Reaching a wider audience (above: a cat listens to the live broadcast of the BBC Today Programme on Radio 4 at the British base in Basra Palace, 2006)

Friday, 8 May 2009

Citizen Diplomacy

It is clear to me that since I left the Diplomatic Service, not only do I still represent my country, but that I can sometimes do it better. Similar to the way that community journalists (bloggers) are often more trusted than traditional print media (which is plagued by “agenda”) an individual has credibility. An individual is independent, not in the pay of the state, and the way they represent their country may be more subtle and more giving – they may be involved in sport, business, or culture for example. As a social entrepreneur, an artist and a writer I have been able to engage with people at a more genuine level. Using my trip to Afghanistan last year as an example, I was finding out more about Afghanistan than I would have been able to from behind the closed doors of an Embassy and I was listened to far more than if I had been an official. And yet I never lost my British-ness, nor pretended to.

Last week Twitter lead me to discover the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy who say “Citizen Diplomacy is the concept that the individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations, “one handshake at a time.” Citizen diplomats can be students, teachers, athletes, artists, business people, humanitarians, adventurers or tourists. They are motivated by a responsibility to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue”.

I am not sure about having the “right” to help shape foreign relations, but the responsibility is there for sure. Yesterday I visited a local school in rural Hertfordshire, to talk about my experiences as a British Diplomat. As a result of talking to the US Center, I changed it a little and had great fun talking with a bunch of 10 year olds about how they felt about the countries they had visited, how they could represent Britain (and why it was important), and what people other than Diplomats represented their countries. Some insightful quotes:

“When I saw people hitting their children in one country I went to, I thought that they must not be very nice people”

“It is best not to get drunk too much when you are in another country or people will think British people are all silly”

“If people came to our village they would think we were very friendly – unless they met the teenagers!”

“People who fly planes and work at airports are like Ambassadors really”

This week, I am going to explore what the British government are doing about Citizen Diplomacy. I know they have a programme which promotes British Islam abroad. They have specific reasons for this, but I don’t think it is going nearly far enough to promote this diverse, multicultural, smart nation to which I belong. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Muslim First, British Second

This was the title of BBC Panorama show on 16 February 2008. However the show did not present any real new discussion on the issue of identity for Britain’s approximately two million Muslims. What it did do is shine a spotlight on a slim minority. I shouldn’t be surprised, when I met the presenter, Richard Watson at The Frontline Club a couple of months ago he seemed bent on uncovering all that is bad about Islam – he presented a truly tabloid take guaranteed to marginalise. When I told him that the images he painted did not look like an Islam I recognised or had experienced (having lived in Muslim countries) he scoffed that I perhaps had not seen the dark side of Islam in Britain. I have lived in Iraq, Richard. I have seen plenty of dark sides – but I have seen equal amounts (more in fact) of good – it just doesn’t sell stories. Investigative journalism and uncovering truth is a vital element of any free media , but in the name of balanced journalism (another ethic I believe in) can Panorama please show both sides of the story?

My experience of Islam is that it one of the more peaceful religions – so let the media a) take religion out of the extremist debate - it is not useful to continually link Islam to extremism (this plays right into the hands of Al Qaeda branding). As I have written before (see the X Factor) – extremism is a human condition found in many parts of society and not always fuelled by religion. And/or b) pay proportionate attention to all that is good about Islam.

I don’t even know where to begin on Richard’s insistence on asking every Muslim cleric he comes across their views on homosexuality. Is there evidence to suggest that those intolerant of homosexuals turn to terror? I could find you handfuls of Christians and Hindus who reject homosexuality and know that homosexuality is categorically forbidden in the Torah. So how is this useful?

The fact is that the terrorist threat in Britain was actually reduced last month is also a significant point missed. I challenge the BBC to commission me to cover this story. And I ask The Panorama producers the same question that Richard asked A.R. Green in the show “Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?”

