Be Awesome

Look, our forefathers died for the "pursuit of happiness," okay? Not for the "sit around and wait of happiness." Now if you want, we can go to the same bar, drink the same beer, talk to the same people every day or you can lick the Liberty Bell. You can grab life by the crack and lick the crap out of it.
--Barney (HIMYM)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Immersion Day - Food!

This week, the Indonesian class took an immersion trip to the Indonesian DCM's (Deputy Chief of Mission) home to learn about Indonesian food and cooking.  This experience was to allow us the opportunity to gain vocabulary on food and cooking.  That afternoon, we also had a music lesson with the traditional instrument, anklung.

Before where each team had to present the ingredients they were going to use and how to prepare their dish.

The after shot.

Our fried rice wins for style.

Lunch prepared by the Indonesian DCM's staff.

This is an angklung.  Each angklung plays a single note so many are needed to play a song.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

CFO/OAA Conference

Last week, I was able to make it out for bit to the CFO/OAA joint conference.  Much of the conference was in regard to implementing procurement reform and the USAID Forward initiatives.  It was a very good conference and I was excited to see the initiative still very much alive and progressing.  Many sessions dealt with best practices for implementation as well as brain-storming/sharing sessions on lessons learned in the field and understanding the challenges and roadblocks.

One of the best parts about the conference was the opportunity to meet many of the FSO's from the Missions overseas as well as reunite with colleagues from my DLI class who are already at post.  I had the opportunity to meet colleagues and supervisors whom I will be working with in my onward assignments which is invaluable IMO to be able to meet people in person.

Not sure if another conference will be able to be held next year due to the many government budgetary pressures which is a shame since I think it was so useful.

In other news, a State colleague picked up some fun lapel pins for me from Main State.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fundraiser Event

On Saturday, I attended a fundraiser event held by one of the Indonesian teachers.  This event was put on to raise funds for a Catholic group in Flores, Indonesia.

It was a fun event with great Indonesian food and fun exposure to Indonesian music.  All food was prepared by the hosts of the event rather than catered out and it was all very impressive.

These fried shrimp chips are called "kerupuk".  The same types of chips are found in many Chinese banquets and weddings.

The buffet!

This was just my first plate.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Indonesian Class Holiday Party

The setup the teachers used for their skits.
Today, my class had a holiday party instead of our typical class schedule (2 hours language, 1 hour lab, and another 2 hours language).  This was a fun break from the routine and was a fun time to practice Indonesian outside of the classroom context.

Each class group prepared presentations or skits for the day and the teachers performed skits with the objective for students to practice understanding the situations and the subjects of their conversations.

The food spread was also very nice.  Everyone brought in various dishes potluck style and the teachers purchased a traditional Indonesian dish which is composed of a mountain of rice surrounded by various side dishes.
The dish to the left is "nasi tumpeng".  The crock pot has meatballs and soup for the dish "bakso".

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Language Midpoint, CO Conference, Development

Language training continues.  Reached the mid-point of my training and everyone had their first progress test.  I'm doing well and on-track to finish in early February.  The test was similar to the final assessment in that there was a large speaking component and exercises in discussing at length various topics.  However, they also used a written test as well for the progress test, whereas in the final exam, there will only be speaking and reading components.

In December, I'm hoping to take a day off from training in order to attend the Controller/Contracting Officer Conference.  In this conference, Finance Officers and Contracting Officers will gather to attend sessions on the further execution of Procurement Reform and other pertinent topics related to our field.  I hope to gain some insight into the execution of direct government transfers as well as learn more about successfully awarding directly to small, local NGOs in the field.  Also, the conference should be a good opportunity to get to meet Officers from all over the world, particularly my future supervisors and colleagues with whom I'll be working with once I go to post.

Aside from the above, I've also been reading a lot of blogs on development work.  A lot of blogs on this area tends to be cynical of their work and its effects.  It has also made me consider my role in USAID as well as how development work is done.  I feel that, as an FSO, it's best to concentrate on the two main objectives of USAID being that, first and foremost, the work we do is to further the US's foreign policy, and second, to fulfill the humanitarian goals of the American people.  Foreign assistance will always have political undertones that mean to benefit the donor country, we just need to work hard to ensure it will always benefit the receiving country as well.  Thus by helping other countries, the US is also helping itself.

