Role of Kenyan businesses in advancing diplomacy

To what extent can private sector pursue economic diplomacy to secure pertinent commercial interests?

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By Leonard Wanyama

Back in 2010, at the height of administration by the Grand Coalition, it was reported that Kenya had initiated a new strategy that would emphasise diplomacy to attract investments.
An eye-catching incident was the increased appointment of honorary consuls to be posted in all major cities in Africa and the rest of the world. It still is, quite an ambition.
Long serving, honorary consul Dr Jens Peter Breitengross was elated. Having served in that position for 18 years and as the head of the German Africa Business Association, he appreciated the act by the Principals of the time.

This was one of the actions coming out of adopting economic diplomacy as a major foreign policy pillar for the country.

Since then, the term has been a catchy phrase that speaks to Kenya’s desire to increase capital flows into the country; promote the country as an ideal destination for business ventures, and expand destination for exports.

It also signals an aspiration to explore sources for new technologies, promote international cooperation in harnessing all forms of energy, champion trade through regional economic organisations, and enhance development in various forums or activities.

Beyond the lobbying business entities did to ensure private sector development (PSD) encouraged improved commercial conditions, the prospect of participating in some form of high politics excited them.

Unfortunately, the private sector has not been able to properly immerse itself into the realm of economic diplomacy because it has never really been clear what its role is, in activities relating to trade policy making and business support services.

Only when a number of business figures trooped to attend the US-Africa Summit in Texas did it become apparent that their initiatives may need further improvement as observed by a participant who stated thus:

“The US business community had no excitement about making investments in Kenya on a business-to-business level. Most companies that attended the summit already have local offices and are deeply involved in partnerships with Kenya”

Recently, business people like Chris Kirubi have been in the spotlight for having accompanied the President on various trips. Yet the question remains about what gains have accrued from such initiatives if business entities from elsewhere are only interested in dealing with government alone.

Part of the reason this is so is because the Jubilee administration has done very little in providing ideals and purposes beyond savvy pronouncements.

In terms of conceptualisation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply upgraded the Strategic Plan of 2008-2012 on “Turning Global Challenges into Opportunities through Innovative Diplomacy” – launched by the late Professor George Saitoti – into a glossier paraphrased document titled “Kenya Foreign Policy” in November 2014.

Kenyan merchants have therefore been left with a great challenge of how to work with an innovative concept that is both new and alien to them in their style of operation.

First, the private sector has to acknowledge the post-modern environment that is emerging. Traditional state-to-state diplomacy is fragmenting to allow businesses an opportunity to engage complex international economic relations. Economic diplomacy then manifests as actions concerning corporate diplomacy and business diplomacy.
Here, the merchant class’ concerns are for their participation within the transnational model across countries, whether as equals or partners.

Corporate diplomacy therefore involves ensuring inherent practice within the company to ensure success of business units in foreign countries. It also seeks to balance corporate culture against whatever different social environments they come across. Mostly this occurs in terms of public affairs liaison or officer work.

Nonetheless, what is more pertinent in reducing various tensions particularly in countries like Tanzania is business diplomacy. In this regard, companies extend their engagement through interaction with main non-business entities and external constituencies such as local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or institutions.

Exceptional bureaucrats with diplomatic skills, some of whom may have retired, are usually recruited for inculcation into this role due to their public affairs experience. They would endeavour to negotiate with authorities if necessary; develop links with local or international NGOs; contribute in the designs of business strategy, policy or stakeholder expectation, participate in public relations campaigns, as well as gather and analyse information from host countries for various companies or associations.

Fundamentally, this is the extent to which the private sector can pursue economic diplomacy that secures pertinent commercial interests. Foreign and local business diplomats would be providing supportive representative services to Kenyan enterprises or associations in neighbouring countries in conjunction with government officers.

Misunderstandings, as occasioned in relations with Tanzania, or surprises such as Uganda and Rwanda’s change of heart in the Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) will be detected and mitigated early enough to avoid flush embarrassments.

On the other hand, business diplomacy will influence better country or community relations and ensure working towards shared goals. This would also then be important in preventing geopolitical rivalry, and developing interactive forums for engagement.

Grievances between countries and their respective business communities would be significantly solved by the social capital created through dialogue that encourages sustainable relations for all. Maybe, with this in mind, the private sector may stop wondering what to do about economic diplomacy.

Lastly, our honorary consuls should speak out more to explain, assure and advice on the state of our trade relations. The public deserves it.

Writer teaches International Relations at the Technical University of Kenya

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