More say yes to foreign service, but not to hardship assignments
Despite a record number of people applying to join the Foreign Service since Sept. 11, the State Department is having a difficult time filling hardship posts overseas, as American diplomats shun jobs over security and lifestyle concerns.
The problem is especially acute in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whose strategic importance has surged because of the United States-led campaign against terrorism.
The former American ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, resigned her post in May after security concerns kept her separated from her two teenage daughters. In Saudi Arabia, a combination of geographic isolation and repressive social dictates has discouraged applications and left in place an unqualified staff, according to a new study by the General Accounting Office.
But the problem is far broader. Sixty percent of American embassies and consulates are designated hardship posts for reasons including security threats, poor hospitals and schools, and oppressive weather. From Nigeria to Kazakhstan to China, all considered hardship assignments, American missions report a vacancy rate 50 percent higher than in more developed nations.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is overseeing a recruiting drive to hire hundreds of Foreign Service officers. In an encouraging sign, more than three times the normal number of applicants have taken the Foreign Service exam since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, propelled, officials say, by a surge of patriotism.
But interviews with new Foreign Service officers underscore a conundrum. While the newly minted diplomats are more eager than ever to serve their country and even express interest in hardship assignments, they are quick to say they would avoid places that might pose a risk to their families.
A typical response is that of Heidi Arola, who begins training as a Foreign Service officer in September. Ms. Arola, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is more willing than many to take a post in a country with few amenities, but she draws the line at security. ”Serving at a post with high security risks does concern me though, as I am sure is true for most officers,” she said.
State Department officials say that staffing certain posts abroad has long been tricky and has required a certain amount of coercion and finesse. But the problem has been worsened by a general shortage of employees, the product of flat State Department budgets through much of the 1990’s. Secretary Powell hopes to hire 1,158 new employees by 2004.
”When you have a lot more jobs than people to fill them, they can pick and choose,” said Ralph Frank, the State Department’s director of career development and assignments. ”They say, ‘Given the choice, I’d rather have Paris.’ ”
Mr. Frank is developing a proposal to make hardship posts more attractive, including higher pay, shorter tours and more home leave.
The study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that staffing shortfalls in hardship posts have resulted in junior officers working well above their pay grade or skill level, leaving sensitive work in the hands of inexperienced diplomats.
In Kiev, Ukraine, for example, about half the Foreign Service positions were filled by inexperienced officers, with several of them working in jobs at least two levels above their grades.
As the State Department scrambles to fill the holes, it is turning to employees who do not have adequate language skills. In China, 62 percent of the Foreign Service officers did not meet the language proficiency requirements for their positions, the G.A.O. found. In Russia, 41 percent of the officers do not speak Russian.
Even diplomats whose chief duty is to explain American policy to foreign populations are often unable to speak the language. In Pakistan, five public diplomacy positions in three cities were held by employees with insufficient language skills, the G.A.O. found. In Saudi Arabia, the head of public outreach for an American consulate spoke no Arabic.
The overall result is that American diplomacy is compromised at a time when it most needs to be effective, as Washington presses for progress toward peace in the Middle East, seeks to thwart terrorist attacks around the globe, and plans for an invasion of Iraq.
”Ultimately, when this happens over and over again in hundreds of slots in the world, it has to have an effect on our ability to accomplish our foreign policy objectives,” said Representative Vic Snyder, an Arkansas Democrat who requested the G.A.O. study, which was released in June.
The situation may have immediate implications in the effort to secure American borders in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Employees in consular positions abroad — many in entry-level jobs in hardship posts — are responsible for screening about 10 million visa applicants a year.
Last year, the State Department’s inspector general warned that inexperienced consular officers in Guinea and Mali — two chronically understaffed hardship posts in Africa — had failed to detect fraudulent-visa rings.
Although career officers are supposed to be available for posting anywhere in the world, the current assignment system allows them to bid on posts. In analyzing data for this summer, the G.A.O. found that non-hardship posts like London, Toronto, Madrid, The Hague and Canberra, Australia, were highly sought, with 25 to 40 bids for each opening.
But numerous hardship posts received two bids or fewer, including Karachi, Pakistan; Shenyang, China; Lagos, Nigeria; and Jidda, Saudi Arabia. In the 2002 assignments cycle, 74 midlevel positions had no bidders, including 15 jobs in China and 10 in Russia, the G.A.O. found.
”People are all too willing to take the comfy job rather than get out on the cutting edge of diplomacy,” said Dennis Hays, a former ambassador to Suriname and a veteran of several hardship assignments. ”People look at you as if you’re insane if you talk about going to Pakistan or Somalia.”
While the department has a procedure for forced, or ”directed,” assignments, only a few dozen jobs are filled that way. Directed assignments can backfire, diplomats say, as employees quit or retire early or contend they are unable to relocate because of health or family reasons.
Instead, the department relies on financial incentives and allows junior officers to advance their careers by working above their grades in hardship posts.
The financial incentives for hardship service range from 5 percent to 25 percent of base pay. A midlevel Foreign Service officer earning $50,000 a year would be entitled to an additional $2,500 in Malta (a 5 percent differential), $7,500 in the Philippines (15 percent) and $12,500 in Angola (25 percent). In addition, the department offers danger pay in 15 nations with differentials as high as 25 percent in countries like Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.
Department officials concede that those incentives are often insufficient. Diplomats with working spouses ”literally take a pay cut to go overseas,” said Mr. Frank, the assignments director. Pay aside, spouses may object to moves that they expect will impede their own career development.
Meanwhile, ambassadors are reduced to wheeling and dealing to fill critical posts. Robert S. Gelbard, who recently retired as ambassador to Indonesia, said he had a hard time finding officers to serve as his political counselor in Jakarta or chief of the American mission in East Timor.
”The system is so dysfunctional that it really requires a combination of horse-trading and personal relationships to make it work,” he said.
The State Department is relying on officers like Lonnie Kelley Jr. to hold down the fort until reinforcements can be hired, trained and lured abroad.
Mr. Kelley, the press officer at the American Consulate in Karachi, had barely settled into his post when Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped in January and slain by Islamic militants. As much of the American staff was evacuated from Pakistan, Mr. Kelley saw his life increasingly constrained by convoys of security vehicles. The simplest tasks — shopping, contacts with Pakistanis — became difficult.
”These are the hardships we face and are willing to because of our dedication to our country, not for the reward,” said Mr. Kelley, a 10-year Foreign Service veteran. ”We want to be a part of this effort to keep America great and free of terrorism.” Autor: Christopher Marquis