Post Cotonou thoughts (not to be confused with Cotonou Post thoughts)

Okay, here we go.

For me, joining the Foreign Service was an experiment, not a lifelong goal, so on a semi-regular basis I evaluate how the experiment is going.  Sometimes it just happens (usually after a particular frustrating set of events) and sometime it’s because a logical break comes…like leaving my first post.  So, as I said, here we go.  I’ll talk a little bit about me, a little bit about the Foreign Service, a little bit about the United States government, and a little about the U.S. in general.  This is a summary.  Until I’m not working for Uncle Sam, there are things I won’t write down in public.

Let’s talk a little bit about being an entry level officer at 50+.  In some ways, the FS is very welcoming.  After all, they will hire you.  On the other hand, they don’t really seem to know what to do with us. The FS has debated whether or not it makes sense to bring in experienced (in other things) people in at the mid rather than entry level.  I understand they tried for a while.  They didn’t think it worked.  So, everyone comes in at the entry level.  But not all entry level officers are created equal. Some of us have law degrees. Some of us have run companies, or departments of big companies.  Some have specific skills in computers, or the arts, or marketing or…  That’s experience that’s available to the Foreign Service, but they have to choose to use it.  That decision should be made service-wide.  Right now, it’s up to the supervisor of the officer.  I’m not quite sure what the program to use this experience would look like, but there are lots of experienced people they could have work on it.

Small posts.

Good idea or waste of money (or some combination of the two)?  The United States decided a while back to try to have an embassy in every country worldwide.  Not everybody does this.  Many countries don’t have embassies in places like Benin, or Togo, or Burkina Faso.  In theory, a great idea.  In practice, it has some problems.  The biggest problem is staffing, which is to say the biggest problem is money.  We don’t have enough.  If we want to staff embassies in every country we need to be willing to staff them in such a way that national goals can be successful.  This requires continuity, experience and knowledge.  A typical small embassy section often has a single officer, perhaps even a single entry level officer.  This provides none of the three.  By going to minimum two officer sections, we can:

  • Build continuity by staggering arrivals and departures providing a transfer of institutional processes and knowledge
  • Have at least one “experienced” officer in each section, even if that experience is only 12 months or so.

Where do we find the people in a time where zero growth in the total number of FSOs is possible for a few years at least?  Two (not the only two) possibilities are:

  • As the bank robber said, “where the money is.” The big embassies with lots of people.  Skimming a few off of the super-embassies (and consulates) might do the trick.
  • Regionalize capabilities.  Build regional embassies or regional centers of expertise within embassies if you want to keep them all.  The consular work may be concentrated in Equatorial Kundu while pol/econ is headquartered in Qumar and PD in Fredonia.  A three or four person section covering two or three adjacent countries may be a better solution than a bunch of single officer posts, particularly if each section has an experienced Chief.

There are also policy changes which would help small posts, but I’m not crazy enough to discuss policy here.


Africa is an interesting place.  It is a place of tremendous opportunity and tremendous opportunity wasted.  It is a place where you can look one direction and see a beach with palm trees or savannah covered with wild animals, and turn 90 degrees and see a pile of burning trash alongside a collapsing house and potholed road basely worth the name.

In the long term, the only people who can fix this are Africans.  If there is a role for the West in general and the U.S. in particular it is advisory and supporting.  In a time of dwindling financial resources (or even in a time of generous resources) that advice and support should be targeted.  It should be targeted at doing things that really help.  This may or may not be what either government wants.  The U.S. government may have political or pork reasons to spend money one way, the African nation’s government may want to help a specific region, or specific well-connected companies, or the government in power.  AIDS may be targeted when more people are dying of dysentery.  The government may want government buildings when what is needed are better roads.  If development is one of our core “d”s in foreign affairs, we need to use development dollars wisely. And if a foreign government refuses, we need to be ready to walk away.  We can’t force them to listen, and we certainly should listen to the people on the ground, but ultimately it is our money.  It doesn’t help anyone to waste it.

