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A Measure of Success
U.S. Ambassador to Panama Reflects on her Career as a Diplomat
Barbara Stephenson measures success by the humdrum activities of daily life: toddlers and mothers playing in local parks, children from different neighborhoods learning at the same school, and even bureaucrats using Microsoft Excel as a budgeting tool. Stephenson, the newly appointed United States Ambassador to Panama, has lived through earthquakes, floods, and illness. It’s a part of her working life she can’t change. What she does aim to change is the daily experiences of those around her—a desire triggered by her experiences as a student at the University of Florida.
“I grew up in a small town south of Gainesville and never went anywhere,” says Stephenson. “I had a wanderlust and UF gave me the opportunities, intellectual and actual.”
University life gave Stephenson the opportunity to live in a wider world and the skills to understand it. Summers abroad in Colombia, Greece and Austria as part of UF’s study abroad program for undergraduates sparked a sense of adventure and an appetite for more.
René Lemarchand, a political science professor, fed some of that appetite with his classes in comparative politics. It was Lemarchand, says Stephenson, who suggested a career as a diplomat. In 1985, the day after Stephenson defended her dissertation in English, she began work at the State Department. “I developed a fascination with American foreign policy. I feel I was born to be an American diplomat and can’t think of anything that would have suited me as well.”
Diplomacy does have its downsides, Stephenson admits. Constantly pulling up roots, leaving friends behind—especially hard for her two children, and the difficulties of day-to-day life in a foreign language take their toll. Once, during Stephenson’s time as Consul General and Chief of Mission in Curacao from 1998-2001, the normally desert-like island turned into a mosquito-ridden swamp, sickening members of her family. Earlier, in El Salvador, a war combined with an earthquake produced contaminated water, little food, and an unreliable electricity supply.
Stephenson quickly returns to the upbeat aspects of her job—the ability to see the world and the lives and cultures of its peoples. Mostly, though, it’s hard work and small improvements, as during her time in Northern Ireland, where she played a part in the peace process. By the time she took up her duties as Consul General in 2001, violence had faded. “But,” says Stephenson, “the political process had stalled. The two communities, Protestant and Catholic, were getting more separated. Most kids went to separate schools and neighborhoods saw increasing segregation.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, Stephenson drew on her childhood in Wildwood and her experiences of school integration to help others. Working with community leaders on both sides of the religious divide produced one of her biggest highlights—increasing public support, including financial support from American donors, for integrated schools in Northern Ireland. American integration and Irish integration worked in ironically different ways, says Stephenson. While here the U.S. government pushed for integration, in Northern Ireland the government refused to fund integrated schools for their first three years of existence. “Parents had to trail blaze and we became an important force for breaking down barriers and taking risks for the future,” she says.
Slow and steady characterized Stephenson’s work in El Salvador, where she worked on a peace agreement from 1990 to 1992. Despite the distractions of shootings and a sky lit up by tracer bullets, Stephenson continued to work on Legislative Assembly elections. “They didn’t attract massive attention, but the elections were hugely important as they allowed El Salvador’s leftist politicians to come home and campaign safely.”
But Stephenson’s largest canvas must surely be Iraq. Based in Washington, from late 2006 she coordinated the interagency effort for reconstruction, with the official title of Deputy Senior Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Department of State. As well as leading the U.S. delegation at international meetings, she synchronized all donor contributions, American and foreign.
“I came in at a grim time, with violence going up, the displacement of people, and a high death toll – all heartbreaking,” says Stephenson. Her group expanded the scope of provincial reconstruction teams, basically small consulates whose job is to overcome obstacles that keep provincial governments from functioning. “Sometimes it was as simple as training people how to do Excel spreadsheets so they could come up with a budget.”
One of her greatest contributions, Stephenson believes,
was her efforts to measure success in Iraq by numbers and by quality. How
many mothers and toddlers in the parks this week versus last week? Can
this government deliver services to its people?
Panama brings Stephenson full circle. She began her diplomatic career there, during the final years of General Manuel Noriega’s reign. The changes since then, she says, are astonishing, from the Hong-Kong-like skyline to the people’s humdrum expectations of generally free and fair elections. Despite their occasionally tense history, Stephenson holds high hopes for U.S.-Panama relations. Education, political and economic accountability, and keeping the Panama Canal safe for world commerce head the ambassador’s to-do list of cooperative projects. In addition, given Panama’s geographic position, Stephenson must battle narco-trafficking and money laundering.
As to the future, Stephenson, casts a nostalgic eye back to her English
teaching days at UF. “I’d love to come back to a teaching environment,
one of the richest ways to spend your days. The grass isn’t always
greener elsewhere; it’s pretty green in Gainesville. I learned a
lot from teaching—how
to present information, how to bring a group along, how to portray complex
ideas that make people excited about learning.”