Analysis & Opinions - The Daily Nation

Kenya's Makeover in Diplomatic Ties Should Focus on Economic Statecraft

| August 4, 2009

Kenya's diplomatic approach of "wait-and-see" has been rendered obsolete by external factors for decades. The country cannot wait for its tea, coffee and tourism competitors to capture its markets before it can react.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, under the leadership of Mr Moses Wetang'ula, is working to reinvent the country's diplomatic machinery by focusing on economic diplomacy (covering economic, peace, environmental, diaspora and cultural affairs).

Indeed, this was the main focus of the 15th Biennial Ambassadors and High Commissioners Conference held in Mombasa under the theme of "Leveraging Kenya's Diplomacy for Enhanced Competitiveness".

The main focus of the nine-day conference that ended on Monday was to "identify key strategies for enhancing Kenya's competitiveness through adaptation of the foreign service to changes in the global environment".

It was apparent from the outset that the effectiveness of Kenya's diplomatic efforts can only be as strong as the domestic reality that they represent. The ability of diplomats to represent the country is largely dependent on what happens at home.

In fact, globalisation, especially the pervasiveness of mass media and other communication, make it is difficult for diplomats to take positions that depart radically from press reports. Much of the diplomatic work is therefore public and diplomats are called upon to do as much communication as they do negotiations.

In addition, diplomatic missions have to contend with a wide range of other forms of national representation over which they have no control. For example, athletes and other public figures have become a major part of the country's image, especially given the fact that they attract considerable media attention.

But probably the most significant influences on Kenya's foreign policy have come from recent trends in globalisation. The main features of a globalising world include increased connectivity among countries, greater mobility and enhanced inter-dependence. These forces are closely associated with heightened economic completion among and between nations.

The process of economic globalisation has been reinforced by a new set of trading rules agreed under the World Trade Organisation that have undercut traditional preferential arrangements that tied former colonies to their former colonisers.

Indeed, economic liberalisation has been the driving force behind globalisation and it has tended to favour countries and regions that have the capacity to adapt to changing global conditions. The challenges have recently been compounded by the impact of the global financial crisis whose full implications are still unfolding.

The competitiveness of the industrialised countries is driven by their pre-existing technological capabilities. The intensified use of technological innovation as a tool for competitiveness has tended to undercut countries like Kenya that are historically dependent on export of raw materials or trade in services like tourism that are linked to natural endowments.

In addition to global economic challenges, Kenya is also dealing with major regional issues, especially those associated with economic integration. The prospects for Africa's economic progress lie largely in the continent's ability to rapidly foster viable regional integration arrangements. However, this process is slow, largely because of uncertainties associated with perceptions about economic risks.

Another regional challenge is peace in neighbouring countries. Kenya has historically served as an anchor for stability in the Great Lakes Region, where it has played a key role as a mediator. But the worsening situation in Somalia is forcing Kenya to rethink its position and widen the range of options needed to safeguard its own security.

Post-poll chaos

The 2008 post-election violence not only dented the country's peace brand, but it has also forced the leadership to rethink Kenya's role in the region and the world. Furthermore, Kenya's landlocked neighbours are actively diversifying their routes to the sea.

But despite these challenges, Kenya has all the pieces that are needed to enable it to adapt to a new global economic order. It has laid strong foundations in human resources. This is reflected in the appointment of highly competent managers at various levels in the public service. 

The process of democratisation over the last two decades has also spawned a wide range of new actors that has added to the diversity of institutions in the country. For example, the Press has emerged as a major democratic force.

However, despite these improvements, many of the structures of government have not appreciated the demands of an entrepreneurial state. There is widespread misalignment of Kenya's economic aspirations and its government structure. This misalignment is a major source of ineffective use of existing resources.

Take Vision 2030, for example. The country has spent the last five years articulating a vision that would guide its transition to becoming a middle-income nation. This is exactly the kind of vision that should guide diplomatic engagement. This excellent set of ideas is not managed as a vision, but more like a pair of binoculars hidden in the back pocket of a minister.

The talented Mr Mugo Kibati has been appointed to "deliver" the vision. You do not deliver a vision; you realise it through executive leadership. Our eyes, or instruments for vision, are not on our hips or elbows. They are right below our foreheads and well protected, complete with eyebrows to deflect anything that might impair our vision. The operative word here is "fore".

No foreign representative of the President will take instructions from the hip of a minister. But the good news is that the core elements of the nascent economic diplomacy are in Vision 2030. Hopefully, at an appropriate time, Vision 2030 will assume its proper role as an organising framework for Kenya's economic governance.

Another example is the Brand Kenya Corporation that has the finest professionals you can find in the field. Yet it is buried in a sectoral ministry and hardly leverages the political capital of the presidency, as it should. The location of this important effort within the structure of government will also need to be rethought.

These structural limitations, however, are easy to fix. Kenya now needs to realign its institutional structure with the demands of global economic competitiveness. Its diplomats are being asked to champion economic development when the state itself is not entrepreneurial. This has to change.

Own staff

Furthermore, foreign service is a specialised professional activity like medicine and engineering and must have the capacity to train and recruit its own staff. It must employ its staff based on rigorous training and examination that conform to international standards. Countries like Brazil can serve as role models on how Kenya can quickly professionalise its foreign service.

Indeed, the ministry has set up the Foreign Service Institute to undertake research, training and advocacy on a variety of issues. Its central mission should be to build the capacity needed for the effective functioning of the foreign service. The institute could also play a key role in helping Kenya to provide intellectual leadership in emerging areas of diplomacy.

For example, it can sponsor the creation of a School of Environmental Diplomacy to leverage the presence of the United Nations Environment Programme in Kenya.  Such a school would make Nairobi a location of choice to gain practical experience in environmental diplomacy.

A shift toward economic diplomacy will not only change the outlook of the foreign service, but it will also create new demands that require additional financial and human resources. It will not be helpful to expect the envoys to help promote Kenya's exports without providing them with additional support to do so.

To liaise

One of the approaches adopted by various countries is for ministries dealing with international trade, commerce or research to liaise with the relevant foreign service functions they need performed. For example, when the Swiss Government converted its Boston consulate into a science and technology cooperation centre, it funded it partly through the ministry responsible for research.

The Swiss Government also uses modern communication technologies to reduce the cost of such cooperation. Kenya's MFA should be a primary use of high-speed internet as way to maintain regular contacts with the capital. In fact, virtual corridors can now be created between Kenya's embassies and various designated locations in Kenya.

Other cost-lowering measures could include outsourcing many of the embassy services like visa and other enquiries to call centres located in Kenya. The saved resources could then be used to support activities associated with economic diplomacy.

Prof Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School and serves as a trustee of the Victoria Institute of Science and Technology in Kisumu.

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For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Kenya's Makeover in Diplomatic Ties Should Focus on Economic Statecraft.” The Daily Nation, August 4, 2009.