US Embassy Bamako Shelters in Place as Malian Soldiers Stage a Mutiny

 

The US Embassy in Mail issued a security alert on August 18 as unrest unfolded in the capital city of Bamako. Soldiers have reportedly detained the country’s president, as well as the prime minister and other top officials in an apparent coup attempt. The Malian president had since announced his resignation on TV.

Embassy Bamako issued a shelter in place order and suspended consular services on August 18. As of this writing it has not announced a resumption of services:

The U.S. Embassy is aware of gunfire and unrest in the area of Kati, as well as ongoing police/military operations in Bamako.  There have been multiple reports of gunfire throughout the city as well as reports of soldiers driving in trucks and firing their weapons in the air.  There are continued reports of demonstrators gathered at the Monument de l’Independance.  The U.S. recommends all U.S. citizens avoid these areas, if possible.  Likewise, the U.S. Embassy is recommending its staff to exercise caution, remain in doors,  and avoid non-essential travel.

The U.S. Embassy has taken the following additional steps in response to the ongoing security threats:

    • Consular services at the U.S. Embassy were suspended for August 18.
    • Personnel are recommended to remain indoors.
    • Employees have been advised to avoid any unnecessary travel until further notice and to be cautious when crossing the bridges.

 

State/AF PDAS Geeta Pasi to be U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia

The WH released the following brief bio:
Geeta Pasi, of New York, to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
Ms. Pasi, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Career Minister, is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of State.  She previously served as United States Ambassador to Chad and as United States Ambassador to Djibouti.
Ms. Pasi also served as Director of Career Development and Assignments for the State Department, Director of the Department’s Office of East African Affairs, Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Deputy Principal Officer at the United States Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany.  Her other past assignments include Afghanistan Desk Officer in the Office of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh Affairs, Political Officer at the United States Embassy in New Delhi, India, and Political Officer at the United States Embassy in Accra, Ghana.
Ms. Pasi earned her B.A. from Duke University and her M.A. from New York University.  She has won numerous Department of State performance awards, including the Matilde W. Sinclaire Language Award.  She speaks French, German, Hindi, Romanian, and Russian.

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Did US Embassy Bangui Go on “Ordered Departure” Without Telling Anyone? (Updated)

Updated 3/28/2020, 8:20 pm PDT | US Embassy Bangui’s Health Alert dated March 26, 2020 says “On March 18, the Department of State ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. personnel in Bangui.”
We learned last week that the US Embassy in Bangui, Central African Republic “just went on ordered departure.” Apparently this was less about Covid19 and more about a flare-up of violence in the country. To-date, neither the State Department nor the US Embassy has made an announcement about this post’s evacuation status.
On March 20, US Embassy Bangui released the following statement about reduced staffing:

The U.S. Embassy in Bangui announces that it is reducing its staffing in response to increasing travel restrictions, limited health infrastructure and potential disruption of supply chains for essential goods in the Central African Republic.

We call your attention to the State Department’s Global Travel Advisory issued March 19, 2020

The State Department has issued a global travel advisory advising all U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.  In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.  U.S. citizens who live abroad should avoid all international travel.  Many countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little advance notice.  Airlines have cancelled many international flights and several cruise operators have suspended operations or cancelled trips.  If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.

U.S. Embassy in Bangui does not provide visa or citizen services  to U.S. citizens in CAR.  U.S. citizens in need of assistance there are advised to contact the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Note that the Central African Republic is on a Level 4 Do Not Travel Advisory “due to crime, civil unrest, and kidnapping” as of December 12, 2019. The Travel Advisory has not been updated to indicate its evacuation status as of this writing.
A source at a neighboring post is similarly perplexed as they know from colleagues in Bangui that the embassy has gone on ordered departure despite the lack of public announcement.  We were asked if it is possible to have an internal ordered departure and Foggy Bottom knows it but it’s not ‘official’?
These days anything is possible, it seems, but we don’t know how that works without running afoul of 7 FAM 050 No Double Standard Policy. “Generally, if the Department shares information with the official U.S. community, it should also make the same or similar information available to the non-official U.S. community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official U.S. citizens/nationals.”
7 FAM 053(f) includes a reminder: “Remember that if post concludes it should warn, or has warned, its personnel or any U.S. Government employees beyond those with a strict need-to-know, whether permanently stationed or on temporary duty abroad, about a security threat, post should share that same information with the non-official U.S. community under the “No Double Standard” policy (see 7 FAM 052).

