USAID’s Arab Spring Challenges in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen: The State Department, It’s No.2 Challenge

Posted: 12:10 am EDT
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USAID’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted a survey (pdf) to identify the challenges USAID faced during the early transition period (December 2010-June 2014) in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. USAID/OIG identified and interviewed 31 key USAID officials from various parts of the organization who have worked on activities in these countries.It also administered a questionnaire to supplement the information gathered from the interviews. Together, 70 employees from USAID were either interviewed or responded to the questionnaire. It notes that the while the survey collected the perspectives of a number of USAID employees, it is not statistically representative of each office or USAID as a whole.

The highest addressee on this report is USAID/Middle East Bureau Assistant Administrator, Paige Alexander. It includes no State Department official nor congressional entities.

Below is an excerpt:

In 2013 OIG conducted a performance audit of USAID/Egypt’s economic growth project1 and found that the changes of the Arab Spring severely affected the project’s progress. Approximately midway through implementation, the project had not made significant progress in seven of the ten tasks in the original plan mainly because of changes in the Egyptian Government’s counterparts and priorities. To adapt to the environment, the project adjusted its plan and identified three new areas of work to focus on. In another audit that year,2 OIG found similar challenges at USAID/Yemen when one of that mission’s main projects had to adjust its approach after the Arab Spring started (page 16).

Beyond project delays, we found a host of other challenges common to all four countries that revolve around three broad categories:

  1. Security
  2. Increased influence from the State Department
  3. Host-countryreadiness

1. Security.

One of the most commonly cited challenges was the difficulty of operating in a volatile environment. Security dictated many aspects of USAID’s operations after the Arab Spring started, and it was not uncommon for activities to be delayed or cancelled because of security issues.
[…]
In addition to access, security also disrupted operations because employees were evacuated from the different countries. U.S. direct-hire employees at USAID/Egypt were evacuated twice in 3 years. In USAID/Yemen, employees were evacuated twice in 3 years for periods of up to 6 months.3 In our survey, 76 percent of the respondents agreed that evacuations made managing projects more difficult.
[…]
Because of the precarious security situations, strict limits were placed on the number of U.S. direct hires who were allowed to be in each country. Employees said the Agency did not have enough staff to support the number of activities. This problem was particularly pronounced in Tunisia and Libya, where for extended periods, USAID had only one permanent employee in each country

2. Increased Influence From State Department.

According to our survey results, the majority of respondents (87 percent) believed that since the Arab Spring the State Department has increased its influence over USAID programs (Figure 3). While USAID did not have activities in Libya and Tunisia before the Arab Spring, staff working in these countries afterward discussed situations in which the State Department had significant influence over USAID’s work. A respondent from Tunisia wrote, “Everything has been driven by an embassy that does not seem to feel USAID is anything other than an implementer of whatever they want to do.”

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While there is broad interagency guidance on State’s role in politically sensitive environments, the specifics of how USAID should adapt its operations were not entirely clear to Agency employees and presented a number of challenges to USAID’s operations. In Yemen, the department’s influence seemed to be less of an issue (page 17), but for the remaining countries, it was a major concern. As one survey respondent from Egypt wrote:

[State’s control] makes long-term planning incredibly difficult and severely constrains USAID’s ability to design and execute technically sound development projects. A path forward is agreed, steps taken to design activities and select implementation mechanisms, and then we are abruptly asked to change the approach.

State’s involvement introduced a new layer of review and slowed down operations. USAID employees needed to dedicate additional time to build consensus and gain approval from people outside the Agency.

USAID employees also described challenges occurring when State employees, unfamiliar with the Agency and its different types of procurement, made requests that were difficult to accommodate under USAID procedures. One respondent wrote that State “think[s] programs can be stopped and started at will and that we can intervene and direct partners in a manner that goes far beyond the substantial involvement we are allowed as project managers.”

Beyond operational challenges, many people we interviewed expressed frustration over the State Department’s increased role, particularly when State’s direction diverted USAID programming from planned development priorities and goals. This was an especially contentious issue at USAID/Egypt (page 7).

This difference in perspectives caused some to question State’s expertise in development assistance, particularly in transitional situations. A USAID official explained that countries in turmoil presented unique challenges and dynamics, and embassies may not have experts in this area. Others said USAID was taking direction from State advisers who were often political appointees without backgrounds in development.
[…]
State was not the sole source of pressure; employees said other federal entities such as the National Security Council and even the White House had increased their scrutiny of USAID since the start of the Arab Spring. As a result, mission officials had to deal with new levels of bureaucracy and were responding constantly to different requests and demands from outside the Agency.

