‘Malawi must pursue economic diplomacy’


The  foreign policy espouses a shift of emphasis from ‘traditional diplomacy’ to ‘development diplomacy.’ In this respect, in addition to promoting good political relations with other countries and promoting a good image of the country internationally, the emphasis shall be on the promotion of foreign direct investment, trade tourism and foreign aid to Malawi (Malawi Government: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, 2010)

Two major stories appeared in the papers in the last few months. One referred to the impending recall of over 50 diplomats and the second was about the diplomatic ties with North Korea. The newspaper articles led me to seriously interrogate the concept of economic diplomacy in relation to Malawi at the time when there is a general conclusion that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is irrelevant to argue whether we are the world’s poorest or the 10th poorest. The point has been made and the evidence is there to see that the country is poor. I do not want to get into the trivial argument of whether it is the country or the people that are poor. The main issue is that the people, who are the subjects and the inhabitants of the country called Malawi, are poor.

Since the dawn of multiparty democracy, diplomatic appointments have been based on internal factors and not external relations. In fact, the appointment of Ambassadors, High Commissioners and other diplomatic staff have been far from meeting the objective of the Foreign Policy of Malawi quoted above. The practice has been such that diplomatic appointments are meant to appease party zealots who lost elections, reward sons and daughters of politicians of the ruling party and sometimes even used to silence the opposition by appointing them to these posts. This country has not paid a great deal of attention to economic diplomacy while economic diplomacy has been increasingly important in terms of diplomacy for many countries.


Throughout my various travels, I have encountered many a “trade attachés” in Malawi’s diplomatic posts abroad who are either too junior to influence the diplomatic head or indeed have no direction informed by a well-crafted strategic plan by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in terms of economic diplomacy. This has led to disjointed efforts by officials who try their best in the absence of a clear direction from the government.

Malawi needs to realise that the way it conducts diplomacy and the appointment of diplomatic relations is no longer relevant in the current context of globalisation. The appointment of diplomatic staff should focus on economic diplomacy.

Economic diplomacy is pursuit of foreign relations through decision-making, policy-making and advocating of the Malawi’s economic interests. It requires the application of technical expertise that analyse the effects of Malawi’s economic situation on its political climate and on Malawi’s economic interests. This requires that the people who represent Malawi possess the versatility, flexibility, sound judgment and strong skills needed in the execution of economic diplomacy. Unfortunately, the decisions of the Executive and indeed Parliament in appointing diplomatic staff is highly political, partisan, sometimes tribal and devoid of any strategic focus on the economic needs of Malawi.


The central objective of Malawi’s economic diplomacy should be its ability to tackle the outside world with the view to maximizing Malawi’s national gain in all the fields of activity, including trade, investment and other forms of economically beneficial exchanges. Again, the country has miserably failed in this arena. Economic diplomacy is different from the traditional diplomacy in that instead of only political and cultural approach, there is a deliberate emphasis on economic gain from international relations.

The benefits of Malawi pursuing an economic diplomacy agenda are many. Economic diplomacy is an extension of domestic politics and serves domestic economic construction and is interest-oriented. The pursuit of economic diplomacy will serve national economic development and transformation. It offers an opportunity to for an underdeveloped country like Malawi to get the right type and level of foreign investment and technologies. It also gives Malawi chance for the development and growth of domestic economic entities, firms and financial institutions with the impulse to expand markets and expand overseas in addition to the domestic companies taking advantage of outside markets.

This country called Malawi is poor or put it politically correct, its people are poor as such there is a gap between its capabilities in economic diplomacy and its economic position in the world. Malawi has no choice but to increase its efforts to strengthen and improve economic diplomacy, since it is one of the important tools to improve the country’s economic standing and, therefore, poverty domestically.

So, after this ranting what do I propose Malawi does? First, there should be a cross-departmental cooperation mechanism to spearhead and coordinate economic diplomacy. Ideally, this should be coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Second, the appointing authority (the Executive) and the vetting institution (Parliament) should align their functions to scrutinise appointments and only appoint people who have the ability and skills to play economic cards in major diplomatic issues. The appointing authority should also balance political and economic diplomacy depending on the strategic analysis of the diplomatic post and not use diplomatic appointments as a political tool.

Third, Malawi should strengthen the economic functions of its embassies. The combination of diplomatic staff should integrate skills and that vigorously promotes the emphasis embassies to economic diplomacy, and effectively recognises the important role economic exchanges play in deepening bilateral relations and can be a tool to the economic gateway for the poorest of its citizens. Malawian firms currently face many problems in terms of their overseas expansion, such as a lack of understanding of foreign situations and language barriers, and require embassies to act as intermediaries. This should be complemented by the assisting the domestic business interests to access of information. An annual report from each embassy that analyse international economic situations of each of the countries in which Malawi has embassies is a must. The report would among other things focus on economic factors of the country they are stationed in, and provide reference and market information for decision making in economic diplomacy.

Fourth, capacity building should be incorporated in the diplomatic appointments. How many of our current diplomats are career diplomats. Often people are sent to embassies and are expected to learn what their job will be once on post. My proposition is that the capacity building of diplomatic appointees should emphasise economic practice. Economic diplomacy will require a deliberate effort that attaches importance to improving diplomats’ theoretical and practical abilities in international economic relations and the role diplomacy plays in enhancing the domestic economic opportunities. In particular, Malawi needs to strengthen the flow of talents, allowing professional diplomats to learn economics and manage economic affairs, and allowing economic professionals to learn diplomacy and work on economic diplomacy in order to develop an international perspective.

The crisis introduced a turbulent period in the world economy, which is not yet over. The profound reconfiguration of the international order explains why economic diplomacy is gaining importance once again. The shift in global balance of power encourages governments all over the world to reassess their national and foreign policy and interests in international institutions.

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