An Interview with Jo Ellen Powell, U.S. Ambassador to Mauritania

Mauritania Jo Ellen PowellJo Ellen Powell, a career member of the Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania on October 29, 2010. Joining the Foreign Service in January 1980, Powell has served in Jordan and Lebanon; as General Services Officer at Embassy Rome, 1985-89; post management officer in the European Bureau Executive Office, 1989-91; and Supervisory General Services Officer at Embassy Paris, 1992-95. She returned to the European Bureau Executive Office for one year, as Supervisory Post Management Officer, prior to being selected to serve as the Deputy Executive Director of the Executive Secretariat. She returned to the Department of State in 2001, serving as Director of the Office of Employee Relations in the Human Resources Bureau from 2001-04. Powell then served as Executive Director of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2004-06 and as Consul General at the US Consulate General, Frankfurt, from 2006-09.

The Politic: To begin with, what prompted you to move from working as a civil servant to taking the extra step to join the Foreign Service?

Well, I had never really thought of doing anything else. The Foreign Service exam was only held once a year, so I got a seasonal job at the passport office. As my job became permanent, I said why not and decided to take the exam — I passed it the second time around. The oral aspect of the exam is the most challenging. It’s important to always be on your feet and stay focused, and it’s vital to let yourself show through in your responses. As an Ambassador now, I would look more for character or personality in the applicant because I see that as key to being great in the Foreign Service. It is vital to be sharp yet relaxed.

The Politic: How was it growing up all over the world, being raised in a Foreign Service family? What were the pros and cons of that experience?

Overwhelmingly positive. My father was a diplomat and my mother a trailing spouse. She inspired me by giving up her own career aspirations to follow my father. When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to join — no regrets — and all things Foreign Service-related were steps along the way to starting my career — a political science and diplomatic history and a job in the passport office. I grew up in Lebanon as a child and later returned to the country as an officer. It has been extremely memorable, being able to see a country in different circumstances and with very different thoughts — first as a child, then as an adult during the country’s civil war.

The Politic: Before Mauritania, you served in a number of locations. How would you summarize your overall experience serving in so many positions, and which do you feel has best prepared you for your current one?

My entire professional experience has been a developmental process helping me prepare for my current position as the personal representative of the President to the government of Mauritania. I have worked in the Department as well as overseas in many kinds of jobs, one of which was to oversee a multi-million dollar budget and thousands of employees. As Consul General in Frankfurt, Germany, I was more on the stage than behind it, which was a new experience and one different from the jobs I had held previously — to be honest, it felt good to get out there and be active. Growing up in the Middle East has given me a lifelong interest in the region, and it’s one of the most beautiful and fascinating places in the world.

The Politic: What it is that ultimately brought you to Mauritania?

Well, as Shakespeare once said, “It is an honor that I dreamed not of.” It is an incredibly humbling experience to be nominated by the President to be an ambassador. When I first saw that Mauritania was one of the options on the table, I found the country to have a perfect mix of intellectually challenging activities. And I thought that my experience and service could really serve the Mauritanian people and that my skills were best tailored to working in Mauritania. Beyond that, I sought a cultural experience, and here in Mauritania, the Islamic and African worlds meet; it is a vibrant and unique society. I came here because I wanted to bring together a diverse community and felt that Mauritania would be ideal. But ultimately, the White House decides, and it is with great pride that I accepted the position in Mauritania. It is with no small degree of humility that we take upon ourselves this great honor.

The Politic: What does a typical day at the Embassy look like?

In Nouakchott, we have a fairly small embassy with 60 Americans and 300 local staff. The 60 Americans represent many agencies — Including the State Department, US Agency for International Development, the Justice Department, and the Defense department — and all are central in carrying out U.S. foreign policy in Mauritania and reporting back to the U.S. on Mauritanian opinion and events. My job is to coordinate the entire embassy and keep everyone on the same page, even while we’re working on different projects like family planning, HIV treatment, and food security. Overall, there are many meetings, especially with the host government and with foreign ministers. But every day is different and all over the map. Today, for example, was unexpected and interesting — earlier in the day, before I later met with the Minister of the Economy, the President was at a function where the Governor of the Central Bank fainted on stage. Overall, the days are very long, going well into the evening, especially at the office or an official function. At the end of the day, a cocktail party may seem fun, but it is also three additional hours of work because of how much we must accomplish. They also get pretty stressful because it’s a huge part of life here, and you have to remember that you are always representing your country.

Camel market in Nouakchott
Camel market in Nouakchott

The Politic: In understanding that part of the Embassy’s role is to actively engage the local community, what are some of the projects you and the Embassy are currently working on?

