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