UNITED States Ambassador to Lesotho, Matthew Harrington, has completed his three-year tenure and will take up an unspecified new role in Washington.
In this wide-ranging interview with the Lesotho Times (LT), Ambassador Harrington looks back on what has been an eventful three years in Lesotho and outlines the achievements, challenges as well as his vision for US-Lesotho relations.
LT: What are the highlights of your tour of duty in Lesotho?
MH: There is so much that is good to talk about. The US relations with Lesotho have been good for a long time. We have done so much in partnership with Lesotho over many years. You hear the word partnership being thrown around a lot but it is true here. We have the Peace Corps together. I was a Peace Corp volunteer many years ago in Mauritania and I have been a big fan of that programme ever since. The Peace Corps programme in Lesotho is fantastic. It is now 50 years of Peace Corps presence in Lesotho uninterrupted, which is unusual and they are currently serving in all 10 districts of Lesotho in health and on the education side as teachers. I have travelled outside Maseru and every time I travel I meet with Peace Corps volunteers and every time I am impressed with how well integrated they are with their communities.
In every conversation I have with people inside and outside of government, with Basotho in general, I always hear a story about the positive impact the volunteers have in their lives and I feel very good about that.
The PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) programme is another highlight for me. Three years ago, Lesotho was not a very good news story when it came to the fight against HIV/AIDS. I was asked about it in my Senate confirmation hearing (in September 2014) and in my initial meeting with the Global AIDS coordinator who was in charge of PEPFAR and there was a lot of frustration because PEPFAR been in Lesotho since 2007 pouring lots of money and lots of engagement on the technical side so the question was why wasn’t Lesotho making so much progress?
We made some real changes after I got here. As a team, we thought about what we could do differently to have more of an impact and we got an impact and I feel very good about it.
And it’s not just about us it’s about working in close collaboration with the government and the NGOs which we call our implementing partners.
We have had a lot of impact and you have you seen the LePHIA results a couple of weeks ago.
Lesotho is one of the few countries now on the verge of epidemic control.
Two-and-half years ago, 35 percent of Basotho were HIV-positive where on antiretroviral treatment and that number has doubled to 70 percent.
So, many more people are alive, many more people are living fulfilling lives, many more people are and not passing on HIV to their children because of the work that PEPFAR has been doing.
Another thing that I would like to talk about is the first Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact. It preceded my time here because it lasted from 2008 to 2013 but you can see the impact of that partnership everywhere in Lesotho. There are 38 clinics which MCC either renovated or built and some of them are in the most remote corners of Lesotho.
Before those clinics were built, women who were pregnant could only give birth in the district hospitals and there were only 10 of those district hospitals.
So, the 138 clinics dramatically increased access to healthcare for pregnant women who can now give birth in those facilities and for a range of other people living in rural communities who had no access to healthcare.
The Metolong Dam was also part of that Compact. We were one of many donors to that project and because the Metolong Dam was up and running during the drought, Maseru and the surrounding districts did not run out of water during that drought.
There are also 10 000 pit latrines that you see across the country.
There is also the Land Administration Authority which was created during that period and now it is a lot easier to buy and engage in land transactions in Lesotho.
So I am very proud of that first partnership of that first compact and the impact that it had in the lives of Basotho.
I will also mention a personal highlight. I have travelled all over Lesotho and I have been taken aback by the beauty of the country.
I love going out into the mountains and that walk which I have taken several times now from the Semonkong Lodge to the Maletsunyane Falls is one that I love.
It takes an hour and you walk through several communities and you see people living their everyday lives in those communities. You see this incredible view of the falls.
LT: Lesotho received provisional approval for African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is contingent upon implementation of reforms. Do you think the country is on course to fulfill those benchmarks including for MCC as well?
MH: Let us take AGOA first. Lesotho has been a remarkable success story. A country of two million people, very small geographically and yet is the second largest textile exporter to the US under AGOA. It is a remarkable success story. About 40 000 jobs are dependent on AGOA eligibility and more than 100 000 family members depend on those employees plus all the vendors, taxi operators and all other downstream businesses that benefit from those factories.
So, it is a huge success story and a very important part of Lesotho’s economy.
I want to praise Lesotho for that, but AGOA allows 7 000 product lines duty free to the United States and that is a lot.
Lesotho has only taken advantage of a very small number of those product lines related to textiles and I would love to see the country expand the range of products that it manufactures and exports to the United States.
There is a lot of potential and I know that during the last government under the former Trade Minister (Joshua) Setipa there was an effort to design a strategy to expand Lesotho’s exports under AGOA.
So I hope the new government and private sector will expand and take advantage of those opportunities.
On the question of eligibility, that decision is an annual decision and the discussion is going on now in Washington.
AGOA eligibility is tied to economic freedom and issues to do with the rule of law and human rights, so the range of those issues will be considered and the decision will be made in December.
