Follow-up: in which Amb. McCarter and I experience some downsides of “Twitter diplomacy”

In my last post, I explored the fact that Amb. Kyle McCarter is the United States’ first Ambassador to Kenya to come from a background in elective politics. Because he had just done what seemed to be a well-received television interview I added in introductory material to the original draft to reflect that.

In the aftermath of following the interview with an invitation for questions on Twitter, the Ambassador got drawn into the Kenyan controversy about the Chinese-Kenyan Amu Power coal plant proposed for the Lamu area on the Coast. My sense is that he seemed to respond to a Kenyan political and legal controversy as a politician would in asserting his own opinion and judgment based on his own experience and positions–an easy thing to do on Twitter–in a quite different way than a diplomat would normally react.

In the context of following this discussion, I did a bit of quick updating on the internet of the status of the coal mining industry in Sen. McCarter’s former State Senate district in Illinois. By coincidence I spent some time visiting in the area as a young lawyer back in the 1990s and knew that at that time there was a perception of economic strain associated with a decline in local mining employment. I after going through some history of mining, I found a recent article in a local newspaper about a young mayor of a town in the area responding to the economic circumstances by promoting solar energy in his immediate community. I shared the article with the Ambassador and a Kenyan leader on the citizen fight against corruption in the power generation and resale businesses in Kenya (as opposed to an anti-coal activist or someone otherwise involved in the Lamu case).

The Ambassador responded tartly that coal provided 95% of the power in his region in Illinois, he knew the mines and plants, and that coal was the cleanest and cheapest approach to needed power in the context of the highest environmental standards in the world. Further, he was not inclined to be persuaded by “well paid activists” and that “facts are stubborn things.”

This furthered an impression–hopefully not intended–that the Ambassador was weighing in on the Kenyan legal and policy controversy about the Chinese-Kenyan Amu Power deal.

The next day, the Kenyan court finally issued its ruling that the Amu permit for the Lamu plant had been improperly granted without a meaningful, legally adequate environmental review. From the outside, as a casual observer with a background in Kenyan policy making and the history of these large projects, along with awareness of the established record of corruption in the Kenyan power sector, this looked to me like a straightforward victory for the rule of law in Kenya. The sort of thing we say we want and that USAID and the State and Justice Departments and others have been spending our money on.

Likewise, this generated pushback form “Kenyans on Twitter” who felt patronized or insulted, as well as those who have a different view on “macro” issues relating to power generation and environmental issues than they interpreted the Ambassador to have Tweeted. As for me, I had just intended to share an interesting recent news article, without comment, and not to get under anyone’s skin, or debate the philosophy of coal economics in the global context.

Kenya Lama donkey and cannon on waterfront seawall on harbor

One thing is certain with active Twitter use: all of us who Tweet actively will “step in it” sometimes. The Ambassador well knows this because his ultimate voice vote confirmation in the Senate was held up for some months in apparent reaction to a few previous Tweets that generated push back and follow-up. The Ambassador is also representing the United States and has a professional communications staff of public servants to help him.

“Partnerdship”

Who says the State Department doesn’t have a sense of humor?

INSIDE THE BELTWAY

Open Government Partnerdship

WASHINGTON, DC, July 12 – The U.S. hosted the first high-level meeting of The Open Government Partnership (OGP), a new international initiative aimed at securing concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, increase civic participation and fight corruption. The OGP will also strive to harness new technologies to make government more open, effective, and accountable. A multi-stakeholder International Steering Committee for the OGP, co-chaired by the United States and Brazil, is comprised of government and civil society groups, representing countries from around the world, including Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. “…There is an undeniable connection between how a government operates and whether its people flourish,” Secretary Clinton said in remarks during the high-level meeting. “When a government invites its people to participate, when it is open as to how it makes decisions and allocates resources, when it administers justice equally and transparently, and when it takes a firm stance against corruption of all kinds, that government is, in the modern world, far more likely to succeed in designing and implementing effective policies and services. It is also more likely to harness the talents of its own people and to benefit from their ideas and experiences, and it is also more likely to succeed investing its resources where they are most likely to have the best return.”   Full Text» The Open Government Partnership»Conversations With America: Open Government Partnership»Spurring International Momentum for Open Government»OpenGovPartnership.org»

From the Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Public Liaison: Public Liaison, Intergovernmental Affairs and Regional Media Outreach, E-news, volume 5 – 2011, Issue 25, July 26, 2011

Watching Jon Stewart in Khartoum

“Sudan Protests spark 113 arrests and one death,”  Pambazuka covers the January 30 movement.

[Update:  Sudan Tribune story covering the protests and repression, and Human Rights Watch statement condemning excessive force.]

In many respects Khartoum was the most oppressive place I worked in or visited during my time in East Africa.  At the same time, it seemed vaguely surreal to turn on the television in my (Malaysian) hotel room and see Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in the fall of 2007.  This was definitely one of those “we are not in the Cold War any more, Toto” moments.  This is perhaps worth an essay I just don’t have time to write at the moment, but it certainly struck me that this was one reason that “public diplomacy” seemed dead–global communications had moved on.  On one hand I was cringing about what Stewart might say, and noting the difference between laughing at ourselves at home and others laughing at us; on the other, what greater symbol of America’s exceptional freedom than that you could still go on television in the midst of the war in Iraq and the “Global War on Terror” and the associated restrictions on civil liberties, and put down the government?

Around the corner on a wall was a poster from an African-American evangelist, part of the way to the Greek Orthodox church.  I was there to participate in a seminar to encourage the empowerment of Muslim women at a grassroots level, courtesy of the U.S. State Department through IRI. [Note:  “International Republican Institute”, not “Islamic Republic of Iran”]  I think it was a good program, led by my colleague who was an empowered Kenyan Muslim woman of Nubian ancestry.  We had representatives of various local groups from various places around the country (the North)–women, although perhaps a small majority of the local leaders were men who were interested in a more active role for women.

I almost got arrested once for taking an innocuous  picture of a sign on a building, and was rescued by a good Samaritan who intervened on my behalf.

I am sure that I learned a lot more than I taught, but I do think that as people in the new Sudan (the North) seek a better future, there will be some who will appreciate knowing that the American taxpayers were willing to take some note of and interest in them as citizens, as well as simply the grand geopolitical calculations.

U.S. Department of State, on FlickrSecretary Clinton Shakes Hands With Sudanese Foreign Minister Karti

“Secretary Clinton Shakes Hands With Sudanese Foreign Minister Ahmen Ali Karti”   Jan. 26, 2011