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Hardship Posts for Beginners

Hardship Posts for Beginners

By Patricia Linderman

A hardship post. The idea can conjure up frightening images. By definition, hardship posts present "unusually difficult or unhealthful conditions or severe physical hardships." These may include crime or other violence, pollution, isolation, a harsh climate, scarcity of goods on the local market, and other problems.

These hardships are real. At my last post, Havana, our community faced surveillance and harassment by a hostile host government, parasitic infections, burglaries, 6-month delays in receiving shipments, and the occasional scorpion in the living room.

Yet I do not regret our time there. The strong community at post, the incentives and support mechanisms offered to us — and most of all, the fascinating glimpse of life in "forbidden" Cuba — made it all worthwhile, at least for me and my husband. Still, every post is unique, and a hardship that one family finds tolerable may be excruciating for another.

A strong community

One of the biggest differences between hardship and non-hardship posts is seen in social life. At most hardship posts, the Embassy community organizes a lot of dinners, parties, holiday get-togethers, children s events, and so forth. A feeling of extended family may prevail. People pitch in readily to help each other. When I was new in Havana, people I hardly knew brought me casseroles, picked up my son from preschool and even lent me their cars when they went on vacation.

Sometimes, members of hardship post communities forge deep bonds, much like participants in a wilderness survival program. On the other hand, it must be noted that problematical personalities tend to stand out at hardship posts, especially small ones.

At non-hardship posts, people tend to go off in their own directions, and close-knit communities are rare. However, this does not mean that friendships are lacking. Spouse Nancy Nolan reports that she had expected to feel isolated in "easy" Finland, but she was pleasantly surprised to find her friendships there just as deep as those she had enjoyed in Guinea and Madagascar.


Employees serving at hardship posts receive additional pay, called a "differential," of 10% to 25% of their basic salary. In addition to the differential, "danger pay" is offered in some places where there is a state of civil war or an equivalent threat of violence.

Differential pay should not be confused with the cost-of-living or "post" allowance paid in many cities. Post allowances are granted because prices at post are significantly higher than those in Washington, D.C. Believe me, you will spend this seeming bonanza in a place like Geneva or Tokyo.

Differential pay, on the other hand, is an extra bonus, an incentive for serving in a difficult place. You may find yourself able to set this money aside and come out ahead financially (especially since there is little to buy in many Third World countries!) Many people actively seek out hardship posts for precisely this reason.

Service at hardship posts is also good for an officer’s promotion potential, and a certain amount of it is expected throughout a Foreign Service career.

Support mechanisms

Fortunately, mechanisms are in place at most posts to help you cope with their specific hardships. For example:

  • Housing is larger at hardship posts, since it is expected that you will spend most of your free time at home.
  • You may receive free air transportation away from post for "rest and recuperation" (R&R) travel, one or more times during your tour of duty.
  • Security measures such as window bars, alarm systems and guard patrols help shield you from crime and violence.
  • Devices such as water filters, heavy-duty air conditioners and even an electrical generator may be provided in your residence.
  • Shipments of consumable goods (non-perishable foods and household products) may be authorized if there are shortages on the local market. Also, you may have access to a commissary or military store.
  • In some countries, staff and families live in protected compounds with their own facilities.

Every post is unique

Each hardship post presents a unique set of challenges. You may find the hardships in some places easier to take than others. La Paz, Bolivia, lies at a head-spinning altitude of 12,500 feet. Yet if you are reasonably young and fit, this hardship may not affect you much at all, as spouse Kelly Midura points out. On the other hand, if you are prone to respiratory problems, it is best to avoid heavily-polluted cities such as Santiago, Chile.

How can you find out what life is really like at a specific hardship post? The Overseas Briefing Center offers post reports, recent newsletters, slides for viewing and other useful information. Perhaps most valuable of all is the file of phone numbers of recent returnees who are willing to share their experiences.

The editors of Tales from a Small Planet have compiled uncensored "Real Post Reports" on a number of places. Check their Web site at

Look carefully into schooling and health care before you bid. Hardship posts vary considerably in these areas. At one post, the hospital patronized by the local elite may be comparable to a U.S. facility, and a large expatriate community may support an excellent international school. At another post with the same differential percentage, medical evacuations ("medevacs") may be common, and Embassy children may attend boarding school in the States due to the lack of a quality local alternative.

Meanwhile, some advantages and disadvantages of posts don’t show up on the official hardship scale at all. How about the friendliness of the people? The distance from friends and family? The difficulty of the language? Knowing the local language has been identified as a key factor in spouses’ satisfaction with overseas life, whether at a hardship or non-hardship post.

No matter what, hardship posts offer adventure. Many are unspoiled places, where tourists seldom go. When you walk on a deserted beach, climb over the ruins of one of humanity’s oldest cities, or enter a village whose inhabitants have never met an American before, you’ll remember why you were attracted to Foreign Service life in the first place.

… And that time when the big green iguana crawled through your bathroom window will remain a memory to be laughed over, if not cherished.

Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.

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