An Interview with Douglas Griffiths, U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique

Official PortraitDouglas Griffiths joined the Foreign Service in 1988 and has served in Quebec City, Canada, Lisbon, Portugal, and Maputo, Mozambique. He has also worked in the Office of Southern Africa Affairs. In Rabat, Morocco, Griffiths served as First Secretary of Economic Affairs, specializing in economic development and trade promotion. As Counselor for International Economic Affairs at the U.S. Mission in Geneva, Switzerland, he worked with international organizations to promote economic and social development. Griffiths served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires, a.i. at the United States Embassy to the Republic of Haiti from 2004 to 2006. As Principal Officer at the United States Consulate General in Guayaquil, Ecuador, he led a team of eighty professionals in the commercial and agricultural heartland of Ecuador, including the Galapagos Islands. Griffiths’ most recent assignment was as the Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, where he worked in the promotion of global health and innovation, and the protection of the right of refugees and human rights globally.

The Politic: Why did you choose to join the Foreign Service in the first place?

I have always been into international affairs. I studied abroad during university, but nobody in my family even had a passport until I studied abroad. I heard from a friend that he was taking a Foreign Services exam; I had never heard of it before, and I thought, “How great is it that there’s a test to be a diplomat?” I took the test and passed, and the rest is history. It has been a fantastic career. I love the idea of changing jobs and geographic areas every three to four years. I cannot imagine a more intellectually stimulating career and a more meaningful impact that I can have on the world. The foreign service is a vocation, in terms of its all encompassing nature. It is not just another job; it is your entire lifestyle.

An ambassador is the president’s personal representative abroad, and the job description changes dramatically depending on what country you are in. Here in Mozambique, we have a very development-focused program that tries very hard to foster a more prosperous, democratic, and stable Mozambique. Mozambique has special characteristics that have allowed it to have sustained economic growth of about seven percent for the past decade. Mozambicans are discovering enormous natural resource reserves, so we are also working very hard to foster partnerships between American and local companies to create jobs in both areas. The idea behind these huge deposits of gas and coal is that Mozambique has a unique path towards inclusive, sustainable growth that will lift millions of Mozambicans out of poverty in the next two decades.

The Politic: Can you talk about the different places where you’ve been posted? What have been your main goals in those places?

I have had pretty long career, so I have been on five continents. I am an economic officer — we sort of have a specialty, and my concentration is development and economics. Much of my career has been dedicated to promoting economic development and growing commercial relations. Your first-year assignments are generally directed by the Foreign Service, so you don’t choose your post. I worked in Quebec City on consular issues, and then in Lisbon, Portugal on development issues. Interestingly enough, I closed out the aid program in Portugal — we actually had an aid program until 1990 in Portugal.

After that, I came down to Maputo, Mozambique, right as the war was ending. I was the economic and small grants development officer, which was one of the best jobs in the world in terms of working with community groups to provide them with income-generating projects. Then I went back to Washington, studied economics for a year, and joined the South Africa desk at the Transition to Democracy, which was obviously a high point in my career. I had front-row seats for an important moment in history and had the privilege of working closely with an inspiring group of South Africans and Americans.

After that, I moved to Rabat, Morocco, where I worked on economic development again. One thing that stands out the most to me during that period of time is that when we were working on building mobile telephone networks in Morocco, they were just being introduced. It was interesting to see the development potential of mobile telephony, and that was in the late 1990s. When you jump forward fifteen years, you can see what it is doing in Africa in providing farmers with information. It really changed the power dynamics in a lot of places: it allows people to have access to information, local cash, and all of these things that are really leapfrogging development. I caught a quick glimpse of the future.

Then I did my master’s in public policy at Princeton, which was fantastic. After that, I went to Geneva for four years, where I was once again working in the economic and development portfolio. I developed a real passion for multilateral diplomacy after being intellectually inspired by working with diverse groups of people from every country and negotiating complex agreements with constantly changing constellations of interlocutors. The impact that you can have on the world if you have good telecommunications policy is incredible. A lot of that is just about good policy, such as letting people have access to mobile telephony at low rates and having intellectual property rights protections so that people can enjoy the fruits of their thinking.

After that, I went to Haiti as the deputy chief mission during its return to democracy. That was another inspiring time, to watch Haitians really take control of their lives again. Our work, especially in health, was amazing in helping progress the fight against AIDS and other diseases. Then I went to Ecuador where I was principal officer, which for me was a new area in South America. It was the perfect time to be in Latin America, as economic growth and development were taking off. In Ecuador, it was especially interesting to see how local governments can have such a powerful impact on providing people access to better services and on taking advantage of entrepreneurship.

