Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Preaching to the converted, or a small step in the right direction?

The following report was published in the Taipei Times on 12 July: '"Study camp" introduces nation to allied countries' (

Twenty-eight representatives from Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the Pacific - Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu (what do you mean you have never heard of them?) - are visiting the island as part of its 'cultural diplomacy' strategy. The visitors will attend seminars on a range of subjects including relations with China, the economy and, most importantly, democracy. Among the particpants are politicians, the media and representatives from  business.

It would be easy to be both cynical and sceptical about the Study Camp programme which started in 2010: the Taipei Times is stretching the definition of Cultural Diplomacy; and isn't this preaching to the converted? Surely Taiwan does not need to convince its allies that Taiwan is a vibrant, democratic society? Shouldn't more effort be devoted to such activities in those countries which do not recognise the international status of Taiwan?

However, every journey begins with one step, and this is a small step in the right direction. First, it is extremely important that Taiwan maintain the few diplomatic allies it has left (and not through the old methods of cheque-book diplomacy that occurred in Central America and which my PhD student, Colin Alexander, writes about). The cup is either half empty or half full: Taiwan has only 23 formal allies? Or Taiwan has 23 formal allies, despite decades of pressure from the PRC to switch allegiance. As students of Taiwan we too often focus on the former, more depressing picture, and lose sight of the more positive perspective. After all, the symbolic significance of losing even the smallest ally would be devastating for Taiwan; when you have only 23 formal diplomatic allies, one is a lot to lose (and there is the possibility of a domino effect to factor in to this scenario).

Second, the Study Camp is targeting the right demographics -  the movers and shakers who may also be opinion leaders. Public diplomacy often works best through local authoritative figures, and provided the politicians and media are trusted in these societies (and I am ashamed to say I know little about the political situation in Tuvalu or Nauru) then they are in a strong position to mediate information and opinion on behalf of Taiwan.

Third, these opinion leaders are visiting Taiwan to expand their knowledge of that society; this is not remote work being undertaken in their home countries, but is rather an attempt to showcase Taiwan first hand. There is no substitute for such endeavours. If you want people to know Taiwan and to love Taiwan, they must be given the opportunity to see, touch, smell and taste Taiwan ('Taiwan will touch your heart,' said the old logo - which is far better than the current pedestrian and meaningless 'Taiwan, the heart of Asia').

Finally, learning about democracy is on the agenda. The report does not say anything about how this is communicated to the vistors (further research by yours truly is required), but at least the diplomats are paying attention to its value as a strategic narrative. All in all, a small step in the right direction.            

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Flying the Flag: Branding UK Aid and Public Diplomacy

On 25 June 2012 the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) unveiled plans to re-brand British overseas aid. "From today," declared the department's website (, "the new UK aid logo will be applied to items like emergency grain packets, schools and water pumps."  From now on, all recipients of aid will see the Union Flag and a statement that the aid comes "From the British people." 
My first thoughts on seeing this news were decidedly negative: surely such branding detracts from the act of giving? Don't we keep telling our students that in public diplomacy actions speak louder than words? 
Moreover, there is something faintly imperialist not only in using the Union Flag in this way, but also in reminding the recipents of the aid to be grateful to the British people - that they owe their clean water, health care, schools, etc. to the generosity of the developed world. 
A thoughtful commentary by Rob Crilly, the Daily Telegraph's Pakistan correspondent, questioned the value of branding British aid and considered that it might actually do more harm than good; that it may in fact undermine the credibility of the programme and that the "unbranded brand" has been sufficiently powerful and successful. He advocates, and I initially agreed, that we should let the aid speak for itself (    

However, having thought through the possible consequences of this decision for British public diplomacy, I had a change of heart and concluded that perhaps this rebranding exercise may just have a positive payoff after all. When the media correctly focuses on the problems caused by the invasions of, and continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention having to deal with the legacy of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib - public diplomacy disasters in their own right - the British and American governments have let slip through their fingers countless public diplomacy opportunities to remind audiences about their assistance to Muslim communities across the world (for example, NATO's intervention in Bosnia; the response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean). This is needed to help counter the prevailing narratives that the UK and the US have co-operated in a war against Muslims and Islam.  So it is possible that the the new logo will go help to demonstrate to the international community that international assistance does not come from a faceless bureaucratic machinery or from governments, but from the people who have too many times been the victims of terrorist atrocities. It may have come too late - I am writing this blog on the seventh anniversary of Al-Qadea's terrorist attack in London - but it is a small step in rebalancing public diplomacy efforts towards a people-to-people strategy. Perhaps better late than never.

Yet flaws remain, and the most serious problem is that the British government has not explained the rebranding as a way of boosting the UK's public diplomacy. Rather, it seems designed to make the British people feel better about themselves. Unveiling the new logo, the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said:"For too long, Britain has not received the credit it deserves for the amazing results we achieve in tackling global poverty.... It is right that people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided ... And I am determined that, from now on, Britain will not shy away from celebrating and taking credit for them." In other words, it is all about the British receiving the gratitude of the people they are helping. 

So, the right action for the wrong reasons. Such explanations do fuel suspicion about British arrogance and ambition. Public diplomacy is not about taking credit; it is about building relationships. If the Secretary had noted that branding British aid helps to make connections between the source and the recipient, then the decision may have been received with more warmth.