Hardship postings in the Foreign Service: what you should know
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
It’s funny to me that many people imagine diplomats as Ivy League educated cocktail-circuit regulars who only hang out with high society. Because the majority of diplomatic jobs overseas are hardship postings, which means that living conditions are relatively difficult. Many diplomats I know have seen it all when it comes to things like scary diseases, abject poverty, violent crime, and pollution.
Of course, one person’s hardship is another person’s adventure. While some diplomats complain about the factors responsible for downgrading their lifestyles, such as bad roads or limited access to western products and Wifi, others take such challenges in their stride and manage to enjoy the benefits of the job—travel, interesting work—to the fullest. Everyone’s different.
Still, there are a few things you should probably know about hardship postings before you pursue a career in the Foreign Service, declaring worldwide availability and risking postings to countries like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Papua Guinea.
What are hardship postings?
According to the Foreign Affairs Manual, hardship postings are jobs in diplomatic missions (embassies and consulates) located in places where living conditions are “extraordinarily difficult, involve excessive physical hardship, or are notably unhealthy.” Most of time, hardship involves incidents of political violence, terrorism and harassment, or a notable absence of good medical care. Social and physical isolation are also common factors contributing to hardship.
All diplomatic posts are rated based on factors contributing to hardship and fall somewhere in the 0-35 percent category, which refers to the additional financial compensation employees receive for serving there.
To get an idea, posts in Saudi Arabia are 25% hardship, while Afghanistan and Papua Guinea are 35%. Posts with 10% hardship differentials include countries like Argentina, Brazil and Israel, while most European countries have 0% hardship.
What is it like?
Hardship is a little bit different everywhere. Terrorist threats in Pakistan are different from air pollution in China, or rampant malaria in Nigeria. I’m currently posted in Armenia, which is 20% hardship because it’s remote and western products and services are limited—and because there’s an active conflict with neighboring country Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Nonetheless, Armenia is a nice place to live and it’s popular with families with small kids.
I also lived in Pakistan and Nigeria, where the hardship felt a lot more real. In Nigeria I had stomach issues almost all of the time and I never left the house without spraying myself top to bottom with insecticide. I constantly had to deal with corrupt officials and frequently found myself in dicey situations because I couldn’t access basic services—like getting a real taxi (instead of some guy in a beat-up car who claims to be a taxi) or a decent car mechanic (to fix my car that broke down in the middle of nowhere).
In Pakistan, threats were more difficult to see or predict, but I was always on guard—partially because I felt unsafe because of the terrorist threat and partially because I was told to feel unsafe. Pakistan is one of the few countries where U.S. diplomats aren’t allowed to bring their kids (or spouses, unless they woek). While living in Islamabad, we were barely allowed to leave the city. Sometimes we were confined to our houses for days on end, like during mass political protests and public unrest in response to anti-Islamic videos and cartoons published in Egypt and Europe.
Are hardship postings inevitable?
Serving in hardship postings is inevitable for all but a tiny percentage of Foreign Service officers who are either lucky enough, or medically unfit, to serve in hardship postings. According to current numbers, well over 60% of all overseas postings are hardship postings (5-35% hardship differential) and about 15% of all postings are eligible for danger pay.
Also, hardship postings are all but inevitable for diplomats who want to have a high-flying career. Serving in hardship postings is considered part of every officer’s duties and, from what I’ve seen, diplomats who served in hardship countries repeatedly and successfully are among those promoted fastest.
Serving in hardship posts also offers more opportunities for people who want to “stretch” into a position above their rank, try an out-of-cone job (working outside of their chosen career track) or, alternatively, ensure that they are serving within their chosen career track. So diplomats who have specific career goals may be more likely to do hardship postings because these jobs are somewhat easier to get than, let’s say, the same jobs in London or Rome.
Preparation & support
On the bright side, the amount of support available to U.S. diplomats serving in hardship countries has increased significantly. These days, all diplomats are taught how to deal with attacks, medical emergencies, surveillance, etc. through hands-on training, workshops, and information sessions.
Still, it’s hard to be mentally prepared for all of the problems out there, and always being vigilant about protecting yourself and your family; taking anti-malaria meds sucks and driving different routes to work every day is not practical, to give just a few examples.
Then again, my experience is that the harder the living conditions in a country are, the more embassies try to provide services to make life easier. For example, in Abuja (Nigeria) many diplomats lived in brand-new compounds outfitted with swimming pools, playgrounds, tennis courts, and barbecues. Many embassies also offer things like health services, commissaries (selling western products), water distillers, and air purifiers.
Also: diplomatic communities tend to be tight-knit in places that lack entertainment and travel options, organizing parties and get-togethers around holidays, farewells, and national holidays. I personally think there’s more support in hardship places than many people realize—my friends and family often wonder how I can stand living in less developed countries but I think it’s partially because they don’t know about the camaraderie among diplomats.
Is it worth it?
With the additional financial compensation, career enhancement opportunities, and support systems in mind, is it worth going to a hardship posting? The answer, I think, is different for everyone. I know diplomats who are happiest in countries with great restaurants and avoid postings on the African continent at all costs. I also know diplomats who only want to serve in Latin America because they’re comfortable speaking Spanish.
But many others I know sign up for a variety “hardship” or “high differential” posts during their careers because they like the challenge and, perhaps most of all, they like the benefits. There are lots of countries where diplomats can live relatively cheaply and get bonus pay, allowing them to save up for kids’ college, weddings, and retirement. That said, I don’t think many get rich from it—35% atop an 80,000 dollar salary for one or two years is nice, but it doesn’t buy you house or a Harvard education.
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