Straightened times have a wonderful way of concentrating minds, so much so that even the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has found itself having to tack its sails to a new wind – namely economic reality. With the Eurozone in the doldrums Britain’s policy makers have finally begun to wake up to the fact that there is a whole world of markets out there and that they have been passing Britain by. Budgetary constraints and the need for savings has come as something of a rude awaking to an institution that has been used to doing its own thing for so long that it has become near impervious to serious scrutiny or analysis. The FCO never has been one for embracing change, let alone accepting that it may occasionally get things wrong, but economics have managed to break through where Parliamentary questions and a few half hearted efforts by the media have failed, change is finally afoot. British Embassies and High Commissions are suddenly being expected to make a real concerted effort to assist UK businesses in a drive for exports. A whole raft of services and facilities are being touted for the obligatory fee and Senior Diplomats instructed to ensure that even their legations are to be made available for those with deeper pockets. This approach certainly has not been plain sailing, for the export drive goes against the grain with there being anecdotal evidence of disquiet in some quarters as to the direction that things are going.
Whilst trade and diplomacy is hardly a new phenomenon, what some diplomats and their minor functionaries find difficult to grapple with is the language and mindset of entrepreneurial endeavour and enterprise. Civil Servants generally prefer to have things proscribed in such a manner as to ensure there are clear procedures and protocols, well the world of business especially in Frontier Markets rarely complies with such expectations. The world of trade and commerce thrives on risk, a notion that that is utterly abhorrent to a diplomat, especially one who interprets their brief as to merely sit on their hands and initiate nothing whilst waiting for their next posting or a shot at a possible promotion. Diplomats seek to make order out of chaos, whilst entrepreneurs seek out orders in a chaotic world. The FCO with its own culture and mindset is endeavouring to change, but sometimes for all its extraordinary wealth of experience it can appear befuddled and unresponsive. Successive British Government’s have endeavoured to stamp their mark and often have demanded too much. From Robin Cook’s much vaunted ethical foreign policy speech in 1997 to the legacy of Tony Blair’s military interventions and all that has followed the FCO has struggled with its place both in Whitehall and the world. Now its’ hard pressed staff are expected to fly the flag for UK exports as never before.
Valiant efforts are being made, but even these seem at odds with some of the other functions that the FCO is expected to carry out. This week the FCO was happy to co-host a business forum that took as its focus Somaliland. The FCO’s own press release (14th October 2014) entitled: Businesses urged to seize investment opportunities in Somaliland made much of the fact that businesses can play a vital part. Strangely the FCO and Department for International Development representatives were full of warm words for a de facto state that the FCO has neither the intention nor the courage to recognise. Further evidence of this apparent schizophrenic approach manifests itself in the sclerotic travel advice which has become the Bain of almost every British individual or company seeking to do business in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. The FCO travel advice is so totally lacking in differentiation and is so risk averse and risk obsessed that for some parts of the world it might as well state ‘here be dragons’. A classic example being that relatively peaceful Puntland State, Somalia is treated as having the same level of risk as Mogadishu, Kismayo and Baidoa, something which is quite frankly absurd. Much of this lack of a nuanced approach is sadly due to the fact that diplomats have retreated into regional redoubts in Nairobi or Addis Ababa and have little or no knowledge of the real situation on the ground. For businesses this is doubly frustrating as not only does it mean that they are being given guidance that is often wildly inaccurate or out of date, but thanks to the FCO travel advice are deterred from venturing forth and discovering the real situation for themselves. Those Britons who have had the drive and initiative to visit cities such as Bosasso and Garowe in Somalia under their own steam have been very pleasantly surprised by what they have found and discovered a wealth of opportunities and what is more have begun do business and win contracts, no thanks to the FCO.
Anyone who knows the Foreign and Commonwealth Office appreciates it is extremely fortunate in containing some of the brightest and most diligent figures in Whitehall. In common with other government departments it has been put under tremendous pressure to making savings and to realign its services with the new economic realities. Whilst progress has been made issues remain, not just those related to an over-cautious approach when in comes to travel advice, but also to do with addressing the knowledge deficit. Official FCO policy means that almost all staff are constantly moved from one role or regional desk to another for fear that they might ‘go native’. Whilst a breadth of experience is splendid, the downside of this is that in-depth knowledge is often rare, a factor that undermines good intentions and future initiatives. Staff and resources have become severely stretched to such an extent that there are times when the main FCO building in King Charles Street, London sometimes comes across as the domain of some latter day Wizard of Oz. In truth the FCO still has an important role to play, not just in the UK’s diplomacy, but as conduit for insight and understanding in what is a very troubled world. It has achieved many great things in the past and for all the current challenges with pragmatism and effective leadership is capable of playing a positive and purposeful role in the future.
Mark T Jones
International Speaker & Leadership Specialist