Civilian Response: Lessons From Bangladesh

January 14, 2011
Children Walk to Class in Bangladesh

About the Author: Adam Graham-Silverman serves in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization.

Thanks to help from the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh has adopted a whole-of-government approach to planning and programs that has resulted in strengthened cooperation among all the U.S. agencies and departments present in Dhaka. After using their whole-of-government plan as a guiding framework over the last two years, the plan and the process have been integrated into the Embassy's daily operations -- much to the benefit of the mission. U.S. Embassy Dhaka Political and Economic Counselor Jon Danilowicz sat down with me to discuss the impact of this approach.

Can you describe what the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) provides in terms of strategic planning?

It starts with doing a deliberate assessment of the environment, then identifying what the U.S. goals are in the country, analyzing where things would likely go without U.S. government involvement, and seeing what we can do with our resources. It's a management tool. The focus is still what the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. government is doing in Bangladesh.

It's a much more robust, dynamic process than normal State Department planning. It has caused people to challenge some assumptions about what it is that diplomats do, [because what this plan has led us to do is, again, what the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review certainly seems to be leading us to, is toward a more operational State Department and Foreign Service.

How has the planning process changed the way the Embassy works?

After two years it's become almost second nature to the Embassy. It's assumed that when we're working on an issue or set of issues that we're going to approach it from an interagency perspective. We're going to do it with an overarching goal in mind, and we're going to bring to bear the resources and comparative advantages of the U.S. government.

What we've been able to do is see planning as more of a continuing process, and to very much align our Embassy operations with the plan. For example, every two weeks, each of our Embassy working groups meets and basically assesses what we're doing to achieve objectives. What the plan then becomes is not just something on a shelf but the framework on which the Embassy operates on a normal basis.

Bangladesh is not immersed in an active conflict or a major disaster. Why was it still a good candidate for this type of work?

The process focused on conflict prevention. I think for all of the success that it's had over the years, Bangladesh is in many ways still a fairly fragile democracy. Bangladesh is a unique environment where we have a lot of development actors. The U.S. is trying to identify a leading role for itself in trying to move the broader donor community behind a country-led strategy to address these fundamental issues.

I think the goal that we've set out for ourselves -- a democratic Bangladesh that is more prosperous and playing a positive role regionally and globally -- is something that will impact the lives of the average Bangladeshi.

Why do you think that the Embassy has embraced this approach and kept it going for two years?

The Ambassador from the beginning made it clear to everyone that it was something that he valued, was important, a living tool for guiding the Embassy forward. Part of it is to give responsibility and ownership to those people most directly involved in implementing the programs that fall under each of the objectives.

Have some of your successes made their way back to Washington and informed work we do here?

It seems that some of the practices that we've developed have very much made their way into the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). For example, an emphasis on national[-level] planning on a multi-year basis, getting away from the State Department tradition of planning one year at a time. Another example is how to integrate different agencies or a whole-of-government approach, how a development strategy fits within a whole country. The focus in the QDDR on strengthening that interagency coordination overseas has been something that we've been doing throughout.

How would you explain to colleagues in other Embassies that this is worthwhile?

If you do this right, the investment you make up front more than pays for itself over time. I think the key thing is to recognize that planning is a discipline that is in some ways new to the State Department. What S/CRS has done is develop the methodologies and tools that can be useful to achieve the mission. The Office brings to the table individuals who have the expertise and the training to carry out the planning process.

There may be some fear at Embassies of losing control, that a team might come from Washington and tell the Embassy what it's supposed to be doing. I think what we found is that it's actually the opposite. We've retained ownership of the plan. It reflects what the people at the Embassy believe is important. What the team from Washington has done is acted more as a facilitator, helped bring out a vision of where we want to go, and helped identify what the tools are.

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