The Foreign Service Journal, October 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2023 59 Contact: | (202) 841-7744 FAS VP VOICE | BY LISA AHRAMJIAN AFSA NEWS Small but Mighty, Not More with Less When describing the Foreign Agricultural Service, I often use the phrase “small but mighty.” Our team of less than 150 Foreign Service officers helped facilitate a record $196 billion in U.S. agricultural exports in 2022. Over the years, we’ve had to do more with less; compared to three decades ago, we have 25 percent fewer FSOs facilitating four times the value of U.S. ag exports, requiring an outsize effort that takes a toll. U.S. industry groups have always counted on us to influence host government policies and provide detailed market intelligence, while also implementing wideranging local programming. More recently, our scope has expanded to include ethanol, food security, and agricultural innovation to help foreign farmers adapt to climate change and develop markets for sustainable U.S. products—without new staffing or funding. Our efforts now range from school feeding programs in least developed countries to savvy marketing campaigns in the most advanced social media markets. As FAS prepares to identify significant budget cuts for an unknown duration, it will face tough decisions on how to prioritize its waning resources. Having less means we must be more intentional about what we fund and why. As those who have worked in or with FAS know, it is not that agricultural trade has gotten less political, less complex, or “easier.” Quite the opposite—gaining market access can take more than a decade of creativity and persistence, and maintaining exports is often a result of persistence in the underappreciated game of whack-a-mole with emerging trade barriers. To take advantage of emerging opportunities for U.S. agriculture abroad without sacrificing past gains will be extremely difficult with a static number of FSOs. FAS is already stretched very thin, with many FSOs covering several countries in a region. One FSO currently covers 25 markets in the Caribbean basin, including Cuba, and only 11 FSOs cover the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In this limited budget environment, I am pushing for no reduction in overseas budgets for travel and postorganized activities. Regional coverage only works if FSOs can meet in-person with their local staff, host government officials, farmers, and traders in their countries of responsibility. In addition, it would be a huge loss if overseas offices didn’t have sufficient funding to organize in-country activities to market U.S. ag products and address policy issues. These activities are at the heart of what FAS does and directly benefit the U.S. stakeholders we exist to support. I recognize that this approach—while in FAS’ best interest—could force tough reductions for some more recent programs. However, this is a great opportunity to refocus our reduced funding on the essential services the agency provides to stakeholders and make sure that our budget, too, is “small but mighty.” In addition, the agency should prioritize areas of work/life balance that do not require additional financial outlays. For example, it could significantly reduce the administrative burden facing overseas FSOs by filling vacant headquarters positions with personnel who could provide budgetary and other support. This would align with President Joe Biden’s directive to chiefs of mission: “Unless a clear benefit to the U.S. government justifies otherwise, all functions that can be performed effectively and efficiently by personnel domestically or at regional offices overseas should be performed in those locations.” Overseas personnel could then focus their time on mission-critical efforts that must occur overseas. In the current job market, not addressing these issues could exacerbate attrition and jeopardize the future of our Foreign Service. It is notable that 9 percent of our FSOs began their first overseas tour after September 2022. While these new FSOs bring much talent to the table, it is alarming that we also lost 10 percent of FSOs (collectively representing more than 400 years of government service) over the same period. Significantly, half of the losses were the result of voluntary—not mandatory—retirement. While some increased attrition may be generational, we know burnout from years of doing much more with less and the lack of designated HQ positions for FSOs play a role. However, FAS has a unique opportunity to address these issues. Redirecting budgets toward our core functions and the employees who carry them out would also offer a better work/life balance for employees who have grown weary from years of doing more with less. Such a refocus would help the Foreign Service continue to be a competitive career for the talented, and increasingly diverse, workforce we have recruited and trained. It would also demonstrate that leadership truly values those who deliver wins for our stakeholders, often in very challenging circumstances. While budgetary constraints may force us to remain small, these changes would help us deliver even mightier results. n