Diplomacy graduate applies skills in Haiti

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Jean-Marc Koumoue is a man who needs to get things done.

But as head of protocol for the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in Haiti - the poorest country in the western hemisphere - getting things done has dimensions that might give even the most ambitious person reason to hesitate. If UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former President Bill Clinton (UN special envoy to Haiti), Queen Sophia of Spain or any other dignitary visits the island nation, someone has to make sure their needs are met. Someone has to coordinate with their respective security details. Someone has to make sure their accommodations, meeting places, motorcades and logistics are properly organized and executed.

It's a demanding enough job in capitals like London, Paris or Washington, and much more so in a third-world capital such as Port-au-Prince, where power outages are common, corruption rampant and many people live in squalor far beyond anything Charles Dickens imagined.

"Things have improved here some since I arrived in 2004," said Koumoue, a 1999 Norwich University graduate who completed Norwich's online Master of Arts in Diplomacy program in June 2009.

The UN peacekeeping mission was sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2004 coup that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. At the time, gangs ruled the streets of Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings were common.

"Often, most of our staff was ordered to stay home and only essential staff would have to report to work," he recalled. "The security situation has improved a lot, particularly in the last two or three years due to the UN presence and effort to restore peace and security. It's safer, but the situation is still volatile and it can change at any time because of the economic conditions in a poor country like Haiti."

Managing complex organizational and diplomatic responsibilities is something Koumoue has been exposed to for a long time. His father is a former ambassador to the United States from the West African nation of Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). As a Norwich cadet, Koumoue organized a two-day forum on investment and trade between the U.S. and Africa that brought Cote d'Ivoire's prime minister, Vermont's two U.S. senators and several ambassadors to campus.

With this background and his duties, Koumoue realized that Norwich's diplomacy program offered the opportunity to add an academic dimension to his experience.

"The Diplomacy program is an excellent one. You may know about international relations but that does not mean that you understand the complexity behind international relations thinking," he said. "Also, when I'm in discussions on international relations, I'm not lost. I can engage in conversations with experienced people who know more stuff than I know."

The diplomacy program is perfect for working for the UN, he added.

"The things I learned in that program [are] exactly what I'm doing for the UN," said Koumoue.

After five years in Haiti, however, Koumoue confesses he has lost some of the idealism he had when he first arrived.

"When I came to Haiti, I wanted to change everything, but change comes so slow I became discouraged," he said. "But since President Clinton has been designated UN special envoy to Haiti, there is a little hope. The country is not out of trouble, but for the first time we can see an excitement all over the country and the international community, local businesses, international investors and local politicians are willing to work together to make Haiti move forward. This is a big step for this country."

What places like Haiti need is patience from the international community, he said.

Emily Copeland, an instructor in conflict and post-conflict resolution, said it is "really positive" for both the instructors and students to have people like Koumoue in the program who are both practitioners and students.

"He was able to bring some interesting real-world examples into our discussions from his experiences both in Haiti and in Africa," said Copeland.

The program, Copeland said, takes professionals like Koumoue who are already doing well in their field, and adds "depth and breadth to their understanding."

"It allows them to step back from their day-to-day tasks and think more deeply about the big picture," she said. "I think it helps to put their work into perspective."