Scott Gration’s resignation: A tale of politics, diplomacy and GHI

Scott Gration, former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, resigned from his post in late June. Photo by: United to End Genocide / CC BY-NC-ND

It caught everyone in Washington by surprise when Scott Gration, a close ally of U.S. President Barack Obama, suddenly resigned as U.S. ambassador to Kenya in late June. Talks pointed to a scathing assessment by the U.S. State Department’s inspector general about his leadership as what prompted this move.

Now the story can be put to rest. That report indeed played into Gration’s decision. It tells a tale of personnel politics, the struggle for diplomacy and development results, and the importance of local partnership.

The IG report includes a litany of criticism against Gration, who also used to be the country’s Sudan envoy, including his “divisive and ineffective” leadership, actions that “damaged the cohesion of Embassy Nairobi’s country team by underscoring differences between offices working directly with Kenya and those with regional responsibilities,” and “reluctance to accept clear-cut U.S. Government decisions.”

The audit, which was initially classified and only released to the public recently, made special mention of Gration’s pet program, Let’s Live. It conceded that the initiative was “well intentioned” but panned it for its unrealistic goal of halving Kenya’s mortality rates of mothers and infants, as well as deaths from noncommunicable diseases, in one year.

“[IG] Staff found the Ambassador’s goals laudable in principle and consistent with Global Health Initiative (GHI) principles to strengthen and integrate local health systems, and prioritize maternal health. However, they expressed their concerns to him that the goals were not achievable within a year and that programs had to observe applicable legal authorities,” the report said. “At the same time, his assertive stance in pressing Kenya to adopt Let’s Live damaged his relations with senior Kenyan health authorities. Let’s Live created a heavy additional workload for staff as they managed ongoing programs while trying to be responsive to the Ambassador’s taskings, occasionally incurring his anger if he perceived insufficient commitment.”

In an interview with Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” blog, Gration revealed that the State Department gave him the opportunity to step down after seeing the IG assessment. But appeals to air his side fell on deaf ears, he said, leaving him no choice but to resign.

Gration told “The Cable”: “The senior leadership made a decision based on a report that had not been vetted and that did not include my response. I did not have a chance to give my side of the story.”  

In that interview, Gration confirmed but also defended himself on some of the findings such as using his personal email on top of his secure State Department account for official business and setting up a second office in a bathroom adjoining his main office. Nonetheless, he was adamant he had a strong performance as head of the Nairobi embassy and stressed that this “was probably a clash of somebody who was very results-oriented.”

As to his Let’s Live program:

“Let’s Live is a wonderful program,” he noted. “It did not lower morale throughout the embassy because 95 percent of the embassy staff were not even involved in it. Plus, it made major gains and we were able to refocus our priorities on mission-essential tasks that will cut premature mortalities in Kenya.”

The IG report was notable as it left Gration with the label of being one of the — if not the — worst U.S. ambassadors. It said the former top U.S. diplomat in Kenya ranked last for interpersonal relations, next to last for managerial skills and attention to morale, and third from last in his overall scores from mission member surveys.

The role of ambassadors has become more important as the United States pursues a whole-of-government approach to international cooperation. According to the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, an ambassador should be empowered and held accountable as “chief executive officer of a multiagency mission,” which covers both diplomacy and development.

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About the author

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    Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.