Ambassador Kierscht Interview with The Key

Ambassador Kierscht Interview with The Key

1. Could you provide a brief background on yourself?

Ambassador Kierscht Interview with The Key
Ambassador Kierscht Interview with The Key

Born in Chicago, Illinois, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, before moving to Fargo, North Dakota with my family where I graduated from high school. Fargo was a special place to grow up as it was very family-friendly, safe and had excellent public schools. In fact, my grandmother, for whom I was named, taught geography and social sciences in the public schools there for four decades. I even had her as my geography teacher in seventh grade. After high school, I went to Carleton College, in Northfield, MN, where I received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations magna cum laude. After living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for a year, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to go to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where I received a master’s degree in public policy. I joined the State Department as a Presidential Management Fellow in 1990 and worked in the Political-Military Bureau, but quickly joined the Foreign Service where my first post was in Cairo, Egypt. I learned Egyptian Arabic before being posted there, which is why you may hear me speak “misry.” Since joining the Foreign Service, I have been posted in Egypt, France, Tunisia, Morocco (with a brief stint in Libya), Colombia and now Mauritania. I have served half of my 32 years at the State Department in Washington, DC in the Bureaus of Counter Terrorism, Near Eastern Affairs, and Western Hemisphere Affairs, as well as in the Operations Center and the Executive Secretariat where you travel with the Secretary of State for domestic and international trips. I had the pleasure of working with Madeleine Albright when I worked in the Executive Secretariat and went to more than 20 countries during six months alone. I now live in Nouakchott with my four adopted Mauritanian cats who showed up in my garden one day with their mom. They must have known that I had adopted four cats in Morocco when I lived there!

2. You have now lived in Mauritania for more than a year. How do you find the country, its culture, and its people?
Before I came to Mauritania, people in Washington DC told me to expect a beautiful country with generous and hospitable people, rich in natural resources and scenery. Even so, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I’m enjoying my time here. My mom and I had the pleasure of traveling to Chinguetti and Ouadane, where we learned so much about the rich history at the crossroads of learning and scholarship. Near Ouadane, we got to experience the fascinating landscape by climbing to the top of the Eye of Richat. I’ve also visited the National Parks of Banc d’Arguin and Diawling which are beautiful places to visit, see wildlife and just relax. And I’ve also had the opportunity to enjoy the seafood of Nouadibou and see the beautiful coastline from Cap Blanc. I have found Mauritania to have such interesting landscapes and an incredibly rich history. And it’s true what they say about Mauritanians being legendary for their hospitality. I’ve enjoyed so much tea and conversation, and many delicious meals since I got here more than a year ago.

3. How have U.S.-Mauritanian relations developed since your arrival in the country?
The U.S.-Mauritania relationship remains a strong partnership – built on trust, shared interests, and common goals. Since my arrival, I’m proud to say that the United States and Mauritania have worked closely on an increasing number of priorities and projects. I’ll highlight just a few of these partnerships: In March of this year, the U.S. government – in partnership with Ministry of Justice and the Commissariat on Human Rights – bolstered Mauritania’s law enforcement efforts to identify and refer human trafficking cases through the justice system. On health, the U.S. government has donated more than 1.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Mauritania, and we continue to work together with the Ministry of Health on future deliveries. And, last October, Mauritania hosted the most senior-level U.S. government visitor in recent memory, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer. Finer’s visit underscored our support for strengthening Mauritania’s ongoing broad-based reforms. In addition to the visit by Mr. Finer, we have also hosted several other high-level visitors including the Deputy Commander of AFRICOM, General Smith, as well as the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain. All of these visits point to the importance the U.S. places on our relationship with Mauritania.

4. As Ambassador, what are your priorities for the U.S.- Mauritanian bilateral relationship?
Our goals for the U.S. Mission in Mauritania are to see Mauritania become more secure, democratic, and prosperous — all of which enhance Mauritania’s status as a stable and important U.S. partner in the region. To achieve this, we build on a strong foundation of bilateral cooperation as we seek to support the efforts of Mauritania’s government, private sector, and civil society to increase economic opportunities, strengthen democratic institutions, and promote tolerance and human rights.

5. You became Ambassador to Mauritania in 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you view Mauritania’s handling of the pandemic up to the present?
The United States was one of the first countries to assist Mauritania with what was at first a disease without a vaccine. In 2021, we helped Mauritania acquire 3,000 difficult to find Viral Transportation Media (VTMs) and hundreds of thousands of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs). The VTMs are vital testing supplies that helped Mauritania detect, prevent, and respond to the threat of COVID-19. The PPEs assisted the workforce and first responders safely carry out life-saving interventions.

When the vaccine capacity rolled out, the United States made available billions of COVID-19 doses to the world through the COVAX Initiative. To date, the United States has donated 1,843,410 COVID-19 doses to Mauritania. These vaccines have helped Mauritania to position itself as one of the most vaccinated countries in Africa. These are a combination of Astra Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer doses.

Additionally, on the non-vaccine side, the U.S. has provided Mauritania with $6.3 million in COVID-19 Response Mechanism (C-19 RM) support, which is helping Mauritania mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on three Global Fund-supported diseases – AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Thanks to this effort, Mauritania will improve its local oxygen production, expand COVID-19 capacity-building through targeted training, and acquire medical supplies and equipment critical to the response. Last but not least, the Embassy is proud to work closely with the Ministry of Health on the Field Epidemiology Training Program, with $620,000 in funding from the Centers for Disease Control, to improve Mauritania’s capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to public health crises.

