DESPITE whoever wins the next elections in Zimbabwe, one of the glaring challenges to be immediately addressed is the country’s economic diplomacy.
Opinion by Trevor Maisiri
Over time, the methodologies through which many countries are playing out the international relationship between politics and economics have evolved.
The Cold War era was marked by a prioritisation of political diplomacy over economic diplomacy as the need was to clearly define political allegiances or lack thereof. Although the contestation during the Cold War is also assumed to have been driven by economic interests, political factors were prominent.
The post-Cold War period, marked by the fall of communism, saw a momentum where major global powers began to re-create systems of economic gain premised on the dictates of the new political landscape. Smaller states were disenfranchised as re-organised global economic structures advanced the interests of post-Cold War powers.
The response of smaller states was expressed through urgency in forging notions like South-South co-operation and the push for reforms in multilateral institutions in order to even-out the global trading terrain. Coupled with globalisation, countries were forced to enhance their economic diplomacy in order to play a critical role in global markets as well as create survival models from the harsh onslaught of global economic re-organisation and competition.
Given Zimbabwe’s political challenges that transcend over 15 years or so, the country’s economic diplomacy has thus been suppressed by domestic and international political matters. The country has not hinged its diplomatic presence across the world on economic interests.
Zimbabwe’s embassies have rather been more about protection of political space than venturing into creation of economic opportunities for the country. With rapid developments in global economics, one of the priorities that Zimbabwe’s next government will have to pursue, after elections, is the economic diplomatic profile of the country.
Theorists indicate that the three main pillars of modern-day economic diplomacy are trade, exports and investments. The way in which foreign investments are handled has become less geo-centric compared to the past.
The first interface that investors have with a potential investment destination is through the information hub, usually via internet and other such technology portals.
Their next phase of interaction, which must be physical, is through the nearest diplomatic services of the intended country of investment destination. Many countries are therefore re-modelling their embassies to become hubs through which certain services can be offered in the virtual investment model.
Diplomatic establishments have also become first-line marketing channels and trade route representation of their countries. These are all aspects that Zimbabwe’s foreign missions will have to quickly adapt to so as to enhance their credibility and capacity.
It will require an effective backward integration with domestic business sector and trade promotion institutions to create a smooth linkage in this value chain.
However, where undisciplined political behaviour is unrestrained, this value chain is difficult to create, sustain or utilise. Government’s interaction with the business sector therefore has to be progressive and unfettered by suspicion and marginalisation. Both the business sector and government must play their genuine role in building this relationship.
Labour must also be considered a critical building block of a progressive business environment. This ultimately means revisiting the social contract ideals. Once the domestic business environment is built along a mutually shared prospect and focus, while reasonably addressing the multiple stakeholder concerns, then it is easier to create a robust economic diplomacy platform through which the country’s embassies become front-runners.
The four main evolutionary stages of economic diplomacy are trade and investments, networking and advocacy, image building, and management of the regulatory environment. The country will need to ensure that besides embassies merely driving trade and investments, there are other crucial spin-off roles.
Embassies must network with the business and trade enclaves in the territories they are domiciled. They have to be more aggressive in hunting for the business rather than wait for it to come their way.
This involves developing effective marketing, outreach and networking capacity at embassy level. Embassies inevitably become the public relations drivers, not only for their governments, but for the entirety of their domestic business value-chain as well. They will also be the mainline channels through which harmonisation of domestic and international business, trade and investments regulations are achieved.
As they do that, they also create the compulsion and capacity to impact international economic arrangements in global institutions beneficial to the country.
Zimbabwe has a large diaspora population, which many credit for having carried the economy during the hyperinflationary period in the mid to the late 2000s. Zimbabwe’s political authorities have always treated the diaspora as a political renegade group, worthy of exclusion. Zanu PF has been the biggest advocate of this notion, given that many in the diaspora are seen as having run away from the party’s political and economic mismanagement of the country.
The MDC-T has also taken the flak from the diaspora. I remember when its leader, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai attempted to invite the diaspora back home at the inception of the inclusive government in 2009. He was attacked for extending the invitation without guarantees for political safety and socio-economic security. Since then, we have not heard any of the politicians in the inclusive government engage fruitfully on the issue of the diasporans’ homecoming.
This is also shown by the lack of fervent support, by all political parties, for issues related to building mechanisms for those in the diaspora to exercise their vote in the upcoming elections. Even after the elections, it is not likely that all those in the diaspora will immediately come back home. The post-election economic diplomacy approach must therefore also target those that remain in the diaspora.
China and India’s economic development has been heavily shaped by their nationals in the diaspora. They have created business opportunities that have maintained a strong link and feedback into their domestic economies.
They have been central to network building and information gathering in the countries they are domiciled. Their channel of economic connection with their home countries has been their embassies and related diplomatic platforms. Zimbabwe’s post-election economic diplomacy will therefore require government to re-work its relationship with the diaspora.
There will be a need to create formal channels through which embassies become developmental links on which this relationship is anchored.
Therefore, the next government will have to critically look at the country’s economic diplomacy against a background where rapid economic growth will not only be aspired to, but a priority. The next government will have to intentionally re-engineer the functions, scope and expertise of diplomatic services.
There must be deep consideration of who must ultimately be appointed to lead this new economic diplomatic onslaught; away from the historical system of political patronage. The age of diplomatic postings as reward for mere political loyalty must come to an end. Our diplomatic services must not be incidental institutions, but intended to drive economic recovery.
A well-known diplomacy academic, Kishan Rana, defines economic diplomacy as “the process through which countries tackle the outside world to maximise their national plan in all fields of activity including trade, investments and other forms of economically beneficial exchanges where they enjoy comparative advantages; it has bilateral, regional and multilateral dimensions each of which is important”.
Maisiri is the Southern Africa senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. He is also a student of Economic Diplomacy. He, however, writes in his personal capacity.