 

COVID-19 Pandemic Howler: “No one in DC, to include S, gives AF about AF”

Update 1:14 PDT: US Embassy Pretoria’s meltdown (see below)

We’ve explained previously about evacuations in the State Department’s Foreign Service posts (see New Travel Advisories and Voluntary/Mandatory Departures: Micronesia (L3), Tajikistan (L3), Mongolia (L4)).
Authorized departure is an evacuation procedure, short of ordered departure, by which post employees and/or eligible family members are permitted to leave post in advance of normal rotation when U.S. national interests or imminent threat to life requires it. Departure is requested by the chief of mission (COM) and approved by the Under Secretary for Management (M). The incumbent to this office is Brian Bulatao.
Ordered departure is an evacuation procedure by which the number of U.S. government employees, eligible family members, or both, at a Foreign Service post is reduced. Ordered departure is mandatory and may be initiated by the chief of mission or the Secretary of State. Posts with very few exceptions, report to their regional or geographic bureaus headed respectively by an Assistant Secretary, a Senate confirmed position.
As we’ve watched this pandemic unfold at home, we’ve also watched the State Department’s troubling response to it, particularly at overseas posts and in its public communication.
Update: On March 20, US Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks reportedly held a “town hall” meeting for staff members “after mounting complaints from employees that she had refused to self-quarantine or take other protective measures, according to accounts of the meeting provided to The Washington Post by people familiar with it.” She apparently “attended a dinner at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club with Brazilian officials who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But she told her State Department employees she did not consider herself at risk because the dinner was outside and she believed the virus could not withstand the Florida heat.” A second hand source with extensive sources told us “Embassy Pretoria is in meltdown.”
Recently, we heard about Post 1 in Africa that just went into ordered departure. We understand that employees were hoping to get on to what is being called “the last Air France flight.” We were told that what happens if/after they arrive in Paris is “unknown.”  
Then we received a howler from Post 2 in Africa:  They’ve shut the airport here. And closed the borders in [XXX]. No one gives AF about AF. Authorized Departure, yes. But flights were full or cancelled so that didn’t leave much room for options. No one in DC, to include S, gives AF about AF.”
We understand that this particular post was given the option to evacuate but “there’s no consensus” from the AF bureau if they’re going to authorize “ordered departure.” Post has sent a request but no response from D.C. — “they’re dragging their feet.”
Source from Post 2 says that they were given a 24-hour window for voluntary departure but then the border to [the neighboring country] had closed as well, and that also cuts off supplies for their host country.
“And as you know, people get crazy if they can’t get food or supplies.”
Source from Post 2 further writes “I don’t know how many more EACs and thresholds they want to cross before they say you’re on OD [ordered departure]. And – we are on staggered shifts so teleworking and not really getting anything done.”
Post 2 also says that “A lot of us are worried because of the optics on a lot of the confirmed cases on the continent – they’re all foreigners.” That’s a real worry given what’s happening in Ethiopia and Cameroon. 
On March 18, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia issued a Security Alert on Reports of Anti-Foreigner Sentiment:
The Embassy continues to receive reports regarding a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment revolving around the announcement of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. Typical derogatory comments directed at foreigners, the terms “China” and “Ferengi” (foreigner), have been reportedly coupled with the label “Corona,” indicating a disparaging view on the link between the outbreak of COVID-19 and foreigners in Ethiopia. Incidents of harassment and assault directly related to COVID-19 have been reported by other foreigners living within Addis Ababa and other cities throughout the country. Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services (taxis, Ride, etc.), being spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19.”
On March 19, the US Embassy in Cameroon issued a similar Security Alert:
The Embassy has received reports regarding a rise of anti-foreigner sentiment revolving around the announcement of the spread of COVID-19.  Incidents of harassment and assault directly related to COVID-19 have been reported by U.S. citizens and other foreigners in both Yaounde and Douala.  Reports include verbal and online harassment, stone throwing, and banging on vehicles occupied by expatriates.
During the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the attack on one of the Ebola Treatment Centers in February 2019 was preceded by a change in public behavior toward the Medicins sans Frontiers (MSF) team. “On February 17, residents began shouting “Ebola, Ebola, Ebola” at the MSF team. Simultaneously, there was a marked drop in suspected cases referred to the ETC. The ETC had been receiving 35 to 40 suspected Ebola cases a week. However, on the day before the attack, only 1 suspected Ebola case was referred, and on the day of the attack, only 2. Rumors about foreigners experimenting on locals, taking organs, and filling the bodies with concrete and Ebola being a fabrication were also circulating.”
Our Post 2 source says that We knew what we signed up for. This is an unprecedented time. But borders and airports closing is a bit of a game changer in these high threat posts. It would be wonderful to know there’s some sort of exit strategy. And there isn’t one when they shut down the borders and airports.”
For now other worries include the civil unrest that may occur if food and supplies are stopped; not having plans in place for medical evacuation if/when it becomes necessary; the fact that these places are austere in medical facilities to take care of their own people let alone handling a car accident or malaria; that the guards are wonderful and in place, but you know, for how long?
There are worst case scenarios that we’re not going to spell out here but we’re sure the AF bureau and all posts in Africa are aware of them. It can’t be that no one has thought about what to do with posts in Africa during a pandemic.
Is there a pandemic plan for FS posts somewhere in Foggy Bottom’s vaults? What are their plans for post operations, repatriation of employees/family members, protection of local employees, or continuity of operations during/after a pandemic. Have they simply brushed off the shelf the Bush Administration’s old ‘stay remain in country/shelter in place’ policy during a pandemic without telling anyone?

