An Interview with Michele Thoren Bond, U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho

Lesotho Ambassador Michele Thoren BondMichele Thoren Bond, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho from 2010 to 2012. She joined the Foreign Service in 1977. Ambassador Bond has also been posted abroad in Guatemala City, Belgrade, Prague, Moscow, and Amsterdam. Additionally, in Washington, D.C., she has worked for the Department of State as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services, the Director of Consular Affairs’ Office of Public Outreach, and the Director of Consular Training at the Foreign Service Institute. Ambassador Bond has received multiple awards for her contributions to the Department of State’s work, including the Presidential Award for Meritorious Service and the Mary A. Ryan Award for Outstanding Public Service. Hailing from Washington, D.C., Ambassador Bond earned her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College and master’s degrees from Georgetown University and the National War College. She is married to another Foreign Service Officer, with whom she has four adult children.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

Well, I grew up here in Washington. While I was still in high school, my mother got a job at the State Department. She had worked for the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm years earlier. I remember her saying one day, “You should think about joining the Foreign Service. These are interesting, smart people doing good work, and they’re fun; they travel all over. I think you’d be good at it. I think you’d enjoy it.”

Then, I worked as a summer intern at State every year while I was in college. That, of course, gave me a really good chance to see what it was like and talk to people. In all these years, I’ve never met anybody who said, “I really regret joining the Foreign Service. I wish I had done something else.”

The Politic: What were you doing for State while you were in college?

I worked in the Office of Congressional Travel. When Congressmen are going off on official travel overseas, the embassy or the consulate in the place where they’re going helps organize their trip. The Congressmen will indicate the point of the trip and what kinds of people they would like to meet. Sometimes they had specific people in mind; sometimes they just said, “I want to see an expert on water issues or oil.” The embassy will propose a program and organize it for them. I worked in the office that coordinated all of that and helped to make sure that messages from the embassies were being passed accurately back and forth. Nowadays, they just email each other, but at that point, it was more a matter of sending officials telegrams. We didn’t even use the phones that much — it was too expensive — so generally we went with written communication.

The Politic: It’s hard to imagine that.

Things have changed so much. There still is an Office of Congressional Travel, to monitor and make sure things are going smoothly. If you suddenly have an emergency someplace, whether it’s political unrest or a tsunami, you want to know who’s out there, including your members of Congress, as well as private Americans and everybody else.

The Politic: In your career, you’ve specialized in assisting U.S. citizens who are abroad, especially with adoptions. Do you think that specialization has anything to do with your assignment to Lesotho? You spent so much time in Europe beforehand; what do you think made State want to send you [to Lesotho]?

I had not served in Africa before, so they definitely weren’t recruiting me for that job based on my regional knowledge. The posts in Africa are relatively small embassies, and they often have quite a few people serving there who are first-tour or second-tour officers. They’re learning the ropes: how things work and get done, how Washington operates, and how we communicate with them. So the reason that the Africa Bureau contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in going out as an ambassador was that they had talked to my bureau, Consular Affairs. They knew that I had a reputation for being very good at managing, developing, and working with people who were new, or even people who are mid-career but may be doing something for the first time, like supervising a unit. I think I was recruited more for my management talents, but I learned a lot about Africa in the course of my tour.

The Politic: During your time in your host country, was there one experience, event, or person who influenced one or more of your policies — somebody or something you learned from?

One of the priority issues we were working on in Lesotho was health issues, because HIV/AIDS and TB are very prevalent there. We have a very active PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] program that’s working with the government to address that, and it’s quite a successful program. If you read about the country, and you read the statistics, you think, “This [situation] is approaching hopeless. [Lesotho] has such a high level of infection.” But we’re having very good results in slowing down new infections, particularly transmissions from mothers to their infants. That, of course, is linked to testing the mother, so that you know when she’s going into labor that she’s going to need extra precautions and attention so that the baby will be protected.