Not for the first time I feel a need to inspire the media to take some responsibility and to take a fair and balanced approach.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Obama, Galtung and Bigger Picture Diplomacy

On 20 January 2008 I found myself dashing to a business meeting somewhere near the Marylebone Road in Central London. Tourists, newspaper salesmen and smokers jostled me as I paused to look at the time outside Baker Street Tube station. It was nearly five o'clock and I realised if I didn't get to a TV screen pretty soon I would miss the big event. I lunged across the street avoiding honking cars, black cabs and big red buses and dived into a bar. The Globe was full of quietly muttering patrons and a screen which hung above them showed a rather regal looking Barack Obama gracing the steps of the White House some three and a half thousand miles away. After a text message or two and some buying of wine, the meeting was reconvened and instead of talking business we raised a toast to the man who has provided hope to millions and changed the public perception of America almost overnight. Even the most stiff-upper-lipped Brits in the crowd clapped and cheered at the astonishing transformation in America's politics.

I barely had time to dry my eyes before we rushed off across town to the Palace of Westminster to listen to the words of another eminent speaker; Johan Galtung was talking at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conflict Issues and Obama had made us disrespectfully late.

In the field I work in, Galtung is a legend. The 78 year old Norwegian socialist is the grandfather of peace studies and has mediated in over 40 conflicts around the world. He has been a peace activist most of his life – in his teens he was sent to prison for insisting that he be engaged in peace making activities rather than serving in the military. As a former diplomat I was interested in Galtung’s take on diplomacy, but a little disappointed by his view on the effectiveness of diplomats, "a diplomat has as his priority the promotion of his national interests", he snapped, revealing perhaps the depths of his unfortunate experiences with diplomatic activity (or lack of it) over the years. Well, I mused, of course promotion of national interests is one of the functions of a diplomat, but using Galtung's own Transcend method (where everyone feels like a winner when a conflict is resolved) it is quite clear to me that the forward thinking diplomats of today understand that a nation’s interests are often best served by looking at the bigger picture. The new slogan of the British Foreign Office is "Better world, Better Britain" – the order of which demonstrates the logical priority. Whether it is applied in practice and whether diplomats of countries like Britain are the ones to deliver world peace is another thing, but the underlying ethos is there. I did agree with Galtung when he said we were getting into a world where "the old nation diplomats have less and less importance.” But, so long as we are all facing in the right direction, we can each play our part.

Although shamefully tipsy and tardy, I am not too annoyed with myself for missing the beginning of Galtung to witness the beginning of a new president. I like to think that Obama is not simply about rhetoric and that as one of the most powerful men in the world he will make a difference, not just in his own homeland. Outlawing torture, and closing the Guantánamo detention facility is a huge signal to those inside and outside of America. In December last year Obama vowed to renew American diplomacy - speaking at the national-security news conference in Chicago he talked of "the fundamental reality that in the 21st century, our destiny is shared with the world" – a clear challenge to Galtung's perhaps tarnished view. So, I raise my glass in the hope that new leaders and old wisdom can come together to realise that bigger picture diplomacy serves everyone's interests.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Can Media really help Stop War?

I run an organisation which uses media, communication and the arts to support conflict resolution and counter extremism. It’s called imediate.

A friend asked me what the hell does that mean? How can newspapers stop war? How can a painting stop a fight? What does “communications” actually mean? She went further and said it was like swatting a F-15 fighter jet with a badminton racket.

I think I have worked in this specialised field far too long, I thought it was obvious, when of course it’s not. The fact that I believe in this is simply not enough. So, instead of disappearing further up my own behind with academic theories, I thought I would provide a few examples – I hope with a touch of realism. I understand that communications is only part of a broader effort:
  • Life saving public information - e.g. Land Mine Awareness Education
  • Countering extreme ideas - e.g. Broadcasting a debate addressing extreme ideas
  • Giving a voice to the peaceful - e.g. an anonymous radio phone in
  • Giving examples of how peace can work - e.g. a photo exhibition of inspiring images of succesfully brokered peace
  • Broadening horizons - e.g. soap operas that break down barriers with identifyable characters
  • Demonstrating alternatives to violence - e.g. newspaper coverage of peace talks
  • Breaking down prejudice - e.g. cross cultural song and dance groups
  • Shining a spotlight on atrocities (in a balanced way that doesn’t glamorise the perpetrators nor allow them to fuel hatred) - e.g. TV reports exposing war crimes
  • Shining a spotlight on how outbreaks of peace are benefitting people - e.g. TV reports exposing peace initiatives
  • Allowing people to air grievances (so that they can be responded to) - e.g. entertaining public road shows that also enourage debate
  • Engaging people in creative rather than destructive pursuits - e.g. a video installation that shows how destructive war can be on a personal and human level
  • Countering the rumour mill - e.g. health awareness poster and leaflet campaigns that rebut untruths
  • Offering other identities to terrorists - e.g. community outreach work that explores and promotes other productive interests
  • Allowing the peaceful masses to do the peacebuilding - e.g. providing platforms for natural peaceful leaders to emerge
  • Helping communities to take part in their own development - e.g. inviting the population to send in pictures taken on their mobile phones.
A few more:

Providing credible alternatives (if they exist – communications can’t do everything)

Talking to people in hard to reach places

Providing platforms for exchange off the battlefield

Reaching a wide audience

Showcasing the peaceful masses

Other things to remember
  • Pictures speak louder than words
  • The spoken word reaches more than the written word
  • Often the most credible voices come from the community not from leader
  • If used negatively the media, communications and the arts can fuel violence, war and terrorism
I am working on a book which will offer real life case studies that back up this theory. And it will be written by some real life people who have seen conflict from the frontline! Watch this space for for examples of how this works - even to stop a fighter jet dead in its tracks.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Social Enterprise Day

Today is Social Enterprise Day - a fitting day to...well...announce the establishment of a new social enterprise.
imediate launches in the new year - but a sneak preview can be found on This is Media for Peace.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The X Factor

Exhausted after several days of polite handshakes and “terribly important” high level conferencing, I decided not to cook breakfast last Saturday. Instead I slunk off to my nearest greasy spoon for a fry up. OK, it was Sainsbury’s cafe, but that’s as near as us middle classes get to slumming it these days. The contrast to the silver spoons of the previous few days was somehow comforting, and whilst I didn’t quite have a plastic knife and fork, I was delighted to see that the previous inhabitant of my ketchup smeared table had kindly left The Daily Star for me to read.

And there is was writ large “Muslim Plot to Blow up Eastenders”. Within moments I was back in the groove and I fear I raised a few eyebrows, as I all but launched a fatwa against the said newspaper. In moments The Daily Star had turned me into an extremist. But with a difference, I vent the feeling of injustice with words not with physical might. One reader had texted in “Are these Muslims thick?" and the paper in their wisdom printed it. Closeted in my safe world of The Guardian, I had no idea this ugliness went on – I felt ashamed that I was unaware of it and mentally wrote a note of apology to my Muslim friends who I had in the past written off as paranoid.

So here is the main point (I got distracted by describing my breakfast, sorry) - I didn’t need a three day conference on extremism to tell me that Islam is not the problem. My definition of extremism (which doesn’t include the kind of sporting pursuits my brother engages in) is someone who is willing to act in violence, not out of spontaneous anger, but because of a deeply held belief. And this X Factor lurks within many societies including our own. Tamil Tigers are doing it, Basque terrorists are doing it, British football hooligans are doing it. And well, yes it could even be argued that our troops are doing it (flashback to Baghdad Air Station 2006 when I overheard a young American soldier from the projects saying “we are going to kick some Iraqi ass”). My grandmother was a child when Britain’s radical youth lied about their age to bear arms against the German infidel in the First World War. Although they were child soldiers, we still consider this a noble act today. Before we begin to analyse why people are lead to violent extremism, we must accept that the X Factor is an inherent and potential part in EVERY society. This is nothing to do with Islam – Muslims don’t hold the monopoly on extremism.

It is also clear to me that if we continue to Islamise extremism, terrorism, and radicals (hell, I was pretty radical in my youth) we are playing right into the hands of the small group of murderers (and I mean small – some estimate Al Qaeda as being less than 500 strong). These bad guys need a narrative, they need a single ideology to sell to their followers. The west versus Islam is a neat strap line – but it is THERES and should never be used by anyone with even a vague vested interest in opposing terrorism. I used to work in advertising (you see, I said I was radical) and I have to say that it is would be extraordinary to see your main competitor defining your own brand for you.

