Safeguarding Our Smart Ports: Lessons from Djibouti with Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill


[Map of Djibouti and the Bab al Mandab straight with images of Cameron Boozarjomehri (left) and Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (center)]
Photo by: Cameron Boozarjomehri with stock photos from iStock

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice.

As developing countries work to modernize with new infrastructure like smart ports, they look to establish superpowers like the U.S. and China for the knowledge and resources they need to succeed. The U.S. recognizes their unique position in this relationship, but also understands how too much aid from any one nation could make a developing country beholden to that nation. So, how do you get rival countries to cooperate in a way that ensures all nations can modernize without becoming beholden to any one nation? Well, as always, MITRE staff are on the case. Join us as Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill guides us through the decision-support tools MITRE has been developing to help the U.S. safeguard critical infrastructure across the globe while building partnerships and helping allies create a better future for their citizens.

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Podcast transcript

Cameron Boozarjomehri (00:14):

Hello everyone, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge Driven podcast, a show where I, your host, Cameron Boozarjomehri, interview brilliant minds across MITRE. Today, we’ll be talking to Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill about Djibouti smart ports and the importance of bringing advanced infrastructure to our allies in the global south. Tamara, would you like to introduce yourself?

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (00:36):

Good morning, Cameron. Thank you for inviting me to meet with you. I am a department head for the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department within the Data and Human Centered Solutions Innovation Center and my team and I worked with the Great Power Competition Strategic Initiative during FY21 to do an analysis on Djibouti’s smart ports and their impact, considerations and other concerns related to the Digital Silk Road. I’m excited to share what we’ve learned with you and hope to explore these topics with many of our sponsors.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (01:13):

I’m very excited to have you here. I think a good place to start would be maybe a little more about yourself and how you even found yourself in this space.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (01:20):

Well, a little bit of background about myself. I have a master’s in international and Public Administration, so I’ve been interested in how the United States interacts with our allies and our near peer adversaries ever since I was very young and MITRE does such amazing work in different areas that I was able to connect with some colleagues who were working in MITRE’s long-term initiative on national resilience. We are currently starting our third year of this long-term initiative and have been looking into many topics such as 5G, microelectronics, dollar dominance, biopharma, in order to really understand what are some of the critical things our sponsor needs to understand about the Great Power Competition with China and with Russia and how we can position ourselves as a U.S. government to most effectively support our allies and the values that we have across the world.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (02:20):

And do you mind if we elaborate a little more on what Great Power Competition actually is?

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (02:25):

The Great Power Competition, also sometimes called “The Strategic Competition”, is really about how do we position ourselves as a nation from both a governmental and a private sector perspective to most effectively compete in areas such as science and technology, climate, and it can even expand to things like pharmaceuticals and currency in order to assure that the United States and our allies are able to advocate for democracy, free and equal access to digital infrastructure and to minimize the negative impacts of influence competitions between national powers in order to maximize the economic and national security of every country around the world.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (03:16):

Yeah, I guess something that’s, maybe it’s a little obvious once I explain it, but Great Power Competition, as I understand it, refers to the competition between great powers. If you think of large players on the national stage, countries like Russia, China, and the U.S., and pretty much any player you can think of, who’s trying to position themselves on the global stage. These are the powers we’re focused on understanding how they compete and making sure that they are competing in a beneficial, collaborative way, as opposed to just doing some sort of tit-for-tat, we’re going to go mess with someone here so they can come mess with us there.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (03:50):

Absolutely. Where we’re looking for ways to collaborate and be more competitive on the global stage, primarily in concerns with the People’s Republic of China.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (04:02):

Now, when I think about the United States being competitive on the global stage, even when being competitive with China, I’ll be honest, the first thing that comes to mind, is not Djibouti smart ports. If you gave me a map, I probably wouldn’t even know where Djibouti was. And I’m a little embarrassed because I know where most countries on a map are. So, I was wondering if you give us a little segue into how this became a topic of focus and why Djibouti and specifically smart ports for Djibouti are such a point of interest.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (04:28):

It is an unusual choice. We started looking at China’s Digital Silk Road, which is a worldwide digital infrastructure and upon examination of that, we realized that smart ports are very critical because they connect China’s belt road initiatives with the Digital Silk Road, also called DSR. And it’s a synergy that impacts many countries around the world. So smart ports were important because there’s a cross between civilian and military interest, which is a hot topic within a great power competition. And we narrowed down on Djibouti because Djibouti actually has a very strategic geographic location within Africa. And several governments have military presence there: Italy, Japan, France, the U.S., and China all have military bases in a country the size of New Jersey. So, it’s of strategic importance for a number of reasons, not only because of the Digital Silk Road, but also because of the number of foreign powers within such a small location.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (05:41):

