"Africa Losing Faith in Conference Diplomacy"
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Nairobi)
September 20, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
Last week, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called an emergency meeting with leaders of international development agencies to discuss Africa’s failure to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
While the meeting appeared to show a sense of urgency on the part of Ban, it also conceals the fact that Africa is losing faith in conference diplomacy as a source of solutions to its persistent problems.
African countries have played a key role in keeping development on the global development agenda.
To advance their interests, African countries maintain large diplomatic missions in key UN centers such as New York, Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna.
They also invest heavily to send negotiators to development conferences. But a look at the last decade reveals a long string of failed international commitments on development and stalled negotiations on trade-related issues.
While multilateral diplomacy is essential in a variety of key fields such as international security, it may be a blunt instrument for advancing Africa’s development goals.
This is partly because the UN is poorly adapted to addressing Africa’s critical concerns such as infrastructure, higher technical training and business incubation.
Time has come for Africa to rethink its investment in multilateral diplomacy and redirect its efforts to new activities such as technology cooperation through bilateral partnerships.
Part of the resources used to maintain UN missions could be used to support new science and innovation consulates.
They can learn from the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education (Share) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Share, joint effort of the Federal Department of Interior and the Federal Department of the Foreign Affairs, is the country’s first foreign mission dedicated to education, research, innovation, art and design.
Share is part of an international network of Swiss science and technology offices which help to further the country’s technological goals. The office facilitates networking between Swiss and American researchers by sponsoring discussions and visits.
In addition, Share is also advising Swiss organisations and leaders on how to foster entrepreneurship. Share was created by scaling down operations in other missions and focusing attention on creating the country’s first science and technology consulate.
African countries could do the same by redirecting some of the sources currently locked up in their missions to the UN. Similarly, these countries can scale down their participation in non-essential multilateral negotiations and use the resources to support science and innovation consulates in key technology centres around the world.
For example, having a science and innovation consulate close to Silicon Valley in California could be more beneficial than supporting new development negotiations.
African countries are laying the foundation for such diplomatic transformation by starting to focus on economic diplomacy. This is not only reflected in the decisions of the AU but is evident in proposed revisions in the foreign policies of several Africa countries.
Moreover, the pressure to add value to Africa’s natural resources is forcing policy makers and business leaders to rethink their relations with other nations. Solutions to such challenges will come from strategic technology alliances and not diplomatic conferences.
Ban Ki-moon should work for a more honourable legacy and bring the experiences of his own country of South Korea to inform the work of the UN’s development work. Failure to do so will render the UN largely irrelevant to more than 50 of its most active members.
Prof. Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
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