‘Diplomacy is for everyone’


In deciding to give a title to this piece of thought, there was an internal debate between calling it ‘diplomacy is for everyone’ or ‘everyone is a diplomat’. While the former has been opted for, both capture the essence of the thoughts to follow. Perhaps each in a subtly different way; egalitarian versus practical or a practice not of high priests only but a common pursuit. Hopefully, these proposals will be clearer as the presentation unfolds and concludes.

Diplomacy should be understood as establishing and maintaining cordial and cooperative relations for self-interest. In such a context, communication, negotiation and relationships become key words. The communication is based on established rules and practices between different actors differentiated by national boundaries. Negotiations arise because interests are pursued peacefully. Relationships means that there is the existence of mutuality to the relations. Diplomacy then is no longer a field that is a preserve of the Malawi government as it is usually projected and commonly perceived.

The understanding of foreign relations for Malawi has to be undertaken from an emerging context that involves the state, parts of the government and non-government actors. It’s not a revolution occasioned by globalisation; it’s an evolution necessitated by changing times. Note here that the term used is non-government to cover all aspects of Malawi society that are not of and from government. Such a description then covers sports people, media, religious institutions and denominations as well as entrepreneurs amongst others. What is being advanced here is that the Malawi of today comprises of state diplomacy and other forms of diplomacy, covering everyone else part from those generically called state or government agents


The most easily recognisable mode of diplomacy, if not the traditional one, is that undertaken through the state. The word state is used to denote the enduring and broadly encompassing nature of this entity called Malawi. A state endures beyond a government; a government is a vehicle used to manage affairs of state. Malawi has bilateral relations with other nations through which state and official visits are conducted, diplomatic missions established and bilateral or multilateral instruments of cooperation entered into.

Malawi is also a signatory to and a member of various intergovernmental organisations such as Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc), African Union (AU), the Commonwealth and the United Nations (UN). The process of signing up to such bodies is taken at the highest executive level in the country. State diplomacy is generally the preserve of the Executive through the offices and personalities of the President, Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Further, state diplomacy is coordinated and managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Another point is that state diplomacy is high in protocol, ceremony and decorum assuming almost undertones of anachronisms, such as the use of old-English terms.

Beyond the state, foreign relations also involve all government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). This categorisation also includes Local Government structures namely district, city, municipal and town councils. The, Legislature and Judiciary are also part of this government definition. When MDAs are having contacts and exchanges with their foreign counterparts they are engaged in what can be called ‘government diplomacy. Others have called such outcomes sub-national, para- or constituent diplomacy. Instead of traditional diplomacy that is channelled through foreign ministries and embassies, trans-governmentalism refers to direct relation between government sub-units, operating on the basis of shared interests. While the role of state diplomacy is to conclude agreements that are binding amongst states, beyond that the implementation of such obligations rests with the various MDAs. In other words while the membership to an international governmental organisation (IGO) is at state level, hence the assertion that Malawi is a ‘member of’ or ‘signatory to’, the practice of such membership is undertaken through the various sub-units of government.


A myriad of examples present themselves to illustrate such government diplomacy. The Malawi Police Service takes part in various activities of Southern Africa Regional Police Commissioners Organisation (Sarpco), including meetings of heads of the institutions and inter-country sports events. The Malawi Defence Force periodically host foreign military study tours. Members of Mchinji district council undertake district consultations with their counterparts from Chipata in Zambia. Officials from the Ministry of Finance will travel to Washington to undertake negotiations with the Bretton Woods institutions and direct and frequent communication between these parties will precede or follow such meetings. The collaboration in research, teaching, learning and outreach between tertiary institutions from Malawi’s public universities and those from Africa and abroad results in an exchange of intellectual and academic capabilities defined in terms of countries of origin.

The Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) will engage in promotional visits to countries that are currently buying or have the potential to buy Malawi tobacco; when such activities yield results, the potential investors are managed in such a way that their interest on Malawi is locked. When the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) and Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) host international conferences on taxation or telecommunications, they are engaging in efforts to put Malawi on the map. The Malawi National Assembly is a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Union (CPU) and Pan-African Parliament (PAP). In fulfilling their membership obligations, members of parliament (MPs) interact with their colleagues from other countries on the basis of their identity as Malawian legislators.

The list of examples or instances is long enough to dwarf this part of the discussion. What is pertinent though is that through the above cited activities and processes, MDAs are playing their role in enhancing Malawi’s interests abroad as well as in terms of foreign relations. The MDAs are engaged in diplomatic manoeuvres that aims to complement and implement state diplomacy.

