An Interview with Robert P. Jackson, U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon
Robert P. Jackson arrived in Cameroon on October 12, 2010 after being sworn in as Ambassador to the Republic of Cameroon on September 17. He has previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco and in Dakar, Senegal. Jackson has also worked in countries as varied as Portugal and Canada to Burundi and Zimbabwe. A member of the Senior Foreign Service since 2003, Jackson received the James A. Baker III — C. Howard Wilkins, Jr. Award for Outstanding Deputy Chief of Mission in 2006. He has also received three individual superior honor awards and two individual meritorious honor awards.
The Politic: Why did you want to join the Foreign Service? What about the Foreign Service do you find most interesting?
I decided to join the Foreign Service in 8th grade after reading The Ugly American and believed that I could be a better diplomat than those I had read about. I had always loved the idea of living abroad; in 5th and 6th grade, my mother took me to watch films about other countries and that built up my interest in other cultures. I have been with the Foreign Service for 31½ years. When I was a senior in college at Bowdoin University, I passed the written exam and failed the orals. I heard quite bluntly that I needed to brush up on my economics; so I went overseas and got practical experience. I have to admit that the key to passing the Foreign Service exam is in the way you handle yourself and the way you present yourself. If you look at old movies such as State Department File 649 from 1950, where people take the Foreign Service exam, the oral process has changed little. Remember that what you say is only half of the exam, but the way you handle yourself is the other half, and both are so important to your success.
The Politic: Before Cameroon, you have served in many locations. How would you summarize your overall experience serving in the many positions? Which prior locations and or jobs have best prepared you for this current position?
I have had a wide variety of jobs: commercial work, visa officer in three different countries, ran entry level officer training, and helped run the office for the promotion of democracy and human rights after 9/11. The two most recent jobs I held were as deputy ambassador to Senegal and Morocco, and they were great opportunities to show that I could run missions on my own and that I was qualified for bigger things. In total, I have worked in six countries in Africa, but oddly enough I had not been to Africa until 1985 when I had my first interaction. What I have to say is every African country is so different. While we may have programs specifically tailored for each country, all really work with direct engagement.
The Politic: What is it that ultimately brought you to Cameroon?
I saw becoming an ambassador as the logical continuation of my career, but you have to be nominated for ambassadorship. When the ambassadorial positions were announced, I had a clear preference for Cameroon since my background and language skills were most suited for this country. It is a huge honor to be nominated, and I accepted in a heartbeat. It is hard to explain, but Cameroon was right for me, and I’m glad it worked out.
The Politic: What does a typical day at the embassy look like?
Here, every day is different. I began today by meeting with students who are applying to study in the United States at different educational levels; next, I met with colleagues to discuss showing a film on LGBT rights in Cameroon and how we might structure the dialogue that we want to have; I attended the opening of the current session of Cameroon’s new Senate; I had an interview with the local government TV station about President Obama’s trip to Africa; and I met with two different business people to discuss investment issues. Later tonight, I’m hosting a large dinner for Cameroonians and Americans. And while no days are exactly the same, we get a routine going. People sometimes underestimate their importance, but cocktail parties and dinners are a way you get work done. Meeting people in an environment that’s more relaxed and allows you to speak more openly about things.
The Politic: As I read through the Embassy website, Mrs. Jackson is occasionally mentioned. Is it common for an Ambassador’s significant other to work on projects in the embassy? What role has your wife had in your career?
My wife and I met while I was in the Foreign Service and immediately after marrying we went to live in Zimbabwe. She has worked principally in her own profession, speech therapy. We have many tandem couples who work and travel together, but, to prevent conflict of interest and nepotism, they normally work in different offices. My wife and I often work together on volunteer projects, especially educational projects because she is very passionate about the subject.
The Politic: What are some of the projects that you and the embassy as a whole are currently working on to actively engage the local community?
The biggest project here is combating HIV/AIDS where we are investing $29 million in Cameroon in 2013. The project has many components such as strengthening laboratories, working on blood safety, and providing antiretroviral drugs to prevent mothers from passing AIDS on to their children. We also work with the most-at-risk populations, such as commercial sex workers and men who have sex with other men.
Beyond the health field, we have a very ambitious program where we provide good breakfasts and hot lunches along with textbooks to schools. It is important that the youth of Cameroon get balanced and nutritious meals, especially at school, so they can then focus on academics.
What many people sometimes forget is that Cameroon is a bilingual country, so we have education programs for students to learn both languages and advance their linguistic abilities. We give them a helping hand by preparing them for the job market, holding spelling bees, and providing small grants to build more classrooms and purchase other school supplies. Agriculture products are also important, and they are vital in helping small Cameroonian businesses to get going. We work with young people to make a plan, understand how a business is doing financially, and prepare them for the day-to-day activities that go with business management. Overall, we seek to create more opportunities here.
The greatest work we have done is to combat cholera, most of which came from a lack of sanitation. It was rampant in many communities. We worked together with partners in two regions. We installed 100 latrines and coordinated centers to react to outbreaks. With a small investment of $130,000, we eliminated new cases of cholera and saved many lives. Here we have an English spelling bee. Eighty students — ten from each of eight schools — participated this year. The goal is to promote English language development in the heavily francophone part of the country. The spelling bee is a way to engage the local students to strive to learn English and learn words such as “leprechaun,” which may sound ridiculous, but really helps young students learn pronunciation.
The Politic: Cameroon has a very raw material-based economy, but has “plans” to be an emerging economy by 2035. What role does the US play in this? How does the US promote economic development in Cameroon?