3. Host-Country Readiness.

In each of the four countries, employees reported problems stemming from award recipients’ ability to implement assistance programs. According to one employee, local capacity in Libya was a major problem because the country did not have a strong workforce. Moreover, local implementers had not developed the necessary technical capacity because development assistance was not a priority in Libya under Muammar Qadhafi’s closed, oil-rich regime. Activities in Tunisia and Yemen encountered similar issues because neither have had long histories of receiving foreign development assistance. In Egypt, employees reported that some of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on the mission’s democracy and governance program also lacked sufficient capacity.

On Egypt:  More than 85 percent of the employees surveyed who worked on activities related to USAID/Egypt agreed that the State Department had increased its influence over USAID programs since the start of the Arab Spring (Figure 5). A number of respondents said State steered Agency programs to address political rather than development needs. This dynamic had a profound effect on the mission’s ability to follow USAID’s guidance on designing and implementing developmentally sound projects. […] Some mission officials questioned the value of adhering to USAID’s project design procedures when the State Department had already decided a project’s fate. […] In this example, State’s desire to award education scholarships to women in Egypt was difficult to justify because university enrollment data showed that higher education enrollment and graduation rates for women are slightly higher than for men.  […] With so many differing voices and perspectives, USAID employees said they were not getting clear, consistent guidance. They described the situation as having “too many cooks in the kitchen.” One survey respondent wrote:

State (or White House) has had a very difficult time making decisions on USAID programming for Egypt . . . so USAID has been paralyzed and sent through twists and turns. State/White House difficulties in decisions may be expected given the fluid situation, but there has been excessive indecision, and mixed signals to USAID.

On Tunisia: The State Department placed strict restrictions on the number of USAID employees allowed to be in-country. As a result, most Agency activities were managed from Washington, D.C. … [O]ne survey respondent wrote, “I have been working on Tunisia for nearly 3 years now, and have designed programs to be carried out there, but I’ve never been. I don’t feel like I have been able to do my job to the best of my ability without that understanding of the situation on the ground.”

On Libya: The attacks in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, had a profound impact on USAID operations in Libya. According to one interviewee, after the attacks USAID did not want to attract too much political attention and put a number of Agency activities in Libya on hold. The period of inactivity lasted from September 2012 to September 2013. It was not until October 2013, after Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted, that the U.S. Government refocused attention on Libya and funding for activities picked up again.

Before the attacks, USAID had five employees in the country; afterward, only one was allowed to remain. Although his main priority then was to manage USAID/OTI projects in Libya, he also was asked to oversee four to five additional activities managed out of Washington—a stretch for any employee. As one survey respondent wrote, “The lack of people in the field in Libya (small footprint) means that DC overwhelms the field. People in the field are worked ragged.”

On Yemen: USAID/Yemen did not suffer from the challenges of unclear strategy that other USAID missions did in the region; 70 percent of respondents who worked on activities in Yemen believed that the Agency had a clear strategy for its post-Arab Spring activities (Figure 12). This is a stark contrast to responses related to USAID/Egypt, where only 22 percent believed that USAID had a clear strategy. …[O]ur survey also found a strong working relationship between USAID/Yemen and the State Department; the two often agreed on what needed to be done. […] Some respondents said the collaborative atmosphere was due to individual personalities and strong working relationships between USAID and State officials. One employee said because employees of both organizations lived and worked together in the close quarters, communication flowed freely as perspectives could be exchanged easily. …[O]ne senior USAID/Yemen official said, some of what needed to be done was so obvious that it was difficult for the two agencies not to agree.

Lessons Learned

The report offers 15 lessons learned including the development of a USAID transition plan at the country level, even if it may change. USAID/OIG says that by having a short-term transition plan, the Agency “would have a better platform to articulate its strategy, particularly when it disagrees with the decisions of other federal entities.”It also lists the following:

  • Resist the urge to implement large development projects that require the support of host governments immediately after a transition.
  • Prepare mission-level plans with Foreign Service Nationals (FSNs)—locally hired USAID employees who are not U.S. citizens—in case U.S. direct hires are evacuated. Evacuation of U.S. staff can be abrupt with only a few hours’ notice. People we interviewed recommended that U.S. staff develop plans with the mission’s FSN staff ahead of time, outlining roles, responsibilities, and modes of operation to prevent a standstill in operations in the event of an evacuation.
  • Get things in writing. When working in environments where USAID is getting input and instructions from organizations that are not familiar with Agency procedures, decisions made outside of USAID may be documented poorly. In such circumstances, it is important to remember to get things in writing.
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State Dept Suspends US Embassy Yemen Operations, Relocates Staff Until Further Notice

Posted: 00:46 EST
Updated 2/14/15 11:47 PST

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The State Department suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and American staff were relocated out of the country according to the February 11, 2015  Travel Warning released late tonight. Embassy Sanaa had previously announced the suspension of all consular services until further notice on February 8.

