The diplomacy of public perception and politics

Friday April 4 2014

European Commission President Jose Barroso (left) and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy (right) welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta in Brussels on April 3, 2014. PHOTO | GEORGES GOBET

European Commission President Jose Barroso (left) and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy (right) welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta in Brussels on April 3, 2014. PHOTO | GEORGES GOBET AFP

By MICHAEL MEYER
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In Europe, the buzz is all Ukraine. Urgent as that crisis may be, however, it largely concerns the past — the collapse of the Soviet empire, the post-Cold War expansion of Nato into central Europe, Russia’s determination to reassert influence in its traditional “near abroad.’’

By contrast, this week brought an opportunity to look toward the future. At the 2014 European Union-Africa Summit in Brussels, diplomats united under a banner of inter-continental partnership.

Put aside disagreements over ta

In Europe, the buzz is all Ukraine. Urgent as that crisis may be, however, it largely concerns the past — the collapse of the Soviet empire, the post-Cold War expansion of Nato into central Europe, Russia’s determination to reassert influence in its traditional “near abroad.’’

By contrast, this week brought an opportunity to look toward the future. At the 2014 European Union-Africa Summit in Brussels, diplomats united under a banner of inter-continental partnership.

Put aside disagreements over tariffs and free trade, not to mention nasty flaps over visas and the EU’s efforts to exclude “undesirable” heads of state.

Glowingly and at length, they spoke of a new “forward-looking vision” of shared principles and common interests. Working together, the summiteers declared, there is no limit to what Europe and a fast-emerging Africa might achieve.

Typically for such occasions, the rhetoric was exalted. Atypically, it was also grounded in reality. We are familiar with the macro-trends transforming the continent: how average GDP grew by 5.2 per cent annually over the past decade, how six to eight of the fastest-growing economies in the world are African, depending on who’s counting. Less known are some important micro-trends, particularly those involving what might be called the new Afro-European nexus.

Since 2007, when EU and African heads of state embraced a joint agenda for social and economic progress, Europe has emerged as Africa’s biggest development partner by far.

Over the past seven years, the EU has invested more than $200 billion in Africa’s development, roughly 45 per cent of all official assistance to the continent. Thanks to EU aid, five million newborns were vaccinated against measles.

BEHIND-THE-SCENES CONCERN

Millions more are alive because of improved maternal health care. An estimated 3.4 million Africans received some form of vocational training. Academic exchanges have multiplied, with nearly 4,000 students and faculty studying in Europe over the period.

Growing mobility has a direct economic impact. Money sent home by African workers in Europe totalled $60.4 billion in 2012, up by a third since 2007. Remittances are now the single largest source of external funds in Africa, for the first time exceeding foreign direct investment and official development assistance. More than a third comes from Europe.

Meanwhile, trade continues to grow, reaching $339 billion in 2012, higher by nearly half over the past five years. Europe remains Africa’s largest trading and investment partner, absorbing 40 percent of its exports and supplying 34 per cent of its imports. For good or ill, African investment in EU nations grew seven-fold to more than $100 billion in the last 10 years.

For all the bright prospects, the view from Brussels wasn’t entirely upbeat. Africans often complain that Europeans (and others) tell only the bad news about Africa — a narrative of poverty, war and disease. Not without reason, a hard-eyed outsider might reply.

In South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Darfur, the story is indeed one of rape, plunder and war. Mali remains fragile, jeopardizing the political stability of its neighbours. Guinea is in the grip of an ebola epidemic, while millions in the Sahel worry about potential famine.

The acknowledged stars of the African firmament were also the subject of behind-the-scenes concern. Ethiopia, whose construction-site capital hosts the African Union and a growing constellation of pan-African development agencies, is bedevilled by questions over human rights and media freedom. So is Rwanda, even as it celebrates an extraordinary record of accomplishment at this 20th anniversary of the genocide. Uganda has been sanctioned for its policies on homosexuality.

In terms of its global image, Kenya suffers from needlessly self-inflicted wounds. It gets immense credit for helping to put broken Somalia back together. Recent terror attacks by Islamic extremists are generally seen as the price of that courageous engagement on behalf of the international community. Yet six months after Westgate, the tragedy is remembered chiefly for looting by government forces.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court proceedings against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, have seduced ministers into reactive policies that hurt more than help. A restrictive new media law sparked global outcry. So has a proposal to crack down on international NGOs.

More recently, Kenyan authorities moved to expel a former BBC correspondent and human rights campaigner after declaring her a “subversive.’’ To western audiences, the very use of the word suggests a turn toward autocracy — a disconcerting trend that outsiders see increasingly across Africa.

PERCEPTIONS ARE REAL

If government officials believe a journalist or social activist has overstepped their bounds, the remedy lies with the courts. When it comes to international opinion, transparency and the rule of law trump expedience.

Mary Kimonye, chief executive of Brand Kenya, works with the government to promote Kenya’s global image. As she sees it, a country’s reputation can be likened to a corporate brand. Anything that besmirches a company’s reputation translates directly into lost sales and revenue. In extreme cases, it can imperil a firm’s existence.

