TWO years into the tenure of the four party coalition, Lesotho finds itself back in familiar albeit unwelcome territory where the nation has to confront the challenge of political instability. Even the age-old allegations of police brutality are being repeated and local and other stakeholders have said the government needs to get its house in order to drive the country forward. It was against this background that the Lesotho Times (LT) Editor Herbert Moyo interviewed the United States Ambassador to Lesotho Rebecca Gonzales (RG) this week. Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: You have been in Lesotho since 2018. How would you characterise your stay so far?
RG: The United States is the Lesotho’s longest-standing and most steadfast diplomatic partner. It is a true privilege to serve as the US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho. During the past year, we honoured the incredible partnership between Basotho and Americans by celebrating a decade of PEPFAR in Lesotho and 50 years of continued Peace Corps presence. Those big milestones represent the commitment of thousands of individuals and millions of dollars, so it is quite exciting to have been part of those celebrations.
In my first year, I kept my promise to visit every district in Lesotho to meet with Basotho from all walks of life and learn first-hand about the country. As you know, I’m from Texas and love horses – that is a passion I share with many Basotho – so I think I have ridden a horse in nearly every district as well.
These trips allowed me to visit American owned businesses and check in on our investments, like MCC-built health facilities and PEPFAR programs. As the U.S. Ambassador, it is my fundamental duty to ensure accountability for American taxpayer money – that it is used as intended and investments are maintained for the long-term benefit of Basotho.
LT: The US government continues to be a major development partner for Lesotho. Which are the main areas in which the US’ development assistance is focused on?
RG: Yes, the United States is extremely proud of its long-standing and dedicated partnership with Lesotho, which has lasted more than 53 years. To put it simply, our focus is to help Lesotho become healthier, more stable, and more prosperous. US foreign assistance comes in many forms, but those are the objectives of what we are working towards in this country.
We are deeply committed and working tirelessly to help Lesotho reverse the HIV/AIDS burden. In fact, together with all Basotho, we are in a race to reach epidemic control by 2020. This goal is within our reach if we act with urgency, focus, and commitment.
Through the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States has contributed more than 6 Billion maloti to the response in Lesotho, including more than 1.25 Billion this year alone. Lesotho saw in increase in PEPFAR funding last year, unlike many other countries. So we must be mindful that we have this moment of opportunity to turn the tide against this disease.
We must renew our sense of urgency and be laser-focused on reaching epidemic control.
We are very focused on supporting Lesotho’s efforts to move forward with comprehensive, inclusive, and transparent national reforms. This encompasses a huge range of efforts, some of which are more visible than others to the public.
- It includes support of the security sector reform process, we have increased training for law enforcement and security sector personnel. We restarted military-to-military engagement as a result of principled leadership within the LDF.
- We send numerous Basotho to the United States on training and scholarship programs in areas ranging from Human Rights and Rule of law programs, to rigorous academic exchanges like Fulbright and leadership training such as that provided by the YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship.
- We have supported civil society initiatives ranging from small to large to help citizens engage productively with the reform process, including the media sector and youth. Our American Corner at the State Library is a place where Basotho, especially young people, come together to discuss the issues affecting their lives, whether that is economic, social, or health issues.
This is not an exhaustive list, but gives you an idea of the incredible volume and depth of programs the Embassy here undertakes to further our collaborative efforts with Lesotho.
LT: What is your analysis of the impact of that development assistance on the livelihoods of Basotho?
RG: As I mentioned, we are very proud of the role PEPFAR has played in saving lives in this country. We have more than 220,000 Basotho on antiretroviral treatment. In the first half of the fiscal year, we have provided half a million HIV testing services.
Now we need to drill down on index testing (which means following up to test partners and family members of individuals who test positive) to make sure we are efficiently and effectively targeting those most at risk, especially men.
We have conducted 180 000 Voluntary Medical Male Circumcisions for men since 2012. We have offered care and support for thousands upon thousands of orphans and vulnerable children. We have trained thousands of health care workers, including those who staff Men’s clinics and Adolescent corners, as well as serve as peer counsellors.
I am truly proud and honoured to meet the Basotho men and women who work at PEPFAR supported sites and MCC clinics. They are the nation’s heroes and their professionalism, dedication, and efforts to counter-stigma are essential components to reaching epidemic control.
Without a doubt, we know that the first MCC compact transformed health care in this country. When it concluded in 2013, the compact was responsible for facilitating the construction and renovation of 138 health clinics, digging 10,000 latrines in villages nationwide, renovating 14 outpatient departments in hospitals, and alongside other donors, helping establish the Metolong Dam, one of the largest infrastructure projects in Lesotho’s history.
That investment was $362.5 million dollars. My analysis is that the first MCC compact transformed the health landscape of the country and made it possible for us to be at this point – to be able to talk practically about reaching epidemic control by 2020.