After that, I went back to Geneva as the charges d’affaires and deputy chief of the mission. It was a different role and involved a lot of human rights, which was both humbling and very stimulating to work on. We worked on the landmark legislation affirming LGBT rights and other resolutions that affirmed freedom of expression on the Internet and fought back limits of expression for reasons of blasphemy, et cetera. And then I have been here for a year.

Mozambique Minister of Education for the interim Haitian government Mr. Pierre Buteau (left) and U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission for Haiti Mr. Douglas Griffiths (center) cut a ribbon celebrating the completion of a classroom built by US soldiers
Griffiths (center) celebrating the completion of a classroom built by U.S. soldiers

The Politic: Do you ever find it hard to adjust to a new country? You get in the rhythm of being in Morocco or Ecuador and then you’re thrown into another country — is it ever hard to adjust, or does it come naturally to you?

We always say that every assignment was perfect for our stage as a family. I think it has been most difficult as a career on our family. But I have two teenage daughters that are true global nomads; they were the ones who advocated for a tour in Africa because they wanted to have more of a connection to development. I just find it very enriching to adapt to a new culture. All of your prior experiences build to facilitate your adaptation to a new culture and your development of new insights into the United States. As America becomes more diverse, our jobs as ambassadors become easier, in a way.

The Politic: How so?

I think that America’s experience with civil rights and every generation’s fight for equal rights resonates in the world. For example, a few days ago I went to the largest madrasa in Mozambique and was able to talk about Muslim communities in America and their struggles. Our cultures are changing in ways that bring us closer together. Finding these issues of common ground where we have friends and partners in so many different areas is so important. I think America’s diversity makes it much easier to communicate with a lot of the world.

The Politic: What misconceptions have you noticed that the average citizen of Mozambique has toward an American citizen and vice versa?

The biggest misconception of America — which results from its representation in American pop culture, especially in TV and movies — is that we live in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. I think that we do a lot of work in bringing Americans here and challenging a lot of those stereotypes.

When Mozambicans come back from U.S. government-sponsored programs to America, they generally bring their astonishment with the diversity of America. They go to hospitals and see women in headscarves, which is not permitted in a lot of countries. They go to Nebraska and Kansas and see thousands of acres of farmland, and they go to the West Coast and see heavy populations of Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans. One of the biggest misconceptions of Mozambicans is that they don’t understand how diverse we are.

As for us, one of the biggest misconceptions in America is that we do not recognize the diversity of Africa. Mozambique, as a Portuguese speaking country with an enormous coastline and a great deal of diversity, surprises people when they come to visit. Americans generally lump all African countries together, which neglects its vast diversity.

The Politic: Were you surprised when you first came to Maputo? Did it challenge any stereotypes you had about the country?

When I came here  twenty years ago, it was at the end of the civil war, and we were still under travel restrictions. Now, twenty years later, I am astounded at the positive change, especially with how educated Mozambicans are. Mozambique made a huge effort to provide increased access to education to the population. I am also impressed with how confident Mozambicans are in taking responsibility for their own socioeconomic development.

The view over Maputo Bay in 2000
The view over Maputo Bay in 2000

The Politic: In terms of people and experiences in Mozambique, is there one definitive person, experience, or event that caused you to alter one of your policies or change your views?

This year, we named a woman named Thelma our woman of courage for the year. She is a Mozambican woman who is part of a much larger venture called CleanStar Mozambique. I’m not doing publicity for her company, but she has a vision of using cassava for clean cookstove technology. Most Mozambicans cook with charcoal, even in urban areas, and that has terrible impacts in terms of indoor contamination on women and children who spend most of their time at home around the cooking stove. It also has a terrible impact on the ecology in terms of deforestation and desertification, as well as a negative impact on women’s equality and their ability to work outside the home, because cooking over a charcoal stove is very time consuming.

Thelma’s solution is to use cassava as bioethanol. Obviously, that has some impact on food security, because cassava is still the safety valve for much of the Mozambican economy. Her company works with small holders to use new varieties of cassava that were developed in Mozambique and that are ten times as productive as the old varieties. This means that the holders are actually producing more cassava than before, so there is no impact to food security. Her company is also paying a good price to buy it for the bioethanol, which helps the depressed cassava market. 80 percent of farmers in Mozambique are women, so women are moving into the cash economy rather than the subsistence economy.

Thelma’s company has developed a clean cookstove that uses cassava bioethanol, and it is selling the cookstove through a kind of Avon-lady model that empowers females in communities. This model has developed entrepreneurs of these saleswomen who move around selling this technology. As a result, women now have more time because they can heat things up immediately. There is also less pressure on the environment.

