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The secretive lives of diplomats



Lately I have been itching to get back to my favourite pastime – writing. I’m a little rusty following a 14-year hiatus, albeit excited to hop back on the saddle. More so to pen something about a subject close to my heart. It’s been an exciting couple of days in the kingdom.

A few interesting changes with the potential to shape the trajectory of our political landscape. The 11th parliament will see a significantly trimmed cabinet. There has been talk of the likelihood of a chop in diplomatic missions as well. My worry is not the number of missions we have abroad.

The proportions don’t mean much in my opinion. What matters is the balance between deep structural issues vs competence to address. Even if we end up with five missions abroad, if the competence does not measure up, it makes no difference.

First things first…

There’s a lot of mystery that surrounds the world of Diplomacy and the lives of diplomats especially in our context. There couldn’t be a better time to debunk the myth that surrounds this profession than now. What we have done wrong as a country is establishing our foreign service on the ethos of cadre deployments as opposed to merit.

Seoeso oeso! We made the craft of Diplomacy a secret that regular folk should not know about. We’ve made secret what should not be secret. Only in Lesotho do you spend a Friday night with a friend….to get an e-mail from them the following week telling you they ‘ve left the country, they have been deployed to a diplomatic post in Antananarivo.

Antanana what? Better yet, you see their commissioning ceremony in the news on LTV post their departure. Try to wrap your brain around that and you learn about the wariness that surrounds these deployments. The rule is, make no announcements lest you get the wrath of those not “rewarded” despite the years spent (ba-haila) I don’t think there’s an English word for this.

This is exactly where we got it wrong. This is why there’s a lot of ambiguity and secrecy surrounding the profession (in our country context). We have soiled the craft. Have you been around conversations where you hear people whisper ….. “They had to thank her with a post in China ….” Or “They sent him to Ethiopia to shut him up” all in hushed tones! That’s NOT what diplomacy is.

Here’s my 5cents’ worth on getting the best out of our diplomats and diplomatic missions.

Have a clear foreign Policy

You cannot run diplomatic missions without a clear foreign policy and foreign policy goals. Every country needs to have a clear mandate and strategies in what it hopes to achieve in all of its missions across the world. If you no longer have any strategic interests in a certain country, by all means recall or redeploy.

Sometimes we deploy based on historical ties. Just because it’s been done for years, we keep going back, even when there’s no longer any strategic interest for the country. There has to be strategies aligned to every deployment.

Sometimes we deploy to gain allies to secure votes at the UN, but is that reason enough to have a full functional mission there? No! That’s when we have satellite missions and deploy what we call Ambassadors at large; Diplomats who can be accredited to multiple countries while resident in one.

Have a foreign relations committee

Set up a committee composed of Ministry of Trade and Industry to tackle International Trade and investments, Ministry of Education to facilitate educational and professional exchanges, Ministry of Tourism to cultivate cultural diplomacy, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International relations to oversee bi-lateral and multilateral relations and protect our position in international organisations, have former diplomats to advise on experiential diplomacy, National University of Lesotho-Political Science division to advise on historical relations, and finally, Office of the PM to Chair the country’s strategy and Foreign relations committee.

This committee should without prejudice, be fully entrusted with the power to design the country’s foreign policy. Not having a foreign policy is like starting a business without a business plan. No swot analysis, nothing. This same committee should also be entrusted with deployment especially of Ambassadors. This can also be the committee that reviews quarterly updates from all missions as well as follow up on foreign relations projects.

Train your diplomats

Protocol faux pas are unforgivable. Not only do untrained diplomats have the capacity to embarrass their country but they cannot excel in today’s global arena without proper training. The role of a diplomat is not only to advance the interests of their country but to initiate and facilitate strategic relations, as well as provide information and analysis to their home country.

Diplomats therefore require a unique combination of specialised expertise, operational skill sets, and a broad capacity for innovative and visionary leadership. Developed countries have what they call Foreign Service Institutes. They train their diplomats for nothing less than a year.

