After four years of diplomatic service in Tanzania, Virginia Blaser, the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam, is this week leaving her post.
Daniel Muhau interviews the top US diplomat who shares her reflection of the time she spent in the country, and expresses her views on a wide range of issues – from economic policy to governance and human rights:
Q: How do you feel leaving Tanzania, after four years? How is your family taking it?
Ans. It’s been a very busy four years; we have really enjoyed it here, with my husband and four children. My children call Tanzania home, so they are very sad in particular to go, and my youngest son just said, ‘Oh, when will we be back, when will we come back home?’ And I said, well you know, may be to visit, but now you have to go with us.
It’s been a wonderful four years; it’s been hard in some ways, it’s been challenging and I learnt a lot. I have learnt in particular, after a decade in East Africa… What I gained in Tanzania is an additional appreciation that your culture, I think, brings forward, which is one of cooperation, and one of acceptance of others, and I bring out of this as experience of four years, understanding the importance of that, more than ever.
If there is one thing that struck you the most about Tanzania and Tanzanians, what would it be?
Ans. I think that it’s been amazing for me to watch, that closeness between the American people and Tanzanian people. So, you know we talk a lot about the government to government, you know, the United States brings in almost $850 million in assistance a year, but when I go out into the field, and I see the impact of a lifetime that Americans have had on Tanzanians, it’s really great.
I met a man at the airport a few weeks ago, I didn’t know who he was; we just started talking. And once he found out that I was with the embassy, he told me a story. He’s Tanzanian, and in his 60s. He said, you know, when I was a young boy I had a Peace Corps teacher, I was out in the country, we didn’t have enough teachers, but I had Peace Corps teacher and she inspired me, and I worked really hard in school. Later in life, I got a Fulbright (scholarship) and went to the United States and I got a master’s degree in economics. He said now I have got this job because of that connection. And every day, every time I go home back to my village, and I go through that village, I go to the same place that’s been there for decades; it’s a clinic with an American flag on it.
And I say to myself, he said, thank you America; every time I go by that clinic because it’s always been there, in the same village. That’s the connection that matters to me. the most. And I think when I go places and people tell me stories it means we have been here with Tanzania for the past 65 years, on this path of Tanzanian friendship, and American friendship and democracy. You know, that has stuck with me here more than any other country that I have served in. And I think that’s special.
The US Mission to Tanzania is committed to advancing democracy, human rights, and governance; promoting health and education; driving economic growth; and supporting peace, security, and rule of law. Are you satisfied with what you have done to push this agenda?
Ans. Look, you should never be satisfied. I think you should always say what more can I do; how can I do it better. It is true though that in the four years that I have been here, I look at the back of the envelope and do those calculations. The American people have invested over $3 billion into Tanzania, in four years, and the vast majority of that in health. Two thirds of our assistance is in health, and two thirds of that is in HIV programme.
So, I am satisfied in the sense that I know how hard my team has been working in cooperation with NGOs, government of Tanzania, and the press, and other private sector people, other development partners. I am satisfied that our hearts are in the right place. You don’t always get it right. You do have to go back and reconfigure, and shift things.
But, I would like to see us do better. I would to see us more efficient. I would like us to be able to operate in a more confident manner. I would like to see more American companies here than we have, part of that would be seeing more open, and transparent, and supportive private sector environment, not just for Tanzanian businesses, but also for international American businesses. Because I think the growth this country has to have, with a population that averages the age of 18, and is getting younger every day; you need to turn this… into a dividend, dynamic, smart, hardworking (youth).
Tanzanians need a future, and that won’t come from development partners; that is not going to come from government jobs; it needs to come from a broad-based, healthy, strong, confident private sector. And instead, you know, I see some discouraging signs on the private sector side; and I worry about what path that will take Tanzania, I see a scenario, which we, as friends, as partners, as trade partners, people who count on Tanzania for its engagement in the region, you know, its help with security in the region, and peace building in the region… you know, there needs to be a Tanzania that has a bright, strong, democratic, forward-meaning, positive path. And there are a lot of signs that, that’s the way Tanzania will go as we are still on this crossroads.
The other side is the less positive path, and it’s one a lot of people are concerned about, and talk about. I don’t want to see a Tanzania where people might be afraid for whatever reason. So, that’s the path that I think we need to work together. But the path that Tanzania takes… we have been with you 60 plus years. We are going to continue to be with you, and our investments across every sector, from roads to energy, to health, education, to agriculture; we will continue to be there.
You talked about discouraging signs on the private sector side. Would you give a few examples of those?
Ans. I think it’s really important when a US company signs an agreement, that both parties receive the goods and services and payments that have been agreed upon… that is an issue of rule of law; that’s an issue of transparency. And so, I think there can be some improvements there. I think there are current statistics that the government has released, including manufactured goods, and the fact that manufactured good sales have gone down.
