Update here:  https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Ee4q4RhbjZTG9DKZ8/update-on-pestering-embassies-to-reduce-non-policy-barriers

I don't really think anything I have done on this issue has been particularly impactful due to not understanding the system well enough, and due to "advocacy from Americans" being less of a limiting factor than "political capital within the embassy". Still optimistic overall about political advocacy, but not as low-hanging fruit as I hoped.


Epistemic status: Uncertain. I may be too optimistic about bureaucratic responsiveness to public opinion. Currently testing

I (American) am bothering the US Embassy in Nairobi Kenya to increase their staffing level so they can increase the number of tourist visas they provide to Kenyans[1]. I think it's fairly likely that other people from rich countries can also pester their own embassies on similar issues for a decent chance of a pretty high reward.

Embassies have some discretion in how they implement visa policies (e.g., they decide how to staff interviews), and can put in place barriers to travel (e.g., "we don't have enough interview slots, so you don't get a tourist visa and can't visit our country").

If you believe 

  • that movement between countries is generally good[2],
  • that there are significant bureaucratic barriers to this movement[3],
  • and that the bureaucratic mechanisms of the embassies of these rich countries are somewhat susceptible to public opinion,

then this could be a moderate-effort-moderate-impact cause area to spend some time on.

Something that I think makes this particularly tractable is that no policy change is needed. The embassy just needs to hire or staff more people[4]. I imagine the main reason this is a problem in Kenya is that the embassy has basically zero accountability to people applying for visas, and not that many US citizens care about this. 

It seems like an area where a few people’s voices could have an outsized impact[5].

I personally have not seen any traction yet, but have started to ramp up my efforts in the past few days[6]. I will try to update this post with traction or lack thereof.

Would be curious to hear if others have experiences with similar issues, and definitely if anyone has any helpful contacts/advice re US Embassy Nairobi specifically.


  1. ^

    Currently you have to wait over a year to get the required interview

  2. ^

    Salient example: I know at least 2 Kenyans who wanted to go to EAG Boston or EAG London and could not go because of inability to get visas

  3. ^
  4. ^

    Anecdotally, the embassy makes net profit from visa interviews, so it shouldn't be financially difficult

  5. ^

    More generally, "pestering bureaucrats to improve processes" might be a good cause area. My impression is this is how a decent amount of political change happens: An interest groups finds a particular policy or policy interpretation that few people have really thought or care about, and pester the people responsible until it changes. I think this is a very unoriginal thought, but it's also not one I hear voiced in the context of EA super often relative to groups working in eg progress studies, environmental activism, criminal justice reform

  6. ^

    Wrote a blog post with more detail on why this is an issue. Tweeted it at the embassy - no response. Have an email thread with the embassy that basically confirmed my suspicion that there is no good reason for this lack of interview slots. Emailed senators and a cold email to someone on the National Security Council - no responses. Have started reaching out to news outlets.




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Really curious for updates as this progresses

Could you explain how you've been trying to do this?

I'll add that tourist visas are nice, but what I really want is for people to get more work visas.

Agreed - would love more work visas! Way more impactful. Would love lots more people to work on that as well.

So far what I have done:

  • 3 months ago, talked to a couple friends at the embassy (peers, not super high up)  to understand what the root issue is. They basically said it is a staffing issue, and my sense is that it isn't a high priority. When other mutual friends have asked how to get a visa. In at least one case, when another mutual friend asked, an embassy friend gave tips on how to do the expedited process. You wouldn't get these tips if you don't have a friend at the embassy
    • haven't involved them much since as they don't have power over this, and I don't want to make it personal
  • over the past few months, corresponded with the consular section of the US embassy in Nairobi expressing my frustration and asking who I could talk to to understand the issue. got pat responses - eventually they said "To keep both applicants and our staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of appointments for all of these categories is much lower than normal." which is infuriating BS
  • A few months ago I contacted both my Senators (Iowa) through their online contact forms, asking if they could direct me to anyone. No response
  • This week I wrote a blog post (I have extremely limited reach, post has gotten 33 views) explaining the situation
  • Tweeted this blog post at the US embassy, no response
  • Contacted a journalist friend to see if this was a newsworthy thing that any outlet might pick up. She said potentially, but didn't know anyone specifically who would write on it.
  • I submitted tips online to Kenyan newspapers The Standard and The Daily Nation, African news source The Continent, and the NYT, WSJ, Foreign Affairs. Don't expect anything to come of these
  • This week I emailed Dana L Banks (NSC Senior Director for Africa - got her contact through a of mine friend in Kenya in Democrats Abroad), on the issue. She actually responded! She volunteered that this is an Africa-wide issue (already seemed that way to me but nice I guess to hear they're thinking of it that way). She  Forwarded it to Maureen Farrell (Director for Horn of Africa - NSC)
    • I have found it very hard to find organizational information about the NSC online - don't really know how important these people are)
  • While writing this comment I got a response from Maureen Farrell! They "share my concerns" and gave me the contact of someone at the US State Dept Kenya Desk. I'll email her and follow up.

Next steps

  • write to Mr. Eric W. Kneedler as Weaver suggested below
  • follow up with new contact at Kenya Desk in state dept
  • maybe submit a op-ed proposal to Africa Quartz if I want to write an op-ed myself
  • maybe find some more people to tweet at either in state department or people who work in immigration policy and might have leverage to do something on this

Would love any feedback / further advice on this!

Wow, this is a lot of work! It's so far out of my skillset so I can't give you direct advice.

But what I would be interested in seeing some time from now (maybe 2-3 months, or when you feel you've frustrated the options for communication) is a post-mortem, detailing which of these steps did/didn't pan out and why, what the final results were, and how you would replicate this with other embassies (if you got any results).

As an Israeli I'd be interested in doing this for any country, but I reckon US embassies are good enough to start with.

Hi Guy, I wrote up an update here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Ee4q4RhbjZTG9DKZ8/update-on-pestering-embassies-to-reduce-non-policy-barriers

I'm happy to give more detail if it's helpful! I don't really think anything I did was particularly impactful due to not understanding the system well enough, and due to "advocacy from Americans" being less of a limiting factor than "political capital within the embassy"

Super interesting idea— the (effective) visa freeze also does have direct impact on American companies and makes it hard to organize meetings with Kenyan staff members. 

Would love more info on what channels you're using to pester— love a good letter-writing campaign. 

Absolutely, it's a lose-lose, unforced error.


For channels see my comment to Guy Raveh with what I've done so far!

As someone who has had to deal with bureaucratic systems frequently, I think you're asking the wrong person. American Embassies act at the direction of the Ambassador or the Charge D'Affairs in their absence (or non appointment). Many of the people that fill Ambassador roles are career state department workers, but a large portion of these roles are filled by Presidential Appointment. 

In turn, Ambassadors take their cue from the Secretary of State and the President. These are the people that will guide the policy which the Visa process stems from. Ergo, your elected representative has to make this a priority.

A good question would be, can an Ambassador unilaterally change this dynamic, and if so, who is friends with or has the ear of an Ambassador? You could write a letter to Mr. Eric W. Kneedler, who is (as of this writing) the current Charge d'Affairs for the US Embassy in Nairobi.

If not, you could look into doing a FOIA about the visa process and whatever holdups are actually occurring. They will have to respond to a FOIA, although it may not be in a timely manner.

Ambassadors and their US counterparts would be responsible for international relations, but I'm not sure they'd be directly involved in day-to-day staffing levels?

Directly, probably HR would be the person in charge or hiring someone if they're in country, but HR is not going to be calling Washington to backfill empty roles.

That's what the head of the Embassy would be doing, if enough people raised a fuss.

 The State Department sends people on 3-5 year tours, so they might have a long wait to backfill a role.

Thank you so much! Let me write to Kneedler. May do a FOIA request later too

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