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Tone down tough talk to win overt diplomatic Ping-Pong

By | September 28th 2009

By G Odera-Outa

What impact could have been had the official response to the latest criticisms from the US Government been more measured, thoughtful, dignified, proverbial and simply apologetic. An apology tendered, even for sins undone, or unknown!

Imagine what sort of local and international ramifications we would scoop by merely stating the irrefutable fact, that the US Government’s views are, "welcome cautionary statements from a friendly country with whom we have dealings for years..."

Or simply, that Government would be moving "with alacrity and dispatch," (as they may wont to say in more classic diplospeak) "to ensure the process of reforms which has actually commenced in earnest, does not stall for any reason whatsoever".

I should perhaps stress on the ‘magic’ of the word "reforms" precisely because it is a positive "trigger word" in the current international business psyche. It is a word to summarise commitment to the raft of changes that can guarantee the inflow of scarce Foreign Direct Investment. It signals change towards what our own policy blueprint, Vision 2030 calls, "business unusual".

Kenya is, indeed, reforming and on-track in some very key areas: from investments in infrastructure, all the way to critical business licensing and other regulatory reforms; not to mention major public sector transformation efforts right down to our local authorities.

The historical circumstances have so forged the spirit of reform that I doubt any individual will be able to reverse the trend or gains made.

The major problems though, would be the uncalled for masochismo, or grandstanding and petty tribalism accompanied by outright recklessness in our responses just because someone has criticised us.

There is no need for officialdom to be always characterised by defiant, intransigent and often uncouth language in responding to foreign criticisms.

Indeed, if circumstances are such that an official response has to be issued immediately, then consider too, the disarming magnanimity of simply and unequivocally accepting the criticism!

Or stating the standard escape route: "The Government will move to establish the issues at stake and would respond at an appropriate time".

In today’s world even casual utterances by officials fly faster than the proverbial smoke and causing much undeserved damage in its wake.

It calls for deliberate soul-searching and change of the engagement strategy.

It is not a weakness to be civil in our reactions to the most stringent criticisms, because this way, we take the thunder away from the most fire-spitting critic and an explosive situation diffuses almost effortlessly.

A simple test would be to ask oneself: Is my language, my decorum and response in toto, befitting the status and dignity of my office and country; have I really thought about this response or I am merely being reactive, angry, defensive or just impervious to criticism?

It does not matter how intransigent a country pretends to be, and it does not matter the scale of crudity and theatrics that we engage in because people elsewhere know and understand our essential reality and limitations.

The real (bitter) truth for us though is that Kenya is still a struggling Third World nation; badly in need of all the goodwill it can muster.

We clearly do not serve any greater national interest through myopic, crude grandstanding when in fact we can deploy subtler and more civil forms of engagement — even with those we think are enemies.

The writer is an author and Communications Advisor at the Office of the Prime Minister.

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