R. Rose
February 19, 2010

Foreign representation and international advocacy

Last weekend I read in a Barbados newspaper about a call made by a leading social advocate for Caribbean countries to pay more attention to advocacy in the international arena. In particular, regional governments were urged to step up the level of their active participation in international conferences and to try and make maximum use of the opportunities provided as a result of such gatherings. For a country which has been sold short by politicians on the potential value of advocacy, making such a call is like waving the proverbial red flag to a bull.{{more}} By and large, many, if not most of our people, believe that international conferences are nothing but a waste of time and money, occasions for those who attend only to travel and cavort. It has led to Prime Ministers travelling on public business to be likened to “national birds” and scepticism expressed every time they fly. Not just now, but since in the time of PM Mitchell, very unfairly. Even before that, every trip of the late Robert Milton Cato was derisively referred to as a “begging” expedition. Such misconceptions are badly misplaced, but I shall come to this later.

As regards the essence of the comment made in Barbados, I am in substantive agreement. Having had the good fortune (sometimes it turns out to be misfortune) to attend several regional and international events over the past three decades or so, my observation is that this is one area where the Caribbean has not utilized its great potential “to the max”, as we say colloquially. If, as we like to say, conferences are nothing but “talk shops”, then perhaps that is even more reason why the Caribbean should participate, because who could “ole talk” more than we? Yet, except for very high-profile conferences and travel involving our top leaders, we seem to say “pass” on too many occasions, often on the excuse of how much it would cost. Every business person will tell you that the cost must be balanced against the returns.

That is where the judgement must be exercised, in the first place, in terms of personnel chosen. That is a problem not only for governments, but for all types of civic organisations as well. If one does not choose the right tool for the job, then what can you expect out of it? Similarly, proper preparation is an essential ingredient for success. Sadly, the Caribbean falls far short of requirements in these areas. From my humble experience, Ministers often fail to carry or be suitably briefed by the appropriate advisors or sometimes, penny-pinching, travel alone to important fora where back-up is so necessary. As a result, we never get the returns that ought to accrue from spending tax-payers funds. Worse, I have witnessed grossly irresponsible behaviour on the part of those paid to represent the region. Some of these have missed important sessions to go on personal errands, placing these before the public interest. This is inexcusable.

Another critical consideration in being able to make maximum use of how the international possibilities relate to how we in the Caribbean utilize our various embassies and consulates. We are in the envious situation in the world community of having 10 independent voices to speak for the English-speaking Caribbean, for less than 5 million people. True, there has been some coordination of foreign policy on strategic matters, and this is to be applauded, but we can do much more where our day-to-day foreign representation is concerned. Leaving the “Big Four” with their own ambitions out of this milieu, we in the OECS can do much better if we would only collaborate more in terms of unifying our presence, especially in capitals where we think we have strategic interests. Instead of each of us having separate Missions in New York and Washington for instance, couldn’t we have had ONE OECS Mission in each of these cities with specialist personnel, for each nation, and then for specific areas such as politics, economic affairs, tourism, UN agencies and the like?

Of course, that would mean sacrificing the petty politics used to reward political supporters and hangers-on. Too much of that is involved in our foreign representation. Parties and governments are entitled to reward their staunch and loyal supporters, BUT NOT TO THE DETRIMENT OF THE PUBLIC INTEREST. I have met persons employed in Missions of the OECS abroad of whom “a waste of time” would be a compliment. How could we, with meagre Budgets and limited representation abroad, further compromise our national and regional interests by placing square pegs in round holes? How could we use trade-offs to please this or that PM when the region will suffer as a result? I can never forget the shafting of the man who best represented our banana interests, Ambassador Laurent, in the midst of the banana war. Our advocacy on banana and representation in Brussels was never the same afterwards. Are we to repeat the same errors?

At home, too, care and attention must be paid to personnel deployed at our Ministries of Foreign Affairs. In some of the islands the Trade portfolio is often attached, increasing the responsibility of this Ministry. Yet in some countries Protocol seems to substitute for Foreign Affairs. This ought to be a specialised Ministry with persons having the aptitude for such a job. If one does not know, or care, about the difference between Turkey and Turkmenistan, then the Foreign Ministry is no place for you. If, as I witnessed, the OECS Mission in Brussels gets mail addressed to “Brussels, Germany”, then the sender of that letter shouldn’t be in the Foreign Ministry. We simply can not be pussy-footing around.

Every OECS country is at its wits end to make ends meet. For us, foreign affairs, trade and international advocacy must be one of the few opportunities we have to tap into what little might be available on the international stage. But we can only succeed if we deploy the right tools, if we use the appropriate mechanisms. Money spent in these areas will only be money wasted if we do not make the correct choices, if we continue to put all sorts of political and personal considerations before all else. From being in a small but vibrant civil society movement in the Caribbean, I have seen what good that quality advocacy can do. If our Caribbean leaders can only get their act together, there is much more that we can achieve.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.