6. The U.S. Embassy has been investing considerably in youth projects (Tamkeen $7m and Nafoore $17m). What are some of the outcomes that you expect from these initiatives?
The global pandemic propagated isolation, which has been hard on everyone, American and Mauritanian alike. Add to that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which has had major effects on the importation of wheat, and contributes to inflation – it hasn’t been easy on Mauritanian youth. But young people under age 35 represent 70% of Mauritania’s population and its greatest potential of human capital, and according to recent studies, disadvantaged youth lack employment or job opportunities, and they feel the lack of a supportive, enabling environment. In spite of all that, young people want to contribute in productive ways to their society. The American Embassy recognizes the great potential of Mauritania’s young people and wants to support them in the most productive way.

The USAID program Nafoore (which means “added value” in Pulaar) aims to increase the resilience of vulnerable youth to resist radicalization and extremism by fostering skills training, vocational education and building supportive youth networks. Some of the outcomes of the project will include increased access to sustainable job opportunities, training on conflict mitigation, psycho-social support and inclusive, youth friendly spaces.

The USAID program Tamkeen (which means “empowerment” in Arabic) will strengthen Mauritanian youth capacity to lead positive civic change through leadership skills training in addition to building youth focused networks that promote civic engagement. Outcomes will include supporting locally based mechanisms for stakeholders to advance social cohesion, creating a learning focused platform, and recognizing and countering mis- and dis-information campaigns.

We look forward to opportunities to coordinate with other youth focused activities and to learning and adapting the activities to the extent possible to attain the highest positive impact on Mauritanian youth. Mauritania has so many resources and great potential.

7. The U.S. Embassy in Mauritania has worked to combat corruption in Mauritania. Could you describe some of the concrete steps the Embassy has taken to do so?
The U.S. Embassy fully supports President Ghazouani’s efforts to fight corruption, increase government transparency, and curb illicit finance. As detailed in the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption released last December, U.S. embassies have elevated anti-corruption work as a priority worldwide. We improved our risk management processes related to foreign assistance, and we supported partner governments’ capacity and will to counter corruption. Specifically, over the next year, the U.S. government plans to support local civil society groups to better advocate for fiscal transparency in Mauritania.

8. As violence in the Sahel continues to increase, what role will and/or does Mauritania have in the U.S.’s strategy for the region?
For the last eleven years, Mauritania has been an oasis of stability in an increasingly fragile Sahel. The U.S. applauds Mauritania’s role in countering violent extremism and terrorist activity within its borders. Because we see Mauritania as a critical influence in strengthening regional security, we’ve invested heavily in the capability and capacity of Mauritania’s military and security forces through a robust portfolio of cooperation programs. In the last year, the U.S. delivered an English language lab to the G5 Sahel Defense College; concluded a multi-year, $14.9 million support program for the Mauritanian Battalion supporting the G5 Defense Force; and sent military officers to advanced programs at elite American military institutions through the International Military Education and Training program. Mauritania’s commitment to its own defense as well as to the stability of the region is key to future peace and a reduction in violence. The U.S. will continue assisting Mauritania to achieve these vital objectives.

9. Despite its relative political stability and security, Mauritania remains classified by the U.S. Government as “high risk.” Do you concur with that classification based on your time here?
Actually, Mauritania is currently classified the same as many other countries, including Guatemala, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. The State Department reevaluates and changes these travel classifications as needed. You can read more about the U.S. Government’s travel advisories at

10. Your accreditation as Ambassador to Mauritania a year ago coincided with the launch of The Key. What does The Key represent to you and your embassy?
I can’t overstate the importance that Americans place in the first amendment to our Constitution – the one that talks about freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. A free press – with journalists that research and report on stories important to the public, who are trained to analyze and explain – is vital to a high-functioning democracy. Freedom of the press matters because without it, the public wouldn’t know what was going on in their communities and their country. A free press informs voters – and a democracy thrives on informed voters. For all these reasons, I applaud your initiative, and the hard work of all journalists across Mauritania. In addition, an English-language newspaper aligns well with the Embassy’s efforts to promote English language capabilities amongst young people in Mauritania, helping them to communicate in today’s world language while building technical and professional skills. I congratulate you for your efforts and accomplishments in the last year as the only English-language newspaper in Mauritania.

11. Current oil exploration presents Mauritania with a potential future as an oil exporting state. What are your views on this development and how do you feel Mauritania could best leverage the discovery of oil to support domestic development?
Hydrocarbons production certainly has the potential to transform Mauritania’s economy over the next decade and, from what I have seen, this potential is being realized with the Phase 1 implementation of the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) project operated by BP and the American company, Kosmos Energy. In addition to the oil and gas projects, the U.S. government and the U.S. private sector are very excited that Mauritania is establishing itself as a renewable energy leader on the continent. By leveraging its unique natural resources and geography, and partnering with international firms, solar and wind energy could make Mauritania an energy exporter. More importantly, these renewable energy projects, coupled with the GTA project, could deliver cheap, reliable electricity throughout Mauritania and allow for new industries to grow. And, as Mauritania begins to see significant revenue from these projects, the U.S. Embassy will support efforts to ensure that all Mauritanians benefit from the country’s wealth of resources.