Bullet points:

  • In a world with Internet shopping and the diplomatic pouch, consumables shipments are less important than in the past.  But, remember what you can’t ship through the pouch (liquids and lithium batteries are two top favorites, and remember, peanut butter is a liquid) and stock up on those things.
  • In a country with shaky 220V/50HZ power, you cannot have too many transformers, power conditioners and surge protectors.  Also 220V UPSs.  Buy here and ship.
  • Skype is wonderful. If a relative doesn’t seem interested in learning Skype, calling them on their phone is only 2 cents a minute.  You can also give them a local to them phone number to dial which rings at your Skype overseas.
  • Every embassy is different, but good people can make or break an embassy.  Even if you’re not “social”, build a support group to hang out with.  Food is always a great lubricant.  Everyone can cook at least one thing well, which makes for good potluck meals, and don’t forget breakfast/brunch!
  • If your country has Peace Corps volunteers help them out.  They’re trying to do a lot with a little.  Go see what they do, and bring snacks.
  • Southwest has not come to Africa.  It is hard to get around.  There are no interstates.  Visiting other countries is great, but it’s hard.
  • See the animals.  You’re in Africa for goodness sake!

Am I glad I went to Africa?  Yes.  Am I glad I chose a small embassy first?  Yes.  Am I glad I went to “language” country first?  No, I should have learned to be an officer first, then dealt with language.   Am I happy to be going to Canada next?  Yes.  Am I happy doing another consular tour?  Not really.

Is the Foreign Service right for me?

Well, that’s the question isn’t it?  How is the experiment going?

I learned in high school chemistry that every experiment starts with a hypothesis, and then you set up and experiment to test it.

My hypothesis was that the Foreign Service was the job for me.  I had been spending my life looking for a career with “generalist” in the title and this was it.

The first experiment was join and train.

The second experiment was go to post and do the job for two years.

What were the results?

Some partials:

Many FSOs love living overseas.  They love being given a house, having a GSO shop to fix things when they break, being able to afford to hire nannies and cooks and maids and gardeners.  They avoid returning to the U.S. where you have to call the plumber and wash your own clothes and dishes.

I, on the other hand, love living in the U.S.  It’s easy.  There are 24 hour supermarkets and restaurants and drug stores.  There are Interstate highways.  The worst road in the U.S. is better than most roads in lots of other places.   I like owning my own house and doing with it what I want.  I have a dishwasher and washer and dryer and can bring something to the cleaners if I don’t want to do it myself.

I’ve been told by senior FS folks that “we are bureaucrats” and “nobody every got ahead in the FS being entrepreneurial.

I am entrepreneurial.  I invented or found all my jobs for the 15 years prior to joining the FS.  I don’t do well with systems which don’t like or allow change.  I am not a bureaucrat.

So, where am I?  The fit isn’t as good as I thought it would be…as I hoped it would be.  Is it bad enough for me to leave?

And do what?

That’s the next question.  There is always a next question.

That’s the one I’m thinking about today.  Meanwhile, I’m getting ready for Ottawa.



Filed under Foreign Service Stuff

9 responses to “Post Cotonou thoughts (not to be confused with Cotonou Post thoughts)

  1. HI. i was wondering what cone you are in.

    • rkolker


      But although I think some of my dissatisfaction is not working in my cone, my observation of political work doesn’t necessarily encourage me. On the other hand, I have only observed political work at a small embassy, and it may be very different somewhere bigger.

      I enjoy working in politics. I enjoy analyzing politics. I thought that was what I would be able to do as a political officer in the Foreign Service. I had visions of George Kennan. I’m beginning to wonder if he is the exception, or perhaps just a product of different times.

  2. I totally agree with you about the language thing.

  3. Anonymous

    Rich, it was a pleasure to share my first Peace Corps year with you in this tiny, sometimes silly country. Bonne chance et du courage.

  4. Rich, it was a pleasure sharing my first Peace Corps year with you in this intimate, sometimes frustrating locale. All the best. Bonne chance et du courage.

  5. Doug

    You cleverly (wisely) did not invite suggestions for possible new life- experiments to try. So I will withhold my suggestion to join Teachers Without Borders. Read “Half the Sky” by Kristoff and WuDunn to get some ideas on what you could do.

    But I enjoy your FS blog so hope you continue the good work there while still providing valuable insight to the FS life.

  6. Sasha

    In what ways does working as a FSO disable you in being entrepreneurial? I am considering a career as a FSO, although, like you, all of my jobs have always been very entrepreneurial in nature and it’s a quality I value. Would you mind describing more what you mean exactly? Or give an example of a time you’ve felt frustrated about this aspect of your work?

  7. rkolker

    I am a little uncomfortable discussing details in “public”. If you want to email me we can talk some more.

  8. Sasha

    I can’t find your email anywhere! How can I find it?

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