E-diplomacy

This is how new social networking sites are changing the reach of the statesmen of our time!

The diplomatic world is considered to be one of protocol and discretion, yet an increasing number of foreign policy officials and diplomats are conducting their business in the most public way possible, on Twitter.

On the morning that Ratko Mladic appeared before the UN war crimes tribunal, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague took to Twitter to issue the kind of diplomatic broadside of which his predecessor, Viscount Palmerston, would have been proud.

“Syrian leaders should reflect on the sight of Mladic in the dock today – reach of international justice is long.”

Palmerston, the 19th Century British statesman who served both as foreign secretary and prime minister, was famed for his gunboat diplomacy. Hague, a prolific tweeter, was practising a 21st Century variant: e-diplomacy.

Like Hague, Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, is also fluent in this new diplomatic tongue. During the government crackdown on demonstrations in Bahrain last year, he took to the Twittersphere to berate his Bahraini counterpart: “@khalidalkhalifa Trying to get in touch with you on an issue”

With its 140-character limit, Twitter hardly lends itself to diplomatic nuance. But its abbreviated form, in harness with its hashtag hieroglyphics, can also make it powerfully direct.

The popular social media site is just one of the online tools that governments are increasingly using to extend their spheres of internet influence. The web can help deliver consular advice, explain policy, and reach and engage with new audiences. It can also be used to issue admonishments and warnings and, on occasions, help solve problems.

The acknowledged leader in this field is the US State Department, which now boasts more than 150 full-time social media employees working across 25 different offices. It uses familiar sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, as well as local equivalents, such as VKontakte in Russia. Ambassadors and other State Department employees are encouraged to establish an online presence.

A recent training session at the headquarters in Foggy Bottom even saw a classroom full of diplomats being schooled in social media techniques by a 20-something intern. The advice: “Go ahead and give it a go.” Already more than 900 diplomats at US missions around the world have heeded that advice, and are using social media as part of their day-to-day diplomacy.

Fergus Hanson, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney and an expert in e-diplomacy, eavesdropped on that Foggy Bottom session. “The State Department is really creating what is effectively a media empire that could soon be the digital equivalent of old school international broadcasters like the BBC,” he says. “But they not only see it as part of a broadcasting strategy, they are looking at the wider potential.”

Social media acts like an early warning system of emerging social and political movements, he says. It is also a way of reaching online opinion formers, and a means of correcting misinformation very quickly.

The State Department now has an internal version of Wikipedia called Diplopedia, which has more than 14,000 entries. To encourage internal networking, there is also an equivalent of Facebook called Corridor – in the look and feel, the two are strikingly similar – which has over 6,500 members.

The State Department also uses a form of crowdsourcing to come up with solutions to problems. For instance, it went online to ask its employees for cost-cutting ideas. A diplomat in China, who suspected that electricity was being stolen from the US embassy compound by nearby residents tapping into a wire, proposed setting up a meter to chart its usage. It not only showed that neighbours were stealing electricity, but that the energy company was overcharging. The discovery saved tens of thousands of dollars.

In its public diplomacy, the State Department has taken to the web to advise on how people can circumvent restrictive firewalls and beat online government censorship.

“The US thinks internet freedom will be one of the defining issues of this century,” says Hanson. Indeed, the fight between an open and closed internet has been likened to the Cold War fight between capitalism and communism. Here, Washington has not only been critical of China. It raised objections to Australia’s plans to introduce an internet filter, and was not impressed when David Cameron raised the possibility of shutting down social networking sites during situations like the 2011 London riots.

Since publishing a landmark study on e-diplomacy in March this year, Hanson has been contacted by countries such as China and Russia who are looking to benefit from his expertise. Smaller nations, like Ireland and New Zealand, are also looking at the potential of e-diplomacy, partly because it is so inexpensive and can help overcome the problem of geographic remoteness.

For the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, blogging has been useful in shedding its famously stuffy image. Recently, Paul Madden, the High Commissioner in Canberra, informed readers on his blog that he had seen Scotland win its first rugby match on Australian soil for 30 years.

Greg Dorey, the ambassador to Ethiopia, reported on the country’s largest private equity investment to date: a brewery. “Today was about beer,” he wrote. “And as Benjamin Franklin put it, ‘beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.'”

But most e-diplomacy is far more serious. Peter Millett, the ambassador to Jordan, used his blog to describe a recent scene at the Syrian border: “The man was clearly traumatised after crossing the border from Syria. His eyes wide, he told us that he had seen his sister and her seven children murdered by regime thugs.”

Some foreign ministers have gone for a very chatty style of tweeting.

As well as chronicling his diplomatic travels, Bob Carr, Australia’s new foreign affairs minister, has been known to inform his 15,000 followers what he has just had for dinner. Recently, it was tender kangaroo cooked over a bed of fresh tomatoes, ginger, herbs, fennel, brussels sprouts and herbs, which he judged to be “terrific.”

He also links to his personal blog, Thoughtlines, which offers film and book reviews. Kevin Rudd, Carr’s predecessor as foreign affairs minister, tweeted about the health of his cat, Jasper. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, however, has been slow to grasp the potential of e-diplomacy. It maintains just one twitter feed, and has been reluctant to unleash its diplomats on the blogosphere.

E-diplomacy certainly carries risks. Even experienced practitioners, like the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, have run into trouble. Ahead of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, he drew criticism for what many thought was an insensitive missive: “Leaving Stockholm and heading for Davos. Looking forward to World Food Program dinner tonight. Global hunger is an urgent issue! #davos.”

