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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Diplomats must go beyond their policy briefs


Photo courtesy: Human Rights Watch

Following on the heels of State House led diplomatic initiatives with Germany, World Trade Organisation, Britain, Netherlands, and Israel over the last week, it is now clear Kenya and among other nations navigate an increasingly unpredictable world with ever-shifting interests and centres of power.


Other the last fifteen years, diplomacy has changed dramatically. In 2008, I unsuccessfully pressed the former Mozambiquan Ambassador to Kenya and African Diplomatic Corp Dean to publicly call for an end to post-election violence. The elderly gentlemen looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “Sir, why would I do that and my statement might lead to me being recalled to Maputo the next day.” A few years later, I brought up the issue in a meeting with former president Joachim Chissano. Looking me straight in the face, he replied that if his ambassador would have spoken, he would have merely been echoing the African Union position and this would have been perfectly acceptable.


Two years later, I found myself training newly appointed Kenyan diplomats at the Foreign Services Institute on research and communications. Internet browsing was not yet a thing for most. Pointing out that waiting from the weekly diplomatic dispatch was probably as effective as carrying groceries in a wet paper bag, I proceeded to give them a large envelope with printouts of their personal information on the internet. One ambassador designate had been frustratingly waiting for over a year for his papers. In his envelope was the reason. Newspaper reports of allegations of child abuse and sex with a minor had probably not gone down well with the recipient nation. Sheepishly over the tea-break he asked could the news reports be deleted. No, I replied, but if he did fifty good actions the information would soon be replaced.


Although racist arguments that African diplomacy began with post-independence states persist, the origins of world diplomacy probably started in Africa. Pharaoh Rameses II of Egypt and the King of the Hittites signed probably the first peace agreement in the world in 1100 BC. All African pre-colonial kingdoms and communities had diplomats negotiating resource and trade access, resolving disputes and averting violence.


Over the last decade or more, diplomacy has been less about the relationship and negotiations between the world’s leaders and their states and more about public facing diplomacy. With the increasing decline of state sovereignty and trust levels, states are only as powerful as their engagement with non-state actors. Key among these actors are leaders drawn from religious, business, and civic associations and Influential citizens. It is the power and influence of NGOs, parliaments, and independent offices that modern diplomats lean on and are supported by.


Today’s diplomats must embrace digital technology and social media. They must remain alert to the real-life crises provoked not by a 25-page policy brief but by that tweet, YouTube and FaceBook post. Remaining swiftly proactive, multi-disciplinary, innovate and practical in creating communities and remaining open and accessible is where the power and influence now lies. Germany and Switzerland’s FaceBook based role play Open Situation Rooms and innovative Foraus think-tanks have offered both nations effective, real-time strategic thinking approaches to complex world problems. It is notable that while Switzerland has an established and successful history of democratic civil-society participation in policymaking, it only created its first foreign policy think-tank 2009. Given its ambitious policy agenda and engagement with foreign nations, our Foreign Affairs ministry could benefit from some of these models.


This month, Kenya says kwaheri to one of its most energetic Ambassadors Jane Marriott. She is the first woman to represent the United Kingdom in Kenya, breaking a long line of male High Commissioners. As many preferred a wait and see approach, she proactively took the COVID-19 vaccine publicly. She actively engaged civic, religious, and political leaders prior to, during and after the 2022 General Elections. Very different from that Mozambiquan diplomat, she leaves behind another example of Ambassadors who can uphold their nation’s geo-political and commercial interests as well as international standards of good governance, rule of law and human rights.


This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard and by Amnesty International Kenya on 13 May 2023 #StandardSettingKE



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