Q&A with international development expert Tina Hager
‘Each country has its own set of cultural rules and you need to respect and adhere to that. In order to work in countries you need to have a good knowledge of the culture, and that’s what we’re really good at,’ says Tina Hager of Lyndeborough-based Emissary Transition Group.
PHOTO BY LIISA RAJALA
Studying photojournalism in Germany was the step that led Tina Hager on a whirlwind of adventures as an international photographer.
By the time she hit her late 30s, she had worked in over 60 countries as a photojournalist. From 2001 to 2004, she served as one of three White House photographers in the George W. Bush administration.
While traveling with Condoleeza Rice, Hager met her likewise internationally focused husband in Jordan, at an airport Starbucks. Hager and her husband spent the early years of their marriage in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan – not a situation they’d recommend for anyone. For three years, Hager worked for the Task Force for Business & Stability Operations through the Department of Defense in Iraq and Afghanistan, before returning to Lyndeborough, N.H.
In 2011, Hager formed Emissary Transition Group, an international development firm that helps companies and government agencies conduct business in emerging and volatile markets.
Q. How did you become a White House photographer?
A. It was with a resume and a portfolio and a letter. It was with no contacts – a cold call. I reached out to pretty much everybody I had ever worked with in the field, generals and anybody I had done military work with, and then I applied. There was a space available, and they still didn’t tell me how many people applied, but it was an honor and a privilege of a lifetime.
Q. When did your work shift to international development?
A. Well, I had been working in the field for almost 30 years and, after four years at the White House, I went to the Middle East. I had Der Spiegel as a client, the State Department and the Department of Defense.
I did a lot of research on the ground, for instance the Department of Defense started sending me to Afghan provinces, not only to document the provinces, but also to find out what factories were there, what kind of work was there, what kind of geology was there – what do they grow, what kind of agriculture, what the schools are like, and so I ended up doing a lot more of what they call “ground truth,” and the photography ended up being a byproduct of what I did, which was actually fun.
Q. Who does Emissary Transition Group work with?
A. We ultimately would like to work with private businesses. We have large government contracts, small government contracts, contracts with OSCE, which is the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, like NATO’s version of USAID. We work with the UN, and we work with NGOs, non-governmental organizations.
Q. Who are these emissaries?
A. Most of them I’ve known for a very long time. Generally, the emissaries are people I have worked with or I know or someone very close to me has worked with. It’s important that we understand and know their skillset.
Because our emissaries are so diverse, and after working so long in the field, I would come across the same people over and over again. There’s an amazing variety of professions that work in volatile or dangerous settings. You have everything from journalists and aid workers to doctors and lawyers and geologists – we even have a microbiologist.
I always envisioned, that one day I would bring all of these people together and have a kind of co-op. That was the basis of my company. It’s not a co-op, but it has that kind of feel to it, that everybody has ownership of their projects.
Q. And you recently had an event in Kosovo?
A. It’s basically training lawyers and judges how to navigate the courtroom. The Balkans is really interesting; we’re really starting to branch out there. We’re also doing police soft skills. A lot of police in these areas are very heavy-handed, they have such a volatile or dangerous environment. The “Courage of Restraint” is our working title for that.
Q. What have you learned from working with the U.S. government?
A. What I really took home from working with the U.S. government was the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which is non-wavering. We stick to it by the rule, and that’s something that’s non-negotiable. That’s where I see a lot of companies failing when they do work overseas; they assume because they’re following the laws of the country that suffices. But you really have to follow it by the rule because it’s just like American taxes – you can’t run away from them.
Q. When you’re entering an emerging market, how are you fostering a relationship with government and community?
A. I prefer to do it by employing local staff – everything from taxi drivers to maids or clerks or even subject matter experts. There’s a lot of talent out there. And that would give them part-ownership of the success of the company, plus you’re putting money into the economy and building good will. You’re also building a legacy of leaving the place a little bit better than how you found it.
You want to be sure you give them fair wages for fair work and not inflate the wages, which sounds kind of mean, but I see that as the downfall a lot of times when they pay a driver $1,000 a month and that’s what the doctor makes. The disparity that you leave just opens up the door for corruption and crime. It’s really important to have a balanced approach to what you pay them.