Pompeo Swears In Retired SFSO Tibor Nagy as Asst Secretary For African Affairs

 

Via state.gov:

Ambassador Nagy, a retired career Foreign Service Officer, spent 32 years in government service, including over 20 years in assignments across Africa. He served as the United States Ambassador to Ethiopia (1999-2002), United States Ambassador to Guinea (1996-1999) as well as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Nigeria (1993-1995), Cameroon (1990-1993), and Togo (1987-1990). Previous assignments include Zambia, the Seychelles, Ethiopia, and Washington, DC.

Ambassador Nagy has received numerous awards from the U.S. Department of State in recognition of his service, including commendations for helping prevent famine in Ethiopia; supporting the evacuation of Americans from Sierra Leone during a violent insurrection; supporting efforts to end the Ethiopian-Eritrean War; and managing the United States Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria during political and economic crises.

Following his retirement from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Nagy served as Vice Provost for International Affairs at Texas Tech University from 2003 – 2018. During that time he lectured nationally on Africa, foreign policy, international development, and U.S. diplomacy, in addition to serving as a regular op-ed contributor to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal newspaper on global events. He co-authored “Kiss Your Latte Goodbye: Managing Overseas Operations,” nonfiction winner of the 2014 Paris Book Festival.

Ambassador Nagy arrived in the United States in 1957 as a political refugee from Hungary; he received his B.A. from Texas Tech University and M.S.A. from George Washington University.

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Tillerson Delivers to @StateDept’s Africa Bureau Its “Most Significant Management Challenge”

Posted: 12:25 am ET
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All Foreign Service posts in Africa receive post hardship differential, that is, an allowance meant to provide “additional compensation of up to 35 percent over basic compensation for the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed to a mission with extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions.” More than half of all AF posts have been designated “Historically Difficult to Staff” meaning fewer than three at- grade/in-skill-code bids were received in three of the last four summer bidding cycles. Of all AF posts, 47 percent (24 posts) have also been designated ” Service Need Differential” that is, 20 percent hardship differential/standard 2 year tour of duty gets a 15 percent  bump in pay if employees agree to serve a third year.

According to State/OIG, the AF Bureau’s FY2017 staffing includes 1,147 American Direct Hire overseas, 572 local staff, 140 reemployed annuitants (retired Civil Service or Foreign Service employee rehired on an intermittent basis for no more than 1,040 hours during the year), and 14 rover-employees based overseas who go where they are needed. State/OIG also says that the AF bureau relies on 399 eligible family member employees for its overseas staffing. The 399 EFM employees are not specifically excluded from the State/OIG 1,147 count; we calculate that family member employees encumbering direct-hire positions constitute 34 percent, or a third of the bureau’s overseas workforce. If the 399 employes are in addition to the 1,147 count,  the number would be 25 percent, or a quarter of the bureau’s overseas workforce.

To be sure, staffing the AF Bureau’s posts has suffered from longstanding difficulties. Unfortunately for everyone with few exceptions,  the 69th Secretary of State sure made it worse.

On January 23, 2017, President Trump ordered a freeze on the hiring of Federal civilian employees to be applied across the board in the executive branch (see OMB Issues Initial Guidance For Federal Civilian Hiring Freeze (Read Memo); President Trump Freezes Federal Hiring Regardless of Funding Sources (Read Memo).

In April, while the OMB lifted the hiring freeze, the State Department with very few exceptions continued with its self-imposed freeze (see No thaw in sight for @StateDept hiring freeze until reorganization plan is “fully developed”).  On April 12, 2017, the State Department posted a statement indicating that the current hiring freeze guidance remained in effect particularly as it affected the hiring of Foreign Service family members (see Are #EFM positions literally about to become…extinct under #Tillerson’s watch?).

During the first week of August, amidst cascading bad press of his stewardship of the State Department, Secretary Tillerson quietly “approved an exemption to the hiring freeze that will allow the Department to fill a number of priority EFM positions that are currently vacant. This exemption gives posts authority to fill critical vacancies supporting security, safety and health responsibilities.”

The hiring freeze snared folks who transferred between January and July (FLO April data says 743 jobs were pending due to security clearance or hiring freeze). Deputy Secretary Sullivan told members of the press on August 8 that “almost 800 EFMs [that] have been approved since this – the hiring freeze was imposed.” So, that’s like everyone who’s been waiting since January. And we were all so happy to see folks granted the exemptions that we forgot to ask who’s the “bright” bulb who started this mess. And if these EFM jobs were finally filled in August (a month before the end of the fiscal year), these employees could not all show up to work the following week, given all the paperwork needed and security investigations required.

Freezing EFM jobs never made sense. We’re still floored that it lasted that long and no one told S “But that’s nuts!” Despite Mr. Tillerson slip of the tongue (“we’re styling as the redesign of the State Department”), we can’t imagine the “redesign” resulting in zero jobs for diplomatic spouses overseas, not only because EFM jobs  makes sense and help post morale, but also because it is the cheaper option.  Unless, of course, 1) the “employee-led” redesign teams are proposing that embassies hire third country nationals for mailroom, escort, fingerprinting, and all support services for post overseas, too (yes, we heard North Korean labor imports are way cheaper). Or 2) this is part of the strategery to reduce the FS workforce without going through a reduction-in-force, while maintaining a goal of a 3 for 1 in attrition.

