Monday, June 1, 2020

After years of being overlooked career diplomats deserve a place at the table

As Botswana works at resetting its foreign policy, those in authority appear to be in real danger of undermining the very asset they have at their disposal to achieve such a goal.

For far too long career diplomats have been overlooked when it comes to career progression and advancement.

Not so long ago, Botswana’s foreign service was stacked to the brim, not with professional cadres but politicians who for various reasons had found themselves jobless.

President after president found it easy to send these politicians away into foreign capitals often to get them something that would earn them money but also at times to banish them out of local politics.

As we speak there remains a sizeable number of them still on tour, often at untold detriment to the quality of Botswana’s foreign policy.

The reality is that career diplomats bring more weight to foreign policy than cabinet can ever hope to muster.

The over-use of politicians in Botswana’s diplomacy poses a far greater harm to our Foreign Policy than we are willing to accept.

It saps dynamism, ingenuity and overall depth.

In the modern world, Foreign Policy is used by various countries to drive trade and economics including market access and market penetration.

For Botswana, the biggest problem is that at the moment the country’s foreign policy lacks coherence.

That is exacerbated by mis-allocating positions.

Inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, career diplomats are full of despair. It has been so for quite a while.

This is because they feel being looked down upon – time after time.

Botswana’s Foreign Policy, still tied to a long gone era of cold war has to be reset so that it could achieve a greater strategic overall sense of purpose.

In short it has to be modernized.

That calls for a strong leadership and also a strong direction – at both presidential and ministerial levels.

But that leadership and direction can only be of any use if the people implementing and driving the policy are well grounded, intellectually but also in the realm of modern day geopolitics.

Foreign Policy, if well thought out could play a key supporting role in ongoing efforts to kickstart an economic recovery that has so far proved elusive. That can only happen if there is coherence and of course strategic thinking.

A dispersed foreign policy such as Botswana’s can no longer be sustained much less justified.

The cold reality is not that our diplomats are lost in foreign capitals with no guidance much less knowledge of what is expected of them. Rather it is that Botswana’s Foreign Policy – stuck in antiquity – is undergoing a dramatic meltdown right before our very eyes.

To some experienced hands, the current policy often feels and looks like nothing more than a make-believe.

The policy has to be overhauled to more realistic levels.

That means aligning it with new regional and global trends.

Good intentions are simply not enough. We need a strategic vision that can stand up to inspection.

The cause for worry is much more real.

More urgent would be to resource the foreign service.

There is no doubt that resources are needed if Botswana is to be efficiently and effectively represented in China for example.

As we speak Botswana still has more resources deployed in Europe that includes trade officers. That is blatant resource mis-allocation.

Shanghai and to a lesser extent Shenzhen both need fully fledged consulates.

These once opened should be manned by professional trade and investment personnel.

The thing about Botswana’s foreign policy can no longer be attributed to just policy confusion.

Also just as defective and more to blame is the picking of personnel to oversee that policy.

Who becomes an ambassador for example is not driven by the skills set available, but by glaring, pervasive and systematic patronage that is now threatens to collapse the whole edifice.

Botswana’s thoroughly developed civil service is for many African countries an object of envy and admiration.

Its only weakness is that it has become too powerful, distractive and even inhibitive to progress, innovation and ingenuity. This has bred a love-hate relationship with politicians.

As a result the dissonance and discord between the civil service and political masters has become totemic.

It is not uncommon to see a Permanent Secretary controlling or even bullying a senior minister.

This might be partly explain why politicians find it easy to hire their own as opposed to career diplomats.

But still it is advisable that politicians are be used sparingly to fill up diplomatic posts. Such as when a clear opportunity exists for them to use or open much needed back channels that would be of use to overall government going forward.

Rapacious use of failed politicians as diplomats and also retired civil servants give an impression that the appointing authority does not fully appreciate the gems at his disposal much less exactly what to do with those gems.

Giving career diplomats a chance will also help reduce structural tensions that exist between politicians and professionals.

For career diplomats being overlooked for promotion in favour of a politician who has either failed in his own chosen path or some other rejected technocrat always leaves a bad taste.

They view this as politically orchestrated by those in charge, doing it as part of their patronage not for advancement of the country’s Foreign Policy but rather for friends and in some instances for the party.

This heightens the simmering polarity between the two camps. And the fallback position for professionals is to set the politicians to fail.

Appointing politicians especially to key capitals used to be a rare matter of strategic perspective. Now it’s frequency has degenerated into jobs-for-palls.

If it continues, under the new administration, as it looks ever more likely then we may as well prepare for irreversible destruction of Botswana’s Foreign Policy.

The seeds were planted the moment we allowed an unprecedented, extravagant and unmitigated use of politicians in our foreign service under the presidency of Ian Khama.

A proper balance is needed, not a takeover by politicians, especially failed ones.


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Sunday Standard May 24 – 30

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of May 24 - 30, 2020.