Yeah. So, going back to maps, Djibouti controls one side of–and I’m probably going to end up butchering how I pronounce this–the Bab-al-Mandab Strait, sandwiched between Djibouti and Yemen on the Horn of Africa.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (05:53):


Cameron Boozarjomehri (05:53):

As we’ve seen with the Suez canal, Panama canal, any choke point like that when it comes to waterways are, as you pointed out, critical to international shipping. So, I imagine that making sure Djibouti, not just as a port but also as an ally, controlling part of a major waterway is very important to not just the U.S.’s ability to do trade, but many Western nations’ ability to do trade.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (06:15):

Yes, that’s correct. And in addition, it’s a big shipping route for oil, so it’s also critical for Northern Africa in the Middle East.
Cameron Boozarjomehri (06:25):

Yeah. I mean, that makes a lot of sense. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Horn of Africa is kind of that big part on the east of Africa that just shoots out towards Yemen.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (06:33):

Correct. Yes.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (06:34):

So, now that I think we understand a little more about white Djibouti is so important in terms of how it controls the shipping route and why it definitely needs a port, can you fill us on a little more on how other countries like China are factoring into why America’s so focused on trying to help Djibouti with this port development.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (06:53):

As part of China’s Digital Silk Road, they are at a number of different investments in technology such as smart cities, smart ports, smart airports, and several Chinese companies, primarily state-owned enterprises, have been actively involved in building out Djibouti’s smart ports. China Merchants is there with the Global Port Alliance, IZP Technologies, CTE, a number of very large international companies. And they have really laid out an end-to-end system in which the data flows through the smart port through undersea cables, all the way back to China. And this allows for a seamless integration of smart port operations, but also raises concerns for dual use of data. Many countries, including Djibouti, are not always able to enact security procedures and precaution within their systems when they’re operating with Chinese technologies. This enables the PRC to have active access to data from the smart ports.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (08:10):

So, in Djibouti where we have several different nations shipping their military supplies through a Chinese-dominated technical smart port, raises a lot of national concerns. So, for example, with the U.S. base there, or the French base in Djibouti, the Chinese have actual access to which ships are coming in that have U.S. or French supplies, how many cargo containers there are, what the timing of that. And it can raise serious concerns when there are opportunities and threats related to when the cargo comes in and what is the timing of the ship’s schedule debarkation and prioritizing which goods are offloaded at which times. And this is where it’s also of interest to organizations such as Department of Commerce or Department of State, is not only are we concerned with the military operations, but just the American companies and European companies’ ability to invest in Africa can be hindered by the prioritization that their goods get in being unloaded from the cargo docks.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (09:26):

I think what I’m hearing is, Djibouti looking to modernize more of its infrastructure, it’s getting help. China’s volunteering to basically come in and say, “Hey, you want better infrastructure, we want an ally in this space. So, we will build you the smart port.” But obviously as the ports get smarter, we’re going to have a better understanding of every single thing that moves through a port, whether it be someone’s iPhone or a military asset for the United States or as one of its allies. And so, the smarter the port gets, the easier it can be for other people to snoop on what’s going on in that port.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (09:57):

Absolutely. And that can be seen in a number of different ways. If we look at Djibouti’s national priorities and we probably should have started here, they have really great strategic goals to develop their own international services in order to be an entryway for trade and economic growth into the Horn of Africa and other areas of Africa. So, Djibouti is really prioritizing growing their infrastructure, growing their workforce, as well as increasing partnerships with other countries. And in this case, this smart port is an excellent opportunity and a good investment for the Djibouti government. But it does raise concerns with those dual-use aspects of the infrastructure such as who has access to the data and when.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (10:52):

Yeah, I can understand how this is a bit of a quagmire in that, America and any nation, honestly, would want Djibouti to modernize because, I mean, we all benefit from them having better infrastructure and also they deserve to be able to modernize if it helps their people have a better livelihood, if it helps make sure that they can be competitive and have growing GDP on the global scale, that typically means that we’re going to see more democratic things come from them, which is what most nations want. And this is where MITRE, as I understand, came in with being able to model, not just we want them to modernize, but we want to make sure that when Djibouti modernizes, they’re not beholden to one player.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (11:30):