In any case, as we’ve pointed out in May, when the EFMs leave posts during the transfer season, their positions would not have been filled (with very few exceptions) due to the hiring freeze; and they could not be hired at their next posts because of the same hiring freeze. And that’s exactly what happened. In the oral history of the State Department, this will be remembered as that time when the Secretary of State created/produced/delivered one bureau its “most significant management challenge.” We don’t think this is limited to just the AF Bureau but it’s the only one reported on by State/OIG at this time.

Via State/OIG (PDF):

Four previous OIG reports over the past 20 years have highlighted challenges in staffing AF’s overseas posts. OIG found that these challenges persist, despite reforms to Foreign Service bidding and career development processes intended to promote service in hardship posts and bolster bureau efforts to improve recruitment. Hardships at AF’s overseas posts include ethnic violence, deteriorating local infrastructure, evacuations, health risks, high crime, limited recreation opportunities, physical isolation, political instability, pollution, poor medical facilities, severe climates, and substandard schools. All 51 AF posts receive post hardship differential, 27 posts were included in the Historically Difficult to Staff program, and 24 were Service Need Differential posts.

AF’s difficulties in filling its overseas positions were profound. For the 2017 summer bidding season, AF attracted, at most, only one Foreign Service bidder on 37 percent of its positions, leaving 143 of 385 total positions potentially unfilled. The bureau used a broad range of alternative and sometimes costly personnel mechanisms to fill vacancies and short-term gaps. It relied on 399 eligible family member employees, a roster of 140 reemployed annuitants, 14 rovers based overseas, and approximately 50 senior locally employed staff members to fill staffing gaps and support essential services. AF also filled about 25 percent of its 2017 positions with entry-level employees. AF overseas management officers who responded to an OIG survey cited concerns about eligible family member employment as their most significant management challenge. Because of the Department-wide hiring freeze, these positions could not be filled as they became vacant. These vacancies are of concern because, as explained by the Government Accountability Office in 2009, staffing and experience gaps place at risk diplomatic readiness, particularly for high-threat environments such as those in which AF operates.

For readers who are not familiar with the Foreign Service and spouse employment — say you and your spouse arrived at a 2-year assignment at a post in Africa in late October 2016. You found an embassy job in December 2016 but was not officially hired prior to January 22, 2017, so you would have been included in the hiring freeze. When the EFM exemptions were granted on August 4, you would have already waited some eight months to start on that embassy job. Wait, but you needed a security clearance or an interim security clearance which could also take a few weeks to 90 days (or longer). By the time you officially start work, you have some 12-14 months to do the job (maybe less). And then you move on to your next  post and do this process all over again. Now, imagine doing this every 2-3 years, that’s the arc of the working life of a diplomatic spouse.

Career Diplomat Eric P. Whitaker to be U.S. Ambassador to Niger

Posted: 4:56 am ET
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On September 2, President Trump announced his intent to nominate career diplomat Erik Whitaker to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Niger. The WH released the following brief bio:

Eric P. Whitaker of Illinois to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Niger. Mr. Whitaker, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Counselor, has served as an American diplomat since 1990. He is currently the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Africa and the Sudans in the Bureau of African Affairs at the Department of State. A two-time Deputy Chief of Mission overseas and a senior official at the Department of State at home and abroad, his diplomatic career has been diverse, and included consular, economic, commercial, political, and refugee assignments. He has served at U.S. embassies in ten African countries and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines. Mr. Whitaker earned an M.P.P. from Princeton University, an M.P.A from the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.S. and B.S. from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He speaks Spanish, Portuguese, French, Visayan, and Korean.

The State Department has a more detailed bio via state.gov:

Eric P. Whitaker joined the Bureau of African Affairs Front Office as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary in January 2017 with East African Affairs, Sudan, and South Sudan. His previous position was Director of East African Affairs.

Born in DeKalb, Illinois, he attended the University of Illinois, where he earned a BS in general biology and an MS in community health education. Eric thereafter earned a Master of Public Administration degree at the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Public Policy degree at the Wilson School at Princeton University while serving as a Weinberg Fellow. Prior to entering the Foreign Service, he served as a Community Health Development Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and as Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Lodi, California.

As a Foreign Service Officer, Eric has held several positions: Consular Officer – Seoul, Korea; Refugee Affairs Coordinator – Khartoum, Sudan; Kampala, Uganda; and Zagreb, Croatia; Economic/Commercial Officer – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Political/Economic Chief – Bamako, Mali, and Maputo, Mozambique; Trade Policy Officer – Bureau for Economic and Business Affairs; and Political/Economic Counselor – Khartoum, Sudan.

