Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs heading towards full-fledged digital diplomacy / Benyam Ephrem

Benyam Ephrem, Public Diplomacy Officer, Ethiopia MFA

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, very conscious of the fast-changing dynamics of the domestic and international situation, has mainstreamed domestic outreach as a diplomatic route to make the public aware of Ethiopia’s full spectrum of diplomatic operations and activities abroad.

Fully aware of the difficulties in dealing with the way the domestic environment understands the outside world and its workings, the section working on this project aimed to narrow the knowledge, institutional and cultural gaps between the government and public perception over the role and function of diplomacy in the 21st century. Their work successfully provided a method to allow all sections of the domestic public to understand diplomacy and mainstream public diplomacy as a new way to access knowledge, through networking and engagement. It also offered a clear demonstration that public diplomacy was able to create common ground, trust and legitimacy between the government and the public as a real element in expanding the workings of the country’s interaction with the outside world.

The 2015 and 2016 Digital Diplomacy Review which ranked Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs 3rd from Africa in its use of the cyberspace as an instrument of diplomacy, defined Public Diplomacy’s PD’s sub-department, ‘digital diplomacy’, as a means to “understanding disruption.” In an era of disruptive innovation, it said, “rapid technological change, ubiquitous connectivity, big data, machine learning, algorithmic governance and digital literacy; diplomats, leaders and ministries started adopting what the digital zeitgeist necessitates: transformation. In the process of digital transformation, some political leaders and MFAs which are early adapters, geeks and quick learners seem to lead the way.” It noted that even classical IR concepts such as multi-lateral recognition and negotiation were now shaped by new forms of diplomatic tools: hashtags, emojis, likes, RTs, pins, vines, snaps etc.

When Ethiopia hosted the first ever Munich Security Conference Core Group Meeting, what exercised minds at several of the Roundtables sessions were such issues as: “Cyber Security: More Connected, Less Secure? Protecting Africa’s Digital Transformation.

It is hardly surprising that the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is becoming increasingly conscious about the necessity to expand its interest in cyber-space. Through the major departments/ directorates engaged with cyber-tech, Foreign Media and Digital Diplomacy, new perceptions are emerging. The Foreign Media Directorate was the only digitally active department (as a directorate) in the Ministry until 2015, when the Ministry endorsed a proposal prepared by the Public Diplomacy Directorate General to establish a specific Digital Diplomacy Directorate to further widen and deepen the digital activities of the Ministry.

The Public Diplomacy D-G based this on a comprehensive review of the experience of the Ministry’s diplomatic work together with extensive consideration of the future trajectory of the terms of conversation in the realm of IRs. It detailed a system, structure and culture, opening the way for digital diplomacy to craft an all-embracing approach and an all-encompassing identity for Ethiopia in its entirety. The novelty of this was to offer the temporal and spatial brand of the country on a digital canvass and deliver a branded space within the rubric of both the Ethiopian and African Renaissance. It also provided the basis for responding to the fast-changing virtual world.

In 2016 the Ministry along with its newly established “Digital Diplomacy Directorate” showed significant additional moves to intensify its digital activities. These included:

  1. Expanding social media presence, from a few thousand to nearly one hundred thousand followers on twitter and a five-fold increase of followers on Facebook.
  2. Diversifying digital assets from the mainstream Facebook and Twitter to other assets such as Google+, LinkedIn, and -Instagram as well as others.
  3. Launching a new website with new and improved features (security, accessibility, graphics, synchronization, up-to-datedness, etc). The new website added flexibility and connectivity to the web by synchronizing the social media tools (twitter and facebook) on its interface. The number of readers of the daily news, the weekly articles of “A Week in the Horn”, the announcements and profiles of Ethiopian Embassies abroad now exceed many of major media outlets in the country. The website is an ongoing project which aims to bring about synchronized two-way communication between the Ministry and its public. This could, in turn, serve as a means through which responsive social media outreach and campaigning strategies can be designed to effectively embrace the reactions and the responses of the public.

These synchronized digital activities of the Ministry played a major role in assisting the country’s successful campaign to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in 2016.

  1. Proliferating the use of what Daryl Copeland called “transnationalizable stories”: the Ministry used these stories for 2016 – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; Ethiopian culinary art; Ethio-Djibouti Railway (thefirst fully electrified cross-border railway line in Africa); Gilgel Gibe III- Africa’s tallest hydro-electric dam which will double the county’s energy capacity; the ascription of Gada by the UNESCO as an intangible World Heritage (Gada is a traditional system of governance used by the Oromo people in Ethiopia developed from knowledge gained by community experience over generations); the new brand of Ethiopia’s tourism;, etc. All unique stories with clear shape and direction with an element that is based on shared perception among the various segments of the public.
  1. As Tom Fletcher in his Naked Diplomacy noted: “Diplomacy is easy when the rules are clear, when nations are all playing on the same chess board. It is hard- when the rules of the game are in flux, when rival sources of power think diplomacy doesn’t matter, when tyrants, terrorists, pirates and persecutors are setting the agenda.” 2016 was a year where some negative elements were developing attempts to encourage destabilizing elements in the country. The killing and kidnapping of hundreds of Ethiopian civilians by gunmen from South Sudan, the unrest in some parts of Oromia and Amhara Regional States, the El-Nino induced drought, were fertile grounds for those elements to create disruption and deception, paint the government as inept and incompetent, or worse. In being digitally accessible, the Ministry’s Public Diplomacy and Digital Diplomacy directorates were able to create an environment of answerability and accountability, providing explanations to the public and to the foreign diplomatic community in Addis Ababa and to the outside world of the raison d’être for the declaration of the State of Emergency, and for the positive results that followed. They were able to let tourists see the true face of the country, providing trustworthy and accurate information and news, producing articles across all the digital assets of the ministry. This played a major role in countering the attempted disruption and efforts to spread misinformation.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go so as to exploit the “digital zietgiest” fully and effectively. The Ministry is currently working on enhancing its digital activities, focusing on improved accessibility, content crafting, presence, engagement, opinion building, image creation and image building as well as framing. Ethiopia can re-inscribe its civilization in its national future given the country is a site of a millennial knowledge, history, heritage, art, culture, traditions, meanings, and creativity. Worded differently, Ethiopia being a reservoir of a varied range of soft power resources can score high and join the super brands in the shortest possible time. Towards the realization of this goal, organic diplomats are needed to be deployed. These diplomats can imagine and think the national future and work for the realization weaving the fabric of soft power resources and delivering the digital personality of the country in the realm of digital-centric world.

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