An Interview with Mark Storella, U.S. Ambassador to Zambia

Zambia Ambassador StorellaMark C. Storella was currently serves as both the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Zambia and as the U.S. Representative to the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). A career Foreign Service officer, Storella most recently served as the Senior Coordinator for Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. From 2007-2009, he was Deputy Permanent Representative at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva. Storella also previously served at U.S. embassies in Rome, Phnom Penh, Paris and Bangkok, as well as at several desks in the Department of State. From 2001-2002, Storella was the Rusk Fellow at Georgetown University and taught graduate and undergraduate courses on humanitarian action. He is a graduate of Harvard College, magna cum laude, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and speaks French, Khmer, Italian and Thai.

The Politic: Mr. Ambassador, why did you join the Foreign Service?

In short, I joined due to a love for freedom and the United States as well as a deep interest in foreign relations. I saw no better opportunity to further these interests than with the Foreign Service.

The Politic: Do you have any advice for students considering a career in the Foreign Service?

First, study foreign languages. You learn so much more about foreign cultures and the real diversity that exists in the world by trying to understand the way that people think through their own languages that’s number one. Second, wherever possible, I would encourage folks to try to find their way to participate in an internship or extended travel overseas because it is really important to know whether or not you really like being overseas before you commit your life to it. Third, I would recommend that such students take the Foreign Service exam immediately because the best way to pass the Foreign Service exam is to have failed previously — as I did my first time.

The Politic: On a related note, you have a pretty diverse background in the Foreign Service. You have served in countries like Iraq, Cambodia, Italy, France, Switzerland, and Thailand, and your work experience ranges from issues of refugee and migration affairs to multilateral arms control. Is there any single person, experience or event that prepared you best for your current position as Ambassador to Zambia?

The most important thing serving as an Ambassador requires is a very diverse background on the face of it, because as Ambassador, you are responsible for all aspects of the relationship between the United States and a foreign country. So the most important experience for me was the whole collection of them. Having said that, I think there were probably two experiences that stood out. One was the work that I did in Geneva regarding humanitarian affairs and global health issues. I learned a lot about the kinds of programs that the United States is most engaged in here and the institutions that are involved in those programs. The second was the work that I did in Cambodia dealing with extremely challenging political developments in a country where human rights was an absolutely fundamental developmental factor. It taught me a lot about what is necessary for a democracy to be successful, and about how the United States can positively influence a country’s human rights policies.

There are lots of people I could also talk about, but I would say that the most important mentor I had was our Ambassador in Cambodia. His name was Charlie Twining, and what I learned from Charlie was the fact that the Foreign Service really means service. You are dedicated to not just a job, but to something much bigger than a job — you will make sacrifices and so will your family on behalf of the American people.

The Politic: Has there been anything that has been particularly unexpected or surprising during your job as Ambassador to Zambia? 

The most surprising thing about this job is how much fun it is.

The Politic: Do you have a favorite experience or moment from your time in your current position?

Well, I found myself dancing last night with a supermodel named Anne V! I didn’t think that I would get that out of my job here in Zambia. I have had just an incredible set of experiences traveling around the country. The most remarkable [part] has been the opportunity to work with and lead an incredibly talented and dedicated group of people. That is a real privilege.

The Politic: How have you gone about understanding and immersing yourself in Zambian culture and society, particularly with regards to community outreach and engaging with the locals as part of your job?

I would say that there are two things that stand out. First, it is incredibly important for an Ambassador to get out of an Embassy and travel. While you’re in the Embassy, you are surrounded by a bubble of Americans and American-ness, even though three-quarters of our employees are Zambian nationals. So the most important thing is to get out on the road as far from the capital as you can. I find it especially valuable to visit with Peace Corps volunteers in villages where you see life as it really is for the majority of Zambians.

Second, together with our Public Affairs Office, we have paired ourselves with what we call Youth Ambassadors. These are young people usually in their twenties or early thirties who are sometimes pop icons or outstanding individuals in the arts. When we travel with them, we get the perspective of a young Zambian on what is really going on. Since countries like Zambia — and in fact most developing countries — are overwhelmingly young, it is an incredibly valuable way of understanding Zambia.

The Politic: I would like to discuss PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. PEPFAR, which was started by President Bush in 2003. PEPFAR is $15 billion commitment to combating the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, which currently provides Zambia with nearly $350 million. Since 2001, HIV incidence in Zambia has declined by more than 25 percent. What are the greatest challenges that Zambia faces in the fight against HIV/AIDS, what are the most effective steps that are currently being taken and what do you see as the realistic future in Zambia’s battle with HIV/AIDS?

The biggest challenge regarding HIV/AIDS that we face in Zambia and around the world is not prevention, not the science, and not even treatment. Rather, it is winning broad country ownership of the problem and the solution. Country ownership doesn’t just mean having the country apply its own resources to the issue, although that is very important. It also means that the country engages at a policy level to trying to find solutions that work for addressing the AIDS epidemic.