I also now tend to believe that real change really only comes through governmental reform.  Despite the efforts of for-profit development companies, international NGO's, or local NGO's, governmental change is the real key to creating sustainable, beneficial change for the citizens thereof.  I mean, in cases of societal dissatisfaction and bringing about change, the main objective is usually to bring about some governmental reform (either in governance/leadership, regulation, policy, etc). 

This leads me to believe that the priority of change agents for countries are (from greatest to least):
<< internal government reform - local NGO's - international NGO's - for-profit development companies >>
This priority listing can even be thought of the priority sourcing list the US government uses in the FAR for supplies and services being to first review internal agency capabilities, then other agencies, and so on until lastly, looking outside at commercial sources.  So really, in so many cases, are contractors the only source for the work they do (caveat, this hyperlink article is definitely written by a lobbyist) or is that just the nature of how government work is now so much contracted out?

So I think, that where possible, by providing direct investment into partner governments to bolster, say, education, this would have to greatest affect in improving that target area since the partner government will gain the ability and skill to manage these programs.  FSO's can then work directly with the receiving partner government to implement that program.

This model just sounds so much better than the continuous contracting to an expat organization to send so many people to that country to do some work, maybe hold a seminar or two and call that capacity building, and leave with no real sustainable change and half of the assistance funds going to those companies and not the societies USAID wants to impact.  It reminds me of the trickle-down theory whereas by giving money to the wealthy, it'll eventually reach the intended target.  It'll be interesting to get to the field and really start to see and understand how things work to then be able to begin pondering better ways that things can be done.

And yes, I hyper-linked an excessive amount in this posting on the development stuff but there was just a lot of interesting discussion out there on this subject.

Friday, November 4, 2011

USAID 50th Anniversary

Today marks the 50th anniversary since the official establishment of USAID on November 3, 1961 by Pres. Kennedy.  However, the roots of USAID and the U.S.'s foreign assistance goes back to the Marshall Plan following World War II.

The organization has gone through many changes and evolutions and still is in a continual improvement process (Kaizen anyone?) to become better equipped to be more effective in foreign assistance.  Despite the challenges, I greatly believe in the mission of the organization to 1. Support US foreign policy in expanding democracy and free markets, and 2. Improve the lives of citizens in the developing world.  And these assistance programs, which have considerable influence around the world, amount to less than .05% of the US federal budget.

It's a great privilege to be able to have the opportunity to travel, learn new cultures and languages, meet interesting people, support the US, and be able to directly work on improving the lives of people around the world.  USAID is one of the best representations of the American people and their values to the world abroad.  It is really an amazing place to be able to work.

Friday, October 14, 2011

6 Weeks in Language Training

About to complete the first 6 weeks of language training.  So far, things have been progressing well but considering I'm a 1/4 through my language training, I'm still nervous about reaching the level I need to complete it.

For Indonesian language, there were almost 30 people enrolled taking the class.  Two thirds of the students are State employees with USAID making the last third.  For the first 2 1/2 weeks of class, they had all students together in one big class to learn the fundamentals of the language and basic vocabulary.  After that, students were then split up into groups of four for the rest of the training.

One thing that I think is nice about learning Indonesian is that all the people in the class will be going to the same country, mostly all to the city of Jakarta with a smaller subset going to Surabaya.  This is different than languages such as French or Spanish where people will be put into countries all over the world where that language might be used.

So since we're all going to the same country, we have the opportunity to get to know the same people we will be working and living with in the embassy community next year.  It's a nice to already have a network established before even reaching the country!

Now, back to studying!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Indonesian Embassy Independence Day Celebration

The Indonesian Ambassador, his wife, and his DCM shook hands and greeted every attendee.
Yesterday, I attended the Indonesian Independence Day celebration at the Indonesian Embassy.  Indonesia declared independence on Aug. 17, 1945; however, they were only now celebrating their Independence Day due to last month being the month of Ramadan, in which a formal celebration would have been inappropriate.  Note, Indonesia is the most populated Muslim majority nation in the world.

The Indonesian Ambassador to the US, H.E. Dr. Dino Patti Djalal.
My Indonesian class was invited to attend by the Indonesian Embassy as we will all be working in Indonesia next year.  The event featured traditional Indonesian dance performances, speeches by the Indonesian Ambassador, and four officials from the US (Asia Bureau, Commerce, Education, and DoD).  I think the four speeches by the US was a bit too many and would have preferred just the Indonesian Ambassador speak and maybe one official from the US with just mention of other esteemed guests, but it was still all ok.