Saying that “Muslims” are plotting to murder Britain’s favourite soap stars is like saying “football fans” are planning on slaying Sheffield Wednesday supporters in a cup final. It makes no sense (no, not the bit about Wednesday being in the cup final, silly). If this confusing line were taken, it would surely lead to a sense of persecution, exclusion and “they just don’t understand us”.

OK, it’s a strange analogy. But if only one Daily Star reader (or god help us an editor) gets it, there might be a glimmer of hope – a chance for me to enjoy a greasy fried breakfast with my family without me launching into an embarrassing rant in Sainsbury’s.

Celebrity Guide to Doing Good in the World

You may have heard me bang on about how celebrities who take on causes, don’t necessarily help those causes. Respect to Clooney who seems to be using his skills to record short promos for the UN, and hasn’t finger wagged Al-Bashir on Darfur lately (and I understand he has offered General Agwai a helicopter). But rather than analyse the effectiveness of Jude Law‘s recent mission in Afghanistan (Jude who? Many an Afghan is heard to mutter), I thought it would be helpful if I could pen a rough guide for those celebrities who have come to a point in their careers where they feel they want to give something back. Or maybe you have been asked to back a charitable winner (or a looser) and are weighing up your options. First see where you fit on the Do-good-o-meter?

My career is waning and my image needs improving

I’m bored
I am taking a break from my usual work

I can “raise awareness” of a cause (and let everyone know how nice I am)
I’m nice, of course I will help

I support a cause and want to take time out to help, I don’t really care what people think of me

I want to quit work for a while and do something with more meaning

I am passionate about this issue – I really want to use all my skills and experience to make positive change as effectively as possible

The rest of this article is really only aimed at those on the indigo end of the rainbow. Well done, you are coming from the right place. Chances are you have incredible ability to influence and be a top class ambassador for your cause and dare I say it - a public diplomat. So, a rough guide:

1. If you scored indigo you will already have a passion for your cause. You could want global nuclear disarmament, or better research for a particular disease which took away someone close to you. Maybe you are moved by the plight of the gorilla, or the people of a warring nation? The first thing to do is research. Go there. Meet the sufferers and those working with them. Don’t just talk to NGOs, talk to Governments, broad civil society, academia, the commercial world – get all views.

2. Next draw conclusions about what might help. For example the best way to save the gorilla might be to combat poverty and tribal warfare in the region – and not by “raising awareness” by printing a load of Save the Gorilla T-Shirts. Invite others to help you draw conclusions and get to the root of the issue.

3. Have a strategy. Get professional help with this (a-hem, I would say that) – it will help you hone into what you can realistically hope for, how you could achieve it and in what time scale. It will also help you explore who you should be lobbying and how to measure if your plans are working.

4. Co-ordinate. Is there anyone already tackling this, that you could support? Don’t reinvent a wheel in vanity, someone might already be doing some great work, and could just need a hand.

5. Think about what you are good at (and what you are bad at). Are you a writer, actor, or ice skater? Use your skills and make it relevant. I’m thinking Jamie Olivers school dinners campaign more relevant than Joanna Lumley championing the Gurkhas right to live in Britain (ok, she did well and there was a family history with them). But you get it – make it relevant and your involvement credible.

6. Finally think grass roots. Take your skills and the problem to the sufferers and ask them what you should do and what they think would work. Chances are they will now best. A top down approach is patronizing. OK – unless they are gorillas, silly. But you know what I mean. Talk to the family and friends of the…erm…gorillas.

So, just a few simple words of wisdom, perhaps better suited to my nomadic-wisdom blog, but not altogether uncomfortable on this public-diplomacy page. I look forward to hearing about your successes, so I can highlight them rather than banging on about the wrong approach! Even you, Jude.

The idea for this article was shamelessly pilfered from my bright boyfriend. Thanks hun.

