Being able to make a contribution and make a difference — that excites me

What is your first impression of Bangladesh?

I am absolutely delighted to be here, and I am very pleased Ambassador Miller chose me to be his number two. To tell you the truth, when I first began my journey in diplomacy, I didn’t plan on coming to this part of the world. Thanks to a colleague, I realized I’d been shortsighted. Once I learned more, I became fascinated, and at my request — this is my fifth tour working on South Asia, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

H.E. JoAnne Wagner, Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Dhaka

What about Bangladesh intrigues you now that you have been here?

I’m intrigued by the importance of the relationship between the United States and countries in this region. We are important to each other. In Bangladesh right now, there are many opportunities for deepening partnerships to benefit both our countries, whether it’s business, working together on women’s rights, or addressing counter-terrorism concerns – things that challenge all of us. Being able to make a contribution and make a difference — that excites me.

There is vibrancy and dynamism in Bangladesh. There are people who want to make things happen. And, unlike many countries, Bangladesh has an incredible economic trajectory. There are possibilities to create opportunities and lift people out of poverty. A sense of “now is the time” makes Bangladesh unique geopolitically. It has an incredible role to play.

The United States is an Indo-Pacific nation; our entire west coast borders the Pacific. Working together makes sense – including to promote transparency, financial sustainability, economic opportunity, freedom of navigation, a level playing field – these are principles, policies, and practices the United States and much of the west have pursued. They have brought economic prosperity and peace, which while not perfect, is pretty good compared to earlier history. We look forward to continuing to engage with the Government of Bangladesh in these and other areas.

How do you think Bangladesh right now is tackling the issues that you mentioned?

We’re working together on many of these issues.  Through a combined effort, we’ve helped train over 15,000 women on political leadership through USAID programs. In this part of the world, there have been some strong women, political leaders, including the Honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh. This fact should give young women and girls something to hold on to and think about.

We are also working closely with the government to address issues concerning Trafficking in Persons. This not only affects women; men are also trafficked for labour. We work through advocacy and have helped with rescuing and providing support to 2,000 women trafficking victims.

Our agricultural sector programs contribute to inclusive economic growth. We’ve trained 74,000 women in agricultural mechanization programs – in livestock management, aquaculture management, and higher value-added food processing. We’ve also trained 2,300 women in health entrepreneurship, health enterprises – particularly important right now.

It isn’t just the U.S. government. U.S. Companies like MetLife and Mastercard contribute to increasing financial literacy and inclusion through their corporate social responsibility programs. Through “We Connect,” Coca-Cola connects entrepreneurs with potential, qualified buyers.

We have helped UN peacekeeping contributing states like Bangladesh become more effective by providing equipment, such as the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles we’re transferring to Bangladesh, and training for senior military officers at American professional military education schools. We appreciate Bangladesh offering slots in its military schools to American officers. We also work with the Bangladesh navy and coast guard to determine best options for equipment and training.

USAID has launched new trade and competitiveness activities, including a comprehensive private sector assessment to identify sectors ripe for foreign investment and U.S.-Bangladesh partnerships, which can help diversify Bangladesh’s economy.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Vision (IPV) energy program, “Enhancing Development and Growth through Energy” (Asia EDGE), has worked with Bangladeshi partners to meet growing energy demand through increased capacity for cross-border electricity trade among Bangladesh, India, and Nepal; connecting GE Power with key local partners to increase energy generation capacity, and supporting the commissioning of Excelerate Energy’s two floating storage and regasification units to facilitate the first LNG imports into Bangladesh.

I’ve mentioned a lot of U.S. programs, but I want to emphasize this is by no means a one-way street. Through every program and project we participate in, we learn from our Bangladeshi counterparts.

When did you decide to pursue diplomacy?

They don’t grow a lot of diplomats where I’m from. It’s a privilege to represent the people of the United States overseas. There hasn’t been a single day I’ve regretted my decision to go into diplomacy instead of practising law.

As a former member of the Board of Examiners, you helped choose the next generation of US Diplomats. What are the qualities that you prioritize in a candidate for this role?
One of the things we focus on is diversity. Because we represent America, we want our Foreign Service to reflect what America looks like. We look for characteristics that help people succeed in this profession: intelligence, flexibility, and integrity. We focus on the candidate’s ability to define and analyze complex issues, to work effectively with teams, and competence in oral and written communication. Thirteen “dimensions” are assessed during oral exams, including initiative, leadership, motivation for joining, calm under pressure, organization and planning, creative and innovative problem-solving, and adaptability. These are important because, throughout this career, you will live and work in different countries and cultures, and face unique challenges, which is also part of its fascination.

