On the 30th of May 2013 the Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, and her two Deputy Ministers, presented the budget for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) to Parliament.
This typically provides a time for reflection on the successes of the country’s international engagement. On the list of South Africa’s international engagement has been participation in peace and security in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Guinea Bissau, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. In addition, the last year has seen DIRCO pursuing international trade and economic diplomacy, the African Agenda and the celebrations around the OAU/AU in its fiftieth year, South-South Cooperation and the BRICS summit, North-South engagement, and finally, continuing work on the South African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA).
Among the achievements highlighted over the last 19 years was South Africa’s increased representation through its missions, from 34 to 126 worldwide. Yet it is this growth in representation, and the accompanying costs, which has drawn the concern of the National Planning Commission’s National Development Plan (NDP). Indeed Chapter 7 on Positioning South Africa in the World calls for an audit of the country’s foreign representation and its respective costs. The problem is that a focus on a quantitative assessment of this budget item may overlook the value of representation, something that is difficult to quantify, but nevertheless invaluable. Yet the NDP does have a point in that there is a need for more strategic thinking when it comes to South Africa’s diplomatic representation.
As is clearly evident from the budget, there is already an extensive ‘to do’ list, but this will need to take into consideration the NDP’s vision of ‘organisational transformation to make the department more efficient and effective’. So what does this mean for an already stretched department? It means that it is time to get smarter.
Diplomacy may be one of the oldest professions in the world but it has increasingly come under fire, even within diplomatic circles, for its continued value in promoting state relations. This has come against the context of a growing number of summits, and where leaders may just as easily pick up the telephone to discuss questions of international importance. Nevertheless, these diplomatic professionals (an important point in any diplomatic service and highlighted by the NDP) continue to prove their value in the representation of their respective country at a local level – providing an ‘ear to the ground’.
While diplomacy continues to exist as a profession, in going forward what we should be looking at for our international engagement is smart diplomacy. Firstly, smart diplomacy should be creative when it comes to how to engage. Modern technology has seen a number of innovations in diplomatic practice that allow diplomats to fulfil important roles in representation without necessarily needing expensive infrastructure. These hi-tech solutions include the use of cyber-diplomacy, where an official with the correct technology can set up a virtual mission where necessary. Social networks are also increasingly seen as a means to engage, not only with domestic constituents, but with networks abroad. There has certainly been a growing trend across foreign ministries, including South Africa’s, who are now linked to Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube. Having access to these platforms, however, does not necessarily make them useful. What needs to be understood is how to use them effectively in getting the country’s foreign policy priorities across.
In addition to these high-tech opportunities, there are also low-tech creative solutions available for smart diplomacy. Spiralling costs and strain on human capacity have seen some states, such as the small island states, looking at collective representation. This is where diplomats essentially club together in a shared office block or even sharing human resources where these may be stretched. While this solution may not necessarily provide the answer for South Africa, it demonstrates just what can be done with a little bit of creative thinking.
Secondly, smart diplomacy should be strategic. The question is, is it necessary to have representation in nearly 200 countries world-wide? There is a lot that could be learned from small state diplomacy here, including being strategic in where your representation is. Some of the smaller states may not have as much capacity as South Africa when it comes to representation, yet they are able to make their voices heard on international platforms through representation in key locations, multilateral fora like the UN, or at regional organisations such as the EU.
Finally, smart diplomacy should be inclusive. There is the formal diplomatic track that flows through the foreign ministry, but there is the second track, the one that includes individuals, civil society groups, academics, research organisations, and the private sector. Many of these actors are increasingly technologically savvy and networked internationally themselves, or have access to places where there may not be any formal state representation. Not only will deepening engagement with these actors support the continued democratisation of South Africa’s foreign policy, but it will contribute to DIRCO’s own capacity at a time where the budget is increasingly coming under pressure.
This article originally appear on SABC