As a brand, Kenya is on an enviable trajectory. Tourists come for its landscapes and wildlife. Global hedge funds and businesses rightly see it as one of the better places to invest in a rising Africa. Companies like Safaricom are pioneers of the digital age, not only in Africa but globally. Kenya’s best selling point is its comparatively robust democracy and largely hospitable business climate.

Yet none of this is reason for complacency. It might be easy to dismiss the corridor criticisms from Brussels, but let’s not. Whether they reflect a so-called ‘’Western bias’’ is beside the point. Perceptions are real. They come with tangible costs and benefits.

Countries that manage their image like a corporate brand will fare better in the global marketplace than those who do not.

This would apply equally to some European nations —though of course that was not on the agenda in Brussels.

riffs and free trade, not to mention nasty flaps over visas and the EU’s efforts to exclude “undesirable” heads of state.

Glowingly and at length, they spoke of a new “forward-looking vision” of shared principles and common interests. Working together, the summiteers declared, there is no limit to what Europe and a fast-emerging Africa might achieve.

Typically for such occasions, the rhetoric was exalted. Atypically, it was also grounded in reality. We are familiar with the macro-trends transforming the continent: how average GDP grew by 5.2 per cent annually over the past decade, how six to eight of the fastest-growing economies in the world are African, depending on who’s counting. Less known are some important micro-trends, particularly those involving what might be called the new Afro-European nexus.

Since 2007, when EU and African heads of state embraced a joint agenda for social and economic progress, Europe has emerged as Africa’s biggest development partner by far.

Over the past seven years, the EU has invested more than $200 billion in Africa’s development, roughly 45 per cent of all official assistance to the continent. Thanks to EU aid, five million newborns were vaccinated against measles.

BEHIND-THE-SCENES CONCERN

Millions more are alive because of improved maternal health care. An estimated 3.4 million Africans received some form of vocational training. Academic exchanges have multiplied, with nearly 4,000 students and faculty studying in Europe over the period.

Growing mobility has a direct economic impact. Money sent home by African workers in Europe totalled $60.4 billion in 2012, up by a third since 2007. Remittances are now the single largest source of external funds in Africa, for the first time exceeding foreign direct investment and official development assistance. More than a third comes from Europe.

Meanwhile, trade continues to grow, reaching $339 billion in 2012, higher by nearly half over the past five years. Europe remains Africa’s largest trading and investment partner, absorbing 40 percent of its exports and supplying 34 per cent of its imports. For good or ill, African investment in EU nations grew seven-fold to more than $100 billion in the last 10 years.

For all the bright prospects, the view from Brussels wasn’t entirely upbeat. Africans often complain that Europeans (and others) tell only the bad news about Africa — a narrative of poverty, war and disease. Not without reason, a hard-eyed outsider might reply.

In South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Darfur, the story is indeed one of rape, plunder and war. Mali remains fragile, jeopardizing the political stability of its neighbours. Guinea is in the grip of an ebola epidemic, while millions in the Sahel worry about potential famine.

The acknowledged stars of the African firmament were also the subject of behind-the-scenes concern. Ethiopia, whose construction-site capital hosts the African Union and a growing constellation of pan-African development agencies, is bedevilled by questions over human rights and media freedom. So is Rwanda, even as it celebrates an extraordinary record of accomplishment at this 20th anniversary of the genocide. Uganda has been sanctioned for its policies on homosexuality.

In terms of its global image, Kenya suffers from needlessly self-inflicted wounds. It gets immense credit for helping to put broken Somalia back together. Recent terror attacks by Islamic extremists are generally seen as the price of that courageous engagement on behalf of the international community. Yet six months after Westgate, the tragedy is remembered chiefly for looting by government forces.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court proceedings against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, have seduced ministers into reactive policies that hurt more than help. A restrictive new media law sparked global outcry. So has a proposal to crack down on international NGOs.

More recently, Kenyan authorities moved to expel a former BBC correspondent and human rights campaigner after declaring her a “subversive.’’ To western audiences, the very use of the word suggests a turn toward autocracy — a disconcerting trend that outsiders see increasingly across Africa.

PERCEPTIONS ARE REAL

If government officials believe a journalist or social activist has overstepped their bounds, the remedy lies with the courts. When it comes to international opinion, transparency and the rule of law trump expedience.

Mary Kimonye, chief executive of Brand Kenya, works with the government to promote Kenya’s global image. As she sees it, a country’s reputation can be likened to a corporate brand. Anything that besmirches a company’s reputation translates directly into lost sales and revenue. In extreme cases, it can imperil a firm’s existence.

As a brand, Kenya is on an enviable trajectory. Tourists come for its landscapes and wildlife. Global hedge funds and businesses rightly see it as one of the better places to invest in a rising Africa. Companies like Safaricom are pioneers of the digital age, not only in Africa but globally. Kenya’s best selling point is its comparatively robust democracy and largely hospitable business climate.

Yet none of this is reason for complacency. It might be easy to dismiss the corridor criticisms from Brussels, but let’s not. Whether they reflect a so-called ‘’Western bias’’ is beside the point. Perceptions are real. They come with tangible costs and benefits.

Countries that manage their image like a corporate brand will fare better in the global marketplace than those who do not.

This would apply equally to some European nations —though of course that was not on the agenda in Brussels.

Mr Meyer, a former Newsweek editor and communications director to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, is dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi. [email protected]