the embassy from functioning as effectively as it should.” It operates out of a small chancery deemed too small to accommodate additional staff and the new embassy is not scheduled for construction until 2018.

But post is not short on ambition. Its 2014 Mission Resource Request includes as one of its goals “the elimination of conflicts in flashpoint areas;”  in a country that has only known war in 40 of the past 57 years.

Facility Puts Embassy Employees At Risk

The embassy compound is too small and operates under waivers for a number of security standards. The embassy cannot accommodate the personnel necessary to advance U.S. interests effectively and to manage and monitor the $1.6 billion development program—the largest in Africa. A recent USAID/South Sudan staffing review found the need for 27 new positions to oversee programs properly. Staffing on the policy side is also insufficient to meet Washington’s high demand. All reporting offices work long hours trying to keep up with questions from the National Security Council Staff, S/USSESSS, the Department, and the Combatant Command for Africa (AFRICOM).

The current facility puts embassy employees at risk. The inability to add more staff leaves assistance programs vulnerable to failure or misuse of funds. The Department has decided to keep the mission with its current footprint until construction of a new embassy. It will be a number of years, however, until the new embassy is ready. In the meantime, personnel and the integrity of our programs are at risk.

Tour of Duty

When Consulate General Juba became an embassy in July 2011, the Department specified that tours of duty would be unaccompanied and 1 year in duration, with two rest and recuperation trips. The Ambassador has developed policies to increase time on the ground, including a November 2012 policy setting a maximum of 33 days that an officer could be away from post. Frequent absences due to illness further reduce time in the office. The 1-year tour of duty has a number of negative consequences. Officers find it difficult to conduct policy advocacy effectively, because it takes so long for them to learn their portfolios and establish personal contacts with South Sudanese officials. They often do not have time to understand, oversee, and shape foreign assistance programs. Frequent rotations also result in ineffective management of locally employed (LE) staff, causing them to take less initiative due to shifting priorities.

Below are a few more items in the report that we thought striking .  We will blog separately about the consular operation there.

  • There is no entry-level officer development program at Embassy Juba. The two entry- level officers interact with the DCM on a regular basis, but there are no activities directed to their long-term career development.
  • The invisibility of the EEO counselor at a post with many junior officers and new LE staff members could account in part for the lack of EEO complaints. Local guard force personnel indicated on questionnaires and interviews that they had been victims of tribalism, favoritism, and other discrimination. Without the guidance of certified, trained personnel and ready access to pertinent information, mission employees cannot resolve EEO issues and are vulnerable to workplace discrimination.
  • The embassy’s limited computer platform leaves officers tracking upcoming visitors and reports on dry-erase whiteboards. Department-issued BlackBerry devices do not work in South Sudan.
  • Few employees use the embassy SharePoint site, inaugurated in October. Instead, they email documents to one another, inevitably missing some employees and spawning multiple requests for updates.
  • When asked how they track contacts, officers showed inspectors piles of business cards. These stacks are practically meaningless without context, which officers lack because of complete turnover in American staffing each summer.

Public Diplomacy Fail: $600 Million in Aid and Locals Don’t Know It’s From Uncle Sam?

 The PAO does not hold regular planning meetings with the Ambassador or the DCM, and there is no mission public diplomacy strategy. Other than the daily “gaggle” in the Ambassador’s office, which concentrates mostly on the agenda of the day, the only planning meeting is the weekly extended political section meeting once a week on Fridays. That meeting does not lend itself to an exchange of information on how the public affairs section can support mission objectives.

The USAID mission has a budget of more than $600 million, but USAID public affairs support is located in Washington. The Ambassador is an active promoter of USAID activities and often opens projects for them. USAID has brought on board an LE staff member in public affairs and is now in the process of hiring a documentation, outreach, and communications U.S. direct hire. It is important for the PAO to think ahead about how best to coordinate her work and that of the USAID documentation, outreach, and communications officer. As is, according to one interviewee, “the man on the street has no idea that the United States is contributing more than $600 million in assistance to South Sudan.”

The full report is available here.