The Embassy served a variety of hors d'oeuvres and refreshments including wine and mixed drinks.  They also had a full meal served cocktail-style including Indonesian fried rice, salad, satay, and other Indonesian dishes.  I was too famished at the time and neglected to take a picture of the food spread :P.

The inside of the embassy was very impressive.  I think I may have come into the embassy during the Passport DC event earlier, but I'm not sure since I saw so many of them.  Would have taken more pictures but didn't want to appear too much of a tourist at my first representational event.

I'm very glad I was able to attend to the event and it was good inspiration for me to work to get my Indonesian to a level where I can capably converse!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Language Training Begins

I started this week at the Foreign Service Institute taking Indonesian.  I'll be attending classes here for the next 6 months (24 weeks) though I'm planning on beating that by testing out in 22 for personal reasons.

I was surprised at the large number of people they had starting classes this week.  I think the number 800 was put out there of students beginning language studies.  That number though includes FSOs, who make up the largest amount of that number, Eligible Family Members (spouses of FSOs, typically from State Dept., who are allowed to learn their post's language), and a handful of DoD and other agencies.

So far, I've been very impressed with the method of instruction and have good expectations for the future.  They push us at an aggressive pace to build our understanding of grammatical construction and vocabulary and the instructors are very personable and knowledgeable.

When contrasting it to my previous experiences in formal language training, I think this is the most impressive.  The teachers seem well-trained and quickly adapt to the needs of the students.  They also prepare much of their language materials and books themselves to specifically address the needs of the Foreign Affairs professionals which they mainly cater to.  I'll need to dedicate lots of time to studying..

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Earthquake Day

Today was earthquake in Washington, D.C.

In the early afternoon while sitting at my desk, the floor started slightly rumbling.  I assumed someone was moving furniture or someone was transporting a heavy cart down the aisle but after 15 seconds of rumbling, things really started shaking.

My colleague, who sits across the aisle from me, came running out in a panic and started riling the floor about a bomb or an attack.  I suppose by the fact of working in the nation's capital and continuous cycle of fear propagated by politicians and the media that this is one of the first thoughts people have.  Grabbing my phone and wallet, I headed out floor and down the stairs joined by the rest of the building filing out.

While walking down the stairs, I figured it had to be an earthquake since I don't work at the main headquarters building and the only other agencies with me are State and FEMA.  Well, maybe some Louisianians might harbor a grudge against FEMA.

Outside the building, workers from all the surrounding building were gathering outside in firedrill fashion with tourists out in the Mall standing about.  After about half and hour of waiting, security began allowing people into the building and our Director came around and gave the OK for an early dismissal due to phones and internet connections being out throughout the building.

The Metro was probably the most crowded I've ever seen it heading out to Virginia.  I think even more crowded than Fourth of July.  It seemed pretty much all of DC was vacating the city.  The best comment I heard during that day on the subway was "I'm going to now have to tell my wife about you", from one stranger to another, on that intimate commute.

Another interesting experience on the subway home was the amount of pushing and self-interest people exhibited to attempt to squeeze themselves onto the crowded train.  Rather than just wait the few minutes for the next train to come along (typically every 3-5 minutes but today, extended to around every 15 minutes due to trains only running at 15 mph), people would push and shove to fight their way onboard.  Occasionally during rush hour, this occurs to some degree but not to the extent I saw today.  People at the train doors would push/repel others as the train would stop to prevent anyone from attempt to board.

Makes you think about the comparison of what actions people will take here in America for 10-15 minutes of their time relative to other places in the world, where people must take extreme measures to ensure they might obtain humanitarian relief for their families to keep from starving or to escape war and conflict.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Countdown to Language Training

Been out for a while due to laptop issues.  So, I tentatively have been assigned Indonesia for my directed assignment.  It's not completely formalized but confident enough that it will be the country of assignment that in two weeks, I'll be starting language training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA  to learn Indonesian (Bahasa) for the next 6 months.

I'll also be taking the language examination for Mandarin in a couple weeks as I've had that test scheduled for 2 months now and I might as well see how I formally score.

I'm looking forward to this assignment and think it'll be great to learn a more obscure language.  I think both personally while navigating and living in the city and professionally while working with local officials and people, it will be invaluable to have the ability to communicate.  Not very many professions allow for the opportunity to learn something like Indonesian!

Monday, July 25, 2011

An In-Depth Look at the USAID Assignment Process

The USAID Assignment process is a work in progress that is rapidly making adjustments and improvements.  This post will discuss the challenges the USAID process faces and how it is operating today.

