Monday, December 1, 2008

Time for a Real Post of the Month?

TSB over at The Skeptical Bureaucrat recently wrote Where The Pants Are Not Striped, and Cookies Are Not Pushed (thanks for the inline mention TSB!) in response to the article on the Overseas Pay Gap. You can read the original WaPo article here and a couple of blog posts here and here. TSB noted that the official mentioned in the WaPo article had served in the Central African Republic and went on to give us an enviable peek of life in the CAR. I honestly wished this one was included in that WaPo article to give that piece some super smackeroo jumperoo flavor:

I normally object to the term 'third world hell-hole,' but in the case of the CAR it applies, and then some. First of all, the place is isolated. Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel Heart of Darkness about a scary expedition up the Congo River to the uncharted center of the Dark Continent, but that Belgian trading post where his protagonist met Mr. Kurtz wasn't the true center. If you go up the Congo River to Conrad's metaphorical Heart of Darkness and then keep going, you will reach its tributary, the Oubangui River, and eventually arrive at the true center of Africa in Bangui, capital city of the CAR. Even by air, the CAR is isolated, with only a few weekly flights. On the day I was due to leave, I didn't bother going to the airport, since flight schedules meant less than nothing, but instead stayed at the embassy through the night and occasionally called the airport control tower to ask if they saw a plane on their radar yet.

Having seen the U.S. embassy offices and houses in Bangui, and experienced the difficulties and uncertainties of simply getting there and back, I can assure my fellow Americans that Senator Coburn's lowliest intern wouldn't want to trade life styles with the most senior diplomat there, even with the housing allowance. Much less would he want to trade places with the diplomats in the hot-spot that I was happy to drive away from at high speed last week.

Maybe there should be a Truth Squad counterpart to State Magazine's happy-talk Post of the Month feature?

I thought once that a Post Crisis of the Month page would be appropriate. But that might be a bit too much - so how about a Real Post of the Month? Last month while the Somalian pirates were all over the news, and while Peshawar was on the target mark, we had Belfast for Post of the Month. Belfast! In October, we had Amsterdam (Beyond Canals and Tulips). I recognized that the magazine has a lead up of approximately two months but some of those entries could be postponed for 3-6 months and it won't make a difference except ruin the editorial calendar.

And really, all this "happy-talk" is not doing us any favors; they need to rethink the purpose of that rag. After reading this staple magazine feature, one critic accused our diplomats of living in an alternate universe:

"The State Department's in-house magazine, State, records the sheer inanity that is a staple of Foreign Service thinking. Each issue highlights a "post of the month" in which diplomats describe their home away from home. The essays would make local tourism boards proud, but they also provide a mirror into the alternate universe inhabited by all too many U.S. diplomats."

The thing is - if the State Magazine is all you read, and you like the glossy pictures of nice places , then you might think that sure, these diplomats are living in a dream. And do we really want to bridge that overseas pay gap when they already live in those dream houses, and in those dream places, and have Mr/Ms McDreamy lives?

Perhaps this rag is a useful tool for prospective bidders, but you can google just about anything these days (except perhaps the promotion potential). So to think that all this gloss would help folks make up their minds whether they want to work in Timbuktu or wherever, is kind of missing the whole point. And it's a missed opportunity - of letting our folks tell their stories of what's it really like to live in those places - the challenges of doing one's work in cities with underdeveloped infrastructures, in places where physical security limits movement, where health consideration makes daily living a challenge especially for families with small children, including what's it like to have "careers" as accompanying spouses and partners in this day and age, and etc.etc. It doesn't mean we can't have fun in those miserable places - it just means it can't all be "happy-talk." I supposed folks do not want to be perceived as doing "whine and cheese." But telling the real story of living overseas is not whiny. We tell those stories to family and friends all the time, and to a certain degree in our travel warnings and those country guides. We just have not been successful in putting a face with those realities for public consumption. Below is a quick list of posts featured in State Mag's Post of the Month for 2008:

January: Cotonou: Friendly Beauty Authored by six members of the mission including the Ambassador. Here is its lead paragraph: "The small but productive U.S. Mission offers its staff great responsibility, particularly entry-level officers and Foreign Service specialists, and has promotion opportunities. Reflecting this, five members of the embassy team (four officers and the Ambassador’s office management specialist) were promoted in 2007." February: Recife: Small Consulate Covers Brazil’s Booming Northeast

March: Yaounde (Cameroon) Diversity Creates Africa in Miniature

April: Bratislava Creative Energy in New Europe

May: Asuncion, South America’s Mother of Cities. Air travel is difficult in and out of the country, with no direct flights to the United States, and mail deliveries and shipments are infrequent. Scarcity of job opportunities and the language barrier limit employment opportunities for spouses. June: Seoul: Glittering Jewel of the Korean Peninsula

July/August: Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea Links Forged in War Strengthen in Peacetime

September: Jeddah The city took center stage in the global energy crisis when 72 oil-producing and oilconsuming nations, including the United States, sent highlevel delegations to Jeddah to attend the Kingdom’s emergency oil summit in June.

October: Amsterdam, Beyond Canals and Tulips November: Belfast, U.S. helps forge peace in Northern Ireland "The city was known for its shipbuilding prowess and eventually gained notoriety as the birthplace of the Titanic. “It was fine when it left here,” locals point out. Enhancing economic ties remains a core mission of the consulate. In 1995, President Bill Clinton made a historic visit to Northern Ireland, the first by a sitting president. He was greeted by tens of thousands of people lining the streets and waving American flags."

1995! That's 13 years ago and we're still talking about Bill Clinton? They're not all "happy talk" admittedly but some are more, how should I say it - more real than others. Perhaps it is time for a Real Post of the Month? Any of the FS bloggers interested to do this as a round-robbin task for the next year? Maybe I should start with one post this month but let me know if you’re interested in doing a Real Post or two. There's a host of hot spots that need the reality squad: Mumbai, Peshawar, Karachi, Bangkok, Bogota, to start with. Anyone out there interested in writing the lead article for a specific post, send me an email.

Related Post: Wanted: Post Crisis of the Month Page

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