On February 11, 2015, due to the deteriorating security situation in Sanaa, the Department of State suspended embassy operations and U.S. Embassy Sanaa American staff were relocated out of the country. All consular services, routine and/or emergency, have been suspended until further notice. The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart. This supersedes the Travel Warning for Yemen issued on September 25, 2014.

The level of instability and ongoing threats in Yemen remain extremely concerning, and there are no plans for a U.S. government-sponsored evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. We encourage U.S. citizens wishing to depart to do so via commercial transportation options. If you wish to depart Yemen, you should make plans to depart as soon as possible. Airports may experience unexpected closures with little to no warning and access to the airport also may be cut off if the security situation deteriorates. All U.S. citizens in need of emergency assistance should contact a U.S. embassy or consulate in a neighboring country. For U.S. citizen inquiries, you may send an email to YEMENEMERGENCYUSC@state.gov.

The announcement followed a whirl of rumors surrounding the suspension of operations at Embassy Sana’a in less than 24 hours.

 

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Apparently, the Houthi leader was not happy about this possible closure (technically a suspension of operations since the US has not terminated diplomatic relations with Yemen):

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It’s just a slogan, really?

 

The British ambassador to Yemen:

 

Whoa, a practice siege?

 

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And just like the suspension of operations at US Embassy Tripoli, this, too, unfolded on social media:

 

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Around dinner time EST, the AP confirmed the suspension of operations in Sanaa and the evacuation of staff due to security concerns:

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Update:

Snapshot: Highest Level of Youth Unemployment in the World – Middle East & North Africa

Via The Arab Spring and economic transition: two years on by Harry Quilter-Pinner (FCO) and Graham Symons (DFID):

“The Arab Spring, which led to a series of political changes in North Africa and the Middle East, was in part caused by economic underperformance and exclusion. The region has historically been marred by high levels of inequality and unemployment. MENA has the highest level of youth unemployment in the world (figure 1), whilst female labour participation (at 25%) is also the world’s worst. Significant state (and in some cases military) involvement in the economy has constrained private sector financing and growth (figure 2), and created large fiscal deficits.”

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GOP’s Benghazi Report: Anonymous DS Agent, Whistleblowers and Embassy “Security”

There are three items we found interesting in Appendix I of the House GOP’s interim report on Benghazi.

House Committee on Government and Oversight Reform: The Committee has heard from, and continues to hear from, multiple individuals with direct and/or indirect information about events surrounding the attacks in Benghazi.

On April 17, CBS News reported that multiple new whistleblowers are privately speaking to investigators with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and that the Committee had sent new letters to the CIA, DOD and State. If there are multiple whistleblowers as claimed here, we could be looking at Benghazi hearings going on all the way to 2014 and even 2016. By then Diplopundit Jr. would be old enough to drive and what more, junior would never ever again confused Benghazi with Bujumbura. So that’s something to look forward to.

House Foreign Affairs Committee: Approached a DS agent who was on the scene in a not-yet-successful effort to obtain additional information. This individual wishes to remain anonymous. 

The individual may wish to remain anonymous but that anonymity is not going to go very far inside the building. How many DS agents were on the scene of the attacks again?  That’s a pretty thin cover.  Poor guy won’t get any peace or space between now and then, whenever then maybe.

House Foreign Affairs Committee: Building on its Benghazi investigation, the Committee is taking a broader look at embassy security to determine whether the State Department is adequately protecting its personnel at other diplomatic facilities. Improving embassy security is a Committee legislative priority. The Committee is particularly concerned about, and is currently investigating, the security situation at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. 

Well, then all we can add is that the Committee better hurry with the broader look Congress is doing before it’s too late.

It can start with the Consulate General in Jeddah

Want to go further than 2007?   Why don’t we try 30 years back with the US Embassy in Beirut?

Apparently, thirty long years after the Beirut embassy bombing, we might be close to finally building a Fortress in Beirut. Ay caramba but it’s now happening!

Proposal for the U.S. Embassy building in Beirut, conceived by Ralph Rapson in 1953.

Proposal for the U.S. Embassy building in Beirut, conceived by Ralph Rapson in 1953. This project is not related to the current one. (image via the Lebanese Architecture Portal – click on image to view original material)

While at it, Congress might want to see if the State Department bothered to learn anything from the embassy mob attacks last year since no ARB was ever convened.  We understand that in some of those posts attacked, there were strict orders from the front office to restrict dissemination of information and photos on the extent of the damages (US Embassy Tunis was one exception).

Might it be true that some of our embassies in the Arab Spring countries are trying to shape perceptions to what they imagine their embassy and host country should be instead of basing post and host country expectations on reality?

If the Committee is particularly concerned about the security situation at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan where we have a large number of contract guards and the U.S. military, should it not be also concerned with the U.S. Embassy in Egypt where neither is present and mobocacy now rules?