Youths playing soccer in a village in Zambia
Youths playing soccer in a village in Zambia

Zambia, for instance, has quadrupled its expenditures on antiretroviral drugs in the last two years. That is quite remarkable. Zambia is also pushing the envelope, getting ahead of the world in terms of trying to treat even larger numbers of its citizens for HIV than even the World Health Organization recommends at this point. They’re trying to be even more ambitious, and I think that is a really good sign. We are also seeing a really passionate commitment to getting out there and engaging with the people to try to address the epidemic from the President, the First Lady and from the Ministers. We have a big challenge, but I think Zambia is doing a pretty good job of taking up that challenge.

Another big challenge is that the Zambian health infrastructure is simply too thin. It is too weak. Until just recently, Zambia was graduating only 65 doctors per year in a country of over 13 million people. They’re going to triple that, and they’re trying to add 2,000 new nurse graduates each year as well. But until you have the health infrastructure in the field — personnel who can actually diagnose, treat and refer people for further care — it is going to be very, very hard to really knock out the epidemic. We have a long way to go, but we are going in the right direction.

In terms of how I see the future here: Realistically, I think Zambia will help lead the world to an HIV-free generation, as Hillary Clinton said. However, I don’t think it is going to be easy. I think what we are finding is that while we are able to treat 80 percent of the people that the guidelines suggest we should treat, it is very hard to get to that last 20 percent. And as we make progress in fighting the epidemic, and people are not dying left and right as they were just ten years ago, the awareness and urgency is decreasing. I think epidemiologists will tell you that this happens in all epidemics. But then, later, there is a bump up as adherence to taking drugs and as care about behavior begins to diminish and the disease can get a second wind. I think we need to somehow raise public awareness to a higher level and try to keep this country focused on fighting HIV. The battle must not just be waged through health programs, but also through public awareness, the involvement of civil society organizations, including church groups, and the local commitment of the country’s top leaders.

The Politic: There has been significant economic debate in the past as to how effective foreign aid can be in both realistically and rigorously solving underlying development problems, even with perfectly good intentions. Are there any ways in which U.S. humanitarian aid has failed to deliver fully in Zambia? On a related note, do you think that the way in which aid money is used needs to be reconsidered in any way?

That is a very complicated question and not easy to answer quickly. Let me start by saying that economic development is a complex phenomenon that requires a certain amount of tailoring from country to country. We can’t always tell easily whether or not our investments — based on a model that may have worked someplace else — will necessarily work very well in Zambia. In all cases, we’re only part of the process, and we are often a small part of the process. Economic development is affected much more by the policies of a country’s own government and by the way the population mobilizes to develop itself. Again, it is a complicated question.

You have referred to humanitarian assistance. I think it is important to recognize that humanitarian assistance is not always focused principally on economic development. It is usually focused principally on relieving human suffering. I would say that our programs in Zambia that are humanitarian in nature, especially our health programs and our programs related to refugees, have been extremely successful in achieving humanitarian goals. I always hope that we can get more bang for our buck, but those programs are doing very well.

In terms of economic development, I do think that good governance and the fight against corruption are essential for economic development. Corruption is like a tax on everything that everyone does. One of the most important things that I think that we can do is to continue to contribute to greater transparency and more effective accountability in what Zambia’s own government does to deal with corruption. On our own side, we need to continually look at our programs and monitor them based on the results they produce. I don’t really like foreign assistance programs that are focused principally on supporting a process that is hard to measure. Some of our programming — for instance, the $355 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact for Zambia to improve water and sanitation in Lusaka — is a good idea. We can measure the results. We know whether or not we are achieving our goals.

The Politic: In what ways has the United States engaged with Zambia to minimize governmental corruption?

We do so in part through the bully pulpit. We talk about it. We press senior officials from the President on down to fight corruption. We stress how important it is in part to make sure that the Zambian people themselves know that they don’t just have to live with corruption — that they too can press their own government to be accountable and transparent.

For instance, for several years we have been supporting a freedom of information bill that Zambia, we hope, will pass this year. The bill will give Zambians access to information about what exactly their government is doing. We have also been working hard to support judicial reform in Zambia to ensure that the judicial system will, first, be corruption-free, and, second, will be able to provide justice to people who often feel frozen out of the process.

One way we can do a lot to fight corruption through an endeavor other than a government program is to promote greater U.S. investment and trade in Zambia. American companies inherently are more prone to support good governance. They also, by law, are not allowed to pay bribes. I think the experience that Zambians will have, dealing with American companies, will actually build capacity for greater transparency and accountability in the way that business is done. I think the private sector has an enormous part to play.

The Politic: How do you, as the Ambassador, promote American economic, political and cultural interests in the country?

Everything we do in the embassy here is aimed at promoting American interests. We do it through extremely active engagement. As an Ambassador, I spend a lot of time visiting with Zambians, giving speeches, going to universities, speaking on the radio and trying to contact Zambians in any way I can. We do this culturally too. We just had a country-western band come through. They performed, as well as working with Zambian musicians and students to try to make connections and build bridges.