I think the steps that government is taking to ensure accountability within the security sector will send a good message and a strong signal and those steps will certainly be taken into account.
I think with both AGOA and MCC, we are looking for concrete actions related to governance and the rule of law and the best measure of that in our view is the full implementation of the SADC Commission of Inquiry recommendations.
So that will be our primary measure and the government of Lesotho has said all the right things and has taken some steps but ultimately what will be looking for is concrete action.
On MCC we had a very successful first compact.
There was a lot of enthusiasm and goodwill and the fact that Lesotho had committed US$150 million dollars of its own money to ensure the sustainability of the projects sent a very positive message as well.
And because that had gone so well, Lesotho was determined to negotiate the second compact of the MCC.
We were two years into that process in December 2015 when the rule of law and governance issues proved to be a huge concern to the board of MCC and they essentially froze that compact in December 2015 and they made the same decision in in 2016.
So the big MCC board meeting is coming up in two months in December of this year and the board will decide what it decides.
The issues they will look at will include whether there has been progress to resolve the rule of law concerns and also questions around the sustainability of the first compact.
That is a real concern frankly. I talked about the positives of the first compact where there was a US$362 million investment but the challenge that we are seeing now is that of sustainability.
The sustainability of the first compact investments will be considered by the board in December and there was no long-term maintenance plan in place so that’s a big deal.
So it will be hard to make the case to the MCC board that the government should get a second compact if those investments under their first compact are not sustained.
A lack of a long-term maintenance plan will be a big disadvantage to the government of Lesotho when the board meets in December.
There is no long-term maintenance plan in place and it will be hard to advocate that the government should get more money under MCC. So my great hope is that that issue is resolved by December.
LT: What is the US government view on the prosecution of members of the army?
MH: I think people should be held accountable if they have broken the law.
And if there’s evidence that members of the LDF have violated the law they should be held accountable.
And watching what is happening, I think government is making a real move to do that. My concern (and I think it’s not just my concern but that of a lot of observers of Lesotho too) is that the army has been a challenge and there hasn’t been full civilian control of the military and the military has been at the centre most incidents of political instability so any attempt to address that is a good thing and so I see that as a positive.
If Basotho decide that they need an army, then an effort to hold members of the LDF like all Basotho accountable for crimes is important and really would lay the groundwork for the transformation of that institution into a professional cohesive army which is subject to civilian control and that’s not the institution that has existed for the last 40 years.
LT: This is the second time where you mention if Basotho need an army. Could it be that there may be a scenario when the army is not necessary?
MH: I think that is a discussion that is happening but that’s not a decision for friends of Basotho to make.
It is a fundamentally sovereign decision for Lesotho but I think it is a legitimate question to ask.
Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa what should the role of the army be?
Is it to defend Lesotho from South African invasion which one must agree would be fairly remote?
Anybody else would have to cross through South African territory to attack Lesotho which I think is an equally remote possibility.
But I think it’s a discussion that should be had but I am not weighing in one way or the other.
But as part of the discussion about security sector reforms, an important discussion for Basotho to have is to question the necessity and if so, what would its mandate be and what is the appropriate size. I think it’s a very useful discussion for the country to have.
LT: During your tenure, you were subjected to verbal attacks by some members of the previous government. Have you ever experienced such personal attacks before and how did you respond?
MH: I didn’t pay a lot of attention them. We are here as a mission to represent US values and US interests and to do what we can in collaboration with government and other Basotho to advance those interests.
Sometimes, when you do what you think is the right thing you are going to be subject to attacks. After the killing of General Mahao, the previous government was under a lot of pressure and that pressure caused them to lash out from time to time.
But I had a very good relationship with members of the former government. I was very candid and that is very important for a diplomat and it’s not personal.
It’s not Matt Harrington doing those things but it’s the representative of the United States government speaking to the representatives of the government of Lesotho.
I was very candid about what US interest and foreign policy is and I think that was appreciated despite what might have been said publicly and I didn’t let that get to me.
LT: What was your relationship with the former and current Lesotho governments?
MH: I would say the wonderful thing about serving in Lesotho is that both the former government and the current government gave us very good access.
We don’t always agree, but there was never a situation where I couldn’t have discussions with those that I needed to talk to and I am appreciative of that fact
LT: How important is a country like Lesotho in particular and the Southern African region to America’s foreign policy interests?
MH: I think Lesotho is a good news story to the region in a number of ways.
We and SADC have been on the same page. We have been very supportive of SADC engagement in Lesotho and that commonality of interest and position has been a good thing which might provide an opportunity for SADC and the US to address other issues on which we agree.
So Lesotho is a good news story for SADC-US relations. I would also say that in in terms of PEPFAR, you might have heard President Donald Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly where he singled out PEPFAR as a priority at a time when they are discussions in Washington about budget cuts in certain areas.