Challenges in Assignment Process
1) DLI is a New Hiring Program
USAID has only recently begun to bring in new FSOs in large numbers with the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) program.  Before that, USAID had various other FSO recruiting initiatives in the past 10 years called the New Entry Professional (NEP) program and the International Development Internship (IDI) program.  But these hiring programs were no where near the scale of the DLI program.  Unlike the State Department, which has regularly brought in new Officers every month for many years to create a very routine system for assignment, the USAID system is working on catching up on the learning curve.  So generally, there are a lot of fine tunings and details that USAID is improving on how they work assignments. 

2) FSOs all have different functions/backstops
There are several different functions (backstops) that FSOs come in as.  In order to prepare FSOs for management roles, they need to spend their initial posting working in their particular technical function.  This requires matching the FSO to a Mission with the most suitable supervisor and capability to take on a first tour Officer.  This is different than where at State, pretty much every location has a demand/need for Consular Officers which all new FSOs must serve.

In some ways, perhaps this problem could be alleviated by combining functions to "cones" like State (ex. combine Contracting, Financial Management, and Executive Officer into one cone), but for other functions this would be very difficult as they are very specialized.  Even Contracting itself takes a great deal of experience and knowledge to become especially proficient to gain mastery of the FAR, have the capability to execute both Contracts and Assistance (grants), and develop the judgement to know which method is most appropriate to create an agreement to either transition the effort to the grantee (sustainability) or craft the right contract to make sure work is done properly.  So combining this to just create more assignment flexibility might not be the best solution as each of these functions are very different in roles/responsibilities.

3) Management Supply in Missions
New Junior Officers need to be supervised and managed by another FSO in their first assignment.   This is rather surprising to have to be an issue but due to irregular hiring in the past, there are insufficient numbers of appropriate supervisors abroad to support the incoming Officers.  So, the Agency is at the point where there is a backlog of Officers to be assigned due to delays in creating positions in the Mission or awaiting for position to become open to then place them.  In the next few years, this problem should no longer exist as the DLIs from the 2008-2010 classes finish their first assignment and move into supervisory roles, but will be a potential hurdle until then.

4) National Security Decision Directive 38 (NSDD-38)
 This is a mandate that gives the Chief of Mission (COM) of the Embassy (aka Ambassador) final say on the size and composition of US government personnel staffing in their particular country.  There are many different types of rational and political reasons for controlling the number of US government personnel in a particular country.  It becomes a challenge for the USAID assignment process since all new assignments must be approved by the COM.  So while USAID may have approval and need for a particular number of FSOs, it could still be denied due to NSDD-38.

How USAID Assignment Used to Work (in prior DLI classes)
The assignment process used to work with all entry officers submitting a preference sheet indicating family considerations, particular skills, and regional interests during the 5 week orientation.  At the end of orientation, there would be a "flag day" ceremony where officers would receive their initial assignment.  This was possible at the time due to a large number of vacant positions available overseas and the above challenges were less of an issue.

How the USAID Assignment Process Works Today
There are three general ways Officers receive their assignments today.  Each function (backstop) has a Backstop Coordinator who manages their particular group of officers in terms of training and assignments.

A) The Backstop Coordinator might receive the preference sheets of their new Officers and then discusses personally with them and works out an appropriate assignment based off of the available openings.

B) The Backstop Coordinator reviews the preference sheets of their new Officers and makes assignments based off of the available openings.

C) The Backstop Coordinator compiles and confirms available positions and then sends out a preference list (bid list) to DLIs to rank order and return.  The Backstop Coordinator then makes assignments off of individual considerations, rankings, and availability.  This is the method currently in place for the Contracting Officer Backstop.

I feel method C is the most fair and transparent of all the methods for assignments and I feel fortunate to have a very capable Backstop Coordinator.  In other backstops, there are stories of individuals politicking and maneuvering to obtain particular assignments and I much more appreciate the open process of the preference list.  While every FSO signs up for World-Wide Availability, it is natural to have a particular preference for various places and method C allows adequate voice in the process while still adhering to the availability agreement.

On Friday, our Coordinator sent out the preference list of postings to rank order and return.  Soon, I hope to know where to look forward to be going.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Advice for Foreign Service Officers

Throughout orientation, lectures, emails, and meetings, I've come across a multitude of advice and words of wisdom for Foreign Service Officers.  Here's a compilation of some of the remarks I particularly like.

