Too few State Department employees at high-risk overseas missions speak the local language, while the department spends thousands of tax dollars each year on training for officials who don’t need foreign language skills, the Inspector General for the State Department said in a recent report.
The report backs up the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, which said in a December report that the lack of Arabic speakers among the personnel assigned to Benghazi was a barrier to communication and situational awareness at the mission there.
The State Department spent about $195 million on language training last year. Much of that was spent on training officials in positions that don’t require language skills, while shorting missions that do require language proficiency. Training costs between $105,000 and $480,000 per person, depending on the language’s difficulty. Training needs are determined at the regional level and aren’t properly reviewed at the department level, the State IG said.
The lack of oversight means skill doesn’t always match needs at embassies. Missions at three European countries where English is common had nine language-designated positions, while Haiti, Thailand and Indonesia had none, and Egypt had only one.
In some cases, the lack of officials who speak the language can be detrimental, as the IG said it was in Benghazi.
“In Muscat and Kuwait, language limitations undermined political and public diplomacy outreach efforts,” the IG said. “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the shortage of language-qualified officers limited the missions’ ability to participate in public debates with fluency in local languages.”
For the past two years, the IG has recommended eliminating 64 language-designated positions at posts where officials can use English for their work, most of them in Europe. That would free up funds for more training at high-risk or difficult posts, the State IG said.
“Given a government-wide need to be more cost conscious, language training costs should be transparent and part of the LDP (language-designated positions) process,” the State IG report said. “Eliminating language training for positions that do not require language skills would free up funds for additional language training elsewhere.”
Because embassies bear little of the costs for language training, they don’t consider cost when they request their language-designated positions, the State IG said.
To curb this problem, embassies should share in some of the language training costs, the State IG recommended.
The inspector general also recommended that embassies explain the reason for the language needs they identify, and that the State Department list recommended language designations by mission and hold bureaus accountable for training costs.