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Diplomacy at Work

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The U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. Photo by Elizabeth Gill Lui.


By Laura Chandler

PRETORIA--It is a hot day in the executive capital of South Africa.

The sun is pounding down on the ground, melting the pieces of plastic scattered around the busy street and taking people's energy with it. The crowded streets are covered in slow-moving traffic, horns blasting as people rush to make their appointments. In a 15-seater van high above the ground, our group looks out at Pretoria with fresh, eager eyes, taking in every new sight in this unfamiliar location.

We blend with the tourist groups, taxis, and professionals, going to meet with three officers in the U.S. Embassy to South Africa. Our time here has been filled with meetings and connecting to South Africans on a personal level: hearing their stories, hopes for the future, and current challenges. This is our opportunity to hear what our home country is doing to help.

We arrive at the embassy as weary travelers, entering a garden paradise protected by steel and machinery. It takes 20 minutes to get through the extensive security measures.

Finally, arriving inside the warren of windowless offices, we are greeted with reminders of the United States. Everyone speaks English in familiar accents, the fashion is undoubtedly Western, and the offices have the feel of cold professionalism that characterizes U.S. enterprises. The only sign of our location is an outlet with a South African design, sharply reminding the group that we may have entered U.S. territory, but we are still in foreign land.

Going into our meeting is an official-feeling process, three officers coming to formally shake our hands. It is very different from the warm greetings and casual personal remarks that have begun our meetings with local groups.

This is our time to find out how the U.S. views South Africa and the main challenges the country has to address.

In talks with people on the ground, I have heard that the educational system and the abject income disparity among the population are two critical issues.

The embassy does not see it that way.

Aid to South Africa is small in comparison with the aid being devoted to sub-Saharan Africa, according to Blake Chrystal, an officer of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Despite the problems here, South Africa is still a middle-income country.

"I think that South Africa stands alone on the continent as having the best infrastructure and development," says Heather Goethert, an economics officer for the embassy.

However, South Africa's issues of income disparity and chronic unemployment are not being addressed through the spending of the USAID budget.

According to Chrystal, $600 million of the budget is going towards HIV prevention work through the the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). While this work is vastly important, in comparison, only $30 million is being spent per year on educational programs.

Chrystal says South Africa is moving to a system of preventative care. Spending more on education in schools could combine prevention and academic efforts. Keeping the majority of money only in the HIV prevention work is ignoring the impact that education has on preventing these health crises.

He says the government's main problem "is really more on how the money is spent." South Africa has the money available to fix the educational issues, but in some cases the materials never make it to the schools.

Last year, $40 billion was misspent in South Africa in the fields of health and education, says Chrystal. The amount of money South Africa is spending on their education per student is more than any other African country, but their results are poor. Most money never makes it to the intended recipient.

The embassy focuses more on policy advocacy and persuading the government on how they can fix the country's issues, say the diplomats.

"It's about how we engage and the conversations that we have," says Chrystal. The embassy engages with a lot of partners, businesses, and what they call "pressure points" to attempt to sway the South African government.

I left recalling the words of Elvis Presley: "a little less conversation, a little more action please."


Posted by South Africa Group on May 18, 2014 1:44 AM
Category: South Africa 2014


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