The other thing that I worked a lot on was economic development. I worked a lot with the Basotho on what their country could do to generate more jobs and broaden its economy. The economy is very narrowly based on one industry – textiles.

In terms of one person, I don’t know that there would be one, but there were a few people — local businesspeople, and also people in that government — that impressed me deeply.

There was one man, for example. He was a senior government minister, and I remember meeting him for the first time and getting to know him better later, and we were talking about where he went to school. He said, “The first school that I attended was a tree that everybody in my village and a few others walked to. There was a clearing around it, and we sat in pie shapes around that tree. The teacher would give a lecture here, an assignment there, recess there. If it was raining, we went anyway. If there was deep snow” — and this is a country that’s a mile high or higher, so they do get snow — “we couldn’t go, because there was no shelter. Otherwise, we were pretty much there in all weather.” He had the opportunity to go into the city and attend a better high school. He ended up going to Cambridge University. He was a very thoughtful and well-educated guy. He didn’t have to come back to Lesotho. There were plenty of jobs he could’ve gotten and things he could’ve done.

There were quite a few other ministers. The Minister of Health had an M.D. from Johns Hopkins. The Minister of Finance — his daughter is also an M.D. She’s a Princeton graduate and got her medical education here. She’s a U.S. citizen and was born while her dad was working at the World Bank. They were exactly the same caliber of people that you would expect to find in a much bigger and more prosperous country. Very committed, very seriously looking at how to address the country’s challenges. That’s what impressed me the most – the very high caliber of people that were working in the government and in business, and how committed they are to finding ways to strengthen their country.

The Politic: Do you think there’s anything in particular that draws them back to their country, or is it just that very strong, personal connection?

It is a very unique, little place. If you were going to compare it to any other country in the world, I think it would probably be Montenegro, which is also small and has a small population — one third of the population of Lesotho. It’s a difficult place to make a good living, because it’s very mountainous, like Lesotho. For both of those countries, a major reason that they are independent nations against all odds is their geography. The fact that they were so mountainous made it a place that they could defend against attackers.

The Lesotho people have a very, very impressive history as people who take care of themselves. You almost never see a beggar in Lesotho, and that’s not true here [in Washington], and it’s not true in most poor countries. It’s just really rare to see people who are actually out begging. They have a very structured sense of community and a very strong sense of religious commitment. They’re half-and-half Catholic and Pentecostal Christian, but almost everybody goes to church, and they take their religious ideals pretty seriously, in terms of looking out for other people.

This is a country where a stunning percent of the children — more than 20 percent — are orphaned. Also, a very high percentage of them are suffering from stunted growth and malnutrition, which naturally affects their mental development, too. Lesotho has been crushed by HIV, and how rapidly it spread. Before HIV, their language did not have a word for “orphan,” because if a child lost his mother, someone else — an aunt, a grandmother — would take that child, and he’d join that family. Now, there have been so many deaths — including many deaths of the parents — that the country’s a bit overwhelmed. They do have orphanages, and they do have children who are living alone in child-headed households.

But traditionally, Basotho look out for each other, and that was another nice thing about working there. They did not have an attitude of, “Your country’s rich. What can you do for us?” They are attacking their own problems. They are genuinely appreciative of what we’re doing there. Peace Corps is huge. It’s been there since they got their independence in ’67, and you hear about the Peace Corps all the time. People will talk about volunteers who were their teachers or maybe lived in their town or in their home, if they happened to be the host family. So it’s a nice place to represent the United States, because it is a country that’s not reluctant or unwilling to say, “We appreciate our partnership with you. We appreciate what you’re doing for us. Thank you.”

The Politic: You’ve touched a lot on the HIV prevalence rate, which stands currently at about 23.6 percent, according to CIA World Factbook.

That’s nationwide.

The Politic: But I’ve heard in some areas it can be up to, say, 50 percent, for women under 40.

Between the ages of, say, 20 to 45, you’ll find that 40 to 50 percent of people are infected. Can you imagine trying to date under those circumstances?

