An African diplomat in an African capital

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 27 April 2016   |   By John Moreti
An African diplomat in an African capital

Public Diplomacy is made up of two words; Public and Diplomacy. One may ask? Does Public Diplomacy imply diplomatic work done in public or diplomacy conducted for the public. The other question one could ask is whether Public Diplomacy is the same as Propaganda since that is what many believe it is? I am African diplomat stationed in an African capital. Therefore in attempting to offer reflections on the subject of Managing Public Diplomacy in Africa I propose to address a set of questions which in my view, are relevant, in my context.
The first set of questions which you may assist me address are as follows; a) Are there motivations for taking diplomacy out of the boardrooms and closed door meetings to the public and other stakeholders? b) Are there any differences between Public Diplomacy and Corporate Diplomacy? c) If an African diplomat has to undertake public diplomacy activities in Africa, that is, in his area of accreditation like I am accredited to six countries in East Africa as well as the UN agencies based in Nairobi, what should these activities focus on?

The 2nd set of questions that could be addressed in my view are; a) If we were to ask an Asian, Western or Latin American Ambassador stationed in an African capital to reflect on the subject of Managing Public Diplomacy in Africa, are they likely to provide similar responses to those of an African diplomatic agent in similar circumstances? b) Should an African Ambassador/High Commissioner salivate at the opportunity to serve in an African capital because the environment and people will be more easier to understand and navigate or they will wish they were serving somewhere far away from the mother continent? Diplomacy has often been associated with elegant ladies and gentlemen, immaculately dressed, conversing in very polished and sophisticated language, dining and wining in best hotels and restaurants and getting things done with the minimum of fuss. Public Diplomacy in my view, should seek to first and foremost de-mystify this perception this perception of diplomats. Politicians reach out and campaign for public support on the basis of a manifesto of promises they pledge to fulfill if elected. Diplomats on the other hand have instructions from their capitals to convey certain messages which themes may be defined by the requirements to create awareness about their country, build relationships, address wrong perceptions, explain the actions or policies of their governments and build communities of support for a common agenda that their sending states may be co-sponsoring to influence the international agenda.

This, in my view, partly addresses the question of the motivation for public diplomacy activities. Turning to the next question of whether there are any differences between Public Diplomacy and Corporate Diplomacy, I would suggest that there are no serious differences. Indeed the business world would have borrowed the term and concept of Diplomacy from governments, perhaps because they were attracted to its association with smooth engagement and soft outcomes. For a better appreciation of the concept of Corporate Diplomacy I would recommend among the key publications a book written by Professor Witold Henisz, of the Wharton Business School in Philadelphia, US entitled “Corporate Diplomacy: Building Reputations and Relationships with External Stakeholders” because I think it draws out the similarities which motivated the corporate sector to engage in public diplomacy. Some have defined Corporate Diplomacy as the “organizational behavior aimed at implementing favourable conditions…” I want to suggest like Professor Henisz that as much as facts are important to use in our efforts to respond to challenges which may have led to the creation of misunderstandings or negative publicity it is also true that in the public opinion perceptions matter more than facts. As he says in one interview “Nobody makes a political or social judgment about whether you are behaving appropriately or how they feel about you based on the facts. They do it based on emotion, based on gut.” What should the Public Diplomacy Activities of an African Ambassador based in an African capital therefore focus on?

Let’s us first acknowledge that there are many tools used by governments and diplomatic missions in particular to undertake public diplomacy. Newsletters, online social media platforms, sponsorship of articles on the print media, press conferences and other special outreach activities, including in partnership with other international and local stakeholders are some of the commonly used tools. By accepting the invitation to come and address this Forum today, I am involved in an outreach activity that is part of public diplomacy. The public diplomacy initiatives of African diplomats based in African capitals may not make the headlines because there are no concrete benefits immediately perceived by the audiences. When for instance, I visit a Day Care Centre, a school for disadvantaged girls or a church fund raising activity in Kibera or Kakamega County, as an African diplomat from a small developing nation of Botswana, I will not be able to announce there that through our Embassy’s social responsibility fund I will contribute a significant amount of money to support the programmes of such a centre. Is it because I do not want to contribute money? No, the money is simply not there. Likewise, when I invite my friends in the 4th Estate to cover some of my outreach activities or even my national day function, I may not, like others, be able to pay for their transport and later host a social get-together to express my appreciation for their presence and reporting about my activities.