PEPFAR will not be cut and that is a very important message at a time when Lesotho is one of 13 countries identified as focus countries within reach of epidemic control.
The progress that Lesotho has made did not happen by accident. A year ago, the government of Lesotho decided to embark on the Test and Treat campaign and it was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to make the decision.
This had a dramatic impact as the number of people on treatment doubled in Lesotho and that sends a message that Lesotho is willing to make risky decisions
That decision carried some risk because it had financial implications as there was suddenly a large number of people who had not been on treatment certainly going on treatment.
It helped in getting HIV under control so that sends a message that Lesotho can be a good model.
Lesotho is also a good model for the region and the continent in terms of elections.
Since 2012, there have been three elections and each election has involved a transfer of power from a ruling government to the opposition.
People might quibble with having so many elections but the fact that the elections were held and they were good elections that involved the transfer of power makes Lesotho a good model for the region and the continent.
LT: You have spoken about AGOA having 7 000 product lines. What other areas can Lesotho focus on to benefit from the facility?
MH: I think Lesotho has a lot of potential in the area of economic investment, foreign direct investment and trade.
There have been a number of US companies that have contacted us over the last three years that are interested in investing in Lesotho but they are scared away by the political instability.
So if this government stays in place there is a restoration of political stability, then I think we will start seeing a lot more investments.
One area in particular is that of renewable energy, Lesotho could be self-sufficient in energy production.
So I am delighted that an American company, One Power, which has significant American investment and is led by a former Peace Corps volunteer has won a tender to build a solar plant in Mafeteng.
There is another US company that was not successful but they bid on the construction of the Polihali Dam and came in second to a South African firm.
But they say they were fairly treated and the process was very transparent, so I consider that a positive.
Lesotho recently instituted an e-visa programme and it’s an American company that designed and maintains the website for the government of Lesotho.
Commercial agriculture is another area with potential as almost all of Lesotho’s agriculture is at subsistence level.
But there are promising areas in horticulture. I understand that a number of fruit trees ripen in Lesotho before they do in South Africa so that holds some potential for investment.
Tourism is another area. Lesotho is a beautiful country but I hear stories of people that come in and spend the day hiking in Lesotho before going back to South Africa where they eat in the restaurants and stay in the hotels.
This is because we don’t have that tourist infrastructure in Lesotho and that is not something for government but you want the private sector to make those investments.
People will come here from all over the world for ecotourism but there has to be infrastructure development.
The focus of the new government has been primarily on the political and security side but there are a number of things that we can do.
Ultimately what companies are looking for is an environment in which they can be productive and can make money.
There are things that we can do to tell the Lesotho story and we have an organisation that is called the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) and it is now led by the Florizelle Liser who was the US Trade Representative for Africa.
She was very involved in creating AGOA and she has a good relationship with Lesotho.
CCA has a big membership with lots of large companies and their members are companies that are either doing business in or interested in doing business in Africa.
CCA can organise events in Washington and different countries can come and present their case.
They also organise trade events to Africa and those are usually thematic so they might do a trade delegation to several different African countries looking at small scale manufacturing or renewable energy.
They do a number of visits to South Africa so I suggested to the government of Lesotho that they try to tap into that as well and get at least a portion of these delegations to come and look at opportunities in Lesotho.
We can also be help the government to put together delegations and talking points in the short term.
LT: There is a new administration now in America and indications are that there could be budget cuts for external programmes. How could that affect Lesotho in particular?
MH: First and foremost, the Africa policy enjoys strong bipartisan support in the United States.
There is a strong support for what we have been doing in Africa on the political, security and on the economic side.
I don’t think the budget cuts will change anything much for Lesotho because the president’s (Mr Trump) speech mentioned PEPFAR and I was delighted because that sends a strong message that the president himself and the administration are committed to what we are doing.
So PEPFAR will continue. Our budget here is US$80 million a year. When I got here it was US$35 million a year. But I am not sure if it will continue at that level forever especially now that Lesotho is within reach of epidemic control.
We now need to have conversations about sustainability and what that means for the US investment here. What we don’t want is for Lesotho to fall backwards once they reach that level of epidemic control.
What would that mean for our involvement? Would it mean that we need to transition to a more technical involvement which means less resources? The point is that we need to have a conversation about sustainability.
I think there’s a commitment by the new US administration to trade relationships, to doing business with Africa.
There was some discussion around the fact that AGOA is primarily a one-way benefit as it allows the duty-free access to the US market and not the other way round but the US certainly benefits from AGOA and there is no question about that.
But the US does not enjoy duty-free exports into Africa and that may increasingly be a part of the conversation. I think there will be an effort to encourage more companies to invest in Africa which would be a good thing for Lesotho
MCC is also helping countries to remove barriers to more prosperity so when we did the first Compact in Lesotho it was determined that health, particularly HIV/AIDS was real barrier to a further economic growth that had to be addressed.