Eric also served a tour of duty as an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (E-PRT) Leader in Baghdad, Iraq, heading an eight-member team composed of State, USAID, and DoD civilians. Covering the districts of Karada, Rusafa, and Tissa Nissan, the E-PRT supported local governance, economic growth and development, essential public services and infrastructure, and community reconciliation. In August 2008, he departed for Niamey, Niger, where he served as Deputy Chief of Mission and then as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy. In October 2010, he commenced service as Counselor for Economic Affairs at Embassy Nairobi, Kenya, our largest diplomatic post in sub-Saharan Africa. Thereafter he served as Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) at Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in Djibouti on Camp Lemonnier. Finally, from October 2012-2014, he served as Deputy Chief of Mission at U.S. Embassy N’Djamena, Chad, before returning to the Department of State.

Eric speaks Portuguese, Spanish, French, Visayan, and Korean, and has received eleven Meritorious and Superior Honor Awards, as well as the Department of Defense Meritorious Civilian Honor Award.

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Nomination: Career Diplomat Peter H. Barlerin to be U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon

Posted: 2:47 am ET
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On July 17, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Peter Henry Barlerin to be the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon. The WH released the following brief bio:

Peter Henry Barlerin of Colorado to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of Cameroon. Mr. Barlerin, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Counselor, has served as an American diplomat since 1989. He is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the Department of State, a post he has held since 2016. Mr. Barlerin also served as Deputy Chief of Mission with senior level appointments at the State Department. An economist, he has served at seven U.S. Missions overseas. Mr. Barlerin earned a M.A. from University of Maryland, College Park and a B.A. from Middlebury College. He speaks French, Japanese, Spanish, and Norwegian.

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“The Secretary” Writes FY18 Budget Love Letter to Foggy Bottom, But What’s This About Post Closures?

Posted: 2:21 pm ET
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Earlier, we posted about Trump’s “skinny budget” which guts the State Department and USAID funding by 28%. (see WH/OMB Releases FY2018 Budget Blueprint – @StateDept/@USAID Hit With 28% Funding Cuts).  We understand that the actual cut is closer to 36% once the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) is factored in. In early March, media reports indicate that the proposed cuts for the international affairs budget would be 37% (see In Disaster News, Trump Budget Seeks 37% Funding Cut For @StateDept and @USAID). If there was push back from the Tillerson State Department in the weeks before OMB released the “America First” budget blueprint, T-Rex’s diplomatic nudge appears to result in a 36% funding reduction instead of the first reported 37% funding cut.

Yesterday morning, as folks were waking up to the OMB release, a letter sent from Secretary Tillerson’s office arrived in the inboxes of State Department employees:

THE SECRETARY OF STATE
WASHINGTON

Today the Office of Management and Budget released a preview of the President’s budget request for 2018.  It is an unmistakable restatement of the needs the country faces and the priorities we must establish.  The State Department’s budget request addresses the challenges to American leadership abroad and the importance of defending American interests and the American people.  It acknowledges that U.S. engagement must be more efficient, that our aid be more effective, and that advocating the national interests of our country always be our primary mission. Additionally, the budget is an acknowledgment that development needs are a global challenge to be met not just by contributions from the United States, but through greater partnership with and contributions from our allies and others.

Over the coming weeks, we will work together to draw a new budget blueprint that will allow us to shape a Department ready to meet the challenges that we will face in the coming decades.  We will do this by reviewing and selecting our priorities, using the available resources, and putting our people in a position to succeed.

We have a genuine opportunity to set a new course.  Together, we are going to advance America’s national security and its economic security.  I am motivated to tackle this challenge and am eager to realize what we will achieve together.

We understand that this letter did not get very good reviews in Foggy Bottom. We really do think that Secretary Tillerson needs to have a town hall meeting with his employees as soon as he gets back from his travel. Before perceptions become realities.  We already know the why, now folks need to understand the where and how.  And it doesn’t help to just tell one bureau it’s zeroed out in funds, and then come back another day and say how about a 50% cut? As if the 7th floor taskmasters got off the wrong side of bed one morning and on the right side the next day.

During his stop in Japan, Secretary Tillerson finally took a few questions during press availability with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The State Department budget was one of the questions asked during the presser. Below is a transcript from state.gov:

QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, today the White House is revealing its blueprint for the federal budget that will include deep cuts to your department. Do you support efforts to make such drastic cuts to diplomacy and development funding at this time? And are you confident that you will be able to continue to represent U.S. interests with such reduced room to maneuver?

MODERATOR: (Via interpreter) Secretary Tillerson, please.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think in terms of the proposed budget that has been put forth by President Trump, it’s important from the State Department perspective, I think, a little context, to recognize that the State Department is coming off of an historically high level of budgetary resources in the 2017 budget, and this is reflective of a number of decisions that have been taken over the past few years, in part driven by the level of conflicts that the U.S. has been engaged in around the world as well as disaster assistance that’s been needed.

I think clearly, the level of spending that the State Department has been undertaking in the past – and particularly in this past year – is simply not sustainable. So on a go-forward basis, what the President is asking the State Department to do is, I think, reflective of a couple of expectations. One is that as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in; and second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.

I think as I look at our ability to meet the mission of the State Department, I am quite confident. The men and women in the State Department are there for one reason. They’re not there for the glory. They’re not there for the money, obviously. They’re there because they’re extraordinarily dedicated to the mission and dedicated to ensuring America’s national security, economic security. We are going to be undertaking a very comprehensive examination of how programs are executed, a very comprehensive examination of how we are structured, and I’m confident that with the input of the men and women of the State Department, we are going to construct a way forward that allows us to be much more effective, much more efficient, and be able to do a lot with fewer dollars.

