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Meeting Important People

October 2, 2009

Bridget and I sent out our new Kenya brief to anyone we thought would read it late last week. A few hours later I received a call from the State Department inviting us to a lunch with State officials working in East Africa on Monday.

Many other well known NGOs were invited to this lunch, which was meant to facilitate communication between the State Department and people working on the ground in the Horn of Africa. I felt totally out of my league since FCNL does not claim to be experts on Kenya and our purview is more building structures for peace, with Kenya as a prime example of where such a strategy could be successful. During the meeting, I mostly sat and listened to the conversations happening around me, which were in many ways a wake-up call. Given the recent change of Administration, most of the State Department officials present had no experience in East Africa. They had been pulled from other assignments in parts of the world completely unrelated to the particular issues at play in the Horn of Africa and were being asked to implement policy towards places they had never been. On the flip side, the NGOs present knew the reality of the countries they discussed intimately, and I commend the State Department for calling the meeting and recognizing that they should partner with those who know more. However, when I sat back from the meeting and looked at the scene more objectively, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about the way that 20 people seated around a table on K Street were discussing an entire region of Africa. It was as if Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Uganda, and Kenya were just puzzle pieces to be shuffled around by people in power suits.

I understand that it is important to think regionally about these issues and that the dynamics between countries affect the viability of stability in the region; but I felt like I got a big dose of Washington ego at that table. The State Department officials had never been to the region and the NGOs thought they knew it all. Is that any way to effectively encourage stability and peace in another country? Bridget’s response to my reaction was an interesting dose of pragmatism. She said that even as much as U.S. policy makers want to believe that the U.S can decide everything, local players are equally or more important. Take a look around the world-it’s easy to spot a dozen examples of leaders doing whatever they want regardless of the U.S. I guess those puzzle pieces don’t slide so easily after all.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 2, 2009 11:42 pm

    Great post. Unfortunately our Foreign Service structure is nowhere near large enough to work so intimately with local leaders/policy makers in say Kenya.But your concerns are echoed by me as well.Thank you.

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