Diana Putman Honored With 'Dissent' Award

The State Department promotes itself as a place that likes to hear dissent. Each year, the department's professional union hands out awards to diplomats who do just that. This year's recipient was a woman serving alongside the U.S. military in AFRICOM, the Africa Command, who managed to change a program meant to help rape victims in Congo. Diana Putman's story demonstrates that officials from the civilian and military cultures of the U.S. Government can collaborate successfully.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's no secret that the U.S. military and civilian officials are occasionally at odds. A dramatic example came last week with the Rolling Stone article that led to General Stanley McChrystal's resignation from his command in Afghanistan. Now, we're going to hear about a very different dispute between civilians and the military. This one worked its way through the regular channels, not the media, and resulted in a change in policy. NPR's Michele Keleman has the story.

MICHELE KELEMEN: As an anthropologist by training, Diana Putman seems quite attuned to the culture clash between U.S. Agency for International Development officials like herself and U.S. military officers. She works with the military at the new Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

Ms. DIANA PUTMAN (USAID): Unfortunately, within the military system, frequently what happens is a good idea comes out from someone at a senior level and everybody just jumps on it and says, OK, the boss wants this done. The benefit of having people like me coming from a different culture is that I come from a culture at USAID, where we're much freer to challenge.

KELEMEN: In fact, the American Foreign Service Association just gave her an award for constructive dissent for what she did to challenge a program in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The story began last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was planning to visit Congo to highlight the problem of sexual violence U.S. AFRICOM sprang into action to show that they're addressing the issue and prepared to send a medical team to help victims of rape.

Ms. PUTMAN: So they were planning on bringing out American military to participate in some sort of medical activity with Congolese women or some sort of psychosocial counseling.

KELEMEN: Putman didn't think the U.S. military was equipped for that and argued development experts and nongovernmental groups are better suited to provide services for rape victims and are already in the country. So she went up the chain of command to persuade AFRICOM to help those services providers by fixing up hospitals and a school where girls can study safely.

Ms. PUTMAN: We're just about to award the contracts to Congolese firms. So in addition to the benefits that the women will get out of this, we're also helping the local Congolese economy.

KELEMEN: Development work has changed a lot of Putman's career, she says. And she believes there is a role for the military. What's unique about U.S. Africa Command is that it was set up as an interagency command structure.

Ms. PUTMAN: And we're learning, slowly, how to accommodate each other's cultures. And I think that's important for all of us within the U.S. government who've often been stovepiped into doing our own things. Now we need to sit down, figure out how to cross our cultures.

KELEMEN: She says she found the generals at AFRICOM to be responsive to her advice as a second generation development expert on Africa.

Ms. PUTMAN: Having grown up in Africa, having been around African women and seeing the strength of African women ever since I was a little girl, I just felt so honored to be able to speak out for African women.

KELEMEN: Particular, she says, at a time when these issues are high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

Ms. PUTMAN: We have a president and a secretary of state who realize that women hold up half the sky.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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