Soft Power: Novel Ideas for East Africa

Published on 29th October 2012

An item in one of the Kenyan dailies grabbed my attention by the sheer ingenuity of the proposals therein. The Daily Nation reported last week that Kenya had set up or was planning to fashion a fund to sponsor students from the East African Community to study in Kenya as part of its soft power strategy. Attributed to Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Mr. Thuita Mwangi, the proposal was unveiled at a meeting of the private sector and Kenya’s diplomatic honchos.

What a timely move to tap soft power to the service of Kenya’s international relations pursuits! Such undertakings are long overdue as a scan of Kenya’s diplomatic agency would reveal a dearth in deliberate cultural and public diplomacy undertakings, what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye and top soft power evangelist has termed the power of attractions.

Now that soft power seems to be entering our diplomatic practice at least officially, there is quite a bit of food for thought to bite into in deliberating its hows and wherefores. It would be interesting if the other East African countries were sensitized to Kenya’s move to deploy soft power resources and thus lay out the Silk Road for commerce. If Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda analyze this latest move by Kenya only from a crass competitive prism, they would badly be missing the point. In fact, these countries would do well to equally step up their soft power resources not only into Kenya but throughout the region and indeed globally. The result would be greater integration at all levels including where it matters most – trade.

It would be interesting if Ugandans, for instance, put together a fund to attract Kenyan journalists to venture into the Ruwenzori (the mountain of the moon famed for its rare mountain gorillas) subsequently writing home affable stories and attracting Kenya’s old money and the nouveau niche as holiday makers. Tanzania could find means of attracting Rwandans and Burundians interested in proficiency in the Swahili language thus creating bonds that last. Rwanda and Burundi would be magnates on how to overcome ethnic hatred via means such as the gacaca judicial system. There is no end to the power of attractions that small budgets by MFAs and allied entities could innovate to lay the foundation for regional attraction.

The Kenyan MFAs strategy could dovetail with all the strategies that the East African Community ministries have been attempting, with modest achievements, to roll out for the region. While EAC diplomatic missions abroad have mooted collaborative activities in their regions and countries of accreditation, the pull factors of national aspirations have often nipped in the bud the potential for a full blown blossom of an EAC external relations agenda.

In recent times, Canada and Britain have announced convergence of their diplomatic infrastructure, a pooling of resources no doubt with an eye on dwindling budgets. The EAC could appropriate this example and what better way to test the waters with a collective soft power approach – for instance a Muungano choir comprising Swahili singers from the five countries?

The event from whence this soft power-determinist approach to integration was patently economic in so far as the corporate chiefs were lobbying the Kenyan MFA to do more in their external business drives. But again, corporate Kenya represented by as such business lobbies as the Kenya Private Sector Alliance and the Kenya Association of Manufactures ought to contribute to MFA budgets in the soft power arena. Granted, individual companies have Corporate Social Responsibility budgets. The point of departure here is that a good number of the CSR projects do not could qualify as soft power apparatus as indeed corporate giving would defeat its purpose if it was deployed to profit motives – a mistake evident in many such initiatives. Corporate pooling of resources in close collaboration with MFAs would perhaps have the best shot at winning over markets far and wide with a soft touch. Better still, the East African Business Council, the umbrella body of business lobbies in the region, could come in to support the soft power push from a supra-regional vantage point.

Kenya and indeed the region’s soft power has largely been an unplanned affair. Most Chinese people would be the first to mention that they know Kenya as a tourism destination, a development instilled in them by among other means, recent documentaries on Kenyan wildlife. In this case, CCTV has perhaps done more than any Kenyan promotional agency in marketing the cute side of our country. The pleading of the Kenyan and indeed other MFAs in the region is that budgets for such activities are razor thin. Would the corporate sector wait until budgets for soft power programs improve – in other words waiting for Godot – or prop up MFAs cultural diplomacy budgets as a pathway to business deals abroad?

By Bob Wekesa
The writer is reading for a PhD at the Communication University of China in Beijing.

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