The California-Libya Connection

Despite being almost 7,000 miles apart, California and Libya have an interesting history, a similar climate, and a relationship that's worth watching.

At independence in 1951, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world, exporting scrap metal and dates. After the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in 1958, Libya began sending promising graduates to the United States to acquire skills needed to manage the country's natural resources. Future petroleum engineers went to 'oil schools' like Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas A&M, while those focused on agriculture and water (a critical issue in a country that is over 90% desert), attended Federal land-grant universities such as U.C. Davis and Berkeley. Libya's most prominent hydrologist studied at Davis in the 1970s (perhaps it is no coincidence that California artichokes grow beautifully in Libyan soil).

As Gaddafi's policies became more erratic and violent, nearly two decades of bilateral and U.N. sanctions reduced Libya's contact with the West. During the rapprochement with Libya in the late 90s and early 2000s educational links began to re-form, if tentatively. The 2011 'Libyan Spring' spawned literally hundreds of local civic organizations, and prompted a large number of the Libyan diaspora -- many from Texas and California -- to return to help create a new, more open state.

This year, one might say the Libyans have returned to California. Two out of a record six Libyan candidates were chosen to participate in the prestigious Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP). The ELP, in its 15th year, is designed specifically to boost the effectiveness of promising mid-career professionals from developing countries, through modules on resource management, global warming, food security, etc. and workshops on negotiation and organizational management. Two past ELP participants have won the Goldman Prize (Environmental Sciences' analog to the Nobel).

Khaled Ben Halim, one of the 2013 ELP Libya contingent, relocated to Tripoli from Texas during the revolution with the single-minded goal of protecting animals from abuse; "conservation and animal welfare is usually last on the list of concerns during war," Ben Halim rues, "but these constituencies also need advocates, and I felt that was the contribution I was best able to make." Ben Halim has been instrumental, among other things, in a campaign to rehabilitate the Tripoli Zoo, whose collection of hippos, oryx and other African fauna barely survived the revolution, due to the efforts of volunteers. On the sidelines of ELP, Ben Halim hopes to create a relationship with the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Rida Sharif, a final-year forestry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri, is concerned with the impact of improved forest management on desertification. ELP participants from the state of Mali, itself severely impacted by the revolution in its neighbor to the North, improve access to education through feeding programs.

Professor David Zilberman, ELP program co-director, says that "sustaining natural resources in post conflict nations is a major priority for the College of Natural Resources, and we are very eager to support Libya's future environmental leaders."

My experiences at Berkeley (Ph.D., Agricultural and Resource Economics), and as one of the first U.S. diplomats in Tripoli from 2004-2006, shaped much of what I've done since, including co-founding the Avicenna Group, which has made a specialty of building relationships between U.S. and Libyan institutions, particularly in the area of acute care and emergency medicine.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens, whose ties to California and U.C. Berkeley were widely reported, served sequential assignments in Libya as Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Envoy to Benghazi, and then, Chief of Mission in Libya. Stevens was critical in generating U.S. support for Libya during and after the 2011 revolution, until his tragic death last year in the attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi at the hands of extremists -- an act that had more consequences on Libya's trajectory than many would care to admit.

Anne O'Leary, who retired recently from the Foreign Service, was the first permanently assigned Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Tripoli, and in that capacity, created a framework for future US-Libya student exchanges. O'Leary grew up in the Bay Area, and was 'Diplomat in Residence' at U.C. Berkeley from 2007-2008. One of her successors, Mietek Boduszynski -- you guessed it, another Berkeley Ph.D. -- has been responsible for keeping U.S.-Libya educational relationships running, through the current turmoil.

After the September, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission, the Avicenna Group shifted its focus to the problem of how to provide technical assistance when a sustained in-country presence is either not possible, or very difficult. The organization, with support from American and Libyan donors, has been working closely with ELP, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies to engage advanced graduate students in Engineering and Public Health, for example, to address a series of practical questions such as "how to design an ambulance dispatch system in a city without physical addresses", "how to train novice medics in the field via Internet-based courses."

In parallel, Avicenna has been working with faculty at the University of San Francisco (UCSF)-Global Health Sciences, and the U.C. Berkeley School of Optometry, to scope projects in, for example, retinal scanning for diabetes (assisted by a Libyan Ph.D. candidate), hospital administration, planning for acute and emergency care, and sustainable design. California-based firms with international interests, like the Berkeley Research Group, a law and economics consultancy, have helped underwrite the costs of ELP's Libya outreach.

Recent exchanges have also been cultural: several in Libya and California helped bring noted Libyan artist Mohammed Binlamin to Davis in early April, to participate in a Stevens memorial exhibition hosted by the John Natsoulas Gallery. Binlamin spent several days in Berkeley, visiting with local artists and touring a local foundry and galleries, with the goal of bringing California-based artists to Libya.

Collectively, the Libya-California links are multi-faceted, decreasingly random, and neither permanent nor fail-proof -- but with attention, they have the potential to contribute to a more stable Libya, a more creative U.S.-Libya bilateral relationship and new approaches to the provision of meaningful, cost-effective assistance to post-conflict states.