BBC blogger on celebrity charity work

Me banging on about celebrity backers

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Being a Public Diplomat - Top 10 Tips

Given the amount of money that allegedly gets spent on government spin (not to mention election campaigns), it amazes me how those in the very business of influence – the diplomats – often have such limited resources for communication.

Being a diplomat these days is not about seating the Spanish Ambassador next to an ally at a dinner party, nor about handshaked trade or political deals behind closed doors - the majority of diplomatic activity has a public and often highly critical media spotlight shone on it. Diplomats should be considering how they are perceived more than ever, not just by official counter parts and heads of state, but, as a new form of democracy takes grip, somewhat driven by access to new media, the public are rapidly becoming main influencers.

In the absence of this resource, below are my top 10 tips for being a good public diplomat. If you follow this guide you will increase your credibility and make your job easier.

1. Understand the country you are in. Spend some time (the longer the better) before you begin your official assignment. Back pack around. Use public transport. Travel alone if you can – you will meet far more people this way. Stay in hostels and family run hotels. Act like a researcher or journalist – ask questions all the time and take notes. Read fiction written by good local writers. And most important – find out about what your hosts think of the country you come from.

2. Learn the language. If time is a factor, at least learn a few niceties. And smile throughout even your most awkward attempts.

3. Roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. Walk the walk. Don’t patronise “the community” with a drop in visit – stay for tea. Sleep in the refugee camp. Share a local meal. Paint a wall. Clean out a toilet. Not just for the photo – actually do it. Spend time.

4. Talk to the media. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Be on the front foot – see every interaction as an opportunity. Write Op Eds and articles and suggest ideas. Remember there is no such thing as saying nothing in communication – lack of media engagement can give the impression that you don’t care or you are hiding something. Blog. Not on an official site – that is nuts – it will only be read by the converted and by very bored journalists. Blog on a personal site about personal experience. About your tummy bugs, about your doubts and feelings.

5. Think locally. Don’t just respond to the international media. Spend more time with local and regional media and develop a relationship. Internationals get much of their info from local stringers anyway.

6. Be yourself. If you like cricket, play cricket, talk about it. If you like to paint pictures, join local art groups. If you like to dance or play a musical instrument, do it. Use your natural abilities and loves to your best advantage. Be genuine.

7. Think about how you present yourself. Judged on 7% of what you say, 38% on how you say it, but 55% on how you look - this is important. You may have a brain the size of Mars, but sadly your haircut may leave more of an impression. In many countries the public can feel intimidated and alienated by formal dress – so dress casually wherever possible – and always respect the cultural dress code of the country you are in (without being patronising). Note: You may think it your “right” to wear a mini skirt and not be judged by it – don’t be on a crusade to push your personal values unless it is an objective of the mission – be respectful and be respected. (In the picture above, one blogger commented that the Lord Mayor of London looked like an "unmade bed" at the Beijing Olympics).

8. Everyone in the mission is an Ambassador for your country. One of the most influential public diplomats will be your receptionist or your visa section staff. Think how anyone travelling out of their home country is judged as representative. Not every Japanese person is into photography nor every Brit a football hooligan.

9. Have a strategy (as a Communications Strategist I would say that). But really, have one. Don’t focus on activity (although it will lure you in) before you know exactly how this fits in with your overall plan. For example, if your overall plan is to increase trade between countries and lobby for human rights – ensure that your communications strategy reflects this – don’t leap into publicity that doesn’t have this at its heart.

10. And don’t dream beyond your budget.

Above: Chinese Embassy staff in Greece

I can hear the smirking of non diplomats among you who may be surprised to learn that there are very few grandmothers sucking eggs around here – so much of the above is simply not done. Believe it or not there are Embassies in the world where not a single member of staff speaks the local tongue (I am diplomatically not naming names ). I would love to hear from governments who train their diplomats not simply in policy, economics, security or specific press officer expertise - but those who show every member of staff who represents them overseas how to present themselves as a public diplomat.

