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)

Monday, November 11, 2013

What's in Your Collection?

Purchasing souvenirs, it's the normal things to do when traveling to new places.  Ourselves, we have a penchant for acquiring refrigerator magnets and postcards from many of the places we go.
Inevitably, many people in the Foreign Service will begin to go beyond souvenirs to collecting and investing in different cultural items, furniture, or other such things while living and traveling abroad.  We've taken to several different collections of cultural items that we've found interesting.  Here's a bit of what we've taken an interest in acquiring:

Traditional music instruments and Art
Angklung set from "Saung Angklung Udjo" in Bandung
A "wayang kulit (leather puppet)" of Bhima.
This is from a local artisan in the city of Solo.  We plan to have this framed.
Traditional weapons/tools
Traditional Thai knife from Aranyik village outside Ayutthaya.
Rincong dagger from Banda Aceh.
Marine Security Guard Detachment Challenge Coins (current collection of one!)
Hopefully, the collections will come to together to make some sort of sense years from now as we'd ideally like to avoid a house full of a random assortment of items from all over the world.  But each item makes a nice conversation piece as each item in the collection has a story or adventure in how we went about obtaining it.

What are other people out there collecting?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bidding - First time around

Well, bidding is finished.  I guess it's not too complicated if the place you elect to go is Afghanistan.  Yep, that's where I'll be going next year.

For a multitude of reasons, bidding on a Critical Priority Country made the most sense for me.  How do I feel about going to Kabul?  Cautiously optimistic.  It will definitely be a unique experience working there and the country is a priority area for the Agency and the government so it will be an honor to contribute to mission there and hope to make some meaningful difference.  The situation there is changing very quickly and it might be very different place a year from now.  The development challenges will certainly be interesting and I'm sure I'll leave with many stories to tell.  But definitely not looking forward to being separated from family.

It seems like a long way off still and there's oh, so much more to accomplish here.  But time flies.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

General Hierarchy of Ministries of Foreign Affairs

In bureaucracies, rank and hierarchy matters.  Particularly so I've found in the Asian context in both business and the diplomatic/development arenas.  Working abroad with the US Government, position rank is used as an indicator for who one's appropriate counterpart should be.  It would be a faux pas for a low ranking US Officer to directly contact a senior level official with a local Ministry.

Internally, USAID seems to me to be a fairly flat organization where first tour officers can comfortably chat with the Mission Director, but externally, it may be prudent to be cognizant of one's counterparts and their approach with the host government and to other US government agencies.  I've not heard of any internal USAID classes or discussions to know what counterpart rankings in the host government are, so I after asking around, this is a illustrative listing that might represent a typical Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

*Note, attache in this sense is in a illustrative MFA hierarchy.  Attache means "attached" so other ministry personnel in the diplomatic mission, ie. Defense Attache or Trade Attache, don't fit into this hierarchy in this manner.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What hiring mechanism are you?

Welcome to the Mission!  Are you a new DLI?  No?  Are you a Contractor or a PSC?  Oh, you're a Fellow!

That's right, there is an acronym soup for the many people that make up the personnel of USAID.  It's not as simple as being just a hire of the Agency, rather, people come to the Missions and are classified through a wide variety of hiring mechanisms.  The heart of the difference between all the classifications is funding source and compensation system but also includes to some degree the type of work.

The existence of so many different hiring mechanisms is a result of the budget process (Operational Funding and Program Funding), historical changes in government, and the nature of how development work has changed.  It's quite a complicated system and I still wonder, at times, if there might be a more effective and easier to understand way of hiring.

Let's try to break-down the many classifications of employees that makeup USAID.

Civil Service
--These are the Civil Servants of the US Government.  They are based out of Washington, DC working at the headquarters of USAID.  They follow the General Schedule (GS) salary scale and support the government's development programming from the US, but many will often travel to other countries (the field) in their work.  Civil Service employees represent about half of the US direct-hire employees of the Agency.