Hunger and a slap-up meal did not sit happily side by side. In the argot of the Ttwittersphere, the tweet was judged a #fail.

Some prefer to maintain a diplomatic silence. Hillary Clinton, despite investing heavily in harnessing the power of the internet, does not tweet.

But e-diplomacy is the talk of foreign ministries the world over, as foreign affairs is increasingly conducted in 140 characters or less.

By Nick Bryant from Sydney

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18856295

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Can the World Bank lend money without hurting?

The decision by the World Bank (WB) cancelling the $1.2 billion credit for building a bridge in Bangladesh has so far been successful in yielding its expected results.

The Government of Bangladesh has been visibly weak in its reaction and the WB’s decision caught them off guard. Reaction by the ministers proved it as well (The Communications Minister commented that the decision by the Bank was like a thunder without rain while the Finance Minister said that it was WB’s President Zoellick’s personal comment!). Moreover, the issue has become a political one. The decision was like a ‘Shock and Awe’ with a spectacular display of force by the Bank that has paralysed Bangladesh government’s perception and destroyed its will to fight. Latest, Bangladesh’s Finance Minister AMA Muhith termed the Bank’s decision on the Padma bridge project ‘unexpected’ and ‘disgraceful’ and has urged the global lender to review its decision.

But the Bank had been trying to position itself in a fashion so that its global image changes in course of time. And the decision on 30 June, 2012, by the Bank cancelling the credit for construction of Padma bridge saying it had “credible evidence” of a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials was not actually a sudden one. “In light of the inadequate response by the government of Bangladesh, the World Bank has decided to cancel its $1.2 billion … credit in support of the Padma multipurpose bridge project, effective immediately,” the World Bank said in a statement.

However, in spite of the growing number of conspiracy theories in Bangladesh’s public sphere, the World Bank’s spin is likely to get a punch globally as the Forbes’ Richard Behar writes, “With its $57 billion aid portfolio, muddled objectives and failure to contain corruption, a decade of reform efforts have done little to fix the World Bank.” (A detail is available on Forbes’ web site http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2012/0716/feature-world-bank-robert-zoellick-too-big-to-fail.html).

Not only the Forbes, the WB itself found out some interesting outcomes in one of its internal evaluation. The Bank’s own Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) in a report stated that the International Development Association (IDA), the arm of the Bank that makes grants and interest-free, long-term loans to poor countries across the world, ‘lacks effective safeguards against corruption’ (Full report is available on http://web.worldbank.org/external/default/main?noSURL=Y&theSitePK=1324361&pagePK=64253958&contentMDK=22142204&piPK=64252979 ).

The report released in mid-April of 2009 concluded that IDA that had been offering over $10 billion to governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe in forms of lending or grants, did not protect its funds adequately from ‘theft and diversion’. I am presenting a synopsis from Bea Edwards’ article “World Bank Corruption” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, May 21, 2009; http://www.fpif.org/reports/world_bank_corruption ):

“The report was published at a time when the G20 had called on the Bank to step up its lending to cope with the global economic crisis. With such streamlining of loan and grant approval, there’s an even greater chance of corruption escaping detection. However, the IEG report was buried deep in the Bank’s website. The crucial section about failure on anti-corruption measures was buried deeper still in Volume II, Annex D. According to the IEG review, project designs of the Bank did not address the risk of fraud, nor did guidelines for project supervision, financial management or procurement. Although the Bank’s lending to bridge the gaps in national budgets requires assessments of fraud and corruption, real safeguards were lacking.

In short, the depth and breadth of the accountability weaknesses exposed at IDA were alarming and the report showed what precisely the management had not done:

  • Basic project and lending documents don’t include a requirement to assess the risks of fraud and corruption;
  • Safeguards against corruption don’t exist for budget support loans, perhaps the most vulnerable of IDA funds;
  • Staff members haven’t been adequately trained to recognize signs of corruption in projects; performance appraisals include incentives to report corruption;
  • Management routinely fails to take timely actions to follow up on audit, investigatory, and evaluation findings of impropriety.”

The World Bank knows very well about its global image in the public domain. In Bangladesh, the Bank is not viewed as mere a bank and its decision on the Padma Bridge will be a matter of close scrutiny in the days ahead in terms of its likelihood to alter public perception towards it. The Bank also knows that its decision to pull out of the bridge project would create image crisis for Bangladesh and might impact on foreign aid in future. But how far the government will be smart enough in dealing with international organisations like the World Bank? Bangladesh’s recent stance on fleeing Rohingya from neighbouring Myanmar has caused a major image crisis globally. And now the blow from the World Bank causes global image crisis as well as political ramifications for the government in power. Some critics of the Bank may question if it could lend money without hurting the people especially those who want to get rid of poverty and become self reliant. However, such criticism of the Bank may console some, but will not heal the scratch on the Bangladesh’s shattered image.  The point is very clear. It is a diplomatic debacle for Bangladesh. So, it will not bring anything good by blaming the Bank now even if the Bangladesh government cries for concrete evidences of corruption. Its rather Bangladesh’s image which has been tarnished and the lesson learned from such a huge experience should not be forgotten. Some may also argue that the Bank’s commitment to support Bangladesh’s development has been compromised by the decision which they could actually postpone instead of cancelling it. Such argument underpins that the approach of engagement of both the side demands further thought.

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