A friend of Africa and Malian ‘king’, new USAID mission director for Tunisia Scott Dobberstein returns to country at an inflection point

The Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Samantha Power on Thursday swore-in Scott Dobberstein as mission director for Tunisia. Married to a Tunisian-American, Mr. Dobberstein is returning to a country at an inflection point.

Tunisia has come a long way. It was in Tunisia where, more than a decade ago, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after enduring daily humiliation and extortion by police for simply trying to earn a living. And it was in the streets of Tunis where Bouazizi’s act of protest drove people to the streets, inspiring mass protests across the Middle East where a swell of individuals of all ages, religions, and ethnic groups rose up to demand their most basic rights. 

For sometime, it seemed as though decency, transparency, and accountability had returned to Tunisia. And they did, but just for a few years.

“The democratic progress and reforms are fragile and at risk,” Power said in remarks at Mr. Dobberstein’s swearing-in ceremony in Washington D.C. “Months of violent protests over the government’s response to the pandemic have led to a tenuous political situation that threatens its fledgling democracy. Unemployment remains far too high––and like much of the world, in addition to the human toll of COVID-19, the pandemic has had devastating economic consequences for Tunisia. 

Increased poverty, high unemployment rate and corruption in government led to massive street protests in July.

President Kais Saied of Tunisia reacted by suspending parliament and sacking his rival Prime Minister. The move was seen as a coup but the United States seemed to consider it as an opportunity to form a government that would be accepted by Tunisian people.

On August 13, senior U.S. officials met with President Kais Saied of Tunisia to deliver President Joseph R. Biden Jr’s call for a swift return to democracy in the north African country and the appointment of a new Prime Minister.

“Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer, joined by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood, traveled to Tunis and met today with President Kais Saied of Tunisia,” National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement. “During the visit, he delivered a message from President Biden reaffirming his personal support, and that of the Biden-Harris Administration, for the Tunisian people and urging a swift return to the path of Tunisia’s parliamentary democracy.”

USAID has worked with the Tunisian people and their government to rebuild abusive law enforcement institutions, reform a broken justice system, and foster opportunities for young Tunisians.

Between last year and this year, the U.S. has worked in close coordination with the Government of Tunisia to address the impact COVID-19 has had on communities.

“We’ve dedicated over $34 million in assistance to mitigate the immediate crisis and prepare for the pandemic’s long term economic and social effects. And by partnering with a leading microfinance institution in Tunis, USAID has been able to provide much-needed capital and expertise to more than 4,000 small and medium businesses—half of which are women- and youth-owned—in order to mitigate the economic impact of COVID,” Power, the USAID Administrator said.

Mr. Dobberstein’s return to Tunisia is expected to build on that foundation, drawing from his experiences and personal connection with the north African country.

His personal connection to the people of Tunisia runs as deep as his professional experience. His first post was in Tunis as a Housing and Urban Development Officer in 1990. It’s also where he met his wife, Insaf.

Mr. Dobberstein, who hails from a small farming town in Northern Minnesota, began working at USAID right out of grad school, perhaps as Power put it as he searched for “a career that would allow him to travel and experience life in countries around the world—or to escape the Minnesota winters.”

Between then and now, over 30 years have passed and his long career has led him across the globe, including stops in Poland, Senegal, Indonesia, Mali and Uganda.

Mr. Dobberstein has also served time here in Washington, where he helped stand up the human rights and learning divisions as Deputy Director of USAID’s Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

In early 2018, when Scott was sworn in as the Mission Director in Mali, the Foreign Service National Committee presented him with two symbolic items used in Malian tradition when inducting a king: a gourd, representing acceptance, tolerance, and inclusivity; and a sword, representing justice, courage, and impartiality. 

After years of dedication and service to people across the world, Scott’s already full career has come full circle. As one foreign service officer who worked with Scott in Mali put it, “I will remember him as the Mission Director whose heart was always with Tunisia.”

Chief White House Correspondent for

Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. and New York City.

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