Foreign Service
--These employees represent the majority of the US direct-hire employees of USAID working overseas.  Known as career Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), they have a variety of technical backstops, and represent the Agency and the US Government abroad.  Unlike Civil Service employees, they are compensated on a different Foreign Service pay-scale and follow rules from the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM).  USAID has historically hired FSOs under various initiatives, and as a result, additional nicknames came about for newly hired FSOs based off of the initiative in which they were hired.  These initiatives include "International Development Intern (IDI)", "New Entry Professional (NEP)", and "Development Leadership Initiative (DLI).  The most recent initiative was DLI and hopefully, the Agency will be able to hire for attrition and per future staffing needs in the future.  Uneven hiring for FSOs historically is a result of budget shortfalls, hiring freezes, and reductions in force (RIFs) in the Agency's history.

Foreign Service Limited (FSL)
--These are direct-hire employees of USAID who makeup a small portion of USAID's Foreign Service.  They use the same pay-scale as typical FSOs but are generally limited to 5 years employment, but in some cases, they can be converted to career FSOs.  Recently, the Agency hired many employees as FSLs to help support the staffing needs of "Critical Priority Countries (CPCs)" like Afghanistan and Iraq.

--Fellows will join USAID for a couple years at a time as determined by the structure of the Fellows program.  The US Government has a variety of different programs and I'm really not knowledgeable on the details of them all.  However, the most common Fellow's I've seen at USAID are "Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs)" and "American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)" Fellows.  Fellows have opportunities to work in Washington, DC as well as work abroad in the Mission.

Participating Agency Service Agreement (PASA)
--This is an arrangement where another US Government details employees to work at USAID.  While the employee is working at USAID, they are still technically an employee of their home Agency.  The majority of PASAs at USAID tend to come from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), in my experience, and work alongside Civil Service employees in Washington, DC.

Personal Service Contract (PSC)
--USAID has a unique authority to hire employees on a contract basis but, who are for all practical purposes, essentially a US direct-hire.  They are compensated in accordance to their contract which is generally based off the Civil Service pay-scale.  They are employed to work at both Washington, DC and abroad but largely are hired abroad in the Missions.  Historically, PSCs filled staffing shortages of FSOs and now more increasingly used to provide unique technical support that isn't found within the ranks of FSOs or Civil Service.  PSCs can be US citizens (USPSCs) or third country nationals/citizens of a country other than the US or the country in which they are working (TCNPSCs).

Foreign Service National (FSN)
--FSNs makeup the significant majority of USAID employees overseas.  These are the local employees of the countries in which USAID works.  They are the backbone of the Missions providing Technical Support, Program Management, and Administration for all of USAID's activities.  The typical Mission will have Rule of Law Specialists, Infectious Disease Specialists, Water and Sanitation Specialists, etc. providing vital technical and programmatic support.  FSNs have the local knowledge, language skills, and expertise to bring effective development solutions to their home countries and are an essential component to sustainable development programs.  FSNs are hired technically as a form of PSC and are compensated based off of local pay-scales and benefit plans.

--While not under the direct employment of the US Government, they are indirectly employed by USAID and consist of the largest number of people working overseas supporting USAID's activities.  Since the 1990's, the US Government increasingly relied on the private sector to perform many previously held functions of government employees.  At USAID, almost all of the implementation of activities is now outsourced to contractors and non-government organizations while strategy and project design is general held within USAID.  Depending on how one would like to support USAID, working with as a Contractor might actually be a better option as the work would be closer to the field and the daily implementation of development work.

That's all the types of employees that comes to mind but would be curious to know if there are even more!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Planning, anticipating, bidding

Life is rarely dull in the Foreign Service.  Each year brings about new challenges in plotting one's career, family, and life.  You may be eagerly arriving to a new country, ready to learn a new language, culture, and people, or you may be formulating your strategy to make your plan for the following year to your next assignment.  This is especially true for two year assignments, which first-tour USAID FSOs are assigned to.

The Bidding Cycle
USAID's bidding season has just kicked off.  The way this works is that a list will come out around August which contains all the open positions for the following year.  The only people allowed to place bids on assignments during this first release of positions ("Priority Consideration Bidders List") is reserved for "Priority Consideration Bidders" whom are people finishing a tour in a "Critical Priority Country" (aka. CPC).  These are countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan where there is substantial danger or hardship.

