In her 2010 Statement on Diversity and Equal Opportunity, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “Diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths.” She charged every leader in the department with ensuring “that the workplace for which they are responsible runs on the principles of equity, fairness and inclusion.” And she concluded that “In representing the United States to the world we need a workforce that reflects and respects the rich composition of our nation.”
We do need such a workforce—but we don’t have it.
I arrived at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on August 1, 2010 as an employee of USAID, the independent government agency charged with delivering economic and humanitarian assistance abroad. For the next 11 months, I traveled extensively throughout southern Afghanistan—visiting Kandahar city, Dand, Helmand, Herat, Uruzgan, Zabul, Panjaway and Kakretz—working in communications and public outreach.
I had heard a great deal about the talented people who work for the State Department and USAID. But it did not take long for me to realize that those stories were largely myths. Their lack of diversity was only exceeded by the lack of leadership and competence. Eventually, I began to wonder if the two deficits might be connected.
I participated in numerous meetings in which there would be 40-plus attendees and maybe two or three black people. After one particular meeting, when USAID staff at Kandahar Airfield briefed senior officials from Washington, I asked whether it was it important for the staff to reflect the makeup of the country. At first, the official from Washington acted as if he did not understand the question, then he attempted to make a joke, and finally he asked what country I was referring. The next day during a staff meeting a senior USAID official suggested that we should be careful what questions we ask. I was later told that this was not the time or place to ask this type of question.
But here’s what I’m wondering: When is a good time? When is a better time than when there are 44 civilians attending a meeting to discuss Afghan policy and how the US government will interact with the Afghan government and its people and there are two black people in the room?
This is not just an academic question. The U.S. government has been in Afghanistan for more than 10 years, with white men consistently in charge. In my mind, lack of diversity is one of the reasons our policy initiatives keep failing.
When you constantly pick the same people with similar backgrounds to serve and lead, it’s hard for new and different ideas to be considered—or even discussed. In Afghanistan, I repeatedly recognized a lack of creativity in examining solutions and problems. And when the vast majority of the staff have similar backgrounds, it’s easy for groupthink to set in. There is a value to different perspectives that come from different experiences, including a minority experience. A greater diversity of backgrounds, for instance, would be more receptive to questions.