What I consider vital and I hope all our stakeholders can do so as well, is that the benefits in the form of education and awareness gained, the interactions and relationships promoted through such activities and knowledge exchanged are more important than any financial transactions or donations that may follow later. African diplomats serving in African capitals should be focusing their public diplomacy initiatives on education and awareness, knowledge sharing and promotion of those good values which should enable us as Africans to find best ways of taking our continent forward. We should seek to create and strengthen a common understanding with the stakeholders around a value system that should unite Africans. The stakeholders we should engage with in these initiatives must be biased towards the youth because these are the future investors, decision makers and leaders of this continent. They must know the countries, governments and people of this continent, the challenges they face, the successes they have achieved or are achieving, and the value they can offer to strengthen the collective efforts that can take us forward. We must reach out to a wider group of stakeholders including schools, universities, foundations and the faith based movement to engage them to partner for a common agenda that seeks to continue the positive transformation of this continent. In our outreach programmes we need to encourage debate and inspire solution oriented dialogue to turn challenges into opportunities. It is indeed important to learn about the successes achieved in other parts of this continent and how these can be replicated everywhere in the continent.

As the diplomatic agent of Botswana in Kenya and accredited to several other East African countries, my assignment imposes several responsibilities, among them, trade and investment promotion, cultural diplomacy, citizen and consular support and environmental diplomacy. In addition to my regular consultations and engagement with the host government I reach out to schools, universities, county governments, private sector and relevant civil society groups to create awareness about Botswana, its government system, people, culture, economy and opportunities. In the process I explore avenues to promote more collaborative activities beyond the normal government to government bilateral contacts. Have I met challenges? Yes. I have discovered to my total dissatisfaction that there is no sufficient literature about Botswana, its founding fathers and the contributions that the country made to the liberation struggles in our neighbouring countries. I occasionally challenge African scholars to engage with us and to do more studies on Botswana. We mentor university students who take an interest to study Botswana as our mute Ambassadors and seek to continue engagement with them even after they have graduated.

As a country we derive good benefits from the stability that we have enjoyed since independence in 1966. Some of our public diplomacy engagements have enabled me to address the wrong perceptions that the Government of Botswana is extremely rich and we therefore do not have any financial challenges. Yes it is true that as much as we have challenges associated with the management of a modern economy in highly competitive global set up, we have successfully avoided the so called resource course and prudently managed revenue accrued from exploitation of our natural resources to undertake development expenditure that has benefitted our people, regardless of the part of the country they are based. As African diplomats based in African capitals, we need not be afraid to address those issues where our respective governments and people may not necessarily agree on. Indeed, in better appreciating our differences where they may exist, we may be able to find common filaments that will lead our governments to the adoption of more pragmatic approaches to promote a continental agenda that will inspire future generations. It is important to however remain respectful of the hosts and not be swayed to join bandwagons where the agenda tends to be aimed at the disturbance of harmony in societies.

In order to contribute to efforts to promote dignity among the disadvantaged people of this continent's public diplomacy activities by African diplomats should also seek to build more partnerships in support of the causes of common good. In the final analysis, public diplomacy activities are direct products of the implementation of our agenda as diplomatic agents. What is that Agenda, one may ask? In my summary, I propose that this agenda can be: Economic; Educational; Political; Can be about initiating, building or repairing fractured relations or reputations; Can also be meant to justify or explain the actions of our governments, corporate citizens or people. The political, economic, social and cultural landscape for African diplomatic agents serving in African countries is different from as may be experienced by diplomats from other regions of the world based in the same capitals. The responsibility of an African Ambassador based in an African capital is not only to do regular work at their offices and boardrooms and occasionally attend meetings at the offices of the host government. We must reach out and engage the African people to contribute to and inspire a movement that seeks to draw on the best attributes of our respective governments, civil society, academia, business community and other stakeholders. We can by doing so effectively contribute to development policies and programmes to address the ills that bedevil our continent. We can engender overwhelming ownership by all of the ambitious continental Agenda 2063 and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030 if a good part of our public diplomacy work was focused on more awareness creation about these among the African people. Our Governments are in office to serve people and therefore our activities should be leaning towards the promotion of people centred development.
*Botswana’s High Commissioner to Kenya, John Moreti made this presentation at the Ambassadorial Leadership Forum hosted by the Africa Institute for Leaders and Leadership in Nairobi.