So it’s challenging. We understand the challenge. I take the challenge that the President has given us on willingly and with great expectation that with everyone in the State Department’s assistance, we’re going to deliver a much better result for the American people in the future.

Secretary Tillerson talking about “historically high level of budgetary resources in the 2017 budget” for the State Department made us look up the budget request for the last five fiscal years. The largest funding request was five years ago for FY2013 at $51.6 billion.

FY2017:  $50.1 billion.  The State Department $50.1 billion request includes a base of $35.2 billion and $14.9 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) request. (SAO: For FY16 and ’17, we will be using OCO to support countries and programs that require assistance to prevent, address, or recover from human-caused crises and natural disasters, as well as to secure State and USAID’s operations from hostile acts and potential terrorism. OCO will be providing about 50 to 100 percent of the funding for some countries and programs, including a range of ongoing assistance operations and treaty commitments).

FY2016:  $50.3 billion. The State and USAID budget request totals $50.3 billion.  The base budget request is $43.2 billion plus $7 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations funds  — to respond to immediate and extraordinary national security requirements. OCO funds supports critical programs and operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, as well as exceptional costs related to efforts to fight ISIL, respond to the conflict in Syria, and support Ukraine.

FY2015: $46.2 billion. The overall State and USAID Budget Request is $46.2 billion, plus $5.9 billion request for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) which funds key programs in — Iraq and Pakistan helps sustain hard-fought gains in Afghanistan through the 2014 transition.

FY2014: $47.8 billion. The overall request is $47.8 billion, includes $44 billion as part of base budget or enduring budget, and $3.8 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, (OCO)  which — largely covers the extraordinary costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

FY2013: $51.6 billion. The Department of State/USAID budget totals $51.6 billion which includes $43.4 billion for the core budget,  which funds the long-term national security mission of the Department and USAID and $8.2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) to support the extraordinary and temporary costs of civilian-led programs and missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The second thing we’d like to note is Secretary Tillerson’s assertion that “there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in.” If that’s really the expectation, why is Trump’s budget giving DOD $54billion more in funds as it guts the State Department and USAID? As we write this, we are mindful that the United States is still in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, and a host of other places that are not front page news.

By the way, what’s this we’re hearing about the transition folks looking to close some US embassies in Africa?  Apparently there are now people at State who think we should close our embassy in country X for instance because — hey, AFRICOM is already there so why do we need an embassy?  Argh!  These folks realize that 3/4 of AFRICOM actually works at the command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, right?  AFRICOM’s HQ is not the point, of course, but if there are transition folks thinking about AFRICOM (just one of the six geographic combatant commands) as an excuse for post closures overseas, where else might they be thinking of playing their game of disengagement?

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US Embassy Madagascar: A Post Far From Heaven With a $700K Imaginary American Center

Posted: 1:02 am EDT
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Last week, State/OIG released its inspection report of the U.S. Embassy Antananarivo in Madagascar. It’s one of those report that you read and you want to pull your hair in frustration. By the time the OIG came for a visit, there’s a new chargé d’affaires, a new staff rotated in and a new team is tasked with correcting the mess left by the previous officials assigned to post.  The previous CDA identified fuel as a management control deficiency but did not see the rest of the good stuff.  The OIG report notes that other vulnerabilities discussed in the report “would have been apparent if embassy leadership had conducted a comprehensive, office-by-office review of all activities with management control implications.”

The report highlights non-use of record email to effectively track important exchanges on policy and programs, use of social media to reach a mainly urban, youthful, and elite audience where only 2 percent of the Madagascar population has access to the Internet, and Meritorious Honor Awards without proper documentation. Beyond the more problematic public affairs grants and purchases discussed below, post also spent more than $10,000 on computer equipment for use in Comoros, even if — get this —  there is no U.S. Government office space in Comoros in which to place that equipment.

And here’s one that’s going to make you unfriend this fella on Facebook: “The previous chargé d’affaires departed the embassy without completing six interim evaluation reports for American employees he supervised, as required for periods of 120 days or more under 3 FAM 2813.4. He did not respond to email reminders from the embassy human resources office and the Bureau of African Affairs. ” 

A quick look at US Embassy Antananarivo:

The mission has a total staff of 296, with 57 U.S. direct-hire positions. In April 2010, the embassy occupied a new embassy compound (site acquisition was $3.6 million, and construction was $102.3 million), consisting of a chancery, a warehouse/shops facility, a Marine security guard quarters, and a swimming pool. Embassy housing consists of 38 leased and 2 government-owned residences, 1 of which is the Ambassador’s residence.

