Political Perspective [column]

IF WE all agree that Government needs to curtail its expenditures – and I believe there is a considerable measure of consensus on the subject – then we need to look (also) at the question of the number of our diplomatic missions abroad as well as the plethora of foreign trips undertaken and which show no sign of abating.

The former has not had much scrutiny in the past, and now that Government has added four new diplomatic missions to the existing list of 27, we should be looking much more closely as to whether they are all necessary and if so, why and how they are benefitting the country.

In her budget speech this year, Minister of Foreign Affairs Netumbo Nandi-Ndwaitwah listed 27 existing diplomatic missions abroad, in total 31 with the addition of the four new countries. She also mentioned three consular missions. But a glance at the ministry’s website shows also a host of honorary consuls (who are not Namibian nationals) in places like Cyprus, Greece, Croatia, Malta, Lebanon, Hungary and many others. I am not sure if there is a cost factor involved in these, although I would imagine there would be some.

Of the 31 diplomatic missions, approximately 12 are in Africa, including the new missions for Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, Dakar in Senegal and Accra in Ghana. It is quite puzzling though to also note that there are also honorary consuls in places where we already have a full diplomatic presence.

Minister Ndaitwah said that Namibia saw Africa as the ‘new economic frontier’. No problem with that or the fact that we are seeking “balanced representation in Africa”, which probably accounts for the three new African missions. But the amount allocated in this year’s budget for foreign missions is a whopping N$768 million and I am not convinced that we are getting value for money, given that our presence in some countries does not seem to give us much in return.

It’s an open secret that many of our ‘ambassadors’ abroad often don’t have enough to do with their time, and it would seem to me that we need to critically assess whether our presence in all these places, at great cost, is absolutely necessary. This is a time in which many countries are cutting back on their embassies abroad, but not so Namibia, it seems. Reasons of trade may be good reason for an official presence in certain countries, but I am not sure whether the rationale for purely diplomatic reasons or old alliances and ‘solidarity reasons are enough to justify the huge cost.

I am hoping that some enterprising reporter out there is going to dig into the costs of individual foreign missions, and break it all down for us also the number and costs of foreign trips in the past year, and I am certain we would be taken aback at what is unearthed. It is my view that in tough times like these, such monies would be better spent at home.

If one third of the embassies are in Africa, then it means the majority of the rest are in Europe with a concentration in the EU. Is such a considerable presence there justified, I wonder?

And then, what perplexes me more, is why we are sending huge delegations to many of these countries on state and official visits when we could economise by using the senior personnel and staff who we already have on the ground in such places? I believe a contingent of more than a 100 people accompanied Prime Minister Hage Geingob on a recent trip to China (in the wake of his trips to Cuba, Canada and the US). I doubt that China is shouldering all the costs, and if they are, perhaps we need to find out why.

I am sure few Namibians would have a problem with well-functioning and effective embassies with ambassadors and staff who earn their pay and represent us well, but I am also inclined to think that many don’t, and worse still, their costly presence brings little tangible benefit back home. If one considers for instance, the simple fact that Air Namibia has recently cancelled flights to Dakar – which implies there is little interest in this route – we need to ask why a full embassy is warranted there?

It really does beg the question, and I think foreign affairs needs to tell us. I am also almost certain that some of what may be considered foolhardy decisions are political ones in which the minister may concur but also may have little or no choice in the matter.

Government needs to be transparent and accountable on our diplomatic choices as well as the costs involved, and the people should not simply be expected to accept their decisions blindly and without question about costs and impact.

Source : The Namibian