I also think that the commitment of more than 2600 American Peace Corps volunteers is one of the greatest and most impactful areas of our relationship.
When I speak to Basotho, so many of them recount stories about Peace Corps volunteers who made a difference in their life – as a teacher, as a friend, as a community member. Of course the beauty of the Peace Corps is that the impact goes both ways – our American volunteers are transformed by this experience and what they learn from their Basotho colleagues and host communities.
We have seen that connection so vividly, at our 50th anniversary celebration last year at Thaba-Bosiu, when many volunteers came home to join us. We see that when former Peace Corps volunteers come back to start businesses like One Power or work with the United Nations on projects in Lesotho. As they say, Motho ke Motho ke Batho.
LT: The Lesotho government has been crying out for a financial rescue package and even approached the International Monetary Fund and other development partners so that it can balance its budget and enhance economic growth. Have you been approached for such budgetary and other forms of financial support? There have been numerous staff visits by the IMF and thus far no funding has been availed. Where do you think the problem lies and how can it be fixed? If you are one of the development partners that have been approached, have you availed any assistance and if so how much and with what terms?
RG: I am aware that the IMF has visited Lesotho, but I don’t have any insight into their decision making process or future plans. Information about U.S. foreign assistance is publically accessible and transparent, as our government must be accountable to Congress and to the American taxpayer.
LT: The USA has previously offered assistance in terms of the First Compact of the MCC and has since announced that Lesotho qualifies for a Second Compact whose details are still to be agreed on and depending on Lesotho meeting the criteria which includes initiating and implementing governance processes designed to ensure the deepening of democracy in the country. What is your opinion in terms of how far Lesotho has gone towards meetings the economic criteria?
RG: Yes, we just had a visit from MCC colleagues this week to check in on progress in the compact design phase. As you know, MCC’s Board of Directors meets on an annual basis to determine whether a country remains eligible. When the Board reselected Lesotho in December 2017, they made it very clearly that they would be closely monitoring the situation with respect to rule of law and other eligibility criteria. That remains the case.
Both publically and privately in discussions with stakeholders, our message has been clear and consistent throughout – Lesotho must continue purposefully on the path of reforms and political stability to avoid disruption or delay to this process. The consequences of an interrupted compact development will not be as serious as the negative impact to the people of Lesotho caused by failure to make progress on these issues.
An MCC compact represents a significant investment in Lesotho on behalf of the American taxpayer. Therefore, it is essential for us to be working with a partner that is resolute and has the political will and ability to undertake the necessary policy and institutional reforms. We need a partner that is equally committed to the process, oversight, and accountability required to make that investment the most impactful and sustainable.
LT: What is your opinion in terms of how far Lesotho has gone towards meetings the governance criteria?
RG: Let me be very clear – this compact that we are working towards is for the people of Lesotho. Just like the first compact that brought 362.5 million USD into Lesotho to transform health care access and improve water resource management, any future compact will be designed to benefit all Basotho, not one group or government above another.
We still have a lot of hard work to do before we actually sign a compact between Lesotho and the United States. I have to speak plainly and say there is still potential for delay or derailment if we do not return and stay committed to progress on the path of reforms and political stability.
Some of the areas that concern me are respect for the rule of law and for independent institutions of accountability, increasing corruption and ongoing reports of police brutality. Losing our way on the path to reforms could prove destructive for years to come.
So I have and will continue to advocate aggressively for concrete action on reforms as well as to encourage the government not to wait to address regulatory issues or pending legislation that will improve the processes, oversight, and accountability within the government.
These are all elements of reform – which must continue not just because we hope to move forward on our compact, but because the Basotho people have determined these areas of reform are essential to the country’s future.
LT: As recently as February this year, you warned of the threats to the MCC in the form of delays in the implementation of the multi-sector reforms process as well as the apparent culture of impunity as reflected through the allegations of police brutality. What is your take on the implementation of the reforms particularly in view of the fact that the May 2019 deadline that was given by SADC for the full implementation of the constitutional and security sector reforms has not been met and is not likely to be met soon?
Have you spoken to the government, opposition, SADC and the government to register your concerns and what has been the reaction?
RG: We are constantly speaking with and in dialogue with government, opposition, and diplomatic partners on these matters. Furthermore, I ensured my colleagues from MCC met with all stakeholders to understand the current situation on the ground. I have heard reports of progress in some areas of reform, but frankly, it is not enough. As you note, deadlines have come and gone.
The window to demonstrate concrete progress is getting smaller and smaller. Attention dedicated elsewhere is delaying this process and the results of that could be catastrophic. If not catastrophic, it certainly is time lost when we could be making progress, particularly economic progress like expanding Lesotho’s economy and creating more jobs for young people.