The Politic: Obviously, PEPFAR has been helping, but what do you think are the next steps, and how long will they take?

There are a couple of things that are helping. One is that it is a treatable disease, so people who are infected are now living much longer — decades longer. That means they can raise their own children and they can keep working. That’s made a huge difference because, not so long ago, ten years ago, people were dying at such a rate. A colleague of mine who was serving in Lesotho at that time said that, about once a month, she would drive out to a place where she would shop in South Africa, and there was a cemetery that she passed on her way out of town. She said you could see the cemetery grow, month on month. You could see so many graves had been dug. Now, that’s hard to imagine, seeing a cemetery grow. That’s not true now. More and more people are being tested, are in treatment, and therefore they continue to be part of their families and the support network for their communities. That’s one big difference.

The landscape of Lesotho
The landscape of Lesotho

The other thing is trying to connect with the young people. Trying to get teenagers to be careful about how they have sex is really hard, yet there it’s so critical not to have unprotected sex. People between the ages of 18 and 25 are getting infected and then infecting someone else – that’s the critical age when you want to [educate] people.

We’re focusing on medical male circumcision. There are traditional male circumcision ceremonies, but they’re just a cut; they’re not protecting you. Men who are circumcised are much less likely to transmit the virus. [We’re also focusing on] just good education, so people understand how to protect themselves. And there are some other things being done. [Doctors are] starting to put people on the medication at a much earlier stage of the disease, which makes them less likely to infect someone else. So there are various things that they can do.

One of the things that’s most interesting about Lesotho, though, is that it’s about the size of Belgium, so it’s not microscopic, but it’s not big. It has a fairly small population of about two million. And it’s in the middle of the biggest economy in southern Africa. South Africa’s coming up very quickly, and it has a lot of resources and a big population. Lesotho is pretty invisible [in the region]. Outside investors and even regional investors that are looking for opportunities aren’t likely to look at Lesotho when big, bright South Africa is right there.

Lesotho has a 95 percent female literacy rate. That’s stunningly high for a poor country. It’s higher than many countries, and it’s one of the highest in Africa. Lesotho is ranked number one in Africa for gender equality, even though it’s a very traditional society. Still, every community has a chief, and that’s a hereditary thing that usually the oldest son [assumes], although if that individual really isn’t up to the job, the people will pick somebody else to do it, a brother or a cousin. They have this patriarchal tradition, but more women than men graduate from the University. You find women in every profession — architecture, law, medicine, teaching. They’re not just women in their 30s, like the country just found out, “Oh, we can educate our girls.” They’re women in their 70s, so there’s a long tradition of people going to school and then continuing to work, even after they are married and have children.

Their level of salaries is lower than South Africa’s. Everything is cheaper there, in terms of renting land and setting up operations. Point being, they’re perfectly poised to be a place where companies interested in that regional market set up operations, and operate less expensively with a better-educated population, because [this kind of situation] won’t last forever.

As Ambassador, I looked around [and asked], “What can I do here that is value added?” I had a great team of medical experts in PEPFAR who were working on the medical issues. I was focused more on encouraging people to look at Lesotho as a potential place for investment and talking to folks in Lesotho about promoting themselves as a place for investment, because they traditionally didn’t see themselves that way. They were more likely to export labor to South Africa. People would go out and work; they did very well. But the idea of bringing people in and generating those jobs within the country is a newer one.

I was only there for two years. I could see definite movement in that direction — and again, we’re talking about smart people, and many of them have lived and worked abroad, so their ideas about what’s possible and aren’t limited to what they saw growing up. I think they have a lot of potential.

The Politic: You touched on the topic of foreign investment. That’s one of the objectives in the Millennium Challenge agreement that Lesotho has with the United States. The overall goal is reducing poverty through economic growth, and the three objectives are improving the water supply, increasing access to antiretroviral therapy, and increasing investment in the country. It sounds like you’re making progress on the investment objective, but overall, how would you assess Lesotho’s progress toward achieving those three objectives, and what work do you think needs to be done? It’s a bit of a long-term agreement.

