As I type this I am in Washington DC. I’m here for meetings. The last time I was here was in late 2014 for the same reason. The purpose is to provide various government entities (and some journalists) with important information “from the ground” regarding what is going on in Burundi. Though there is much to discuss about the political situation, my focus is more on the humanitarian. I was often baited into speculating about the politics, and it’s tempting to do so, but I really need to hone in on the serious issues facing the population including food insecurity, malnutrition, etc.
For the visit I fortunately had the assistance of my colleague Natalie who is based in DC. She basically took my briefing information and turned them into talking points and makes sure I understand where the various stakeholders are coming from. I am admittedly a novice at this sort of thing. Yes, I’ve done it before but there were new people to meet with this time and I still have a hard time understanding the inner workings (vested interest) that influence what people want to know. One example this time was that Obama had recently released a draft budget and almost everyone brought it up. It was important to understand how it influenced what they wanted to know from me.
It’s obviously not altogether altruistic. We also need these meetings to make sure the organization as a whole stays on their radar, to make sure that people understand the gravity of the issues that I see and to some extent try to influence policies that affect the people we serve. It’s obviously a tall order and you need to be realistic about your expectations. But overall I was happy with how things went.
The first day began with a briefing at our DC office. We basically go through the agenda and discuss any questions about the talking points. They’d largely been hammered out in advance by email so it was pretty straight forward. From there we spent the next two days bouncing from taxi to meeting to taxi to meeting. Natalie is really good at this – keeping us on schedule, filling in gaps in my comments, sometimes refocusing conversations. I was the content guy and she was the one making sure we dotted our eyes and crossing our t’s. It worked as it is supposed to.
The key meetings were with the State Department, funding agencies (USAID, OFDA and PRM), the White House (national security), Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, House FRC staff and two senators’ offices. Time was so tight that one of the conversations with a journalist had to be done mostly in a taxi going from one meeting to the next. By the end of day two I was pretty spent. As I said, it’s hard to know what impact the discussions may have but they are likely a small piece in a large mosaic of discussions these people have. I did get a nice email yesterday from someone in the State Department who was in one of the meetings saying how valuable she felt the conversation was for her to hear from someone based in the country. Good to know.
So now I’m off to NY. A full week of more meetings awaits. Sigh. I miss my family.