In terms of how MCC fits into this, again I will say that in order for the United States to approve and sign a second MCC compact, we need a viable and committed partner. We will continue to evaluate the current situation, progress on the ground, and determine whether the political will and ability exists to undertake the policy and institutional reforms necessary to move the compact development process forward.
LT: Each and every month new allegations of police brutality continue to be made since your concerns were raised against this culture of impunity. What is your message with regards to this issue and its implications not only for overall relations with Lesotho but also for MCC and AGOA?
RG: The issue of police brutality is deeply concerning. Yes, I spoke out because it influences the eligibility criteria for foreign assistance or other programs, but more importantly, I spoke out because of how this issue impacts the lives of each and every Mosotho.
It is a question of human rights and political freedoms, it is a question of rule of law. What I do believe is that by elevating this issue and speaking publically, although we will not solve it overnight, we can begin to discuss why this practice is pervasive and how it must be addressed at a systemic level, including the investigation of incidents and the prosecution of perpetrators.
It is not for me to prescribe how to address the issue, but we will continue to offer guidance, training, and expertise to the security sector as it endeavours to reform its policies and practices, as well as its culture.
LT: Lesotho has been and continues to be a major beneficiary of AGOA in terms of textile exports. But the previous ambassador Matthew Harrington raised concerns about the country’s failure to fully exploit the other 6999 product lines offered to Lesotho under AGOA. Which other areas do you think Lesotho could be taking advantage of?
RG: Indeed, we are proud that under AGOA, Lesotho remains the second-ranked exporter of textiles to the United States. (Note: Total textile exports to United States totalled around $ 288 .9 million in 2017.) It is important to remember that textiles, like any manufacturing sector, are affected by global markets and fluctuations in supply and demand.
So Lesotho can’t to stop there. Diversification is essential to increasing economic growth and stability The AGOA legislation is in place through 2025. There are 6400 other approved product lines under AGOA that Basotho businesses, from small to large, can take advantage of and export successfully to the United States.
Lesotho has comparative advantage in a number of areas, including horticulture, aquaculture, and agro-processing. The country’s high altitude, excellent soil quality, and abundant water support commercial agriculture – like fruits, vegetables, flowers, cereals, and trout.
In mining, the country holds promising resources and can add value by exporting these minerals as finished goods as opposed to raw materials. Lesotho can also expand the scale of handicrafts export and diversify the already strong textile sector into higher-value goods and with higher value materials.
LT: What assistance, if any, are rendering to Lesotho to help the country fully exploit the other product lines available under AGOA?
RG: Our US Agency for International Development (USAID) Southern Africa Trade and Investment Hub is very active and has provided ongoing support to Lesotho regarding AGOA. This includes working in collaboration with key stakeholders such as the Ministry of Trade and Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC). The Trade Hub provides technical support on the AGOA Utilization Strategy and holds trainings to assist businesses wishing to learn about AGOA requirements and opportunities.
LT: A concern has been raised that China is actually the biggest beneficiary of AGOA in that the textile companies operating in Lesotho are largely Chinese owned and repatriate their profits to China and all Lesotho gets is paltry taxes and lowly paid unskilled jobs. Is this a concern to you and is this something you think calls for review of AGOA as it is crafted to ensure Lesotho and other countries benefit more.
RG: On this issue, I will return to my previous point that Lesotho needs to diversify its manufacturing sector and put mechanisms in place that will help Basotho entrepreneurs and business people take advantage of AGOA.
This is why we are working so closely with LMDA on regulatory reform issues and drilling down to understand what barriers must be addressed to unlocking the potential of private sector investment in this country and ultimately to reduce poverty.
What you see with U.S. investment and U.S. foreign assistance programs on the economic front is that our goal is to help Lesotho’s economy grow, to support Basotho-owned businesses and Basotho professionals, and to expand opportunities for U.S. businesses. The American-owned businesses here dedicated to helping their communities and building capacity within their workforce.
As President Trump issued his strategy toward Africa a few months ago, we will continue to direct more attention toward advancing trade and commercial ties to increase prosperity in the United States and Africa.
The President’s new Prosper Africa initiative will support open markets for American businesses, grow Africa’s middle class, promote youth employment opportunities, and improve the business climate – so I expect to tell you more about that in the coming months.
LT: Is Lesotho’s eligibility safe in the face of continuing concerns about alleged human rights abuses by the police and the stalled reforms process?
RG: Lesotho, like all other AGOA-eligible countries, must adhere to certain eligibility requirements including governance benchmarks established by the US Congress in order to benefit from AGOA’s trade benefits.
The current AGOA legislation provides the Administration greater flexibility in reviewing countries on an ongoing basis, including by initiating “out-of-cycle” reviews at any point during the calendar year.
Commitment to human rights and the rule of law and efforts to fight corruption are all key to economic development and key to stability. As stability improves, the business climate will improve and more U.S. business will be interested in investing in Lesotho.