It’s important to note that the country is not heavily populated. About a third live in the capital, so it is difficult to work with the small communities far from the capital, especially in the desert. Regardless, I really like to focus more on micro projects to help communities get going quickly and to genuinely help people. A micro or self-help project, as we call it, is a small project that the U.S. government funds through the Embassy, with the goal of getting the U.S involved with local citizens. It most importantly allows for contact and communication at the grassroots level, so as to help us understand and address regional needs.

In order to understand Mauritania, it is crucial to take into consideration that a large percentage of the population is nomadic. So one of our many projects involves bringing in veterinarians to help herders develop their herds so that they’re healthy, reproduce well, and provide the families with a very stable income source. We also place a high priority on funding youth activities and rural development projects, countering violent extremism, and addressing human rights issues — especially slavery. Mauritania is a very young country — most of the population is younger than thirty years old. There is little infrastructure, so we work towards expanding it and helping Mauritania build up a stable food supply.

The Politic: Mauritania has a very raw materials-based economy and has one of the lowest GDP rates in Africa. How does the U.S. promote economic development in Mauritania?

Here in Mauritania, a large part of the economic development is through donor partners working together to provide different types of assistance. Most U.S. assistance is for security, training, and equipping Mauritanian military and security services, as well as prosecutors. With respect to economic development, our priority is food security, to help Mauritania become more self-sufficient in food production and reduce the likelihood of food shortages; health — combating tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV, as well as providing mother-and-child and reproductive help; and vocational training. Vocational training especially targets youth employment, because currently, many are unemployed — and either do not have good job skills or lack educational opportunities — and it causes a lack of want to invest, since a skilled labor force is not available. Human capital development is essential to Mauritania’s long-term economic growth.

Mauritania is a country rich in natural resources, especially minerals and fishing, and while they can generate significant income for the country, they don’t generate huge numbers of jobs. These industries, especially mining and oil and gas exploration, need very specifically trained people with a high skill set. Though the companies are working responsibly, it is hard to create jobs in extractive industries to create broad-range employment. On another note, most of Mauritania’s people live along the sea, and while the fishing industry is small and very local, there is a lot of potential — most of the fishing relies on the populations that live near Senegal, where the waters are rich in resources. Though Mauritania luckily has very rich fishing grounds that are vital in helping deal with the need for food security, it would help to turn Mauritania into an exporter of other resources.

The Politic: How would you assess the current relationship between the US and the Mauritanian government? How do we work with Mauritania on issues such as security assistance and internal stability?

Here in Mauritania, security assistance is the largest focus, and the country has proven to be a great partner for the U.S. in promoting regional stability. Mauritania is determined to secure its borders, people, and territory, and the government is an articulate and outspoken opponent of transnational crime and terrorism. While this makes the country a strong and reliable ally, it has also has made Mauritania a target of terrorism. Luckily, the Mauritanian military force is very effective and defends the country very well. Mauritania is an active partner in regional efforts to combat terrorism and mitigate instability in the region, and it is both ready and willing to assist its neighbors in resolving conflict.

The Politic: As Ambassador, what are your primary objectives when it comes to dealing with human rights issues? Do you feel the Embassy has been successful in reaching those objectives?

Mauritanian schoolchildren
Mauritanian schoolchildren

Arguably the most significant human rights issue in Mauritania is slavery. Slavery in Mauritania is an inherited status based on family relationships. There is a lot of hidden slavery because abject poverty forces people to work in conditions of uncompensated or inadequately compensated servitude. What we do, here, is reach out to civil society, because ultimately, the most effective way to address the issue is to engage civil society and encourage reflection on what is acceptable in a modern society. Thankfully, we have had a positive reaction from civil society — the government accepts that issues exist, and there is a strong group of people that there is a nexus between poverty and modern slavery in Mauritania. You have to address poverty to eradicate slavery; Mauritania must invest in its people.

The Politic: Having completed almost three years of service in Mauritania, what have you most and least enjoyed about your job?

I have enjoyed every aspect of my assignment here — discovering Mauritania, making new friends, and leading a wonderful team of diplomats representing the U.S. The hardest part has been that since 2007, I haven’t been posted with my dear husband. We have been apart too long, and though short visits are great, they aren’t the same as being together.

The Politic: What do you see coming next for you in the future?

Like all U.S. ambassadors, I will remain here and continue to serve until a successor is nominated and confirmed. While there is always a little uncertainty about one’s future, which is tough for a Type A like me, I am very happy here and will serve as long as my country requests that I do. I am always very busy but it is gratifying and amazing to work with great colleagues. Whenever I get my schedule for the day, I think to myself, “How will I ever get this done?” But with the great team of officers that I have, we really move things along and get through the day together. There is no shortage of challenges, and that makes every day new and unique in its own way.


Embassy of the United States to Mauritania:

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