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Dickerson in Afghanistan.

Is lack of diversity a factor in our failure in Afghanistan?

COMMENTARY | April 06, 2012

A black man spends 11 months working for USAID in Afghanistan, sees white men flailing around, and wonders if their lack of diversity and inability to achieve their goals may be related.

By Richard Dickerson

In her 2010 Statement on Diversity and Equal Opportunity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “Diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths.” She charged every leader in the department with ensuring "that the workplace for which they are responsible runs on the principles of equity, fairness and inclusion.” And she concluded that "In representing the United States to the world we need a workforce that reflects and respects the rich composition of our nation.”

We do need such a workforce -- but we don't have it.

I arrived at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on August 1, 2010 as an employee of USAID, the independent government agency charged with delivering economic and humanitarian assistance abroad. For the next 11 months, I traveled extensively throughout southern Afghanistan -- visiting Kandahar city, Dand, Helmand, Herat, Uruzgan, Zabul, Panjaway and Kakretz -- working in communications and public outreach.

I had heard a great deal about the talented people who work for the State Department and USAID.  But it did not take long for me to realize that those stories were largely myths. Their lack of diversity was only exceeded by the lack of leadership and competence. Eventually, I began to wonder if the two deficits might be connected.

The people I met who worked with USAID and State were largely white men who defined themselves by how many years they had worked at their agency and the positions they had held. I was struck that few ever spoke of any tangible impact they made.

I participated in numerous meetings in which there would be 40-plus attendees and maybe two or three black people.  After one particular meeting, when USAID staff at Kandahar Airfield briefed senior officials from Washington, I asked whether it was it important for the staff to reflect the makeup of the country. At first, the official from Washington acted as if he did not understand the question, then he attempted to make a joke, and finally he asked what country I was referring.  The next day during a staff meeting a senior USAID official suggested that we should be careful what questions we ask.  I was later told that this was not the time or place to ask this type of question.

But here's what I'm wondering:  When is a good time?  When is a better time than when there are 44 civilians attending a meeting to discuss Afghan policy and how the US government will interact with the Afghan government and its people and there are two black people in the room?

This is not just an academic question. The U.S. government has been in Afghanistan for more than 10 years, with white men consistently in charge. In my mind, lack of diversity is one of the reasons our policy initiatives keep failing.

When you constantly pick the same people with similar backgrounds to serve and lead, it's hard for new and different ideas to be considered -- or even discussed. In Afghanistan, I repeatedly recognized a lack of creativity in examining solutions and  problems. And when the vast majority of the staff have similar backgrounds, it's easy for groupthink to set in. There is a value to different perspectives that come from different experiences, including a minority experience. A greater diversity of backgrounds, for instance, would be more receptive to questions.

One case in point: The people I worked with didn't seem to understand the importance of religion in the lives of Afghans. But I, a black man of the South, recognized it as something that could help the mission. I eventually spent a significant amount of time working on religious outreach. The religious leaders were the most credible messengers, and if we were going to reach the masses we needed to have a dialogue with the religious leaders.  It’s been 11 years now; does the U.S. government have a religious engagement plan for Afghanistan?  If not, why not?  What resources, including people, time and money have been allocated for a religious engagement program?

I saw an inordinate amount of time spent discussing poorly-performing programs. I suggested that we should immediately terminate those programs which were not working.  We were cutting and reducing programs at home, so this seemed like a fairly logical suggestion. But there was no willingness to even entertain the idea. It is clear in retrospect that USAID tried to run too many programs at the same time, and failed miserably to monitor or provide metrics that would fairly measure their effectiveness.

That could also be result of another problem: For many of the bureaucrats I’m talking about, there seemed to be little true interest in policy issues, success of the mission, or even what the mission was. For them, the pay, the perks, and the prestige of their Afghanistan assignments were better than they had at home. 

Finally, there's another way in which the lack of diversity harms the mission: The failure to have a diverse presence in Afghanistan provides ample evidence to those who oppose American policy that America doesn't practice what it preaches. Even the illiterate know that America is more than middle aged white men.

What message is the U.S. sending to the world when the overwhelming majority of staffers in the agencies charged with implementing US foreign policy are white men?  Do white men have some peculiar talent and ability that will allow them to be successful in the pursuit and development of foreign policy and international development? The results of the last 10 years in Afghanistan suggest, if anything, the opposite.

Lessons from Iran
Posted by Henry Pelifian
04/06/2012, 03:45 PM

"Lessons From Iran,77-78" first published by History News Network is about my experience in Iran discussing "culture shock" among Americans. The lack of cross-cultural training was a factor that generated the anti-American sentiment. So, the lack of diversity of Americans able to work successfully overseas was a missing critical factor. Link from Open Salon with excellent graphic.

http://open.salon.com/blog/addisonpg/2012/02/22/le ...

Posted by David Youngblood
04/06/2012, 08:31 PM

Excellent points Mr. Dickerson. I only hope the admnistration is listening.

Posted by Chris Colbow
04/07/2012, 08:07 AM


Totally agree with you on the whole "group mentality" you speak of, and the lack of diversity at the senior ranks but from a background perspective not one of skin color, I don't think the solution in Afghanistan is more black men and women, if that is what you were implying. I might have misunderstood. There are more white men in the foreign policy circles because the majority of people willing to dedicate their life to such a career are white. It's really that simple.

Posted by John Poindexter
04/09/2012, 10:43 AM

Rita Mae Brown once wrote Insanity is "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.." and that is exactly what we are doing in Afghanistan implementing the same policies and strategies an expecting different results.There is still the same atmosphere of distrust and hatred towards this country that fostered the rise of radical extremist groups. Its just as dangerous for our soldiers as its ever been.

