They’d do a better job than Donald Trump in the U.S., too.
When President Donald Trump tweeted that progressive congresswomen with roots in dysfunctional countries should “go back and help fix” those places, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves – a harsh, consistent critic of Trump and Trumpism – responded proudly that he’d done just that.
Trump’s remarks were clearly intended to incite bigotry rather than inspire civil-minded behavior. However, it adds to the widespread condemnation to point out that American citizens, in fact, regularly try to “go back and help fix” their ancestral countries of origin. Some of these people would probably do a better job of running the U.S. government than Trump and his cabinet members. Here are three cases in point.
Ilves’s parents fled the Soviet takeover of Estonia in 1944, first to Sweden and then to New Jersey. He grew up a U.S. citizen and ended up working for U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe, broadcasting to Soviet Estonia. Long tempted to “go back and fix” the country deeply damaged by almost half a century of Soviet rule, he got his chance when Estonia won its independence.
He served first as Estonia’s ambassador to the U.S., then as foreign minister and then, for 10 years, as president. His legacy includes making Estonia the first post-Soviet country to open European Union accession negotiations and a major role in the country’s much-lauded digital transformation. When I interviewed him in Tallinn in 2015, he said this about effective e-government initiative: “The problem is not in the scalability, technically, the problem is the political will of countries to do it.”
Ilves renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1993; but he does have a clear message for Trump. “Today, Estonia's infrastructure and public services are better, its crime rate and corruption level lower than the U.S.'s and is a world leader in digitization and cyber security,” he tweeted. “No one should be told to ‘go back’ but ‘back’ there one day might even be ahead of you.”
Unlike Ilves, Natalie Jaresko actually did what Trump said the progressive congresswomen should do: She came back to tell the U.S. to “show us how it’s done.”
Jaresko’s parents, both Ukrainians, got to the U.S. by way of a post-World War II displaced persons camp in Germany. She grew up American, the daughter of a proud Korean War vet – but she also spoke Ukrainian because her grandparents didn’t speak English. So she at least faced no language barrier when she moved to Ukraine in 1992, soon after Ukraine became independent, first to work at the U.S. embassy in Kiev, then to run a USAID-financed direct investment fund.
After Ukraine’s 2014 “Revolution of Dignity,” Jaresko was tapped to become the country’s finance minister. A Russian-backed separatist uprising promptly cut Ukraine off from industrial assets responsible for about 20% of the country’s GDP. The government’s coffers were bare. It fell to Jaresko to renegotiate Ukraine’s external debt, and she did so in 2015, getting investors to accept a haircut of some $3.6 billion and a new repayment schedule in exchange for a promise of big payouts in case of fast economic growth, which Jaresko knew wouldn’t materialize.
She nearly became prime minister, but President Petro Poroshenko was cooling on painful, radical economic reforms just then, and Jaresko resigned in 2016. The following year, she became executive director of the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, working as doggedly on the U.S. territory’s debt restructuring as she did on the Ukrainian one. This is a more complex job, but parts of Puerto Rico’s debt load already are restructured on favorable terms; in June, bondholders accepted large haircuts on $35 billion worth of paper – nearly half of the islands’ outstanding bonds.
Jaresko could teach U.S. officials a thing or two about fiscal management. “A tax system is most competitive if you have low rates, very simple administration,” she told Bloomberg News in March. “Countries like Georgia, Estonia, Slovakia that moved to very, very low rates without the complications of deductions, preferences, privileges and credits tend to be the easiest for doing business and the most competitive.” Trump should have asked her for advice before pushing through his tax reform, which failed to simplify fiscal administration and led to a ballooning deficit.
One could argue that both Ilves and Jaresko went back to help fix poor and corrupt, but relatively livable countries with educated populations and certain natural advantages. But U.S. citizens with immigrant backgrounds have jumped into worse situations and lived to fight another day.
Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, nicknamed Farmajo, worked for the Somali foreign ministry in Washington when the civil war of 1991 made it impossible for him to return home. He acquired refugee status and U.S. citizenship; he worked as a commissioner at the New York State Transportation Department in Buffalo (which has a large Somali immigrant community) when he was tapped to become his home country’s prime minister in 2010 because he’d impressed Somalia’s then-president with his stories of dealing with difficult Erie County contractors.
Mohamed only served eight months – Somalia is not a stable country, to say the least – but when he was fired, government employers and soldiers demonstrated in his support because he’d managed to start paying them salaries and had begun restoring a semblance of order to the government apparatus of the bankrupt, violent country. He returned to his Buffalo job, but the urge to “go back and help fix” Somalia lingered. Memories of Mohamed’s honest, unusually effective rule were enough to help him get elected Somalia’s president in 2017 – against 19 candidates including the incumbent.
Somalia is still a mess, with terrorist violence making it one of the worst places to live on the planet. But Mohamed, like Ilves and Jaresko, could show Trump some tricks. For one thing, he’s considered honest in a country where corruption is rife, and that makes him genuinely popular. For another, he’s adept at bringing together people from warring factions and tribes, something U.S. society, in its current, fragmented state, might learn from. He’s also doggedly fearless in the face of adversity and adept at dealing with major emergencies: When he was elected, famine loomed because of a drought, but his government managed to avert it.
As an emigre myself – though from a much more prosperous place than Somalia – I understand the logic behind appointing emigres to positions of responsibility. Convictions and experience people develop in Western nations can come in handy when the home country finally realizes that it needs fixing.
It goes both ways, though. Leading in the tougher, harder-to-manage corners of the world forges skills that can benefit Western nations, including the U.S., which should be proud of developing such immigrant talent. One wouldn’t hear anti-immigrant dog-whistles from Ilves, Jaresko or Farmajo – but the U.S. would get smarter, more principled and more courageous leadership from any of their ilk than it’s getting today.