Coming soon! The Celebrity guide to Doing Good in the World.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Arm Yourself with Books

“You want weapons? We're in a library. Books. Best weapons in the world. This room is the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”

I have spent the past week finding out about the media in Afghanistan. I embarked each morning once the suicide hour had passed (by 10am they have either detonated, been caught, or chickened out - allegedly), climbed aboard a deliberately dusty (low profile) Toyota and bumped around the pot holed streets of Kabul visiting various media organisations, until night fall drove me back to my lodge where I gathered thoughts, compared stories and grilled everyone I could lay my hands on about what radio stations they listen to.

On my return, I feel as if I have travelled back (forward?) in time to the reality of the British school holidays, my adrenaline rushes fuelled by breaking up squabbling kids rather than unfounded fears for my safety. I don’t have to look far to see three examples of modern media consumers. My teenage daughter texts and instant messages far more than she speaks and my to sons pour through piles of DVDs, TV channels and YouTube clips of people falling off bicycles in search of entertainment. And (I impress myself here) we even scuttled off to the village library yesterday (open once a week in the old school house) where the kids begged to borrow and the lady who worked there gave my residency in the village the benefit of her doubt. My daughter has been glued to a Louise Rennison “knicker novel” since.

You might think a depressing contrast to last weeks assessments, however despite the lack of media law in Afghanistan, I was struck by the advent of hundreds of radio and TV stations – many of them self funding and commercial (importantly NOT reliant on external money). We picked up a mobile phone for peanuts (with a clever registration system designed to catch out kidnappers) and market stalls were loaded with DVDs for sale (I was told you could buy Ross Kemp for under a dollar – I assume they meant his series filmed in Helmand rather than the man himself). I was also impressed with the sheer numbers of newspapers and magazines bursting onto the scene. One outlet told me that even down south in traditional Pashto areas, women’s magazines were popular. The guest house I was staying in provided more than one English Language newspaper neatly tucked under my pot of green tea every morning with breakfast. Although broadcast media and developments like SMS technology are impressive, it is this return of the written word which moves me most.

A few summers ago, I read about Sultan Khan’s attempts to salvage Afghanistan’s history and literature by secretly buying and selling books in Seiierstad’s novel, The Bookseller of Kabul. Khan risked his life for his passion, but the tragedy is that so much did not survive. As Hamida Ghafour describes in her heart rendering account in the Sleeping Buddha as she searches for evidence of the written words of her late grandmother, “books that survived the communist purges, were looted by the Mujahideen and what was left was burned by the Taleban”.

So to meet, as I did this week, a former Mujahideen commander who had fulfilled his life long dream of opening a public library is hope that there might be a lasting wind change. As a result of recent history, books are at least on the surface treasured by all. The very idea that our second-hand shops and car boot sales in Britain are overflowing with paperbacks would be met with bafflement in Afghanistan, even amongst the illiterate.

Whilst Thomas Carlyle may have said, “the greatest University of all is a collection of books”, there is a more sinister use for the written word than pure learning. In a chilling twist, I learned this week that the insurgents (amongst them foreign Taleban, old school Talibs, and War Lords, but not exclusively so) are using the pen along with their swords of might and have launched in recent months a sophisticated press operation capable of out-spinning both the Government of Afghanistan and the international community put together. Along with a state of the art website, they issue up to ten press statements a day in Dari, Pashto and English, this compares dramatically with NATOs habit of English-only releases and the Governments recorded inability and reluctance to interact with Afghan journalists. I have to wonder – what else have they got planned?

The quotation at the start of this article came not from a War Lord, but from a battle weary Time Lord. My children have been momentarily pacified by Doctor Who, and the squabbles have been abated – but his words send a chill through me and in a poignant moment I wonder whether the Government of Afghanistan and her allies are prepared for this battle. Arm yourself indeed.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Britains Whispered Policy on Zimbabwe

I awoke this morning to the news that the Security Council has vetoed sanctions in Zimbabwe (yes, I had fallen asleep with my laptop in bed with me again). The British representative said the UN had “failed the people of Zimbabwe”

Recently in Blogcatalogue discussion boards (and in plenty of other places) Britain has been getting a slating for its lack of action (and lack of clear stance) on Zimbabwe. I for one argue that Britain is really not the right person to be making any decisions for Zim (a bit like America not really being the right people to be brokering peace in the middle east). However that doesn’t mean we should keep quiet.

