by William Harrop
Faced with inadequate funding, US embassies in the developing world regularly hear the refrain “Do More with Less.” In the late 1970’s, as ambassador to Guinea, I worked with the socialist/communist President Sekou Touré. He had banned commerce of any sort. As a result, Guinea must have been the only country in Africa without markets, without women seated behind mounds of nuts, vegetables and grains, without the bustle of trading activity. The countryside and villages of what had been a relativity prosperous French colony were dirt poor and unhappy. Sekou Touré blamed that on the Guinean people. He complained to me on one occasion: “I am fed up with my Guinean people. I tell them to work and produce for the good of everyone, not just their own families, and they won’t do it”! I refrained from replying that national collectivism might not be the best way to encourage productivity.
This was at the height of the Cold War, and, partly as a consequence of his policies, Guinea hosted a Soviet mission of 1200 (sic!), which included engineers, mining and agricultural experts, medical advisors, railroad technicians and more. The Chinese mission, in competition with the Soviets, numbered 700, which included construction laborers engaged in erecting a splendid government center and theater. By contrast, my embassy had sixteen American staff members.
How could our pint-size embassy possibly compete with the scale of presence of our Cold War adversaries?
Well, in the 1970s USAID was providing a sum of $25,000 to every American ambassador to direct as he or she thought best to the development of their country of assignment. In traveling about Guinea, I had seen youth in every village playing the universal sport of soccer—but with a bag of rags, an old shoe, sometimes even a plastic bottle in place of a ball. So, I ordered $25,000 worth of soccer balls, each imprinted with the clasped hands of American aid. We were able to distribute one to each village and community in Guinea.
The distribution opened the door to a particularly African form of corruption. The minister of the interior was responsible for countrywide distribution. The minister could not resist the temptation to deliver a disproportionate number of soccer balls to his own tribal area. A national employee of the embassy, the member of a different tribe, learned of this misdemeanor and we were able (largely) to correct it.
Some USAID officials in Washington complained that this was a “stunt”, not economic development. But no other expenditure of $25,000 could possibly have drawn more attention and gratitude to the United States.
Ambassador William C. Harrop served in the US Foreign Service from 1954 to 1994. During his long career, he held ambassadorships to Guinea, Kenya and the Seychelles, Zaire, and Israel. He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, 1977-80, and inspector general of the Foreign Service, 1983-86. Ambassador Harrop is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, this journal’s parent organization.