ANALYST IN AFRICAN AFFAIRS | CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE
The following interview represents Alexis’s personal views and does not represent those of CRS or the Library of Congress.
You’re an analyst on Africa and Maghreb for the Congressional Research Service (CRS). What does it entail?
As a CRS analyst, my job is to provide Congress with independent, nonpartisan analysis on public policy issues related to my area of expertise – which is north/west/central Africa. CRS analysts produce written reports that are available to all Members of Congress and their staff. We are also genuinely a “service,” in that CRS analysts are available on a continuous basis to respond to direct congressional requests for information and analysis. It’s an interesting intersection of research and policy.
What do you do on a “typical work day”?
My day usually includes some mix of monitoring the regional and local news from the countries I cover; catching up on reports and statements by U.S. government agencies and third-parties; attending briefings for congressional staff; responding to direct congressional requests via email, phone, written memoranda, or in-person briefings; initiating new reports and revising existing ones to ensure they are up to date; and meeting with government officials and/or outside experts to gain new perspectives on current policy issues. In some ways, there is no “typical” day, since each day is shaped by the congressional agenda and my own corresponding research needs.
How did you get to your current job?
I came to CRS through a federal government recruitment program called the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), which is for people who are coming out of graduate school.
You have a BA in Linguistic Anthropology and an MA in IR. How do you use them in your daily job?
My BA in Linguistic Anthropology and my MA in International Relations provided me with an academic grounding in regional and area studies – and gave me an appreciation for combining multiple research methods and approaches. Studying anthropology also introduced me to the idea that to understand a country or place, you have to understand how ordinary people make decisions, and how they form opinions about the world and their place in it. My time at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York, where I worked for three years as a researcher on press freedom issues in Africa, convinced me of the importance of combining strong reporting and fact-checking with clear, concise writing – especially if you want to reach a generalist audience.
Most of your career so far has focused on Africa and the Maghreb. Why did you choose the continent?
I had a personal interest in West Africa from a young age because my father served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in the late 1960s. I also lived in France as a teenager, and French language skills have been extremely useful to my work. My first trip to Africa was as a college student in 2002, when I travelled with one of my professors to a rural part of South Africa to help conduct a field study of local views of elected versus hereditary government. Later, when I was at CPJ, the cases I was researching often raised deeper issues related to political dynamics, social tensions, and current events. One of my goals in returning to school to get my MA was to expand my understanding of African history and politics. The Maghreb was added to my portfolio at CRS a few years ago, and it has been fascinating to follow developments in countries like Tunisia, which is going through so many political changes. Working in Washington, I would say that Africa is increasingly important to U.S. foreign policy – which has made it an exciting and challenging time to be focused on the continent.
You’ve worked in Africa quite a bit. Why was it important to have experience there?
There is no substitute for personally experiencing daily life in some of the countries that I now analyse from a U.S. policy perspective. On-the-ground experience can be a reality check on policies that sound good on paper but may be impractical or opposed by other governments, local populations, and practitioners in the field. It has also taught me to approach foreign policy and aid programs with a lot of humility.
You have also been published in reference journals. How does this support your career?
I’ve published two articles in academic journals focusing on African affairs, both of them based on research that I conducted as a Fulbright Scholar in Guinea (West Africa) in 2008-2009. I learned a lot from co-authoring one of them with a former professor whom I hugely admire – Mike McGovern, now at University of Michigan – and from the process of getting feedback from more experienced scholars and thinkers on various early drafts and proposals. These articles also meant an opportunity to write for a different, more specialised audience than I usually do. I wouldn’t say they were directly related to advancing my career, but both the research and writing were fun and educational.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?
I love my job because I constantly learn new things, and because I get to be part of an important mission of contributing to an informed legislature. My colleagues are incredibly knowledgeable. One of the biggest challenges is staying positive and focused while often having to read and write dispassionately about extremely painful topics, such as brutal conflicts and humanitarian crises.
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
Don’t be afraid to dig deep into the subjects you are passionate about. Cultivate an understanding of how they are linked to the policy process. Language and writing skills are always useful. Be flexible and open to trying different types of work.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?
I enjoy writing, editing, and engaging with a wide range of sources. I’m also good at arguing multiple positions on a given topic, which is crucial since my job at CRS involves analysing the various policy perspectives on an issue without advocating one over the others. My French and Portuguese skills are useful in expanding the number of sources that I can access, and for research travel in Africa.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
That you can’t let yourself become cynical or forget the human side of foreign policy.
What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?
I’m not obsessed with any single seminal mistake, but my career so far has been a constant learning curve.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
One of the most important aspects of my job at CRS is tracking foreign aid legislation and implementation – something I had no background in prior to working here. I couldn’t have taken this on without the insights and techniques shared by my more experienced colleagues, who have really served as mentors over the years.
What achievements are you most proud of?
Last December, I was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the crisis in the Central African Republic. It was an incredible honour to provide analysis of this immensely complex situation directly to our elected officials.
Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?
I have many role models, including activists and hard-working government officials whom I’ve met in both African countries and in Washington. They are not household names, but they are sacrificing comfort, and often their own safety, to work for causes that stretch beyond themselves.