COLUMN-To a new diplomacy!
Does it make sense for Barbados, in its present cash-strapped state, to be committing resources to the tune of almost $47 million, as was the case this financial year, to maintain a foreign service that does not seem to be delivering economic benefits on a scale to justify its keep?
Think about it! When last have you heard a Government announcement that a high commission or embassy was instrumental in landing a major investment, or has negotiated some other significant opportunity that makes a real difference for Barbadians? After more than a decade, a crucial fishing agreement with Trinidad and Tobago is still outstanding.
These are questions Barbadian taxpayers should be asking in these tough economic times when a priority for Government ought to be ensuring that maximum value is derived from every dollar of public expenditure, instead of rushing to pile on more impositions on already overburdened taxpayers or cutting services that make a difference for the average struggling individual.
In the prevailing economic circumstances, sharing diplomatic representation with other Caribbean countries makes a lot of sense and should be seriously explored within the framework of regional integration. Coordination of foreign policy among member states was among the three original reasons for establishing the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) back in 1973.
Barbados currently maintains diplomatic missions in Brussels, Geneva, London, Washington, New York, Miami, Brasilia, Toronto, Ottawa, Beijing and Caracas. We also heard recently of plans to establish a diplomatic presence on the African continent. Sharing facilities with a so far unnamed regional country is the route being taken in this instance.
Joint diplomatic representation is not new to the Barbados experience. Immediately after Independence in 1966, Barbados and Guyana for a time shared a high commission in London with the celebrated Guyanese criminal lawyer, the late Sir Lionel Luckhoo, as their representative to the Court of St James. This arrangement was subsequently abandoned.
Recent news of a looming crisis in the Foreign Service, as reported in another section of the media, suggests the time is right for revisiting this model of diplomatic representation with willing CARICOM countries as part of a wider, much needed evaluation of the Foreign Service. Pride associated with sovereignty may make this move a hard pill for some Government officials to swallow.
However, in the 21st century world of globalization, sovereignty increasingly means little in practical terms for small nation states like Barbados that have no effective clout on the world stage. They merely sit on the periphery of an international system where the big powers call the shots and they are expected to fall in line or face consequences.
Scholars of politics and international relations pretty much agree that the acceleration of globalization from the 1990s onwards has resulted in an erosion of nation state sovereignty. Against this backdrop, Barbadian diplomacy needs to be evaluated in the context of a broader discussion on the need for a restructuring of both our Government and economy to permit more effective engagement with the contemporary world.
The world with which Barbados interacts today on a daily basis is a fundamentally different place from 1966 when the Foreign Service was established. Up to the 1990s after the Cold War ended and the international landscape underwent sweeping change following the collapse of the former Soviet bloc and the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower, Barbados could rely on Western generosity to support its development efforts.
Aid dollars flowed in and was used to finance various projects. Sugar, manufacturing and other exports were guaranteed access to European and North American markets through preferential trade arrangements. Except for tourism business, Barbados never really had to compete.
Such generosity is now a thing of the past and Barbados has to fend fully for itself. Yet, it seems the Foreign Service has not really adjusted to this new reality and given a mandate to pursue business opportunities for Barbados. From observation, it seems serving the needs of the Barbadian diaspora remains the Foreign Service’s predominant focus. Going after business seems to be by the way.
What may be hampering the effectiveness of the Foreign Service is the tendency of both political parties, when they are in Government, to populate the top echelons of some diplomatic missions with political appointees. Often it’s not a case of their bringing special knowledge of international relations or development issues, or even displaying the persuasive eloquence that has been a hallmark of international diplomacy for centuries. Some appointments are simply a reward for loyalty to party.
This practice is obviously frustrating to career officers whose legitimate aspirations for professional advancement are stymied. Obviously, they can’t say so publicly because of Civil Service rules, but frustration can sap motivation and impact negatively on performance in the best of us. When a political appointee comes with limitations, it is understandable why he or she would feel more comfortable focusing on the diaspora community. It represents familiar territory in an otherwise unfamiliar environment.
A discussion I had with the late Sir Branford Taitt during his brief tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the early 1990s, led me to certain conclusions about the Foreign Service. I was head of news at CANA, and had just returned from an important meeting in Washington of the Caribbean Group For Cooperation In Economic Development (CGCED) which had discussed a Caribbean response to globalization. Sir Branford wanted to get
my perspective on the conference.
At the end of the meeting in his Culloden Road office, he remarked: “It is more of this kind of information that I would like to receive” for obvious policymaking purposes. The comment implied he wasn’t.
The situation may have improved since then, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, like so many areas of Government, hardly communicates in a comprehensive manner with taxpayers about its work and achievements.
Like in many other areas where change is required, Barbados needs a new approach to diplomacy which is economical, helps Barbados to navigate the choppy waters of globalization more effectively, pays attention to the needs of Barbadians overseas but gives priority to generating business for Barbados, based on mandated targets.
It is also important that if senior appointments from outside are to be made, the key consideration should be special skills or attributes; not party loyalty.
It’s time for a conversation on these issues to begin!
(Reudon Eversley is a Canadian-trained political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email email@example.com)