— DS

When Sorry is Not Enough: US Calls on Tunisia to Bring Embassy Attackers to Justice

On October 14, the one month anniversary of the attacks on the U.S. embassy and American school in Tunis, the US Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Walles released a statement calling on the Government of Tunisia to bring the perpetrators to justice. While the statement lauds the 200 year relationships between the two countries — the first agreement of friendship and trade was concluded between Tunisia and the United States on March 26, 1799; the United States was the first major power to recognize Tunisian sovereignty and established diplomatic relations with Tunisia in 1956 following its independence from France — it also reminds Tunisia of its obligation to protect its “guests.” Excerpt below:

“One month ago on September 14, 2012, a group of violent extremists attacked the U.S. Embassy and the American Cooperative School of Tunis.  These violent attacks endangered the lives of the American and Tunisian employees who were inside the Embassy during the attack. The attackers inflicted millions of dollars of damage to the Embassy compound, burned more than 100 vehicles, most of which belonged to the Embassy’s Tunisian staff, and also destroyed private property in the area near the Embassy.  At the American Cooperative School of Tunis, the attackers destroyed, looted, and burned books, musical instruments, and computers used to educate young minds from more than 70 countries.  One thing the attackers did not damage is the strong bond between the American and Tunisian people and the commitment of the United States to support Tunisia’s transition from an unjust dictatorship to a free and tolerant democracy that provides security, economic opportunity and freedom to everyone who calls Tunisia home.
[…]
I am proud of this long history of partnership, but continued cooperation and investment in Tunisia requires a safe and secure operating environment.  The Tunisian government has an obligation to provide security for its citizens and its guests – and I call on the Government of Tunisia to carry through with its investigation and to bring the perpetrators and masterminds of this attack to justice.  I also look to the Tunisian people to speak out against violence and terror and to play an active role in shaping the future you so richly deserve.”

Read the full statement here.

Here are a few things that the United States has done the last many months since the Arab Spring according to the Tunisia Fact Sheet,:

  • Since the January 2011 revolution, the U.S. has committed more than $300 million to support Tunisia’s transition, focusing heavily on technical and financial assistance to Tunisia’s economy and private sector.
  • The United States provided $100 million to pay directly debt that Tunisia owes the World Bank and African Development Bank, allowing the Government of Tunisia to instead use an equal amount for its priority programs, and to accelerate economic growth and job creation.
  • The United States is providing assistance to more than 4,500 Tunisian youth in market-relevant skills training, job placement, and access to start-up business resources.
  • A $50 million Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)  franchising facility providing working capital to Tunisian franchisees interested in working with American, European, and Tunisian franchisors; ultimately creating an estimated 10,000 local jobs for Tunisians.

You’d think that perhaps all that and more would have generated a tad of goodwill, even just enough to make people stop and think before they go berserk over there.  Alas, not. The angry protesters were not satisfied with shouting or throwing rocks. They went over the embassy walls, torched cars, set fire to several facilities within the compound, destroyed the children’s playground and even tried stoopidly to set fire to the embassy pool. And the rampage did not stop after an hour or two. It went on for hours on end.

To be blunt — it is the host country’s international obligation to protect foreign diplomats and diplomatic premises. If a country is slow or unable to provide such protection, should be even be there?  We also must wonder if this is for lack of resources, or if the host government is complicit in the attacks or indifferent to the outcome. It took several hours before local authorities were able to control the situation, after several structures within the compound have already been torched, after over 100 cars were already burned to the ground.

There has to be consequences for such abrogation of responsibility; otherwise this will happen again.

On September 21, just a few days after the embassy attack, the Tunisian Foreign Minister Abdessalem was in the Treaty Room of Foggy Bottom and said:

“I’m also here to express our regret and full and strong condemnation for the storming of the American Embassy and school in Tunisia last Friday. This event does not reflect the real image of Tunisia.[…] We already taken the necessary measures to protect the American Embassy, the American schools, and all diplomatic presence in Tunisia, members of foreign communities. It is our duty, and I’m sure that we have the ability and the capability to protect all private and public institutions in Tunisia.”

That’s good talk, too bad nobody saw this in action on September 14.

The question remains — did elements of the host country government allow the attack to happen thinking it would be a harmless demonstration only to have it spin out of control? We must not forget that the Tehran embassy takeover started as a “harmless” demonstration on a February day, and when the actual hostage taking occurred in November, the protesters knew exactly how to get in.

Say what you will about fortress embassies, but if Embassy Tunis was less than fortified, how many more flag-draped coffins would have arrived at Dover AFB that week?

As in Benghazi, there are somethings “sorry” can’t fix.  It must be said that Embassy Tunis was lucky not to have any casualty given the size and ferocity of the crowd that day.  But we might not be so lucky next time; and that next time may not be very far off.