I wrote a post in July speculating that "it's fairly likely that  people from rich countries can pester their own embassies on similar issues [to visa backlog issues] for a decent chance of a pretty high reward." Wanted to provide an update

My  update in thinking since this post:

  • On the whole, this sort of activism does have an effect [1]
  • Tractability is heavily constrained by internal bureacratic/political forces that are hard to gauge from the outside[2]
  • You have to understand the system pretty well in order to individually have an effect, making this higher-effort than I first thought[3]

More simply: politics is hard


New hypothesis on impact: 

  • One person putting in a little bit of time by themself is not likely to be effective, because they don't understand what is going on well enough 
  • You either need to be one person putting in a lot of effort to understand the system well, and then mobilizing others, OR be one of those mobilized others who can with low effort push at just the right leverage point (e.g., email complaints to the right person) as a part of a broader campaign


For EAs who are interested in particular political topics, I'd encourage them to pursue them! At least in the US, I still think smart civic engagement is highly underrated in terms of impact and the satisfaction of being a part of something.

Personally I don't think my direct work on visa backlogs in Kenya has been very effective, but I'm still interested and optimistic on the broad topic of civic engagement on mobility.  Planning to focus more on overall high-skill immigration into the US as a political cause. Will share an update in the forum if I learn anything worth sharing.


  1. ^

    Visitor visa wait times at the Us embassy in Kenya are down to 63 days from 365+ in July. This is because the new Ambassador, Meg Whitman, came in and heavily prioritized this issue. She was motivated to do so because tons of people were complaining to her and to the embassy all the time about the wait times. So while I think I myself had very little effect, the overall complaints were effectful

  2. ^

    Ambassador Meg Whitman has been able to get resources for the Nairobi embassy because she is extremely well connected. Upon moving here, she is the richest woman living in Kenya, she was the CEO of HP and Ebay, and previously ran for governor of California. She can get a meeting with Biden if she wants. This is not the case for all ambassadors. In a global shortage of people to staff US embassy visa appointments, she can get resources that other ambassadors can't (ex: the embassy in Lagos still has a wait time of 700+ days)

    The point of this is that the issue of visa backlogs can have very different tractability depending on the specific politics of the embassy in question, and this tractability is hard to judge from the outside.

  3. ^

    Not knowing who to contact, not knowing who had power, not knowing what actually had to be done to improve the system meant I was just sending cold emails to whoever I could find contact info for

    It's possible if I had done more I might have seen more impact. I had hoped in July to find a way to get something published and to email the acting ambassador myself, but did neither. I don't think it's likely my impact would have been much higher though - seems that Ambassador Whitman is motivated to fix the problem and I doubt my extra voice would have made a difference on this margin.

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This is really cool! In particular, I can imagine that it had a ~10%-ish chance of having a particularly high impact, or of being particularly scalable, ex ante.


Thanks for the update, love the footnotes!