Work Related:
  • Be flexible and contribute where you can.  Perform every task professionally and positively.  Always make yourself useful.
  • Be relevant to broader concerns. Contribute to US foreign policy as related to development, work toward the greater good, and contribute to overall objectives.
  • Learn budget, financial management, programming, and executive correspondence.  These are critical skills, the vegetables that will make you strong.
  • Work well in interdisciplinary teams.  Translate skills and expertise to be relevant to others.
  • Gain an expertise in a technical area.  Be an expert and the "go-to" person.  Read.
  • Establish a network of "go-to" people.  (FSNs, other FSOs, Exos, contacts in DC, etc.)

  • Broaden contacts and establish relationships within the embassy, with the host country, and with business leaders and representatives.
  • Exercise intellectual curiosity.  Share the excitement of this field of work.
  • Challenge oneself and take responsibility for difficult tasks.
  • Take charge of your own career and direction.  Only you will look out for your best interests.
  • Seek mentors and mentor others.
  • Don't assume the system works efficiently or should be the way in the previous place you worked.  Understand the culture, build relationships, and improve things.
  • Always be a diplomat, 24/7, in professional and personal affairs.  Understand that responsibility.
  • Don't succumb to inappropriate behavior, even if you see it around you (and not penalized).
  • Don't lose sight of what you joined the Foreign Service to do.
And lastly, the advice that was given the first day we started and has been repeated consistently throughout is to manage your reputation.  It is one of the most valuable assets.  How one is known to operate can be as important as to what one does.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Civil Service (GS) to Foreign Service (FS) to Military Officers (O) Comparison

Inter-agency coordination is very important in foreign affairs.  There are actually around seven different agencies that have foreign operations.  When working with others, especially in the Embassy/Mission, understanding the chain of command will help.  Below is a chart of how the various grade levels approximately compare.

Most junior officers tend to enter the Foreign Service at the FS-06 level, particularly low on the totem pole compared to our counterparts.  However, Foreign Service Officers are administratively promoted each year to FS-04 where they will then enter competitive status among other FSOs for future promotions. 

Civil Service (GS) to Foreign Service (FS) to Military Officers (O)
***UPDATE 9/28/2014: In my experience thus far with the Foreign Service, this comparison chart has pretty much no validity or function in reality.  The Civil/Foreign Service comparison to military counterparts are not used for anything and would be laughable, and/or embarrassing, if used.  And for Civil/Foreign Service comparisons, the most it might be used for are comparisons for salaries in the event of a Civil Service to Foreign service conversion.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Administrator Shah with Liberian President Sirleaf

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and USAID Chief Economist Steve Radelet

On Friday, I attended a Development Forum event featuring a discussion between the USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah with the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

This was a great event and opportunity to learn about the development challenges and successes in Liberia and Africa.  President Sirleaf gave a brief history of some of the struggles Liberia has gone through in the past three decades and then spoke of how far they have come.

In terms of development assistance, she mentioned the need for direct foreign assistance into host country systems.  Essentially, this means we provide funding directly into the host countries Ministry budget to support their programs and operations.  USAID would then provide some stipulations and guidance on using that funding.  So it would be like another government giving our Department of Education funding to increase teachers and training, or something like that.  The idea behind this is that in countries where the host government systems are capable of managing this assistance money, then investing in their systems and government would then be a more effective way to build their own capacity and develop their countries.

On Thursday, I attended a discussion with the Mission Director of Tanzania Robert Cunnane.  He mentioned that USAID's push to do more direct assistance, like what President Sirleaf suggested, was how many other development programs of other countries used to be done while USAID in the past preferred implementing and controlling our own programs.  And now, other donor countries have begun moving the other way and now USAID is switching.  The controversy behind this type of foreign assistance is that it's difficult sometimes to trace exactly how funding is used (making it more difficult to show the development outcomes to Congress or your home constituents) and you must be able to have good confidence in the host country.  So this has to be carefully implemented but the sustainable impact can be much more profound when done right.

Another intriguing comment that President Sirleaf said was that a goal she has set for Liberia was graduating from any foreign assistance in 10 years and becoming a "middle income" country in 20 years.  Liberia still is a relatively impoverished nation but I find it inspiring that they are taking stretch goals to improve.  I think it would be fantastic if they truly can achieve foreign assistance independence in the time frame she set.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Complexity of Development

International development is a very complicated profession.  Over the past two weeks, interspersed with OTJ training, online training, and formal class instruction, it's really starting to dawn on me the many challenges in the development arena.