It’s just a quarter, but we need to pay attention to these signs and look to see how we can create a private sector environment, how do we encourage entrepreneurism so that Tanzanians can create companies, and create jobs, that as youth get out of schools they have a future. And I think all these things can be done, and the United States has done a lot to help, to see that future… we believe that the health, the safety, the security of Tanzanians, the growth, positive growth of Tanzania is in our interest as friends, trade partner and a longtime ally.
What would you consider to be your greatest achievements?
Ans. (Huge sigh) I don’t know, I think it has to come to the entire package that the United States has been bringing here, like I said, roads to energy; we are really targeting to combat HIV, and see HIV once and for all defeated in Tanzania, to the point that in the newest programme that we just announced last week, where our grants in other countries may go down, our HIV support programme in Tanzania will go up 12 per cent next year. We are going to be putting 1.2 million Tanzanians on life-saving treatment funded by the American people, to try and ensure that 90 per cent of all Tanzanians who are HIV positive and need treatment will have it – women, children.
I personally feel really proud of what my team, working with Tanzanian partners, have done, especially for kids. I am a mum, with four kids. My daughter feels that she is Tanzanian. I think through our programmes we have seen the death of children of five drop by 40 per cent. We focused on particularly hard-hit districts, and we managed to bring vaccinations up to 75 per cent of the children there.
We have seen malaria deaths in children of five in just a few years cut by 50 per cent through our programmes. And it’s not just about statistics. What does it mean? It means that Tanzanian children through investments in health, in hard work by Americans working with Tanzanians are safer, healthier and have a bright future. And as a mum of four I just cannot figure anything to be prouder of other than that.
In your independent opinion, how would you rate President John Magufuli’s administration with regards to good governance and economic policy direction?
Ans. Look, I think some of the programmes that this administration has announced are really good ones, and there are certain ones that the United States shares the values and the targets; you know, the idea of fighting corruption is important in every country in the world, including the United States; the idea of transparency in government is really important. I think that is the positive path I talked about.
I think what’s really important though is for any administration, any country to say here’s our path – the path is important – but how you travel that path is also important. You may have good laws, and there are some good laws; how those laws are implemented is also important.
Protecting human rights – you can have and rightly so, a strong desire to fight corruption, but you have to balance that as well with ensuring human rights, ensuring freedom of speech, ensuring freedom of the press, ensuring the core values of your country, which are articulated not by one person, or not by one administration, but they are enshrined in your constitution, and your constitution is very clear on this point, and that’s something Tanzanians could be very proud of, and they should remind themselves of those values that are so well articulated in your constitution. And if necessary, and when necessary, they should remind their leaders that those values still apply. That’s what Tanzania wants, and that is the kind of democracy that the Tanzanian people want to have.
You worked under two (Tanzanian) presidents. How would you compare the current with the previous administration?
Ans. Look, one of the things that we talk about a lot in democracy is that the strength of democracy is when there is a change of power, a changeover between presidents, prime ministers; and that’s the real strength of democracy, because what you get with that change are new ideas, and a new way of looking at things; and you have new personalities. We see that in the United States as well.
But it’s very important in those changes to have robust dialogue, to have a press that can speak freely, and operate in an environment which they don’t need to be afraid; yes, the press needs to be ethical, responsible. But there needs to be an environment where the people and the press can speak.
And this is where the Tanzanian culture can really be a critical element, getting on and staying on the right path, which is one of inclusivity; the idea that when there is a challenge or problem or when there is a law proposed to bring in all those stakeholders, and listen, listen to what others say, listen to what they think, even and especially when they do not agree with you, because that is when you learn the most, and that’s where you appreciate other ideas. And that’s when, not you, not they, but as a collective, you come with not just better decisions, but the best decisions.
When you hosted various people at a function to announce the US presidential election results in November last year, you suggested that there was no reason to fear that the new administration would be bad for developing and less developed countries like Tanzania.
Do you still maintain that position even after the US President Donald Trump has recently proposed slashing international development funding by nearly a third, a cut many believe is so deep that it would likely force the US Agency for International Development to shutter its presence in 30 or more countries?
Ans. The United States right now… we are focused on providing about $820 million in programmes assistance this year. I just went to South Africa to fight and to support efforts to bring in funds for fighting HIV, and again we increased those funds by 12 per cent in the coming year. So, $526 million to keep 1.2 million Tanzanians alive, who have HIV.
So, while I think it’s certainly the right of any country to review (and they should), their assistance, their programmes, their trade agreements… and the new government gave us a chance to take a fresh look at those, and we will.
The friendships that the United States has, that the Americans have with Tanzania are irrespective of political lines - Republicans or Democrats. Regardless of which programmes we invest in, I still see robust investment. I certainly see that friendship continuing; we will continue on that. I mean, we have had a steady friendship for over 60 years.