Expert hands give Jackson students a lesson in shaping policy
Robert Gersony, who spent more than 40 years working in crisis zones across the globe, has this advice for Yale students who want to influence policy at the highest levels of the U.S. State Department:
Don’t rely on written reports. Value in-person briefings.
“Written reports have almost no impact at senior levels of the State Department,” Gersony, who spent more than four decades as a consultant doing fieldwork in crisis zones, told students during a recent meeting of “Global Crises Response,” a graduate-level course at the new Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs. “Nobody reads reports anymore.”
While writing reports helps organize thoughts, a fact-focused in-person briefing is much more likely to effect change, he said.
Such firsthand insights from seasoned practitioners are the lifeblood of “Global Crises Response,” which seeks to provide students a clear understanding of how the U.S. government and international community respond to humanitarian crises and military interventions.
The course, which is taught by Harry K. Thomas, Jr. the former U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe, is also a hallmark of the Jackson School, which offers students the opportunity to learn from and engage with individuals who have experience influencing and executing policy at the highest levels of public life. Thomas, who retired in 2018 after more than 30 years in the Foreign Service, is one of the Jackson School’s senior fellows — distinguished practitioners with experience in diplomacy, business, and public affairs, who teach courses, offer students career guidance, and conduct research informed by their experiences.
Prior to becoming Yale’s first new professional school since 1976, the Jackson School was known as the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. In 2019, the Yale Corporation, or board of trustees, approved plans to expand the institute into a professional school focused on inspiring and training a new generation of leaders to tackle challenging global problems by crafting thoughtful, evidence-based policy solutions.
In this class session, held on Sept. 20, the students interacted with two practitioners — Thomas and Gersony — with more than 70 years of combined experience doing policy-relevant work in global affairs, the former in the Foreign Service and the latter as an independent consultant.
Thomas, who served as director general of the Foreign Service, had assigned the class to read “The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian,” a book by Robert Kaplan that covers its subject’s career conducting in-depth assessments of conflict-affected countries, including Rwanda, Guatemala, Chad, Bosnia, North Korea, Iraq, and Mozambique.
Two students, Michael Gaviria and Jun Ge, were asked to lead a discussion of Kaplan’s book. They contacted Gersony, who agreed to spend an hour with the class on Zoom discussing a factfinding mission he conducted in 1986 during the Mozambican Civil War, which had displaced millions of people.
Thomas told Gersony that the book was the first of six the class will analyze over the semester. And he offered a self-effacing reason for its selection.
“I wanted the students to start with the book about you,” he said. “Your career is diametrically opposed to what we learn in the Foreign Service or USAID, and I want them to grow up to be more like you than me.”
In 1986, the U.S. State Department sent Gersony, a contractor, to Malawi in southeastern Africa to assess conditions in refugee camps sheltering hundreds of thousands of people who had escaped war torn Mozambique. He first visited a camp south of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, not far from the Mozambique border where he interviewed six refugees selected at random about their experiences. While the refugees expressed contentment with the camp’s services, they all told him of atrocities committed in their rural villages by RENAMO, the anti-communist insurgent group that was battling the ruling democratic socialist FRELIMO Party, which was backed by the Soviet Union.
“They talked about attacks on villages and about people being enslaved and murdered — of children being murdered — and all kinds of things like that,” he told the Yale students.
Troubled by what he had learned, Gersony spent the next several months visiting refugee camps, interviewing 200 displaced people in 42 locations in Mozambique and five neighboring countries, and steadily gathered information about massacres, mutilations, and other horrors perpetrated by RENAMO, which had ties to apartheid South Africa.
“It was pure terror,” he said of the stories people told him.
Gersony described his interview methodology. He made it a point to speak with ordinary people in the camps for about two hours each, never asking for their names. He took notes by hand without making recordings and spoke to interviewees in private settings where others couldn’t watch or eavesdrop. He began the conversations by asking the individuals where they came from and what their lives were like before they left their villages. He asked them to describe what they saw and heard the day they fled their homes. From there, he said, the conversations moved deliberately and chronologically.
“I didn’t have to ask a lot of questions,” he said. “In a sense, they started framing the issues and highlighting what was important to them.”
He avoided asking sensitive questions, such as inquiring about who specifically had committed a particular atrocity, so that interviewees wouldn’t become wary of getting themselves into trouble. He simply let people share their stories. They often provided significant details without his prompting or that he hadn’t thought to ask about.
To U.S. policymakers, his findings were eye-opening. Prior to Gersony’s fieldwork, the conventional wisdom in Washington D.C. had portrayed RENAMO as freedom fighters. Powerful conservative groups exerted mounting pressure on the Reagan administration to provide the group weapons, Gersony explained.
When he returned from the assignment, Gersony delivered a six-hour briefing to Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, about what he had learned in the field.
His approach to those briefings was careful. He kept them focused on the facts he had gathered and distilled, he told the Yale class. He explained that policymakers get bombarded by advocates, who are passionate about the issues and bring emotion into the conversation. He tried to present senior officials a fresh set of facts using clinical, non-judgmental language that appealed to their minds instead of their hearts, he said.
The approach worked. Two days after he met with Crocker, Gersony briefed Secretary of State George Schultz for an hour. Struck by the presentation, Schultz subsequently discussed RENAMO in his regular briefing with President Reagan. By 1988, the Reagan administration had rejected proposals to fund the violent insurgent group.
Gersony credited the 200 ordinary people, most of whom were illiterate, for helping shape U.S. policy by sharing their stories. Had the United States provided RENAMO lethal aid, he said, the civil war, which ended in 1992, would have lasted years longer and cost at least another 100,000 lives.
Asked by a student if his methodology is used at the State Department and USAID — the federal agency that manages foreign aid — Gersony acknowledged that it was never institutionalized.
“I think respect for the views of ordinary people has diminished, not increased, as the decades have gone on,” he said.
After Gersony signed off, a student asked Thomas whether he believes U.S. policymaking suffers because the State Department and USAID haven’t adopted the consultant’s methodology.
Thomas responded that U.S. embassies lack the resources to send staff into the field for six months to study a single issue and that hiring consultants like Gersony to do that work is expensive.
“A lot depends on the budget,” he said.
At the same time, as ambassador, Thomas urged his staff to leave the embassy and learn about the issues that concerned people.
“I told my staff that I didn’t want to see them in the office except on rare occasions,” he said. “I wanted them out in the field.”
For his part, Gaviria, who is pursuing a master’s of advanced study in global affairs, appreciated the opportunity to spend an hour engaging with two practitioners with decades of behind-the-scenes experience shaping U.S. foreign policy.
“It’s one the biggest reasons why I decided to apply to Yale,” said Gaviria, who is a senior chief in the U.S. Navy. “I knew that Jackson gives students access to practitioners like Ambassador Thomas, and experiences like today are invaluable.”
Ge, an MBA student at the School of Management, said she appreciates that the course is open to students from across the university, which helps foster a diversity of perspectives and ideas. Like Gaviria, she values the opportunity to learn from experienced practitioners.
“That’s how you learn how to become a change maker,” she said. “It’s how you learn to find solutions in a very complex world.”