Some classes I've attended, in particular, have shown me the complexity of the challenges to come.  In the class for USAID's Project Design Workshop, there are many considerations involved to develop a program that leaves a sustainable, meaningful, lasting impact in the communities in which they are implemented.  I've learned a lot regarding what and how to design a results framework and logical framework.  It's amazing how much thought and planning is necessary!  And that's not even getting to considering the monitoring and evaluation aspects of the program required to really understand whether the development goals of the project are successful.

I also attended a course on Environmental Compliance.  Now, I came into this class especially skeptical of what it would be about because, of course, I figured, our efforts shouldn't pollute or whatever.  However, this viewpoint was greatly corrected as I learned USAID environmental compliance is not just following federal regulations to not break the law, but much, much more.  An environmental analysis for planned projects is actually to examine the big picture of a project and how it might affect the society, the environment, and how it will contribute to the development objectives.

For example, a project to do something like teach farmers in Western Africa to grow cocoa in order to stimulate economic growth would seem fairly harmless and innocuous.  What environmental considerations really need to be considered??  Well....Considerations would have to include where they plan to grow cocoa, how will this affect the mix of the current crops, is there a demand for this crop, is there buy-in/ownership by the receiving community, what pesticides or pest control will be used for the crop (will they need to be trained on how to handle and incorporate the pesticide), how does this affect the land and surrounding area?  And then other considerations like where will this crop be sold, is there infrastructure to transport, how will this program affect the interactions of the community and the families, is there support by the host government and how will they contribute, how might climate change affect the ability to grow this crop in the future, how will this program be sustained after the program ends and no longer receives donor support?  With so many considerations, this original plan to teach cocoa might need to be accompanied with a variety of mitigating activities and may even need a fundamental change to ensure a program's success and sustainability.  You can't do things with a narrow focus and you have to really analyze and consider all variables and possible impacts and work to mitigate risks.  Do all this while potentially facing pressures from the Ambassador, the Mission Director, a General, or Congress to obligate funds and put out results.

Challenging work, indeed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Waiting for a Post

Work continues with training classes interspersed through the month.  Another email came out today with updated postings for the DLI classes.  At this point, about half of my class now has received their postings.  My roommate got a great post and is going to Nepal.

I'm still waiting for my assignment.  Contracting Officers have typically been the last to receive postings due to delays in finding appropriate Contracting supervisors overseas and the extensive training and on the job experience they want us to have before going overseas. 

The initial posting is a "directed assignment" so the coordinators make the decision on where to send each JO.  However, they do take into consideration family situations and, to a lesser extent, preferences.  It seems so far they are working with me on my preferences due to my personal situation, but I'll really have to be patient and see how everything ends up.

In the meantime, I can continue to look at the globe on my desk and dream about where I might be next year...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Diplomatic Passport

Shiny new passport.
Was issued my diplomatic passport this week.  Might be a while though until I get to use it as there aren't very many opportunities for temporary assignments this year and for the Contracts function, they typically try to keep us all in DC to help out with the end of year rush to obligate awards before the fiscal year end (September 30).

The diplomatic passport though does not mean I would have diplomatic immunity wherever I travel.  Rather, it really just signifies I am traveling under official government business. 

Diplomatic immunity is only granted on a bilateral basis between countries.  So if I am to be posted to a particular country, then a listing is sent from our embassy to the partner country declaring those on diplomatic business and agreed upon by the other.  Only at that point is diplomatic immunity granted. 

Still, having a black passport definitely is pretty cool!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A little about the DLI-17 Class

USAID's DLI-17 class is a fairly big class of 45 people.  Many people came with experience in the development world but there are also a good number of people that came in with none.  Almost everyone has some international experience of some sort but there are a few that also have none.

In terms of demographics, age-wise, the mean tends to be in the late-twenties to the mid-thirties.  However, we have some in the mid-twenties and others in the 40+.

In terms of education, most everyone has a graduate degree but there are some exceptions.  A large number have degrees from prestigious universities in the US.

The majority of people have significant others of some sort.  Those who have not reached the relationship point of engagement though tend to be facing the upcoming issue of how to maintain the relationship with the spouse having very limited job options when following overseas.  At least when overseas, the decision of the spouse working won't be a deciding factor whether you'll be able to put food on the table and more of a means for self-satisfaction, fulfillment, or ambition.