How did you adjust to the diverse challenges that each of your assignments provided?
Each of my assignments has had a different dimension I found exciting, interesting, and challenging. I was fortunate to have a mentor early in my career who told me, “If you’re not scared half to death before your next job, you’re not stretching yourself enough.” I approach each assignment with the question — “What can I contribute to what this embassy or consulate is trying to do?” Having the opportunity to explore a culture and people, deal with challenges unique to this profession, and contribute to my country — it’s a special combination.

So if you weren’t a diplomat, you’d be a traveller.

Yes! Travel is marvellous. I’ve been fortunate in the places I’ve been able to visit. But getting to live and work in a place, day to day, you get to know the people on a different level, to experience the food, the dance, the music, the politics, and the challenges. You get to integrate and experience things you can’t as a tourist. My work makes my life so much richer. I’m honoured to do what I do.

How did you find your niche in networking?

It’s been an organic process. In my first three jobs, I had women mentors – a consul general, a political counsellor who went on to be a three-time ambassador, and a third woman who became an Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State. They invested in me. One helped me polish my written communication; others pushed me to stretch myself. I try to pass on the investment.
With counterparts and people in the country where you are posted it’s made easier because most are quite welcoming to U.S. diplomats. You build on those relationships by bringing a spirit of willing partnership.

A diplomat must possess advanced negotiation skills. What has helped you enrich that skill throughout your career?

One of the best ways to learn negotiation and diplomacy is to watch skilled practitioners and then try to apply what you learned. I trained as an attorney and grew up in a family with four kids – negotiation is key to both!
People also need to see you are genuinely interested in reaching a solution. You need to know what you want out of the negotiation, and what the other side wants, and to see if there’s some way to meet in the middle. And, you have to be prepared to walk away if “no” is the right answer.

How do you think the US is planning to work with Bangladesh regarding this COVID-19 pandemic?

Our Embassy is working quite a bit with the government on this challenge. We have a physician assigned here from our world-class Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). USAID and CDC experts are participating in meetings with the health ministry, IEDCR and icddr,b and sharing ideas on preparing for and addressing the outbreak. We have provided about 2.5 million USD to Bangladesh’s Coronavirus readiness and response. These funds, combined with ongoing technical support and assistance from our locally based USAID public health and CDC experts and their partners, help strengthen disease preparedness, detection, and response systems.
We’re also educating our Embassy team about the virus, how it spreads, what can be done to protect oneself when to come to work when to stay home. We’ve gotten feedback that staff have shared some information we’ve prepared in English and Bangla at their mosques and with their communities, friends, and families.

What advice would you give to young females who are aspiring to build careers in diplomacy? How do you see Bangladesh’s progress in this area?

For me, diplomacy is an incredible career choice. Sometimes when I’m speaking, I’ll say, “When I was in Burundi, Ukraine, or NATO Headquarters…” It still surprises me how privileged I’ve been. So, if young women are interested in diplomacy, I would absolutely encourage it.

Women today have so many options; I hope they recognize that. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” These are words I try to live by, and I hope young women and your readers of all ages are inspired by this sentiment.
I would encourage any young woman to recognize, develop, and exercise her own power. To do so, you must find your own voice. To find your own voice, you have to know what you want. Identify what you want, find your voice, and start your journey towards your goal. This is important when choosing a career or way of life, whether it’s to become a Prime Minister, run a home, or anything along the continuum of choices available to young women. It’s also important for young women to remember men can be powerful allies too. Every one of us, I hope, has had a supportive brother, father, uncle, friend, or husband. You have to be willing to risk making mistakes. A mistake is not the end – you can recover and become stronger. I would encourage young women to be role models for others and to leaven their confidence with a sense of humour, integrity, and a touch
of humility.

Photographs by Ashiqur Rahman Omee

K Tanzeel Zaman, Subeditor of ICE Today Magazine. He is an avid traveler, aiming to fill up his passport and express his perspective of the world through his write-ups.