Economic development is a major priority, and trade and investment are among the most important things the United States can do to promote development. USAID is the primary development agency and we are working to improve the quality of cocoa, a major export. In the education sector, we are helping to keep girls in school, and the Peace Corps is working on the grassroots level to assist in health, agriculture, education, the environment, and small business development. For Cameroon to emerge, it needs to do the following: infrastructure must improve; electricity, which is now a luxury (40 percent of people in the capital have access to electricity and running water), must be made more available, through substantial investment.
Trade and investment are vital to creating jobs in African countries, and the companies that locate in Cameroon offer great jobs and good wages. Moreover, they also bring in new technology; and the transfer of technology is vital to helping the Cameroonian economy modernize and become competitive in the years to come. The economy is largely based on a few agricultural exports, oil and gas, and wood. However, those products need to be transformed in this country so that their value grows. I am proud to say that American companies are the largest group of foreign investors in Cameroon, and they are helping Cameroon by training the workforce and adding value to exported goods. Overall, they are creating better conditions in the country. Trade between Cameroon and the United States creates jobs in both countries. Since 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has created 300,000 jobs in Africa. Last year, African countries exported goods worth $55 billion to the United States. Under President Obama, U.S. exports to Cameroon have doubled, and both countries have benefitted from the trade relationship.
The Politic: What is the current relationship between the U.S. and the Cameroonian government?
The relationship with the Cameroonian government is excellent, and cooperation is very strong, especially in security, health, agriculture, and the environment. The work that the countries have been able to do together is benefitting everyone.
The Politic: Due the geographical location of the country, there is a lot of potential for conflicts to spill over from neighboring countries, yet Cameroon remains one of the most stable countries in Africa. How does the U.S. work with the government of Cameroon to ensure stability?
Cameroonians are proud of their peace and stability they have maintained since their independence in 1960. They have welcomed many refugees from elsewhere in the Central African region, which can be dangerous. We provide military training; we conducted three exercises this year, and we work with Cameroon to counter piracy, poaching, and terrorism — the three main threats here. On the other side, it is important that we support democratization and human rights. The country has a good human rights record but it needs to enhance the right to assemble, crack down on corruption, improve the conduct of its security forces, and improve prison conditions. One of our focuses has been to strengthen civil society, and we have been successful in helping many organizations work toward common agendas and to help them organize. We also helped launch a Civil Society Forum for Democracy to support transparent elections and to help register voters. We are also heavily involved in women’s rights, which can be difficult in countries where women have not participated in civil society.
The Politic: How does you feel one party rule has influenced Cameroon and to what extent is the U.S. able to promote democratic values?
It is important to note that there are 284 registered parties in Cameroon but one that dominates elections. To some extent, the one-party experience has created a place where people work together. However, one party can only stay in power if a majority votes for it. With over 275 ethnic groups, President Biya’s ability to be reelected time and time again reflects his ability to pull together the very diverse regions of the country and establish a good balance. Through a process of sharing power across regions and by being a good politician, he has stayed in power and achieved a lot. The other side of this issue is that the opposition parties have not agreed on common candidates and they have not been a threat to the ruling party because they are terribly disorganized.
The Politic: What are the your primary objectives when it comes to dealing with poverty and economic inequality? Do you feel the embassy has been successful in reaching those objectives?
I am proud to report that we have been very successful in making an impact in the country; while it hasn’t reduced poverty in a huge way, every job helps. All parties are making a genuine effort to support economic development and while it may take 20 to 35 years to turn the situation around, the country is making progress. To truly change, it needs foreign investment and assistance. Thankfully, the country has a very low debt-to-GDP ratio and that has permitted foreign investor and foreign governments to get involved to move in the right direction.
The Politic: You have almost completed three years of service in Cameroon. What have you enjoyed the most about his job? What do you enjoy least?
I can say without a doubt that engaging the leaders and the people is the best part of my job because Cameroonians are warm, friendly, and you can really learn a lot from them. The worst part has to be in dealing with the corruption which is everywhere, including in the embassy. It is not a pleasant issue to deal with. That said, corruption has been dealt with firmly. It is hard to operate in an honest way. For the embassy, it is vital to retain our integrity. We have to crack down on these things because it shows we are not only talking the talk but are also walking the walk with respect to dealing with corruption.
The Politic: Do you know what comes next? How much longer would you like to—or believe—you will work in Cameroon? Are there any exciting or interesting things you plan on doing, or new projects you are interested in starting in Cameroon or abroad?
After my time here ends, I will be returning to Washington to lead an inspection team to look at embassy operations around the world. I feel that my past and current jobs will make me effective. However, I plan on staying here until a new nominee has been confirmed by the Senate.
The Politic: What do you do in your free time? What is the weather like? Final remarks?
In my free time, I like to play tennis and especially lots of bridge, which I happen to be decent at. I love swimming and reading. I go back to the United States once or twice a year. However, since our friends now mostly live in Northern Virginia, it has become our first stop. We have huge torrential downpours in Yaounde, but the capital is far from the coast; so the climate is temperate. It is normally in the 80’s every day and in the 60’s every night. The weather is a blessing. I would really urge everyone to think about the Foreign Service as a career but it is important to take into consideration that it is a lifetime job. I also have to add that Tim is a superb assistant. The entire team of fifty Americans we have in Cameroon come from several different agencies. However, their terrific work results in the success of this embassy. I am very proud of all of us. We work very well together, and I could not do anything without their tremendous support.
Embassy of the United States to Cameroon: http://yaounde.usembassy.gov