As a whole, the class is very ambitious, intelligent, and committed to the objectives of USAID and passionate about helping others and seeing improvement in the lives of others around the world.  USAID is undergoing a number of reforms to re-establish itself as the world's premier development agency and promoting the importance of development to our nation's prosperity and security.  I feel very optimistic and confident in facing the challenges to come.

With Agency Counselor Bambi Arellano after Orientation Graduation - 4/15/2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Passport DC

Last weekend and this weekend, many of the embassies in DC had an open house to the public allowing people to tour the embassies and experience some of the culture of their respective homes.  I was really excited about this event and greatly enjoyed seeing the inside of different embassies and view other countries' public diplomacy efforts.  I only was able to make it to about 15 embassies during the open house event but feel we made pretty decent time in absorbing the information and indulging in the offerings of the ones we made it to.

Some of the embassies went through some extraordinary effort for their open houses to include live music, free food and wine tasting, and plenty of give-away and fun things.  Others displayed their embassies in a very perfunctory and lackluster manner.  And then some, to my disappointment, seemed to commercialize the event to make it similar to some of the various fairs one might attend where there might be a show of some sort and then just overpriced food and trinkets for sale.

My favorites were those that seemed as if you were entering one's home or a festive party with good atmosphere and interesting cultural items and relics on display.  I was very much impressed by some embassies whose countries I previously knew very little of or once gave no thought.  I was most impressed by the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago and the Embassy of Botswana, both countries I knew very little of until after visiting.

There were other pretty good embassies and almost all of them gave away some fun swag.

Maraca from Embassy Nicaragua
Showing off the digeridoo at Embassy Australia
Aussie tattoo
Food from Embassy Botswana.  Notice the BBQ worm!
Incense from Embassy Croatia

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Attended an event hosted by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPA).  Basically, this organization is like an Affinity Group but on a national scale.  So they work to ensure access and opportunities for Asian Americans in the US in general as well as encourage their participation in public service or politics.  I was invited to attend this event by my cubemate who is a FSO from the prior (January) DLI class and her sister was a coordinator for this event.

This particular event was to kick off the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May) as well as honor the Asian American Presidential Appointees: Department of Energy Secretary Chu and Department of Commerce Secretary and future Ambassador to China Secretary Locke.

DoE Secretary Chu
DoC Secretary Locke

It was cool to be able to see important political figures speak and interesting meeting and networking with people from many different agencies.  It's very different hear people introduce themselves from various government agencies rather than I work on XYZ program as an ABC which I was so used to.  I'm sure though the mystique will wear off and it will just be normal.  It's also interesting, but expected, how the majority of people you'll meet in DC is a transplant from somewhere else in the US.  It's been very uncommon for me to meet people that are actually born and raised DC or the close surrounding area.

It was also interesting for me to hear that when both Chu and Locke spoke, they talked a bit about the difficulties they had in educating their families about their political or public service ambitions.  Few Asian Americans are interested in Government or political work, particularly at least from the Midwest.
Locke at the podium and Chu in the background to his right.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Getting acquainted with Work

So after 5 weeks of orientation, DLI's are then sent to their assigned functional areas to begin familiarizing themselves with the work of the organization and to obtain some on-the-job training.  Each of my classmates all have related different experiences thus far in the past two weeks ranging from simply taking online training or looking for anything to do to even already becoming a country desk officer.  I think though a lot also depends on a lot of self-initiative and your boss.

My experience has been pretty good.  Since I already had a contracting background, much of the processes and activities are already very familiar.  Last week I was tasked with doing several contract modifications to current contracts in order to revise to add incremental funding (government funding for contracts is only available for effort 18 months in the future at which point additional funding will then need to added).  The only part of this I was unable to do was make the administrative modification in USAID's contract system since I have not yet had the required instructor training and been granted access.  (not really in a rush to get this access and start using it :P)

In between doing these modifications, I have a very intimidating list of online and instructor-taught training classes that I started to work on.  In order for me to obtain my warrant which allows me to sign contracts to obligate funding, I need various trainings and certifications.  

This week, I was assigned a cost analysis to perform on contractor proposals for an RFP for a new effort.  Basically, I read through the proposals and then analyzed whether the costs were reasonable and compared them to what we are wanting in the RFP. Then, I got to make recommendations for the negotiator on what is or is not reasonable, what they should negotiate at, and provide all the justification and information to make that argument.