Stripping Mugabe of his knighthood was a pathetic attempt to chastise a man not just capable of rigging elections, but of rigging the state run lottery in his favour (perhaps greater media focus on this would appeal to the sense of fair play of the lottery playing public around the world). Given “Robert Mugabe uses the strident criticism coming from Britain to portray this as the old colonial power trying to brow beat Zimbabwe” (Dermot Murnaghan, Sky News), I expect Mugabe was delighted at the news of his loss of status in Britain – it would have played right into his hands. And the very fact that he is able to travel to Rome to a Conference on the world food crisis makes a mockery of our dithering debate about allowing the Zimbabwe cricket team into Britain. This is British public diplomacy at its worst.

Funny that the Foreign Office website claims it is a “modern and effective Foreign & Commonwealth Office that is clear about its role and focuses its effort where it can make the greatest difference” – I gave up after half an hour trying to find a clear articulation of the UKs policy on Zimbabwe. I found a statement from Gordon Brown which included “The whole international community must speak up against the climate of fear in Zimbabwe……We, and others, stand ready to help rebuild Zimbabwe once democracy returns. I pledge that Britain will be in the vanguard of this effort” Is THAT the policy? That everyone should speak up and then we will help once change happens? I then found some bloggers on the FCO website . Surely the FCO should realise that to use itself as a platform will immediately loose the Harare bloggers their credibility? Blogging is about independent thought – anyone who stumbles upon this will sniff the spin from a mile away. (personal bug bear sorry - the best Milliband could do would be to offer some off the cuff comment on other bloggers sites). There was more about the registration of British Nationals in Zimbabwe and travel advice than about UK policy.

Fact is, Britain spends about 30 million quid on Zimbabwe each year. It is spent on tackling HIV and AIDS and reducing food insecurity. According to Department for International Development website it is also spent supporting orphans and vulnerable children to help keep them in school and protect them from abuse. I want to know more about this. I KNOW it is not British. I KNOW DFiD would NEVER engage in Public Diplomacy, but come on, let’s take some credit where it is due and hear about exactly what we ARE doing in Zimbabwe.

If you believe Michael Holman the situation in Zimbabwe is all Britain’s fault. I beg to differ, 15 years ago I spent some time hitchhiking across Zimbabwe (through the unfortunately named Wankee Game park) and living in the township of Chinotemba (Victoria Falls) and I got to know the people and the country. I go with Robert Guests belief that this is the fault of one man. Mr Robert Mugabe (formerly Sir). The people of Zimbabwe I met were a friendly and hospitable bunch. As Guest writes in his book The Shackled Continent “They should be rich. There is plenty of land in Zimbabwe, much of it ideal for raising cattle or growing wheat, maize and tobacco. Under the ground lies reefs of gold, platinum and other precious ores. The country has a modern banking sector, skilled manufacturers and adequate roads”. It is Mugabe that has stripped his country of hope, it was his ZANU-PF that said Zimbabwe would “be better off with only six million people…we don’t want all these extra people”. (The population is 12 million).

Britain should rebut more. When she is accused of apathy over Zimbabwe she should point to not just the money spent but what this money has bought. When Britain is blamed by the likes of Holman she should articulate a response. Europe is often blamed for Africa’s ills. Again I quote Guest:

Another popular culprit for Africa’s ills is history. Many African’s argue that the current problems spring largely from the traumas that Europeans visited on Africa such as slavery. We must not forget that slavery was not introduced to Africa by Europeans – Arab slavers arrived earlier that the Portuguese, French and the British and Africans were enslaving each other long before the Arabs played their part. And although both Governments deny it slavery still exists in Sudan and Mauritania today.

So when David Miliband said on Sky recently “I think the truth is we've all got to up our game” – I think it is just too weak. If Britain’s stance is to keep their policies to a whisper, they should be aware that saying nothing or saying something quietly actually speaks volumes. There is no such thing as not communicating. And at the moment the message is loud and clear –
“erm….we are not quite sure what to do about this, nor what our role is in all this”.