It is. Now, that particular agreement is coming to an end. It ends September 17. It was a five-year agreement and did extremely well. For a country the size of Lesotho, it’s a very big and very complex contract, so they did a very good job in terms of meeting the commitments they had made and getting things done. The way the MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation] works is that, if you’re not done at the end, everything stops. There isn’t any, “Well, let’s give it another six months to wrap this up.” Two or three years from the end of the compact, if they can see it’s not going to be possible to finish some element of the project, they stop it there. They’re not going to have some half-finished building or project at the end of the compact, if they can avoid it. So it’s very challenging for these compact countries to stick to the program and make sure that they hit all these milestones, and Lesotho did spectacularly well on that.

There is clearly still more to do. The people who designed [the compact] — and of course it’s done in collaboration between the countries — did a good job of identifying priorities. Some of the work that’s been done on the compact is very much designed to make the country a more attractive place for foreign investors, who are most likely going to be people from the region. You may find Americans and Europeans starting businesses, as well as Indians and Chinese, but particularly for people who are operating in South Africa, Lesotho can be a good place to take a look at because there are the lower costs and the other advantages. So I think the Millennium Challenge Compact was a very good project for the country.

The Politic: Even though you might not see too much investment from the U.S. in Lesotho proper, Lesotho is the largest exporter of garments to the U.S. and North America in general, mostly due to the duty-free agreement between U.S. and Lesotho. But some watchdog organizations have found that, even though the factory conditions in Lesotho are better than in Asian sweatshops, they still have their challenges, like a lack of safety equipment or an inability to hold themselves to standards. Now that the U.S. has increased its purchases of their garments to such a degree, do you think the U.S. needs to increase its focus on helping Lesotho to implement better labor standards, or is that something that should mostly fall on the government? Is it even something that they should be prioritizing at this point?

They have given it priority, actually — not just the U.S. but also Lesotho. I visited quite a few factories there. If you had a fire in one of those factories, as opposed to what happened in Bangladesh, people can get out. There are doors; there are ways out. They are much more likely to be one-story and spread out.

Lesotho belongs to a program run by the ILO — the International Labor Organization. It’s called Better Work Lesotho, and Lesotho is one of just a few countries that have signed on to this standard. The idea is that the government will enforce laws related to the protection of workers, and companies will agree to abide by that standard. That means that the buyers — for instance, Walmart, Gap, and Levi’s — know that if they’re buying from those companies in Lesotho, international labor standards are being met, because they’re members of Better Work Lesotho. While it may not be what you would see at a textile mill in North Carolina, it’s actually meeting international standards in terms of the protection of workers, including their safety and the hours that they work.

[Better Work Lesotho] makes it hard for Lesotho to compete with Bangladesh and some other countries, because some of the owners of the factories have said, “Our competition in Bangladesh, when they get an order and the buyer says, ‘I want this by Saturday,’ people will work through the night. People will just do whatever it takes. They’ll sleep next to their sewing machine, and six hours later, get back up and go back to work.” They say, “We can’t compete with that.” Of course, we can’t compete with it here in the States, either.

The thing about AGOA [African Growth and Opportunity Act] and Lesotho is that it’s a very spectacular success story, because Lesotho didn’t have a textile industry before AGOA. Directly after the United States passed that law, foreign investors — Taiwanese and Chinese investors — came in and set up these factories in order to take advantage of that ability to export duty free. It has been 13 years since AGOA got underway. Lesotho exports more textiles to the United States than any other country in Africa. Little Lesotho. But without AGOA, Lesotho is not remotely competitive as a textile nation. The location isn’t good; the access to inputs is not what you want. So you wouldn’t want to look at exporting textiles to the U.S. as being a long-term thing.

