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Why the State Department Needs More -- and Better -- Training

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As Nigeria, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and a host of other countries struggle with growing internal unrest, the State Department is taking important steps to re-organize itself in support of people -- not just governments. Most recently, State rolled out its new Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, which will house all civilian protection, conflict prevention and rule of law priorities within President Obama's larger foreign policy agenda. It is an office comprised of bureaus that dealt previously with traditional human rights and humanitarian issues, but lacked a coordinated mandate.

Now, however, the administration has explicitly linked them under one umbrella and elevated their mission -- a step that illustrates President Obama's interest centralizing these principles within the policy arena. He is also making clear that a critical, common thread runs between them. In order to be more effective, they need to be more coherent.

Over the last year, civilian security -- which places people at the center of efforts to prevent, deter, and recover from conflict -- has become a prominent cornerstone of President Obama's foreign policy. The winds of change, and in some cases upheaval, have forced the administration to explicitly reflect on how the drivers of instability, the needs of local populations, and the world beyond government institutions should be incorporated into policy decisions.

Structural change, of course, cannot be the sole hinge on which better policy hangs. That is why parallel to the formation of this new office must be a senior level push for expanded and enhanced professional development. Requiring more broad based and rigorous training -- especially in crisis prevention -- will help the State Department reclaim its rightful leadership role in the complex, multi-agency foreign policy machinery that has emerged in the post 9/11 era.

This is particularly important because the aftermath of September 11 saw a dramatic surge in the Defense Department's role in pre- and post-conflict activities. All too rapidly, this expanded engagement result in a shift of core crisis prevention and reconstruction responsibilities away from key foreign affairs agencies and towards the Pentagon.

Seeking to reverse this trend, the Obama administration has done an admirable job articulating how to repair the imbalance. Numerous policy reviews such as the inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and the Global Development Policy Directive have expressly stated this objective as a priority. Getting the formula right, however, requires more than simply elevating offices and re-titling senior officials.

A joint report from the Center for American Progress and Humanity United, entitled "It All Starts With Training", illustrates the important need for scaled up training at the State Department, particularly in the field of crisis prevention. As the report delineates, despite the number of complex global challenges we currently face, few government officials making key decisions actually have the formal training needed to properly address the underlying drivers and policy implications.

Officers heading for Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan receive some training for their particular portfolios but much of this is defensive driving and personal safety requirements. Notably, there is a small (and growing) cadre of designated professionals known as the Civilian Response Corps, or CRC. The CRC does focus on conflict prevention, but since its inception in 2004, this group has been sidelined by the regional bureaus -- the ultimate drivers of policy.

The formation of the "J office" indicates a re-alignment and reprioritization of technical expertise rooted in a civilian-based approach. But to have staying power, State also needs to shift its institutional ethos towards greater professional development. To this end, tying all training -- including crisis prevention -- directly to promotion is an important first step. Doing so would ensure that personnel are recognized and rewarded for developing new skill sets -- as is the case with the military. State should also create a new cone, or career track, within the Foreign Service that focuses on conflict prevention and analysis to deepen in-house expertise over the long term, while requiring all Foreign Service officers to take crisis prevention courses. Finally, State should give bid preference for embassy postings to those who complete a certified core curriculum in conflict prevention training. This would serve as a powerful incentive to mainstream crisis prevention while also requiring the Foreign Service Institute to develop a wide range of course offerings.

Elevating and centralizing a civilian security office will not bring about immediate change in the countries where it is most needed. But it can help identify others that are showing such signs and promote early action. By simultaneously scaling up crisis prevention training, however, the administration makes an even stronger investment to ensure its diplomats and development experts have the right tools to respond. This will save money -- and lives -- in the long run.