After people leaving CPCs get to bid on the first release of positions, they will receive their assignments and then the "Major Listing" will be released.  This is the updated list with positions that went to CPC bidders removed.  Now everyone else gets to place their bids on positions and be assigned.

There is the exception that for people that want to only go to a CPC, then they can bid on the "Priority Consideration Bidders List" on just the CPC countries and get their assignment earlier.

After the Major Listing, there are sometimes people who place their bids and for one reason or another, do not receive an assignment.  There will then be an updated list which will come out with remaining positions and potentially any newly available positions in which they can then place bids again.

Bidding Process
When bidding for assignments, the list of positions will contain the position name, the position backstop (functional area), the FS grade level, a paragraph description of the position's responsibilities, and a contact person for the position.  Bidders must review the list for positions they are interested in and should then begin doing their research on that position and the Mission.

Research should include things such as how the management is and who other colleagues will be at the Mission, who the Mission Director is, how morale is at the Mission, the type of work, etc.  People with children must also consider things such as quality of schooling and things like that.  Often the best insight can be through contacts one knows at the Mission or people who have worked there before.

After researching, the next step is express interest to the contact person listed for that position.  This includes sending information about yourself such as your resume and references (typically must be USAID references).  This will let the Mission know that you are considering the post and get your name out there.  Additionally, if you contacted others currently working at that Mission, they may be able to do some additional vouching for your capabilities and character.  Following all this, the Mission will often contact your references and may schedule phone interviews with short-listed candidates.

Whew, definitely like applying for a job again!

Toward the time when you must input your bid selections into the USAID internal bidding system, candidates generally will have discussed with the Missions individuals they are most interested in and have an understanding of what rank the bidder will put the Mission and what rank the Mission will put the candidate.  The selections will then all go to Washington where HR, the person's function backstop representative, and the Mission will review the selections and make all the assignments.

It's a nerve-wracking process this first time around and a lot of considerations in trying to plan for the future.  We'll see how it all comes out in the end...

In the meantime, happy Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr from USAID Indonesia!
At our Iftar (breaking fast) Celebration

Sunday, July 28, 2013

America at the Mall

The US outreach efforts in Indonesia seek to reach out to the community in new and innovative ways.  With the heavily urbanized nature of Jakarta, US public diplomacy efforts includes a location within a central business district mall to respond to Indonesia's mall culture.

This week, USAID hosted an event at @america to announce winners of a photo contest from various USAID activities.  It was also an opportunity to showcase the work of USAID in a public forum.   The Mission Director hosted the event and even included public media in attendance.  It was a good first event, and hopefully we can continue to improve upon and host future events in the future.

@america holds multiple events every day.  They commonly have embassy staff as speakers on various topics throughout the week to present to school groups.  A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of middle-schoolers about my hometown, a little bit about myself and education, and about the work of USAID.  It was a great experience and I'm hoping to find the time to do it again in the future.

Monday, June 24, 2013

R&R Time

Reaching about the mid-point of my two year assignment in Indonesia, I've been back in the good ol' US on a vacation called R&R (Rest and Recuperation).  I've spent 1 1/2 weeks back home on vacation leave and tied on an essential training back in DC before making my way back to the other side of the globe.

R&R is referred to as an entitlement benefit Foreign Service employees receive which essentially is the benefit of a plane ticket, or cost equivalent, to a specified destination based off of the location of your posting or a plane ticket to the US.  Reference the Foreign Affairs Manual for a more complicated definition.  Generally, the standard assignment receives one R&R benefit every two years.  Some use the ticket for a vacation abroad to another destination, I elected to come back home.  With the combination of R&Rs and Home Leave benefits (I'll explain that sometime next year when I receive it), one could theoretically come back to the US once every year.

Being back home in St. Louis was a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and family as well as over-indulge in every cuisine that isn't possible to be found in Indonesia (Hello White Castle, St. Louis style pizza, great Mexican food, and good Chinese buffets!).  Adding the training to the end of my R&R was also important in order to fulfill the last couple of courses I need to be ready to apply for my warrant in the next couple of months as well as discuss with the Home Office on the upcoming bidding season for where I might be assigned next after Indonesia.