Exactly. So, part of what we did within our project this year is identify several different courses of action that could be executed by the U.S. government or the host nation, such as Djibouti, in order to maximize their national sovereignty and really focus on things like economic growth rather than negative impacts that may result from digital infrastructure owners.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (12:00):

We have several papers that you can access that are available on the site and within MITRE itself, you can also fast jump GPC. One of the papers, for example, focuses on five considerations that nations need to look at as they execute and implement a Digital Silk Road, smart port or data center that leverages Chinese technologies. We also have a decision model that we created that really maximizes the value of qualitative analysis, primarily from subject matter experts with different types of background, like economic bent background, geopolitical, intelligence, and combines it with quantitative analysis, such as looking at how does GDP increase when you have increased bandwidth, how does trade increase and change when you have increased bandwidth?

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (13:06):

And what we wanted to do with our decision model is pull the best of both worlds together with that qualitative and quantitative analysis and create evidence and a structure in which government decision makers can look at the effectiveness of different levers of influence. So, for example, we created a web-based asynchronous serious game in which the U.S. government can look at which types of aid, sanctions and other economic and diplomatic actions that they can take would be most effective in helping a host nation, such as Djibouti, implement a smart port that benefits not only the country itself, but also its allies around the world.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (14:06):

Yeah, I think when I first learned about this, one of the things that blew my mind is how hard it is to get qualitative data. Quantitative data is pretty straight forward, all right, if we do this thing, it’s likely going to create this much increase in GDP. But qualitative things like a nation’s happiness or influence are other things that are a little softer or harder to “quantify”, hilariously enough, they make it difficult to model how specific actions are going to lead to these outcome. So, being able to pull in subject matter experts in order to have them basically weigh in and say, ”Yeah, if you do these kinds of things, if a country with this much income or this much power or in this position was to receive these specific benefits, this is how that would play out”, in this case, as you mentioned, in a serious game. And actually, I know we’ve had discussions with serious games in other interviews before, but would you mind elaborating a little more on what serious games is and how someone actually goes about creating one?

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (15:06):

Yes, a serious game is a way to bring together subject matter experts in one forum and leverage their expertise in an integrated fashion. So, we want to tap into unique skill sets, unique historical expertise, as well as the creativity of human mind. There are many excellent models out there. But one thing that’s unique about the serious game is it brings in that human creativity and also the fact that sometimes humans don’t do logical things. They don’t do exactly what they’re prescribed to do, like a model with an algorithm would do. So, the serious game enables us to evaluate a problem with the expertise, with the creativity and unpredictability of human behavior. And it allows us to look at second and third order effects.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (16:06):

So, the game that we played for Djibouti was several rounds. So, when we had our three players, one for Djibouti, one for the U.S. and one for China execute their moves in each round, they could then address the progress that was made in the next round and begin to counter action. So, for example, in round one, if the U.S. decided to fund a salinization plant in Djibouti to help improve the quality of life, in the next round, China may decide to provide some other type of humanitarian aid in addition to their technical aid. So, it allows us to understand “What are the results of our actions?” and “What might our near peer adversaries do in the second and third order effect?”

Cameron Boozarjomehri (17:03):

That’s really cool to hear because of how you normally think of all these modeling and simulation being like, big data is going to pull information from the blockchain and the cloud to understand data around the world and that’s how we’ll understand how governments work. But at the end of the day, sometimes the easiest, most efficient thing you can do is just get subject matter experts around in a room and just tabletop what is this going to be? You don’t necessarily need to build a sophisticated computer game to understand how nation states are going to act, because we’ve seen how they in the past. So, it’s not hard to figure that out.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (17:37):

But at the same time, it’s interesting to hear how we’re trying to play this game of cat-and-mouse, where we want Djibouti to get good things. We don’t want them to feel like the only way they can move forward as a nation is by being submissive to another nation. But at the same time, we also have to do the hard math of, if another nation like China comes in and offers things that we might not be able to offer, we can’t let them just feel beholden to that one nation. And actually, to elaborate on that point, as I understood, China is uniquely positioned in terms of the smart port effort, right?