One of the most important things we do here, believe it or not, is also one of the cheapest: the Peace Corps. Zambia is home to the largest Peace Corps program in all of Africa and the second largest Peace Corps program in the world. That is people-to-people diplomacy. That is building bridges. That is showing people in very isolated locations what the American people are really like. I think the impression these volunteers make is overwhelmingly positive.

The Politic: Do you think that there are any misconceptions that Zambians have of Americans, or vice-versa? 

I think there are misconceptions that people from Cambridge have of people from New Haven! So the answer is yes. I think one of the things that we see among Zambians is that they think everyone in the United States is rich. They really believe that the streets are paved with gold and that things are really easy for Americans. I think it is important for us to show Zambians that Americans struggle too. It is also important that they appreciate that the assistance that we provide is funded by American citizens who, when they send assistance overseas, are in some cases foregoing benefits they could [otherwise receive].

I think some misconceptions that Americans have of Zambians are fundamental. When I am in the U.S. and I tell people that I am working in Zambia they often say, “Oh yes, Zimbabwe.” I think Americans, in general, would benefit greatly from a greater familiarity with the world.

One of the things that I would say is very interesting — I wouldn’t call it a misconception but it is something that Americans do not know — is how much the United States and Zambia have in common. Zambia, famously, is a country of 73 tribes, but many those tribes arrived here relatively recently. Like the United States, Zambia is a kind of cultural melting pot. Like the United States, Zambia is a country of immigrants. That leads to all sorts of common elements in our cultures.

The Politic: Nearly 70 percent of Zambians live below the recognized national poverty line. A large portion of the economic hardships has been attributed to the nation’s overdependence on the copper industry. What steps has the Zambian government taken to diversify its economy and what role has the United States played in this process?

Zambia villageWe are intimately engaged with the government to combat [economic hardships]. The sector that is the most important by far is the agricultural sector because about 65 percent of Zambians are engaged in agriculture. We have been working through the CATAC Process — which is really an African Union initiative — to promote agricultural productivity and the President’s Feed the Future Initiative to support diversification of agricultural products (so that people aren’t growing just one product). Most Zambians just grow maize. Teaching them methods to diversify will be much more productive and their incomes will go up.

We are [encouraging] American businesses to invest in infrastructure in Zambia so that Zambia can become a more effective exporter of agricultural goods. Zambia has tremendous amounts of arable land that is not used. It has 40 percent of all the water in Sub-Saharan Africa flowing through it, so its capacity to be a breadbasket of the region is quite strong and still unrealized. We have also worked hard to promote greater economic activity in the tourism sector, which has the potential to create lots of jobs for Zambians. We do that both on the ground in Zambia and by pushing American companies to invest and travel here.

Finally, I would say that the United States has been working very hard in the broad goals of economic statecraft that Secretary Clinton was promoting and that Secretary Kerry is very strongly committed to as well. These goals aim to get more American businesses in more sectors like energy and transport and service. We’re already seeing these things begin to happen. American businesses are more active here, and I think that will help Zambia diversify.

The Politic: With regards to how America as a whole is represented abroad, are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would like to change?

Let me start by saying that I hope the American people understand how well they are represented by the Foreign Service and all the other agencies that work for the United States overseas. I have been working for the United States government and foreign affairs for 29 years, and I am always amazed that our Foreign Service — whether it is USAID or the State Department or the Peace Corps or the other agencies that are here — has such incredibly dedicated folks working incredibly hard to represent the United States.

When we talk about what kinds of changes I would like to see in American foreign policy, that is such a broad question. I am reluctant to try to answer it in a very specific way, but let me say in a very broad way that under Secretary Clinton, the Department of State issued its first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). In the QDDR, Secretary Clinton carried forward ideas that have been referred to under various names. One of them is Smart Power. One of them is the Three “D’s” — diplomacy, development and defense. What I would say comes out of all of this is that the United States will benefit and be more effective overseas if we more appropriate balance the different tools in our foreign policy toolbox. For instance, in the past decade or so, as we’ve been trying to grapple with the challenges presented by September 11th, I think that we have tended to overemphasize the defense part of our toolbox, relative to diplomacy and development.

I have learned through hard — sometimes bitter — experiences that diplomacy is often most effective when we prevent a problem rather than when diplomacy tries to solve a problem. It is often so much more efficient and cheaper for the American people and less costly in terms of American lives and American treasure to prevent a war than to win a war.

The Politic: On a much more lighthearted final note, if I were to visit Zambia next week, is there one place that you recommend that I should visit?

If someone were to come, I would recommend that they go to Livingstone and visit Victoria Falls. If you’re visiting just once, it is an extraordinary thing to see. By visiting that area, you will also learn something about the tourism challenges that Zambia has. Even though Livingstone is a city, it is in a relatively rural location, and you will encounter the challenges of agricultural development in Zambia. It is right on the border with Zimbabwe, so you would also learn something of the challenges that a country like Zambia faces in dealing with neighbors that are not always as well governed as Zambia.

Embassy of the United States to Zambia:

Click here to return to Diplomatic Discourse

Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *