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American diplomats shun "hardship posts" in third world countries

Long line of requests for Paris, London, and Rome, not so for Baghdad or Kabul
Matthew J. Nasuti (Former U.S. Air Force Captain)
Monday 1 March 2010

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The U.S. Department of State has labeled virtually every non-European country a “hardship post” for American diplomats. Last year, the State Department told auditors from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that American diplomats deserve extra money for having to live in such harsh and uncomfortable environments.

American diplomats receive a generous base salary and on top of that, are eligible for supplemental money under four general criteria. They may get “danger” pay for having to live in a dangerous country; they may get a cost of living allowance if a particular country is unusually expensive; they may get a housing allowance and they may receive hardship pay (which is called a hardship differential). It is this last category that is the most controversial.

The State Department has taken each foreign country and calculated how harsh and uncomfortable it is for Americans to live in that country.

This calculation has nothing to do with the danger or cost of living in the country, but is extra pay to compensate for having to live under, what the diplomats perceive to be, substandard conditions. The State Department has created eight hardship groupings:

0% extra pay: This group includes France, Great Britain and Germany.

5% extra pay: This group includes Jordan and Malta.

10% extra pay: This group includes Turkey, Bahrain, Brazil, Kuwait and Qatar.

15% extra pay: This group includes Egypt, Russia and Mexico.

20% extra pay: This group includes Saudi Arabia, Somalia, China, India and Yemen.

25% extra pay: This group includes Lebanon, Nepal and Pakistan.

30% extra pay: This group includes Kenya and Cuba

35% extra pay: This group includes Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iraq.

All of this extra money means (for example) that American diplomats posted to Iraq earn in excess of $150,000.00 per year. They are provided with all their food and accommodations, and they have access to their own swimming pools, health clubs, nightclubs, bars and American restaurants. In addition, they receive anywhere from 30-50 days vacation per year (depending on seniority).

The underlying assumptions for the hardship differential are questionable. First of all, the more dangerous the country is, the more likely the American diplomats are to confined themselves to their Embassy “bubble” complexes, which take on the appearance of being “little Americas.” In these self-contained private worlds they have all the foods, clean water, electricity and other amenities that one would have in America. The “hardships” that diplomats face are therefore zero.

In non-dangerous countries, the diplomats still lead privileged lives. They have more money than 98% of the residents of most Third World countries they are posted to, so, as part of the privileged elite, they are spared many of the difficulties of day to day life.

On balance, living in any country presents a mix of good and bad. For example, while Beijing in the summer has substantial pollution, the balance is that one is living in an historic capital, surrounded by incredible wonders, in a vibrant country with endless travel opportunities.

Another example concerns Israel. While Tel Aviv is not considered a hardship post for U.S. diplomats, Jerusalem is considered a hardship, which does not make any sense. To anyone who has ever visited Jerusalem, it is a joy to be there, not a hardship. Apparently, living in close proximity to Arabs is a hardship for American diplomats.

An example of the “severe” hardships American diplomats face is detailed at www.aafsw.org. It is an unofficial American foreign service website. Patricia Linderman, in her article “Hardship Posts for Beginners,” describes her recent posting to Havana, Cuba:

“By definition, hardship posts present unusually difficult or unhealthful conditions or severe physical hardships. These may include crime or other violence, pollution, isolation, a harsh climate, scarcity of goods on the local market and other problems. These hardships are real. At my last post, Havana, our community faced surveillance and harassment by a hostile host government, parasitic infections, burglaries, six-month delays in receiving shipments, and the occasional scorpion in the living room.”

Ms. Linderman goes on to describe how the American diplomatic community responded to all this by withdrawing from Cuban society and spending most of their time with each other. Some American diplomats seem fearful of their local population when they should be embracing it.

Historically, the primary purpose for having a foreign service (as opposed to a consular service) is to meet foreigners and to explain and promote ones country. Diplomats are supposed to love foreigners and have a curiosity for other cultures. There is nothing in Ms. Linderman’s Havana account about the wonderful El Malecon waterfront walk, the warm Caribbean climate or whether she enjoyed the Mojito, which is a signature Cuban cocktail made from local rum, mint leaves and lime juice. There is no mention of the wonderful Old Havana area and Obispo Street or of the poet Jose Marti (1853-1895) who was inspired by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and wrote a poem in Versos Sencillos, whose lyrics were used in the famous Cuban song Guantanamera.

Calculating that one country has more hardships for an American diplomat than another country seems subjective and disrespectful. Being different from America is not something negative. Each country has its own unique attractions, history and culture. This reporter believes that most Third World countries have better tasting food than one would find in Germany or Great Britain, but to pampered diplomats, who refuse to learn the local languages and are hostile to non-European cultures, Third World countries seem confusing and inhospitable.