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (18:20):

Absolutely. China is filling a market need that the U.S. and some of our allies are not equipped to fill. Many need developing nations, not only Djibouti, but in Latin America and other areas around the world, need low cost, high-tech solutions. And the way that China operates with its state-owned enterprises, allows them to provide high-quality, technical infrastructure to developing nations at a somewhat low cost. They do provide funding. They often have delayed opportunities for interest in things like that. There are some catches, right? I mean, the actual contracts between these host nations and China are very difficult to get a hold of. But we have seen examples where if a country is not able to pay the loan off, that operations of the port transitions to China for a set amount of time. So, there are certain concerns that we need to be aware of. But ultimately China is one of the few countries that is able to provide these end-to-end solutions where they will provide undersea cables, data center, smart port operations, all integrated to make it easier for host nations to execute and implement.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (19:51):

Yeah, actually, I think this goes back to something that you had mentioned to me before when we were setting up this interview, which was, I think it’s called Whole-of-Nation Approach to how we understand how we not just help, but also partner with our allies.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (20:05):

Yeah. I’m glad you brought up Whole-of-Nation. That is really critical. And it ties nicely back to the serious game. So, when we were developing the serious game, we looked for levers of influence that the United States could pull in order to help make our technology solutions more appealing to other countries. So, for example, we combined several different aid packages from Developmental Finance Corporation, Millennial Challenge Corporation, Department of State, U.S. Commerce, and combined those with activities that maybe Department of State or Department of Defense are doing regarding training and technologies and cybersecurity, as well as where the private sector is investing. And we combined all of those levers of influence into this game to see which combinations of levers to be most impactful to provide better solutions for the host nation like Djibouti. And what we also did is we had experts do a pairwise comparison of the different levers to see which ones would be most impactful in different situations.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (21:27):

So, for example, I mentioned salinization plants earlier. Is it more impactful to combine a salinization plant with a technical grant, or is it more impactful to combine a salinization plant with humanitarian aid such as food? So, when we have experts who are from Department of State or Trade Development Agency who are deeply involved with geopolitical aspects of Djibouti make those determinations, that adds a quantitative aspect to our qualitative analysis that we did in the serious game. Those expert opinions are then loaded into a Bayesian belief network, which is a probabilistic modeling tool, which allows us to look at which levers of influence have the highest rate of effectiveness. So, we can actually go through and combine different levers of influence in recommendations and see, “Will this combination improve things 20% or will combination B improve things by 30%?” This gives us the benefits of qualitative and quantitative and analysis to support our decision makers as they move forward in this very complex environment.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (22:54):

That’s really cool. And again, the Whole-of-Nation Approach, I find it very pleasant in terms of, we are not trying to beat a nation over the head and say, you don’t deserve smart ports because we don’t like who you’re doing that with. The U.S. is saying, Djibouti needs smart ports. No one is doing a better job than China and giving other countries smart ports. So, rather than just saying, we’re upset that China’s giving them smart ports, we’re saying let’s take that relationship and see what kind of things we can offer Djibouti as well to make sure that everyone wins, Djibouti gets to have smart ports, the U.S. gets to build this relationship with Djibouti, and China is still out there and not feeling like they’re being hostily acted towards by another nation state.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (23:32):

Absolutely. With the Whole-of-Nation Approach, we are really looking for the win-win solutions that can help at a global level. So, we’re pulling together multiple resources from across the U.S. government and the private sector to address complex problems, right? System-of-system problems has been a hot topic for decades and things like modernizing countries within the Horn of Africa, their digital infrastructure, is a complex system-of-systems problem. So, we need to be able to work with our allies and the host nations to address their challenges around having a workforce that is well-educated and well-fed that they can even take the time to look at my modernizing their technologies and in growing their own economies so that they can make more effective decisions that support their national sovereignty and their national interests.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (24:35):

Yeah. So, it sounds like you guys have done a lot of decision-making research, not just in terms of finding subject matter experts, but also in terms of how are we actually going to compare and build these things. So, where can people go to get more information on, I believe it’s called “the co-evaluation model” they’re using to help these decision makers with their planning?

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (24:53):

There are several different places you can go. The first is the site. We have two papers published right now related to our co-evaluation tool with the smart game and the Bayesian belief network. We also will have some smart port papers out there talking about the Chinese digital infrastructure within Djibouti. Also, people can feel free to reach out to me directly at I would be happy to talk with you about our project and share some of our other papers.

Cameron Boozarjomehri (25:27):

Well, I’d like to give a quick “Thank you” to MITRE and the Knowledge Driven Enterprise for making this podcast and this discussion possible. And of course, a huge last big “Thank you” to you, Tamara, for sharing all these incredible ideas and letting us know all about how America is trying to work with its allies to make sure that everyone wins on the global stage.

Tamara Ambrosio-Hemphill (25:46):

You’re welcome. Thank you for the opportunity.

Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

© 2022 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 22-0519

MITRE’s mission-driven team is dedicated to solving problems for a safer world. Learn more about MITRE.

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