The Foreign Service Journal, September 2012

A s your watchdog, I amconstantly on the lookout for assaults to our pro- fession. At AFSA, we believe that Foreign Service officers fromall fivemem- ber agencies — the Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, Foreign Agricultural Service, Foreign Commercial Service and the International Broadcasting Bureau—should have equal standing, status, opportunities, privileges and responsibilities, along with the trust reposed in us by the president of the United States, who ultimately commissions us for the job. USAIDForeign Service officers are expected to achieve high levels of professionalismand competency comparable to those at the State Department, our closest sister agency. However, I recently became aware of a potential move by theUSAIDOffice of Human Resources to lower our professional standards. It seems that HR is looking at the possibility of diluting the lan- guage requirement for tenure in aUSAIDCategory A language (French, Spanish or Portuguese) from a Speaking 3/Reading 3 (S-3, R-3) level to an S-2, R-2 level. They cite three justifica- tions for the proposed change: cost savings; the difficulty some administrative programsupport officers have achieving current language levels; and better coordination of language skills with an ultimate assignment. In my view, all of these are weak rea- sons for modifying a system that has worked well for several decades. The language tenure requirement for an S-3, R-3 level (pro- fessional working proficiency) has been around since the late 1970s, and only a handful of the thousands of newofficers have not met the required levels. Achieving the current standard is just part of being a well-rounded FSO, and I know of no one who regrets having learned foreign languages. Our FSO work force must be agile, physically and mentally, because we are called on to serve, sometimes unexpectedly, in many dif- ferent environments where having language abilities make us more useful —whether immediately or in the future. Inmy previous AFSANews columns, I have pointed out that USAID FSOs are being made to feel like second-class employ- ees by the agency, which pays lower entry-level salaries com- pared to similarly qualified StateDepartment new-entry employ- ees. Now, it seems, USAID FSOs are being targeted for fewer training opportunities overall, as evidenced by the proposed lowering of tenure require- ments. While, on the surface, saving money seems to be in everyone’s interest, the real result of the proposed change will be the opposite—a waste of funds and resources. Personal experience tells me that on a pro- fessional level an S-2, R-2 language level, which is classified as “Limited Working Proficiency,” is close to useless overseas. An officer working at that level will not have the ability to function competently with host country counterparts. Funding a mere 20 weeks of lan- guage training at the Foreign Service Institute, then sending FSOs to a foreign country where they are barely functional in the lan- guage is akin to pushing someone off the plane with half a para- chute. It makes much more sense to invest in an additional four weeks of training to achieve the S-3, R-3 level. HR has proposed that officers be tenured at the S-2, R-2 level and then go on to reach higher language levels once they are at their newpost. However, AFSA has heard of many FSOs who have followed that route, only to become too involved in their day-to-day job to engage in serious language study. In addition, there is no guarantee that the quality of instruction overseas will meet the standards of FSI, the ultimate judge of competency. The overwhelming majority of USAID FSOs have consis- tently and successfully achieved tenurewithin a foreign language at the presently required levels. There is no reason to lower the standards for the needs of a few FSOs — fewer than 5 percent — who have difficulty with foreign languages. This can only result in amuch larger group of officers being sent to post bare- ly qualified in the host-country language and thus at risk of becoming isolated from the societies in which they work. Diplomats must be skilled in foreign languages, and high- ly skilled at that. Professionally, our goal should be to reach for higher levels of language skills in our work force. We at USAID are not second-rate employees. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 is clear: “Foreign Service posts abroadwill be staffed by individuals who have a useful knowledge of the language or dialect common to the country in which the post is located.” That includes USAID FSOs. After all, you get what you pay for. V.P. VOICE: USAID BY FRANCISCO ZAMORA Language and Tenure: You Get What You Pay For Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA USAID VP. 56 F OR E I GN S E R V I C E J OU R N A L / S E P T EMB E R 2 0 1 2 A F S A N E W S Professionally, our goal should be to reach for higher levels of language skills in our work force. We at USAID are not second-rate employees.