One of the latest GAO audits of the U.S. State Department is particularly damning. It is entitled: “Department of State: Persistent Staffing and Foreign Language Gaps Compromise Diplomatic Readiness.” It was released in late 2009 and should have set off alarm bells with the Obama Administration. Instead it was apparently ignored. The GAO found that the State Department continues to have problems staffing its hardship posts and U.S. diplomats do not strive to learn local languages. The shortfall in foreign language expertise was found by the GAO to be alarming. GAO auditors met with senior State Department officials and came away from their meetings pessimistic that the State Department would ever reform.

Part of the reason for the GAO’s gloom is that it has been reporting this problem for years. In its May 3, 2006, report it found major deficiencies in the State Department filling its overseas posts with language-qualified diplomats. The State Department promised reform then, but the effort floundered because American diplomats do not want to be posted to many Third-World countries. Those that are posted are sent for one or two years at the most. These short rotations, lack of interest in learning the local languages and a lack of contact with the local public translate into superficial expertise and influence. This helps to explain the failure of American public diplomacy.

The State Department, faced with the fact that it has a diplomatic staff that is deficient in foreign languages, had two choices. Either mandate that all foreign service officers be fluent in at least one and preferably two languages, and base promotions on learning the more difficult languages, or arbitrarily limit the number of diplomatic positions at each embassy for which local language skills are required. It chose the latter, labeling them as “language designated public diplomacy positions.”

Unfortunately for the State Department this gimmick has not worked. In many cases, it cannot even fill these positions with qualified officials. The GAO reported in November 2009, that the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security was continuing to suffer from systemic mismanagement and one result was 53% of its language-designated positions were not properly filled. This is slightly higher than the State Department average.

The State Department has two additional special categories of extra pay that highlight how dysfunctional the Department is. The American government pays its diplomats to learn foreign languages other than Spanish and French. It is called “language incentive pay.” As set out above, the State Department should be penalizing diplomats who refuse to learn another language instead of rewarding them for learning a skill that they should be anxious to have.

The final category of extra pay is called “service need differential pay.” American Diplomats are eligible for substantial extra pay if they remain in Third World countries more than two years. This is double-hardship pay. It is considered an extreme hardship to live outside of Europe or America for more than two years.

In contrast to American diplomats, al-Qaeda personnel seem to speak the local languages and dialects and seem to mix easily with local populations in all those countries diplomats shun. So while American diplomats sit in their embassy forts hosting tea parties for themselves and lamenting their hardship for not being posted to Europe; their adversaries are on the march.

photo by: Robert Maier

Note: Anyone wishing to view how the U.S. State Department
evaluates the current conditions in your country can go to
www.state.gov. Type into the "search" block, the words:
"office of allowances" and then click on the site that
says "allowances." On that subsite, on the left side is a
menu - click on "Allowances by Location" You will see
Afghanistan listed. If you want another country scroll down
from Afghanistan and then click on your country. It is
interesting that the State Department does not list Jerusalem
as being part of Israel. Jerusalem is listed by itself.

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Forum posts

  • Thank you for quoting from my online article, "Hardship Posts for Beginners." The article was aimed at preparing diplomatic families for some of the difficulties they might face abroad, since we do not live in isolated compounds in most places, and we really do face hardships, especially compared to our well-cushioned lives in the United States.

    It is not true, however, that we tend to remain isolated from the local population and environment. Cuba is, in fact, a very unusual case, since Cubans faced trouble with their own government if they became too friendly with Americans. We were frustrated and saddened by this separation. I certainly did enjoy mojitos, the Malecon, Old Havana, José Marti’s poetry, and much more — in fact, my family extended our assignment there from two years to three, with no extra pay as you seem to imply. However, my article was focused especially on preparing people for hardships, not the many joys of living in another country, which I think are more obvious.

    We definitely do "love foreigners and have a curiosity for other cultures," or we wouldn’t be doing this. I can understand why hardship differentials can seem offensive, but they are common practice among diplomatic services and international businesses from many countries, not just the United States. In fact, Washington D.C. is considered a hardship post by some (high crime rate, high cost of living, terribly hot summers).

    I do agree that both the U.S. and the world would benefit from expanded language training and requirements for our diplomats. Being fluent in Spanish gave us much greater insight into the situation in Cuba and allowed us to make the most of our unfortunately limited contact with individual Cubans.

    Thanks for reading this,

    Patricia Linderman

    currently in Guayaquil, Ecuador, a hardship post because of the high crime rate and hot climate ... but we love the friendly, family-oriented people; centuries-old indigenous cultures; fresh tropical fruits; fishing villages on unspoiled beaches; and much more.

    • I’ve always said Washington, D.C. was more dangerous than Kabul, and this response seems to confirm that. The State Department appears to force the hardship situation mainly with permanent lock-downs and prohibition of family accompaniments. It warns American tourists and business people away from Kabul and tells them to get out as quickly as possible. While there, if you make the mistake of registering with the Embassy, you are bombarded with hysterical e-mail warnings not to leave your residence— sometimes for days, due to imminent rioting.