The foreign service exam, American diplomats will tell you, is one of the toughest exams any U.S. diplomat will have ever taken in their career. You fail, you wait months before you can retake. Don’t get me wrong. Cadre diplomacy happens even in developed countries.

Not everyone is a career diplomat. Developed countries have political appointees too…but here’s the difference; Most of their political appointees get deployed in countries that already have friendly relations with the sending country. Even at that, the diplomats are thoroughly vetted.

These countries will then deploy their myriad of career diplomats where relations are tough, where they are misunderstood, often in hardship posts where insurmountable resilience and tact is required.
We truly cannot continue to workshop our diplomats for a few days in preparation for a five-year term and expect them to know not to gift white flowers to their hosts in China. An untrained diplomat will go to Dubai and wear a pencil skirt to meet the Sheikh, they will go to Europe and start hugging everyone to greet them.

They will arrive in Nepal and start shaking peoples’ hands. They will go to Italian Cathedrals with uncovered sleeves, they will chew gum in Singapore, they will smile at strangers in Korea and call the Scottish or Welsh English. They will do it all because they are not well prepared. They have no appreciation of diplomatic etiquette or international protocols.

Have a Mission Activity Tracker

I have never understood why our diplomats will disappear and return after five years, and we never get to know what it is they did for the country for the past five years. First thing they do as soon as they land abroad is go off social media.

The one time they will post something is a snapshot with the host from a random cocktail party. You’d be forgiven to think they go abroad to hide. That’s exactly where the problem is. Lack of transparency and unnecessary secrecy.

The taxpayer back home is wondering what this big secret is? What exactly do these people do abroad? And these are legitimate questions because there is no transparency. Wait until they come back home. The first thing they do, is move into a brand-new double-storey home in the Thetsane/Masowe suburbia. They arrive the same way they left. In hush hush. Why is this?

A mission activity tracker is a good idea to track the performance of each mission. Where you are deployed, what activities you are doing, what linkages you have facilitated for the home country. What meetings you attended. What they yielded for your home country.

What treaties you fostered. What’s happening in that country, what cocktail parties did you attend? Who did you host? Who did you network with? What new relations you are building. Prospects for cultural exchanges? Educational exchanges? Professional exchanges. Prospects for potential investments?

The pain of neglected diplomats

One of the most painful experiences of our diplomats is a diplomat that is committed to their job but has no home base support. Half the time we think they are having the time of their lives abroad. More often than not, the reality is far from the truth.

A lot of times diplomats lead very lonely lives. You’ll often hear about struggles of late rental payments or late school fees for their children abroad. Perhaps the toughest of them all is brokering deals and not being afforded an audience by decision makers back at home.

You can cultivate as many relationships as you like, and broker as many deals as you want, but as long as you do not get an audience from your superiors, you will remain that joker diplomat who asks for meetings and just talks about what could be.

Because there is no Missions tracker, it’s easy to completely forget about these people and the work they were entrusted to do abroad. Often, they only get to do something significant when the PM or the King visits that part of the world.

They will then arrange visas, meetings, accommodation etc, which can provide them momentary fulfillment. They are by and large reduced to administrative assistants who do menial administrative work to assist the few citizens resident in that country.

An expired passport here and there, repatriation once in a while. Diplomats need governments that listen and act on those strategic linkages. So many great meetings have gone to waste, so many potential partnerships have fell through because there’s no follow through.

The Scholarship program that a diplomat negotiated, that health project that was going to benefit multiple communities, that multimillion investment the diplomat negotiated- all fell through because someone back home failed to carry it through or afford it the attention it deserved. Do you see where I’m going? We need an overhaul of our foreign service. Let it not just be about reducing the number of missions, let’s fix the roots.

l Mathabang R. Fanyane is a Diplomacy Consultant based in Lesotho. She has 10 years professional experience as a Foreign Service National. She holds a MA. Protocol & Diplomacy. She writes in her personal capacity.

Mathabang R Fanyane

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