This week during a three-day retreat for Uganda’s representatives abroad, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi called on them to put emphasis on commercial diplomacy in their dealing with foreign nations.
I am sure the government has impressed upon its ambassadors the importance of this new assignment before, but going by reports from the retreat the government was accused of paying lip service to this agenda by not facilitating ambassadors.
With the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, a symbol of the ideological divide between the west and the east, international diplomacy has moved determinedly towards promoting commercial interests rather than massaging geopolitical alignments.
The UN’s relevance as the pinnacle of international diplomacy is giving way to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other economic pacts.
Even with the fall of apartheid, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the need by South African businessmen to spread their wings globally but who were hampered by the economic sanctions placed on everything South African.
The proof is in the way with the collapse of apartheid, South African companies have rationalised their operations and spread out into the world, and in the case of the South African Breweries (SAB), to becoming the second largest brewer in the world by revenues.
This reality has been on for more than 25 years and it’s heartening that Kampala is coming around to this way of thinking.
It is all very well to make political pronouncements, the question would be what this new agenda entails for the location of our embassies and the criteria for staff recruitment.
In recent years the Foreign Service standards have suffered for lack of funding, political appointments and undertraining of staff and an archaic system of advancement and deployments. This has far reaching implications for our ability not only to carry out regular diplomacy but commercial diplomacy as well.
If working in embassies abroad is seen as a cushy job, instead of as part of a real engine for economic development is it no wonder that we are failing to fulfill our full potential?
Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is an example of how with determined action small nations can punch about their weight if their commercial diplomacy is even half decent.
The country, which is 45 km or the distance from the Kampala to Entebbe, across at its widest point with a population of less than two million is a major tourist destination, a growing financial and ICT hub and center for textile manufacture.
Talking about tourism alone, Mauritius’ 965,000 visitors in 2012 would be the equivalent of 17 million visitors to Uganda a year, if adjusted for population size.
A handful of embassies are situated in strategic nations, it employs strategic partnerships abroad and
also employs ICT technologies to punch way above its head.
Clearly it cannot be business as usual.
There has to be a restructuring of the foreign affairs ministry as the front line agency but also all other supporting ministries. It will not do for our high commission in the UK to be talking a good game about the opportunities and partnerships available back home when the trade or finance or labour ministry cannot provide the required support.
Tourists and investors do not make travelling or investing decisions by throwing darts blindly at a map of the world. They make decisions based on the information available either through individual research or third party endorsements.
Looking from the outside Uganda is not exactly the place that will see commercial visitors beating down the door to get in.
A focus on commercial diplomacy is the only way to tap into the billions of dollars in investment and the tourism industry, but we need to put our money where our money is in facilitating our ambitions.