      When I walked down the streets of Kabul, in my sportcoat and khakis, the friendly locals were absolutely shocked that I was an American. They had never met an American not bundled up in helmet, wrap-around glasses, automatic weapon, bullet-proof vest, etc. etc. That is one of the most damning statements about the foreign service that I could imagine. Not to mention the only time in my life I’ve had a 50 cal machine gun draw a bead on me was on my approach to the US embassy in Kabul.

      It’s laughable, especially considering the outrageous pay pampered staffers receive. Think about the soldiers who go outside the wire seven days a week. Their pay is maybe 25% of the foreign "service" officers. And I guarantee they have no access to giant indoor shopping malls, booze, 150 TV channels and a long weekend in Dubai every 6 weeks or so.

    • Mr. Cool Editorial Staff Guy,
      You won’t be so comfortable when you are nabbed off the streets of Kabul. There is a reason trained security professionals (who dedicate most of their lives to the service) say that Kabul is unsafe. If you are so confident that there is no problem, keep walking the streets and see what happens. Word travels fast and you are low hanging fruit if you don’t blend in, my friend. To speed up the process why don’t you throw on a USA t-shirt and Yankees hat. The unfortunate thing is that when irresponsible guys like you get yourselves in a bind because you are so smart, other professionals (who dedicate their lives to service) have to put their lives at risk to save your ass. Grow up.

      • Experience Professional
  • Wow! Talk about "sour grapes." You were found unfit for duty in Iraq, so you’re taking out your frustration by maligning Foreign Service Officers who work hard and your article is full of misconceptions. "Tea parties?" Seriously? Who are you kidding? "Generous base salary?" Believe me, in comparison to the private sector, they are grossly underpaid. You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Have you ever been overseas? (and I’m not talking about living on a US military base) I guess not. You certainly have never served in an Embassy, nor do you know what it’s like. The vast majority of Foreign Service Officers (and their families) live and go to school on the local economy, not on a compound. You are obviously on a personal vendetta against the Department and think by attacking the people who "made it" (when you did not) is a good idea. Shame on you!!!

    • Thank you for telling the rest of us about the author’s background. This explains the lack of balance in this article. I am currently an FSO and certainly found the ’Tea parties’ comment quite ridiculous. One thing I do agree is that language needs to be at the forefront of State Department’s staffing policies. Without language everything is stunted - meetings, relationships, communications, etc. - with the host country. It is part of the job and must be taken seriously.

  • I might also note that more US Ambassadors have died overseas while serving their country than Generals. And there are more musicians in the Army’s band than Foreign Service Officers. Do the numbers. Foreign Service Officers have routinely put their lives on the lines - unarmed, I might add - so don’t belittle what they do. Of course they are not military and are not subject to battle, but do not think they and their families don’t suffer hardships. My father was in the military and never saw battle once in nearly 30 years (I guess he was lucky!) I was in the Foreign Service and lived a year in a war zone (Baghdad), where I attended memorial services for civilian US citizens, saw one of my American employees bleeding from being hit by an IED, was almost blown up by a car bomb in Colombia and yet I stayed until retirement. Gimme a break!

  • have nothing to do with afghan people at all . there money and there idiot brain .

  • Are you trying to make foreign service diplomats seem selfish and living the life? Could not the same be said for soldiers in Germany, Japan, Korea, Guantanamo? They and their families receive pay and benefits as well. Just because FS does not carry guns doesn’t make them less important to America’s foreign policy. Are you suggesting that someone who signs up to leave their 1st world country to live in a third world country should have to live under the same conditions in order to be of service? If the population has inadequate unstable housing, polluted water, no sewage system, FS should live under similar conditions to properly partake in Public Affairs, Immigration issues, etc?

    People are sent from place to place every few years with only input as to where they will be posted. They join knowing they could be sent anywhere in the world under any conditions. It’s ignorant to suggest that the American Gov should not try to make their lives in their residence as comfortable as possible. Some have families to think of, some can’t even bring their families.

    If you are looking for someone to make the villain you are looking in the wrong place.

    Americans can’t apologize for being a first world country. And to have a realistic list of places that will require more incentive in order for FS to bid for that post is no different from any other employer giving a housing allowance + incentive to their employee. Stop with the feigned outrage.

  • I just came from a middle east post this past month and just read this article which seems to have been posted several years ago. I am deeply saddened that there exists a perception that foreign service officers do not deserve the differential pays as a result of poor living conditions, life endangerment and overall hardship. I understand the point that I have chosen this life and way of living, but one must understand that there needs to be a balance between serving one’s country happily and maintaining that identify and sanity of one’s self.

    I can understand the author’s sentiment and as I read deeper into his words and expressions, I can sense that he is in a position in which he feels belittled or taken for granted. Obviously, he has a great deal of experience working alongside foreign service personnel and feels that his challenges go unrecognized. I am empathetic of his situation. However, I believe he would have gained better benefit by writing a story about how to improve his condition rather than attack the credibility of those around him. With that being said, it does not surprise me one bit that he is where he is at...

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