Feeling renewed and ready to get back to the office!  With that, here are some savory things I'm going to miss when going back.
Nothing better.  St. Louis style pizza.
Haven't heard of it?  It's a St. Paul sandwich!
White Castle.  What I craved.
A St. Louis tradition.  Ted Drewes.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Visit to Pyongyang

Yes, that's right.  Took a trip to Pyongyang.  Pyongyang Restaurant that is.

I've been wanting the opportunity to try this restaurant for myself for a while now after hearing many others mention going there.  The Pyongyang Restaurant chain is said to be a North Korean government-run franchise of restaurants offering North Korean cuisine that also serve as North Korea's version of public diplomacy.  Some even rumor that North Korean diplomats work in these restaurants at night as the wait-staff.

I have to admit, if the above is true, it seems effective.  Though I don't believe the wait-staff are "diplomats" in the traditional sense moonlighting at the restaurant, they quite possibly could be diplomats in the sense that they attempt to represent their country in the best light sharing Korean culture.  And if you're going to share your culture, I think the route through food is definitely one of the best approaches!

The waitresses at the Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta wear traditional Korean attire and were very friendly and attentive.  They were all ethnically Korean and we assumed to all be from North Korea.  The restaurant was fairly plainly decorated but featured a performance stage in the restaurant center.
The menu featured a small selection of Korean BBQ meats, many vegetables dishes containing mushrooms, and Korean noodles and soups.  Following ordering, they served several free side dishes (banchan) and our beverages while we awaited for our order to come.
Pyongyang Soju!
Famous Cold Noodles
About mid-way into the meal with half our dishes served, the waitresses in the restaurant went to the stage and began performing.  Following the first performance, they would then take turns between performing and continuing serving guests for about the next half hour.  The songs they performed were a mix of Korean, Chinese, and American songs that could probably be found at any karaoke (in fact, it looked like they were singing from a karaoke machine).

At the end of the meal, after paying and preparing to leave, we asked if we could take a picture with the waitresses.  Instead of just taking the picture at our table, they invited us to come to the stage instead to take a big group picture with them!

I was pretty impressed with the whole experience.  A shame none of us spoke Korean as it would be nice to have been able to try to chat a learn more about their story and the country.  Definitely an interesting approach to public diplomacy and rare opportunity to try North Korean cuisine!

Sunday, March 31, 2013


Aceh, believed to be the area of the spread of Islam in Indonesia, it was also home to the Free Aceh Movement striving for independence.  More recently, it became a location of great international interest following the earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in which an estimated 170,000 people perished. 

Following the tsunami of 2004, Aceh received much assistance from the international community, including from USAID.  The largest investment from USAID was the reconstruction of the Aceh road which links the city with many of their natural resource production areas.  Other investments include the Aceh Polytechnic college which was funded jointly by private-public sector partnership with corporations and USAID.  Today, much of the development assistance has ended with efforts going to other areas.

Islam is very widely practiced in Aceh and the province is occasionally heard in the news as the one province in Indonesia which incorporates Sharia law in legal administration.  The area is sometimes mentioned every so often also for discriminatory or extremist laws or regulations being brought up by local administrations.  However, from just my short time there, life appeared similar to any other smaller town in Indonesia.

I had the opportunity to take my first field trip since joining USAID for a short 3 day trip to Banda Aceh as we accompanied an implementing partner in conducting a survey on banking inclusion and credit access for often under served populations in Indonesia.  For this stage of the survey, we went to banks and credit unions (cooperatives) in the area to interview about their lending practices and the clients whom they serve. 

Banda Aceh's Sultan Iskandar Muda Airport
The interviews were an interesting and daunting exercise of my Indonesian language abilities.  Thankfully, I was with some good Indonesian colleagues that helped with debriefings going over the day's interviews to make sure I was able to capture everything that was discussed.  I also had the chance to discuss project implementation with the implementing partner as a sub-grantee to better understand and learn about the challenges in implementation and develop some ideas and things to consider for the future.