How about we address the real problem?
Posted by Phineas Gage
04/11/2012, 04:27 AM

I've spent a number of years working in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the most ill-conceived projects I've seen have been led by blacks, Indian-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc. Yes, there are more white people, but I fail to see how the color of someone's skin determines their ability to understand foreign cultures and conduct international development.

How about we start staffing overseas missions with people who speak the local languages and understand the culture? Or forget language skills. Why not just get people whose qualifications extend beyond a willingness to live in uncomfortable places? Once we accomplish that, we can start talking about what color aid workers that attracts.

As it is, Mr. Dickerson's points are valid about race in America -- we do need more diversity -- but if he thinks diversity is the key to saving the Afghanistan mission, I can only think that somewhere in Kandahar another USAID project is missing one of its many idiots.

Retired ex-patriot (not a misspelling) living in Taiwan
Posted by Michael Murry
04/13/2012, 12:05 AM

I have waited decades for the opportunity to share this experience with others.

I spent six years in the U.S. military, which service included a year of Vietnamese foreign language study and counter-insurgency training before deploying for another year-and-a-half as an interpreter/translator in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72).

Upon returning from Vietnam and resuming my interrupted college education, I spent another year-and-a-half as a foreign exchange student in Taiwan studying Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. After finally graduating from California State University, Long Beach in 1977 (with a BA in Economics and a minor in Asian Studies), I interviewed with a recruiter from the State Department regarding a possible career as a Foreign Service Officer. I thought I had the best resume and life experience that any foreign service would want. But with a brutal honesty that no official of our current government would ever display, he told me, in words I will never forget:

"You have obviously prepared yourself as well as anybody I've ever seen. But I came out here to the West Coast to recruit minorities so that we can demonstrate to the world the diversity of our population. We get all our white guys from Ivy League schools like Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. I can't go back and tell my boss that I came 3,000 miles only to return with another white guy who speaks three Asian languages."

"What other one?" I felt like asking, but didn't bother. Apparently, people in the State Department thought that the California State University system only produced minority-colored faces and not any "white guys" with genuine life experience, demonstrated linguistic competence and a cross-cultural understanding that one can only attain through living and speaking with foreign persons on a daily basis for years.

I could have told anyone, in any government, what a colossal failure Iraq and Afghanistan would become, and why. And I never met a single African American or Hispanic American in all my experience who had any more knowledge about or experience with imperial boondoggles than I had. But my West-Coast white skin ruled me out of consideration.

Just as well, for I would have wound up resigning in disgust like Matthew Hoh, another experienced but disregarded white guy. Bureaucratic stupidity comes in all colors and genders as Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have demonstrated conclusively. You can't do a wrong thing the right way.

Only a minor factor: what about respect and consideration
Posted by Nazila
04/18/2012, 08:38 AM

Thank you Mr. Dickerson for your brilliant article, It is definitely a factor that need to be considered and addressed.

However let me address some points that I think are relevant and never properly addressed. Why Americans do never consider the simple fact that they have not been 'invited' in Afghanistan neither in Iraq. Who gave them the right to come and invade a country? Without any consideration for the intentions (that are discussable) it is an interference in a foreign country and an insult for the people of the same country. Especially given the past history of the country and the role American played in putting people in power.

Who supported Saddam Hussein for so many year even given him weapons to fight Iran that they attacked for no reason. How many of my dear Iranian brothers died fighting the most inhuman dictator in the world strongly supported, financially and politically, by the US? And now Americans dare talking about invading Iran. Who do they think they are? Who asked you to make a coup in my country in 1953 to remove the only ever democratically elected prime minister (Mossadegh)?

Probably the situation we have today in the Middle East is also due to too much interference in the past from the West and especially the US. This broad idea of Orientalism where Middle Eastern are considered as less than human than Westerners, we tend to forget that civilisation was born in Iraq, that Baghdad and Kabul were chic and rich cities when London was the most dirty place on earth and NY was just... nothing...

Plus we shouldn't not forget the series of 'incident' that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq; burning the holy Quran, peeing on dead body, torturing prisoners, and so on. Giving this situation, t seems pretty much impossible to work as an American for 'democracy' in Afghanistan or Iraq, whether black or white....

Thank you,
An Iranian, Italian, Swiss citizen working at the UN in Nairobi

Posted by John Deutsch
05/16/2012, 02:51 PM

Richard I didn't know if that was you but when I began reading your commentary I knew it could be no one other. At first, I wanted to take this opportunity to berate you for failing to pay me for work I performed, but I could recall any. As far as I know, you can post without fear of guerilla attacks from unpaid organizers.

Sure, people appreciate you when the black community needs organizing, but then only when the needs are clear, the clock is running down, and everyone accepts that there's little time for consensus building. When the situation calls for an emergency manager, you're an excellent choice. When the budgets are larger and the timeline is longer and the path less clear, everything you do can snarl the process.

Now I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't be working in the field. It's just that USAID needs to make better use of your skill than to have you perform as entertainment to the senior executives.

Get the daily messaging analysis that was done in the mid-00s in Baghdad. Routinely, they measured the amount of anti-American rhetoric from the Imams and their perceived credibility. They found that the worse the religious leaders spoke of America, the more credible they sounded with the rank and file. How do you undo that dynamic?

And if you're wondering why there are so many white guys in the field with you, it is because the Afghanis know the same thing you know. The television blacks and media politicians never appear at the local meetings. The money and the power walks into the room when the white man swaggers through the doorway and clears his throat.

Richard, you can play a role too when you swagger along with the plan.

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