[lg policy] GAO report finds US State Department language skills dangerously lacking

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 23 17:30:47 UTC 2009

Exclusive: GAO report finds State Department language skills dangerously lacking

Tue, 09/22/2009 - 12:31pm

 About a third of Foreign Service officers in jobs that require
language skills don't have the proficiency required to do their jobs,
hurting America's ability to advocate its interests around the world,
according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. The
report, which has not yet been released, but was obtained by The
Cable, spells out the consequences of having a Foreign Service that in
many cases can't communicate with local officials or populations,
relies too heavily on local staff for critical functions, and can't
respond to bad press when it appears in foreign languages.Substandard
skills were found in people holding 31 percent of the approximately
3,600 jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, known
as language-designated positions, up from 29 percent in 2005. In
critically important regions such as the Near East and South and
Central Asia, that number rises to 40 percent.

In one particularly damning instance, the report states, "An officer
at a post of strategic interest said because she did not speak the
language, she had transferred a sensitive telephone call from a local
informant to a local employee, which could have compromised the
informant's identity." In the warzones, the problem is much more
pronounced. Thirty-three of 45 officers in language-designated
positions in Afghanistan, or 73 percent, didn't meet the requirement.
In Iraq, 8 of 14 officers or 57 percent lacked sufficient language
skills. Deficiencies in what GAO calls "supercritical" languages, such
as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent. Forty-three percent of
officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the
requirements of their positions, nor do 66 percent of officers in Dari
positions, 50 percent in Urdu (two languages widely spoken in South
Asia), or 38 percent in Farsi (which is mostly spoken in Iran).

Meanwhile, a large portion of State Department posts in dangerous
countries are vacant, the GAO says in another report. Both reports are
expected to be released later today or tomorrow, and paint a picture
of a diplomatic service badly in need of increased attention and
oversight. "We cannot effectively sway our allies or adversaries if we
do not speak their language," said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, the chairman
of the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Oversight of
Government Management subcommittee, which commissioned the report.
"Staffing hardship posts will always be a challenge, but President
Obama has called on the United States to re-engage the world and State
must fix these chronic foreign language and staffing shortfalls."

Some of the anecdotal examples of the consequences of the deficiencies
are shocking:

In China, officials told us that the officers in China with
insufficient language skills get only half the story on issues of
interest, as they receive only the official party line and are unable
to communicate with researchers and academics, many of whom do not
speak English.
The deputy chief of mission in Ankara said that officers who do not
have sufficient Turkish skills are reading English-language newspapers
rather than what Turks are reading, further limiting their insight
into what is happening in the country.
In Shenyang, a Chinese city close to the border with North Korea, the
consul general told us that reporting about issues along the border
had suffered because of language shortfalls.

A security officer in Cairo said that without language skills,
officers do not have any "juice"-that is, the ability to influence
people they are trying to elicit information from.
The State Department blames the poor figures on staffing shortages and
the recent increase of language-intensive positions, according to the
report. Three hundred new language trainers were funded in State's
fiscal 2009 budget and 200 more are on the way in 2010 funds. But even
with those additions, State says it won't be able to start moving in
the right direction until 2011.

"Given the recent increase of resources, the State Department has the
unique opportunity to address concerns that have been overlooked for
far too long," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, the panel's ranking
Republican, "The department must take advantage of this situation and
plan strategically to meet short- and long-term diplomatic needs."

Each year since 2005, State has reported that 80 percent of employees
assigned to vacant positions met language requirements, but that
figure is "misleading and overstates the actual language proficiency
of FSOs in language-designated positions," according to the GAO,
because State counts people who are just in training, not only those
that have completed training successfully.

One thing that might help would be a strategic plan for addressing
this problem, the GAO noted, but none exists.

In addition to its problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State
Department isn't even properly staffing positions in these areas where
the U.S. could be engaged military, what are known as "hardship
posts," the GAO found. Seventeen percent of slots vacant in the
thorniest places and 34 percent of "mid-level generalist" positions in
severely dangerous locations are filled by people who aren't really
qualified for that role.The most potentially hazardous assignments are
in places like Beirut, Nairobi, Baghdad, and Kabul. The State
Department offers a range of incentives for personnel to brave these
dangers, but there's no evaluation to determine whether these
incentives are working.

"Staffing and experience gaps at hardship posts can diminish
diplomatic readiness in a variety of ways," the GAO report stated,
"including by reducing reporting coverage, weakening institutional
knowledge, and increasing the supervisory burden on senior staff."


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