It's a very time-consuming process but I actually enjoyed it.  I learned a lot about the type of work USAID does as well as how contractor's structure their proposals.  Some of these contractors propose ridiculous rates and salaries that it's unbelievable.  To think they have been taking taxpayer money at some of these rates is crazy.  There so many better places resources could be used than lining the pockets of some of these contractors to better help people and we're going to change that.

On a less work related subject, my DLI class continues to organize social functions and gatherings each week and we all do a decent job of keeping in touch.  Next week, we all get to come back together for a week of "Consolidated Training" where we will all debrief our experiences thus far, share advice, and get additional required training.  An event I'm looking forward to is a field trip to spend the day at the State Department in the "F" Bureau which monitors Foreign Assistance.  I've been in this bubble of USAID and it will be interesting to see the other agencies in which we will need to work with together so closely once out in the field.

DLI-17 with Dep. Admin. Steinberg on our first day of orientation.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The End of Orientation and Orientation Graduation

It's been a busy past two weeks!  Week three included more bureau presentations but also had some great Q&A sessions with Congressional staffers.  It's interesting to hear the perspectives of USAID from those that allocate the budgets.

On that topic, the big government shutdown and potential furlough was avoided.  If the government budget extension was not passed, I would have fallen into the Non-Excluded category meaning basically unpaid time-off.  Historically, Congress has passed a measure to provide backpay to those furloughed, but in this government environment, that would not have been a guaranteed.  So I'm happy things were worked out.  Plus, I really enjoy coming into work everyday :P.

Our class also took a trip to have lunch with the American Foreign Service Association.  It was interesting to hear how the union for the Foreign Service works and what they do.  Since I've never been part of a union, it was nice to learn how they work.  Union dues were fairly nominal and the work they do seems pretty important to me so I elected to join.

The closure to the five-week orientation program also came about.  During the last two weeks, I was able to meet my supervisor and the team which I'll be working with during my period here in Washington before assignments are determined.  The team seems great and I'm anxious to learn the USAID contracting function.  I also feel my prior contracting experience is going to be quite useful in this transition as many of the terms and overview of the types of acquisitions and awards they do are already familiar.

This last Friday was Orientation Graduation.  This past week, I've had my fiancee in town and some family fly in this weekend for the graduation so I've been busy with lots of entertaining and sightseeing but it's been a good time.  Graduation morning began with a very brief welcome by Administrator Shah who quickly had to leave to other meetings.  However, I really appreciated him taking the time to come speak to us.  Our keynote speaker was the most senior Foreign Service Officer of the agency. Instead of giving flags to everyone to indicate our country assignments, they presented certificates and planned to have small "flag days" as the assignments can be determined in the future.  I think the Graduation would have been nice if they had the ability to give us our assignments but they notified us from day one that wouldn't be the case.  All in all though, it was a very nice conclusion to the Orientation and a good transition to training and work.

Tomorrow begins the next phase of the Foreign Service adventure and I'm looking forward to it!

Sunday, March 27, 2011


This week introduced new concepts of America's Foreign Policy.  Particularly, the discussion of the interactions between the various foreign affairs agencies with a focus on the State Department Foreign Service Officers and USAID Foreign Service Officers.

USAID instruction has revolved around Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and how Civilian efforts should take the lead in foreign affairs.  This leads to the USAID Forward strategy which is how USAID will adjust to take the lead in international development.
What was particularly interesting was the culture difference and attitudes between State FSO's and USAID FSO's.  At USAID, the main emphasis for strategy is how to incorporate the different strategies of the military, State (politics), and USAID (long-term relationships abroad and international development goals) into a focused strategy.

We had a panel discussion with a senior State FSO and senior USAID FSO on the 3 D's (Defense, Diplomacy, and Development).  During the Q&A session, a question was asked regarding best ways in the field to encourage the push for long-term relationships and stability (development) in partner countries.  From this the State FSO responded fine at first of the importance in country team meetings to clearly articulate the USAID point of view and how it can benefit the overall embassy strategy.  However, he then further went on to say that everything is very competitive out in the field you'll have to be aggressive and need to step on the backs of others to achieve your mission objectives and advance (get promoted) in the field.  After the panel, our USAID coaches clearly advised that this was not the culture of USAID and that programs or objectives in the field are only achieved through input and cooperation from all our teammates.
The corporate world is pretty competitive but from my experience, doing your job well and playing nice with others seemed to be the best recipe for success.  I'm tending to believe our coaches that the diplomacy world is similar with an even more emphasis on teamwork and relationships.
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