Interestingly, I think AGOA is an example of the United States making an effort to do the right thing that is actually working. Because Lesotho now has a local textile industry [with] trained people. It’s importing its cotton locally, from Zambia and other [nearby] places. It’s now in a position to become the regional textile producer, so that it doesn’t need to export to the United States. As it is, even though it’s the biggest textile exporter to the United States from Africa, only 24 percent of what it’s producing goes to the United States. Most of it is, in fact, being exported in the region, and some to Europe. So that’s a big success story, because if AGOA were to end, that would be a big blow to Lesotho’s textile industry, but it wouldn’t end the industry. Lesotho is very focused on taking steps to make sure that they are less dependent on the U.S. market, and that they are doing more regionally. They wouldn’t have had that industry if it weren’t for AGOA in the first place. I think it’s a very good example of how, if you do it right, people will take advantage.

I would have liked to see Lesotho take broader advantage of AGOA. There aren’t really other things that they’re exporting under AGOA, and there are thousands of products that are theoretically eligible to come in. But either those are things Lesotho doesn’t produce or wouldn’t necessarily produce competitively. Maybe Lesotho ought to take a [closer] look at it, and maybe there are [more] things it could do. I see its prospects for long-term success much more, though, as being a success in the region and being better connected. For example, there are cars produced in South Africa, but there’s no reason that Lesotho can’t be producing seat covers and other inputs for that industry. There are other examples, too, where Lesotho could be producing the kinds of things that you would expect from Procter & Gamble: household items that don’t weigh a whole lot, that aren’t hard to ship by truck or by train back out around South Africa and more broadly in the region. Lesotho is right there, you know?

If you compare Lesotho to Rwanda, they’re both landlocked, they’re both really small – Lesotho is actually bigger than Rwanda – they both have small populations. Rwanda has this horrific history, hell on earth twenty years ago. Lesotho has a very pacific history because it’s all the same people. It doesn’t have inter-tribal difficulties.

But Rwanda has marketed itself. It has put itself out there and said, “Tell us why you looked at us, looked at five other countries, and decided to go there. What should we do? Because we’re going to do it. The next time you look at us, we want to be the place you decide to put your business.” They have aggressively gone after foreign investment. Lesotho could do the same. It’s a matter of leadership and commitment and having a long-term plan. And I think Lesotho will do it.

The Politic: Like you were saying, the Lesotho’s education standards create great prospects for its people. Lesotho invests 12 percent of its GDP in education, and that really says so much about it. I was struck by it.

Secretary John Kerry celebrating the 10th anniversary of PEPFAR (June 18, 2013)
Secretary John Kerry celebrating the 10th anniversary of PEPFAR (June 18, 2013)

And the kids go to school! This really is a place where kids are walking several kilometers each way to get to school. They go every day. Now, one of the reasons attendance is good is that they get lunch. For some of those children, that’s the meal, so their parents make sure they go. But you have the advantage of all these literate mothers. If you give the mothers — and they’re critical — information about nutrition and prenatal care in those critical 2,000 days from conception, you don’t have to do it in comic books. You don’t have to get the women to come sit in a circle and explain it to them. They can read. You can send stuff home. You can talk to them at church, because everybody goes to church. Most people have radios, so you can communicate that way. There are mobile phones, and that’s one of the ways people are reminded of their doctors’ appointments; you can [reach] them on the mobile phone. It’s not like you have to say, “Oh, if only we had X.” The Basotho people have got the basics that they need.

They also have community respect for authority, which matters if the chief or the chief’s wife is talking about the importance of staying in school and not having a boyfriend that you sleep with. The girls often get infected [with AIDS] younger than the boys. That’s usually because they have older boyfriends. Pushing back against the “sugar daddy” idea and stressing the importance of putting off [sex] is not such a hard sell, usually. You’re talking to a community, to a nation, that believes in education and wants their daughters and sons to stay in school. It’s a very fascinating place. It’s a perfect place for beta-testing good ideas, because it’s small enough that you can see the results.