The good news: A recently arrived chargé d’affaires

Stephen Anderson arrived in August 2014, about two months before the OIG inspection.  The OIG inspectors write:

The recently arrived chargé d’affaires has made a good start in leading the embassy during a period of profound change in the political situation in Madagascar and the subsequent restart of the bilateral relationship between Madagascar and the United States. … The chargé d’affaires, working with a collegial country team, has also demonstrated interpersonal engagement within the embassy…..The chargé d’affaires has also demonstrated his commitment to management controls within the embassy. He directed that each Department section conduct a self-assessment of its management deficiencies. At the time of the inspection, the mission had completed corrective action on 73 of the 122 action items identified and was working to close the others.

Some other good news:

1) The information management office is led by a seasoned information management officer. The section received good scores on ICASS customer surveys and OIG questionnaires, as well as A+ ratings from the Department’s network and systems monitoring software. 2) Community liaison office operations received high marks, exceeding both regional and worldwide scores in the 2014 ICASS customer satisfaction survey.  3) OIG surveys noted that parents are satisfied with the quality of education; and 4) The health unit’s ICASS customer satisfaction scores are above worldwide averages.

Now for that American Center boondoggle: 

According to State/OIG, the American Center was funded with embassy public affairs funds (approximately $116,328) and by two large allotments provided in June 2012 by the Office of American Spaces in the Bureau of International Information Programs (totaling $559,062).  The OIG report is careful to point out that though current staff members will play a key role in identifying a path forward on this project, they are not responsible for the existing situation.  But all those responsible and accountable for this project are left unnamed in the OIG report presumably because they are no longer at post and have been successfully recycled to other posts. And since IERs (inspector’s evaluation reports) are no longer in season, none of the details from this report will ever make it anywhere near a promotion board.

A former embassy public affairs officer in 2011 proposed an American Center for the capital on the basis of a public-private partnership model. The concept initially envisioned a partnership of the English Teaching Program (ETP), a restaurant, Voice of America, a telecommunications company, and a publisher of a free entertainment monthly. A memorandum of understanding was drafted and signed by some of the prospective partners in June 2013 after lengthy delays. However, two prospective partners failed to sign on and a final partnership memorandum never entered into force.
[…]
Disregard of policies and procedures concerning grants and cooperative agreements have put at risk the embassy’s approximately $700,000 project to establish an American Center in Antananarivo. The OIG team noted that the decisions and actions that led to the American Center problems predate the arrival of the employees presently assigned to the embassy.
[…]
The embassy initiated a massive public relations campaign and announced the start of construction at a press conference in April 2012 attended by the former chargé d’affaires and the deputy coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs.

Image via US Embassy Antananarivo/FB, April 2012

Image via US Embassy Antananarivo/FB, April 2012

We were able to locate the embassy announcement of the new American Center from April 2012.

Welcome to the new American Center.  In a few months time this space will be transformed into the most modern and technologically advanced space that Madagascar has ever seen.  It will be a place to learn, to explore, and to connect.   It will not be your traditional cultural center.  This initiative is an innovative collaboration between the American Embassy, our private sector partners, and the English Teaching Program.   It is this ambitious vision for a cultural center based entirely on the model of a public-private partnership that has brought the person in charge of American centers worldwide for the State Department to Madagascar.  I would like to acknowledge Michelle Logsdon, the Deputy Coordinator for International Information Programs who has joined us today to learn more about this important initiative.
[…]
As you will see in the presentations that each partner will be delivering shortly, they have not only embraced the potential of this center, they have developed it in ways we would have never dreamed possible.  VIMA plans to put on some of the most spectacular shows Antananarivo will have ever seen.  Orange and Teknet will make the latest technology accessible to a new generation of Malagasy, while the Cookie Shop will create a new environment for learning, exchanging, and of course some great brownies.
[…]
We will organize trainings, cultural programs, and conferences with our partners that connect them and their clients to individuals, information, and opportunities from around the globe.  We will also have a team dedicated to finding the latest information, technology, and developments for the Center.  While many of the services at the Center will be fee-based, just like at an internet café or a theatre, the Embassy will ensure that there will be more resources and events than ever that are available to the public for free. 

This is going to be a fee-based center in a country where the per capita gross domestic product is only $1,000 (2013 est.), with 92 percent of the population living on less than $2 a day. Who’s going to be the audience for these programs? The same urban, youthful, and elite audience that belongs to the  2 percent of the Madagascar population with access to the Internet?


I Dreamed a Dream … a Cookie Shop and Some Great Brownies

The OIG team inspected Embassy Antananarivo from October 7–29, 2014.  At that time, the team visited the proposed American Center site in a shopping mall and observed the following:

[A]fter almost 2 years of construction, the site, covering 1,200 square meters (or 12,917 square feet), was a shell. Rooms were laid out, but lighting, flooring, doors, and other infrastructure were absent. A small bathroom shared with the rest of the mall was located at some distance from the site on the other side of the mall. Other problems included the lack of storage space, ceilings below standard height on the mezzanine level, and inadequate provision for air conditioning. On a weekday afternoon, some minor construction work was underway. However, no agreement had been reached on a final design or construction plan, including where the U.S. Government portion of the facility might be located.

Storage in seven 40-ft container for nearly two years?

