Diplomatic missions abroad need a financial rethink

The time has come again for Namibian diplomats serving abroad with expired terms to shift. Before appointing new Ambassadors, we urge the appointing authority to consider whether maintaining each embassy makes financial sense.

Given the poor state of the Namibian economy, it is time to look at diplomatic appointments differently. We need a major financial rethink.

Namibia must look at which embassies deliver a direct financial return in terms of trade deals. Which embassies process the most tourists? Which embassies serve a sufficient number of Namibian students, workers or business interests? Which embassies generate development assistance for Namibia? All others, except multilateral posts, must be closed down and their duties shifted.

Even with missions that generate returns, their costs vs benefits must be analysed. If an embassy costs a million in hard currency and yet generates only a handful of tourists, no serious investors or Namibian imports, and insignificant development assistance, then that should signal an end or severe reduction to that outpost.

The existing Namibian embassies are not unnecessary and our staffs are skilled and qualified. If we had the funds to maintain them –we should. But, we no longer have those funds.

The recession was destroying the Namibian economy before the pandemic hit. The wreckage in the wake of COVID-19 and the new normal means we cannot do the same things the same way.

Most people do not realize the massive, but necessary, expenses of properly run foreign missions. Everything must be paid in hard currency. Today the exchange rate is 16.8 Namibia dollars to 1 US dollar and nearly 20 Namibia dollars to 1 Euro.

The staff abroad receives monthly allowances in hard currency. Insurances, supplies, furnishings, local transport, salaries of local staff, ICT costs, and medical/educational expenses are paid by the embassy in hard currency. Buying foreign currency with a falling currency (the South African Rand is weakening) is very costly. The bank transfer fees are high.

Take note that civil servants sent out as diplomats, continue to receive their monthly salaries in Namibia. This is in addition to allowances received in foreign currency while they are on assignment. This system is normal for diplomats worldwide as they maintain obligations in both places. But, it is an expense that adds to the price tag of foreign missions.

Ambassadors can receive at least Euro 8,000 per month (if not more) while on post. They can also receive representational allowances of additional thousands for diplomatic/promotional work. This is reasonable given the executive level of work that is required. But, it adds to the high price of having foreign missions.

There is usually the ambassador’s residence and embassy building are owned by Namibia. But, the government must rent accommodation for the rest of the staff and their families. It is expensive to live in high cost cities like Tokyo, London, New York, Stockholm, Kuala Lumpur, Berlin or Paris. Family-sized houses or flats there can cost as much as $4,000 Euros per month (depending on the part of town). Do the math. If there are four officers in an embassy, multiply that number times four. Calculations should nclude the costs of their local transportation, water, electricity, telephones and internet connections as well as costs of diplomatic events.

If an officer needs a car for duty, then tack on those expenses which may include the cost of locally hired driver(s).

Add on to that the education costs for the children of each diplomat in the mission. In non-English speaking countries, international schools are the only option and they are always expensive. The embassy may have to pay Euro 25,000 per year, per child (probably more), depending on the grade level. This cost is enormous.

Many low income countries transact diplomatically via multi-lateral posts (like the AU, EU or UN). They also sign treaties with friendly nations to process tourist and business visas on their behalf. In this way, they have embassies only in places where they can multi-task. Is it time for Namibia to consider similar measures?

Can Namibia suggest a joint embassy with countries like Lesotho, eSwatini and/or Botswana (if logistically and legally feasible) and share facilities? Perhaps for some lower ranked posts, terms can be shortened and families not included?

In the new normal of the pandemic recovery period, many countries will be reducing or closing embassies, Namibia must join the club. It is the smart move. We need a financial rethink before appointing any new staff to embassies abroad.

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