The Politic: You’ve served abroad so many places. How do you think that America is represented abroad overall, and are there any elements of American foreign policy you think you would like to change? 

I started out with my mother’s comment about smart people doing good work, and I’ve definitely found that to be the case. Nothing good came out of WikiLeaks, but at least people who were reading all these cables said, “Those are actually very well-written. They’re very thoughtful.” People are coming to conclusions based on facts and observations. So there’s a little bit of empirical evidence flying around.

One of the things about our representation abroad — a great strength of it — is that we are everywhere. When I was the Ambassador in Lesotho, there were only five of us there. There are probably 70 or more countries with which Lesotho has diplomatic relations. Their ambassadors live in Pretoria and are accredited to several countries in the region. The United States has a policy of an embassy in every country. So we’re there. We have those connections. I knew the whole cabinet. I saw them every Saturday at the grocery store — the grocery store. [Laughs] We ran into each other, and they were very accessible. They wanted to know what I thought; I wanted to know what they thought. [It was] the same way with business leaders. If you were in Germany or France, it’s a much bigger world, and you have a much bigger embassy you’re dealing with, too.

We have, in some places, definitely a reputation as the “big foot,” where we come in and say, “Here’s how it’s going to be.” I think that’s unfortunate. We don’t actually operate that way in real life, but you do have people who hear us say something and think, “Well, they probably don’t even want to know what I think.” Yeah, we do.

I saw that in Holland, for example. The Dutch are very sensitive: they see themselves as a small country, a small economy, a small army. At the time when I was serving there, it was the George W. Bush administration, and fairly or not, we were being perceived as people who weren’t listening. Just by sitting down with people and listening and smiling in a way that shows you’re honestly listening to them and thinking about their ideas and not saying, “Ah, no, let me tell you how it’s going to be,” people would say to me, “You’re not like most Americans.” Well, sure I am, but I’m not like what they think most Americans are like. That’s another advantage. If you’re out there, then you have a chance to push back against the ideas that other people have.

[For] the work that I did on adoptions in Russia, a lot of it had to do with talking to people about what they thought was happening to those children. When you think about what Russians went through in World War II, and then under Stalin — murders and tortures and so on — it wasn’t hard for them to believe that Americans were adopting these children because someone in their family, another child, needed a heart. So let’s get this Russian kid and take his heart, take his lungs, take a kidney — whatever our kid needs. Those stories were out there, that those kids were organ donors, and Russians believed it.

I could talk to them in Russian and say to them, “That never happened. Ever. If someone is receiving an organ in an operation, the doctors need to know where it came from, and there are protocols for this.” Actually, on that particular mission, my best allies in pushing back were Russian doctors, who would [say] — again, in Russian, and with authority — that can’t happen when transplants take place. There isn’t some black market for organs. People also believed that the children were going to be servants in the homes. They didn’t believe they were going to be sons and daughters, because — among other reasons — in Russia, adoption at that time was always a secret. You didn’t tell the child he was adopted; you didn’t tell your mother-in-law-he was adopted; you didn’t tell your neighbors; you pretended that was your child. I remember talking to someone who was an adoptive father there, and he said that if the neighbors knew his son was adopted, they wouldn’t allow their children to play with him, because they would think, “He comes from a bad family. He has bad blood. Blood will tell no matter how he’s raised.” So you had that prejudice. [By having] Americans in Russia who were living there, speaking the language, engaging day after day, you can have an impact, and that’s what we did. I think we’re really good at it.

We’re not the only weapon. American private citizens who are living around the world have a big impact in terms of what people think of America. They get to know Americans as friends and neighbors and fellow parents in school, and they come across as people who really engage, look for solutions, volunteer to help, and do things that may not be so traditional for foreigners to do. They’re just telling the country’s story, really. It sounds so trite, but it’s what we’re doing.


Embassy of the United States to Lesotho:

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