As the American Center is not ready for occupancy, much of the furniture and equipment ordered for it has been stored in seven 40-foot containers located in the embassy parking lot, some of it for nearly 2 years. The OIG team spot-checked the contents of the containers and did not observe water or insect damage.

The embassy did not have a plan (which details needed resources, deadlines, partners, and costs) that could lead to a decision whether to close or salvage this project. Without such a plan, the embassy runs the risk of repeating past mistakes and failing to make the best use of funds already expended.

No Bona Fide Need for Much of Equipment Procured for American Center

According to information the embassy provided the OIG team, the embassy has expended approximately $400,000 to date on furniture and equipment for the American Center project. However, the embassy failed to establish a bona fide need for many of these procurements. This failure—and the subsequent misuse of some of the furniture and equipment—constitutes a management control weakness.

A notable example of a questionable procurement is a $47,938 telescopic theater-style seating system, which the embassy purchased even though the prevailing wage of workers who could set up and remove chairs is $10 a day. The shipping cost for this item alone was estimated at $19,175.

Other examples of questionable procurements abound and include the following (costs are rounded and do not include shipping):

  • Twenty-five 46-inch televisions ($21,500) and six 70-inch televisions ($24,600).
  • A motorized theater curtain system ($7,150).
  • Twenty iMacs ($22,935), 16 HP TouchSmarts ($14,247), 20 Wii stations ($4,230), 20 Apple TVs ($1,920), and 10 iPods ($1,790).
  • Fifty home theater chairs ($26,600).
  • A replica of the Seattle Space Needle, painted wall mural, and totem pole ($4,810).
  • Decorations, including more than a dozen fish and turtle sculptures ($5,400).


Whatsadoing with a $5,500 coffee grinder/espresso maker?

The OIG report says that records the team reviewed indicate that the public affairs section recommended specific vendors to the procurement unit, most often identified through Amazon.com. Looks like no one bothered to make a distinction between government shopping and personal shopping, and folks were in a hurry to spend end-of fiscal year funds:

No documentation in the procurement files shows that procurements greater than $3,000 were properly competed, as required. A number of the items ordered were not part of the original equipment lists submitted in support of the request for funds. For example, the original request did not include any food preparation equipment, yet the embassy purchased items such as a wine cooler, a $650 residential blender, grills, a $5,500 coffee grinder and commercial espresso maker, refrigerators, and other kitchen items.

Property Control Does Not Comply with Regulations, No Kidding

The amazing thing here is there is no discussion why USG properties were lent to two private businesses without documentation.  Who signed them out? Who approved these loans?  What did the USG get for this sweet arrangement? Did those companies just come by the embassy, pick up the USG properties and the embassy guards just waved “bye, come back soon?”

As the American Center was (and still is) not ready for occupancy, much of the furniture and equipment has been stored in seven 40-foot containers located in the embassy parking lot, some of it for nearly 2 years.

Other furniture and equipment was loaned to two private businesses for their use without any documentation. The embassy loaned at least $42,000 of computers and office equipment to one telecommunications firm alone. These items included 12 iPads, 16 iMacs, and 2 70-inch and 3 46-inch televisions. The embassy purchased a $6,700 eBoard from this company and then lent the item back to it. The embassy told the OIG team that these items were retrieved from the firm in February 2014 after a year or so in use, though the lack of documentation makes the timing unclear. The other firm, a restaurant chain, was lent at least $5,000 worth of U.S. Government property. The embassy warehouse unit retrieved these items, including a refrigerator installed in the restaurant owner’s private residence, on September 15, 2014—3 weeks prior to the OIG team’s arrival. These deficiencies were not, but should have been, included in the 2014 chief of mission statement of assurance signed by the previous chargé d’affaires on August 11, 2014.


Who Bears Responsibility For This Project, Anyways?

Short answer from OIG: Bureau of African Affairs, Bureau of International Information Programs, and Embassy Bear Responsibility. Here is the longer answer:

The lack of accountability for the American Center project extends beyond the embassy because additional management controls exist for projects of this scale. The Bureau of International Information Programs and its regional information resources office in Nairobi approved two large American Spaces funding requests despite warning signs. These included the requests’ hyperbolic language (“the possibilities are endless”) and the questionable suitability of such a large, public-private project in a very poor country, especially when the project would be managed by a public affairs officer and section lacking the necessary business and accounting acumen and grants management experience. The Bureau of African Affairs approved the project despite the fact that it had not received the necessary project details from the embassy and despite the many flaws in the grants documents that they did receive. The embassy did not caution the Department that the project’s prospective partners had never cooperated in such a joint venture, had no understanding of its public purpose, and had no record of such cooperation with the embassy in the past. The Department should have drawn on its technical and regional expertise and understanding of public-private partnerships to identify flaws in the initial plan before it was approved and funds were allotted.

Note that the new Ambassador to Madagascar Robert Yamate was only confirmed by the Senate in November 2014, and did not get to post until December 2014, five months after his nomination was announced and two months after this OIG inspection.  The previous ambassador appointed to Madagascar was R. Niels Marquardt who departed post in June 2010.

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Related item:

ISP-I-15-20A Inspection of Embassy Antananarivo, Madagascar | May 15, 2015