Non-state, non-government diplomacy

Non-government actors are all those aspects of Malawi society that are not of and from government, including civil society, sporting fraternity and profit making entities. Such actors play their role in the dynamics of Malawi’s interests vis-à-vis foreign entities through what could be termed as cultural, economic, citizen or individual diplomacy. Each of these is explained further in the following sections.

Ever since the Malawi national football team lost 12-0 to Ghana at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre, in front of an independence ceremony crowd in July 1964, the country has participated in a multitude of international sporting tournaments through various disciplines beyond football. While some moments have been triumphant, resulting in national successes in football, netball and golf, others have been miserable. This is beside the point. What is critical for this discussion is that the national teams have participated in these competitions hoisting the Malawi flag, wearing the country’s colours and singing the country’s national anthem.

Religious institutions or denominations are involved in exchanges with their sister or brother partners across Malawi borders. In 2015 the Catholic Church in Malawi through its Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) hosted a conference for the church’s bishops from central, east and southern African countries. Meanwhile the Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh from the USA has a relationship with CCAP Synod of Blantyre. At the same time many a Pentecostal leadership will invite others from foreign countries, and Malawian Pentecostal churches in turn have established branches or undertake missions in foreign countries. These religious institution or denominations beyond their spiritual commitments, aspire to make a difference in the international community of believers, a community that is based on state boundaries most significantly.

The private sector, defined as those profit oriented entities are also having their share in Malawian diplomacy. Primarily one would want to cite the activities of their umbrella body, the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI), which has relationships with similarly oriented bodies in the neighbourhood and beyond. Malawi owned and registered companies have invested abroad, such as NICO, or participate in international trade fairs and also enter into joint ventures with foreign owned businesses and firms. Such activities involve deployment of Malawian citizens abroad, repatriation of profits to Malawi and interactions across cross-cultural differences. The success of these strategies hinges no less significantly on the ability to manage communications with foreign entities. A key determinant in such processes is the Malawi identity that these private entities that underpins their outlook, strategies and even negotiation styles.

Malawi, like many liberal societies of today, has a robust civil society sector with entities whose origin is local such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), Church and Society, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU), to mention a few. The country also has a healthy media industry comprising print and electronic segments. The civil society structures are involved in activities that go beyond Malawi borders, such as forums involving fellow NGOs from other countries or participation in forums organised by such IGOs as UNHRC or International Labour Organisation (ILO). In their interactions with regional or global social movements, Malawi NGOs operate from a premise that they owe their origin to Malawi. While clamouring for a just world, these NGOs first and foremost have as their clients or interests, Malawian citizens. The improvement of Malawians of course can only be seen to be happening in the context of comparison with other countries.

The media in Malawi professes membership to such bodies as National Media Institute of Southern Africa (Namisa). The local chapter/affiliate to this body is Misa Malawi. This is meant to differentiate it from such other similar structures base in other countries of southern Africa. The local affiliate of Misa undertakes activities on the home front that must ultimately stand in comparison with those form other countries. A sense of patriotism no doubt imbues such efforts.

The diplomacy practiced by state or government machinery is the most obvious link to Malawi’s foreign policy objectives. These two sources are the easily recognisable implementers of Malawi’s foreign policy since they are held legitimately so and held accountable. But this does not mean that the other sectors do not contribute to the foreign policy. The media, civil society, cultural elements/religious institutions or denominations are all in their own way contributing to maintaining Malawi’s national interests. While the latter is a term that is complex and belies the hot debate around it, suffice to say that the national interests talks to all goals that are about Malawi’s wellbeing.

Concluding remarks

In essence diplomacy is normative behaviour that results in improved relations, balancing of interests, exchanges of information and ameliorating/mitigating conflicts. Such a mission is not best undertaken by the state and/or government machinery alone but by all who resides within and claim citizenship in the borders of the state. Diplomacy goes beyond the state (government) for instance because representatives of other countries in Malawi and international governmental organisations such as the UN or IMF and World Bank interact with the state and government officials, private and civil society leaders and other segments of Malawi society. Suh interactions involve exchange of ideas that are not only territorial in nature but will be handled by such sectors in order to benefit Malawi. Diplomacy is not merely defined by great events or great men but also by everyday purposeful actions by Malawians in their interactions and dealings with foreigners. Diplomacy is a social practice that does not owe its allegiance only to politics or bureaucracy in the strictest sense of these terms. Diplomacy, for all the intention and self-interest that others might hold, is a social practice that is not exclusive to Capita Hill or State House.

The author is a civil servant writing in his personal capacity

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