This company is using Mozambique as a model, since it is one of the least developed countries in the world — it is third from the bottom in the Human Development Index this year. The company is trying to showcase that it can do this here and market it elsewhere. It is social entrepreneurship, in a way, since the company is supporting smallholder farmers by teaching them techniques to not only improve their production of cassava but also grow other crops, in addition to windbreaks and everything else. It is a really inspiring model, and it has very much inspired me.

The Politic: Would you say that women have a larger role in Mozambique than in other underdeveloped countries in the world?

Very much so. Mozambique has had female prime ministers, the second highest-ranking official is a woman, and about 30 percent of parliamentarians are female, in addition to governors and about half of the ministers. Women do have a great deal of political and economic power in Mozambique.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented in Mozambique, and are there any general elements of American foreign policy that you think should be changed?

We are the largest bilateral donor to Mozambique, and I am extraordinarily proud of our development assistance in the country. A good share of it is in health, specifically PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. We are making enormous strides toward achieving our goal of an AIDS-free generation. America’s leadership on health diplomacy is ultimately one of the most powerful foreign policy achievements of the past decade. With both PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative, we are creating a new and healthy generation of Mozambicans. I have three favorite initiatives: health would be one, and the second would be agricultural livelihoods and nutrition.

80 percent of Mozambicans work in the agricultural sector. A large percentage of Mozambican children remain stunted, so we are very focused on improving the agricultural sector. We are working with the other G8 countries on something called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, where we are trying to raise farmers’ incomes and improve communities’ nutritional status. This will have an extraordinarily large impact on the poorest Mozambicans.

The last thing I would like to mention — it is not a huge program monetarily but it is a very important one — is our education program. Mozambique has done an amazing job expanding access to education, but we still have limited results in quality. Illiteracy rates are still near 50 percent, so we developed a new program called Aprender a Leer [Learning to Read] that focuses on primary school reading and was developed as a scientific study so that we can measure which impacts work. This allows us to figure out why Mozambican children are not learning to read as they should. We are working on three different sets of interventions: one with students themselves in the home, one with parent-teacher associations, and one with school directors to see which combination has the greatest impact.

The overarching priority for us is to have stronger, more effective, and transparent institutions. I talked earlier about Mozambique facing a natural resource bonanza; the country needs to have democratically controlled, transparent institutions to invest those resources productively in their people in order to ensure inclusive growth.

The Politic: A lot of Mozambique’s money comes from foreign aid, which often gets a bad rap for not having the impacts that on paper the donors plan for it to have. In the three areas that you mentioned — health, agricultural livelihood, and education — have you seen firsthand the beneficial impact that this aid has had?

Your question is an excellent one. In my career, I have learned a lot, and I think you are exactly right in that we need to ensure that we can measure the impact, that we are able to determine which interventions work productively, and  that nothing undermines or crowds out local economic development and growth. We are sensitive to all of those questions.

In terms of health, we have seen dramatic improvements in Mozambique. We have seen a dramatic fall in maternal mortality, a huge surge in child survival rates for children under five, a significant percentage of Mozambicans with access to antiretrovirals, and huge increases in vaccination rates. With a healthier population, you have a more productive population. Our agricultural and education programs are both new, so I am not able to give you good shout-outs there, but in the past 20 years, there have been two excellent examples of positive change.

Mozambique is subject to catastrophic periodic flooding due to its geographic area, so 20 years ago, we started working with the National Disaster Response Organization in technical assistance and capacity building. The floods this year were not as disastrous due to Mozambique’s increased capacity to autonomously respond to natural disasters. It still needs additional money but the national authority was able to manage the response. Very few people died, because the government was able to warn people ahead of time. It knew when the floods were coming, it was able to get people out, and it was able to establish camps to provide people with access to clean water, food, and medical care. Capacity building is a really tangible example; Mozambique’s disaster response organization is now one of the best in Africa.

The second example is that we have provided a great deal of technical assistance in helping establish the legal framework for a market economy, since Mozambique had a Marxist-Leninist economy 20 years ago. The average growth over the past decade has been over 7 percent, and a lot of that is because of the institutions and policies that were adapted with the support of the donor community.

The Politic: Whether it is in the area of economic growth, foreign aid, or even election monitoring, what can the United States improve on? What does Mozambique really need in any of these areas that the United States is not providing right now?

We are already the largest bilateral donor, and Mozambique is the focal country for a lot of our presidential initiatives. My message to the other side is that Americans should be very proud of our partnership and engagement with Mozambique. Ten years ago, donors made up about 50 percent of the government’s budget, and it is now down to 30 percent. We see a flight plane where Mozambique will be sustainable along  and invest in its people. I think that the best investments are those that foster transparent and participatory governance. Good governance is key; people need the ability to participate fully in their institutions. The biggest message that I have received in my career is that democracy works.


Embassy of the United States to Mozambique:

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