BY ERIC RUBIN
As I noted in my April column celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, our Foreign Service is so much stronger and more capable because of its diversity: among the foreign affairs agencies, within the agencies, and in the makeup of the Foreign Service itself. On the latter front, we need a lot more diversity, and AFSA is determined to do its part to achieve the needed reforms and changes.
The Foreign Service is and must be “one family,” all working together in service to our country. One critical element is the inclusion, support and protection of our local employees oversees, traditionally known as Foreign Service Nationals, but now officially called locally employed (LE) staff by the State Department.
There is a long list of things that our Foreign Service Nationals need and deserve, but do not have. One is a guaranteed retirement income. State has been talking for years about a global LE staff pension plan, but there still is none. There has also been talk of including LE staff in the federal Thrift Savings Plan, but that would require legislative action and would be an expensive and heavy lift. As a result, our local staff in affluent countries with good national pension systems can retire with real guaranteed income for their later years. Our staff in the rest of the world cannot.
We do provide health insurance to local staff across the globe (we did not always do so), and it is usually a big improvement over the bare-minimum national insurance plans in most countries. But again, LE staff in rich countries with top-notch medical care tend to receive better care than those in poorer and less developed parts of the world. That is not surprising, but it is a concern that should continue to be addressed.
And then we come to the question of protection. Our regular emergency action planning exercises and training usually give scant attention to the safety and well-being of our local staff in the event of a natural disaster, war, civil conflict or revolution, even as we, ironically, often call upon them to support a U.S. response.
In just the past year, we have had two major crises—in Afghanistan and Ukraine—illustrating that not enough attention, planning and forethought was paid to what would happen to our local colleagues if and when we evacuated our American staff and family members.
In regard to the Kabul evacuation, Secretary Blinken has created a senior panel of experts (headed by former Acting Secretary of State Dan Smith) to determine what we could have done better—and what we should do better next time. I expect the report will confirm that the previous and current administrations moved too slowly to process the thousands of Special Immigrant Visa applications for our local Afghan staff and for those who served as interpreters and facilitators for the U.S. military.
By the time the full U.S. withdrawal was underway, there was no possibility to complete the cumbersome bureaucratic processes quickly. We took out as many colleagues as we could in the largest human airlift in history, truly a heroic accomplishment.
But we clearly should have fixed the SIV process long before the U.S. left Afghanistan. We also need to do more to help those LE staff who do make it to the U.S.
In Ukraine, many of our local colleagues in Kyiv—some with more than 30 years of service to our country and including the leadership of the official LE staff committee—voiced feeling abandoned, and their concerns were amplified by AFSA and the media.
We must do better. We must take care of our people. We have to start making changes now to ensure that our planning reflects the need to do our utmost for our local staff, our FSN colleagues. They are an indispensable part of our Foreign Service family, and we must do more to ensure that they are treated that way.