Following this trip, I believe I do need to definitely try to make time to get out to the field more often.  I learned much about this particularly part of the project and developed a lot of understanding on the survey's topic which can greatly help in deciding direction for where this project or future projects should target and consider.  I also learned a lot about how current development projects are implemented and have several ideas on different ways things could be done and some of the problems for how things are implemented today.  And finally, it was nice to be able to see for the first time the results of what our development projects are funding beyond the paperwork.

Below, some pictures of the places we were able to visit and sites we were able to see during the evenings.
This ship was originally used for power generation before the tsunami. The ship was dislocated 3 miles (5 km) from the ocean where it now sits.

This is a displaced fishing boat the landed on a house during the tsunami.

This is the largest mosque in Banda Aceh.
The US-Indonesia Aceh road.
Aceh Polytechnic
Aceh Polytechnic was jointly funded.  Large amounts came from Chevron and USAID.

Trying some famous Aceh coffee.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Catching Up: Work and 2-year Anniversary

Things have been busy these days. Work continues, writing and completing my second annual review (2 years now with USAID!), seeing more and more of Indonesia and Jakarta, and more. 

Working in my office, I've been learning and gaining different experiences that will serve as lessons learned and fundamentals for decisions and judgement calls to be made in the future.  This section of the post will be a bit of a stream of conscious on my impressions with work so far.  Working in the Office of Acquisition and Assistance  has been a very interesting experience and I'm really enjoying it.  There are advantages and disadvantages, of course, when comparing to other different assignments one could have, but I think the former greatly outweigh the latter.

Some particular examples of things I've enjoyed so far:

  • Contracting Officers see almost all of the Mission's portfolio of the projects that are being implemented providing a good understanding and knowledge of how everything fits together and what is being accomplished.
  • Great involvement in key decisions about how development projects are implemented.  Take any sort of development challenge in any area (health, democracy/human rights, environment, education, etc) and work in a team to determine a method, partner with whom, role of USAID, how to make sustainable, etc.
  • Continued involvement throughout the life of the project in its implementation and progress towards results.
  • Building a knowledge base and experiences that will be applicable to any project or assignment in the future.  What I mean by this is that many experience/situations and knowledge learned in this position will be applicable in future assignments.  There are an infinite number of "what-if situations" that routinely emerge and these sort of serve as case studies for decision making and problem analysis for others.
Some disadvantages:
  • With large portfolios and seeing so many projects, can never have the depth of involvement and understanding that technical officers will have for a particular project.  Technical Officers will focus much of their attention on just a few projects and naturally be much more involved and know a lot more about that particular subject matter.
  • Less travel and event attendance.  I wasn't sure whether to categorize this as an advantage or disadvantage because it largely depends on life circumstance and preference.  But Technical Officers spend much more time in the field doing site visits, kick-off events, or accompanying visitors when they want to see projects.  This means much more time spent traveling rather being in the office thus allowing one to see much more of the country on the government's dime, but a lot less time being home.  If you're single, this is most likely a great situation but otherwise, perhaps not as desirable. 
  • Less involvement in the strategy of development programming.  In terms of  specifics of a technical area, Contracting Officers may have less to bring forward as we aren't as knowledgeable to the extent on specific areas.  Rather, we involved more in the "how" rather than the "what" in development and international cooperation.
Looking forward to work to come.  Need another 6 months at the Mission before I can become a "real" Contracting Officer which occurs upon being granted a warrant.   What this essentially means is that I will then be able to award contracts or grants on behalf of the US government at that point versus preparing the documentation and the pre-award work for a warranted officer to sign (though going through this process of preparing everything are essential responsibilities and key skills to have!).

In other news, last week noted my second year anniversary since joining USAID and the Foreign Service.  With this anniversary came my second promotion to class 4.  This now means I enter the regular cycle for annual reviews for the future and will compete among other officers at class 4 competitively for future promotions rather than being evaluated for satisfactory performance to class.

Lastly, was able to take my first field visit to Banda Aceh.  More to come on this!
A boat displayed on a house from the 2004 Tsunami in Banda Aceh
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