Every citizen a diplomat! | 18 May 2020
Nothing unites a nationlike a shared struggle against a common enemy. At this point in our history the common enemy is the coronavirus, or COVID-19, which threatens our very existence. The COVID-19 pandemic has spared no nation on earth. Even the handful of countries which have not recorded any case of infection have been impacted by the measures taken by other countries. This pandemic has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and has further affected millions of people. What makes this particular enemy nefarious, is that it is silent and hits at the very core of our existence: our health, which gives us the ability to physically and psychologically live a self-fulfilling life; our country’s economy, which is the platform that creates wealth and prosperity and our freedom, which is the core principle of any democracy. The devastating impact of COVID-19 on our country’s economy and subsequently its ability to effectively deliver its public goods, along with its ability to maintain functionality as a state, is immeasurable. For small island developing states (Sids) like Seychelles, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism, estimates show that foreign exchange inflows could be reduced significantly by as much as two thirds of its pre-COVID-19 level.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNTWO) has estimated a contraction of up to 30% of the tourism sector in 2020 and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has, for its part, estimated that Sids remain particularly vulnerable as up to 7.3% of their GDPs could be swallowed up.
“The drop could be significantly greater in some of the Sids, reaching 16% in the Maldives and Seychelles,” a recent UNCTAD analysis has noted (UNCTAD, April 2020).
Like most countries, Seychelles faces the daunting challenge of re-opening her borders and economy while ensuring that public health remains a priority, at least until a therapy or vaccine for COVID-19 is found. For a country which depends largely on tourism, international travel remains a challenge and therefore how one engages with the various global partners during this difficult time is of critical importance if we are to successfully navigate the treacherous meanders of this crisis. With a network of just 12 overseas diplomatic missions, Seychelles is constantly striving to maintain and build strategic relations with foreign governments and international organisations. Our diplomats have directed their efforts to building an international coalition of partners whose profiles and concerns run parallel to ours so that we may tackle the enormity of Sids challenges together. At a time when most countries have found themselves naturally pivoting towards the supposedly realist approach of unilateralism (defending one’s state primarily) international cooperation has thankfully also prevailed. Both the Chinese and French governments offered to repatriate our students from Wuhan in early February; donations from the Jack Ma Foundation, the UAE, the Chinese, US, Indian and other governments have poured in; Botswana and Kenya agreed to provide human resources to the country’s already limited health care workforce. The pivotal role of the WHO in providing guidelines and credible research has been noted and Air Seychelles’ cargo flights have been allowed to operate on its important routes such as Port Louis, Mumbai, Johannesburg and Dubai. All these collaborations are based on Seychelles’ long-standing relationship with these friendly countries which are rooted in the principles of International Cooperation. However, while this various outside assistance and support has filled in many gaps, how we get our economy going will, at the end of the day, depend entirely on us.
When President Danny Faure officially announced a phased partial lockdown, questions were raised regarding the welfare of the tourism sector in the new reality brought by COVID-19. Unprecedented has become the newest buzzword. This is all the more paradoxical as unprecedented is, by definition, unprecedented; no one knows for sure how things will unfold. A recent Netflix documentary on the origins of pandemics and mankind’s resilience through such trials does provide a glimmer of hope. It all comes down to the resolute nature of human spirit and innovation to overcome even the most unprecedented challenges. On our side is technology, years of research, knowledge and hopefully wisdom to take the right decisive steps. We need not despair because, after all, a crisis is simply a dangerous opportunity; we need to seize the opportunity it presents while avoiding its inherent dangers. Those who experienced previous pandemics, did not have that luxury.
Once again, our diplomatic and honorary consular missions are being called upon to engage with our overseas partners to seek solutions through best practice, to share knowledge and collaborate with them and the global community to seek a global solution. It is clear today that the global anarchy resulting from this pandemic especially at this trajectory, will not be kind to the plight of Sids. The system of international relations based on hegemony inherited from Westphalia nearly 400 years ago, is here to stay. Seychelles has to fend for herself and navigate these uncharted waters with few lifejackets thrown her way. However, a recent development in the country has brought forth a fifth possible pillar, the untapped potential of civic engagement and citizen diplomacy.
In a recent article in the Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, a Dutch couple, who had contracted COVID-19 outside Seychelles and were diagnosed and treated in our public health care facilities, decided to criticise the very system that had cared for them. This prompted a public outcry. Within a matter of hours, hundreds of Seychellois, in and outside the country, and foreign nationals had expressed their anger and disappointment at what was termed the couple’s “ungratefulness”. In a country where the political discourse dominates the electronic platforms almost 24 hours a day, our political protagonists must have relished in the realisation that at the end of the day, nothing unites a nation more than its determination to defend its colours. Less than 24 hours later, the embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Seychelles had issued a diplomatic note to thank the Seychelles government for the support of its nationals during this pandemic. The reaction of the Dutch government did not come from just bilateral diplomatic engagements but also as a result of citizen diplomacy, who took it upon themselves to express their sentiments and explain the facts of the matter.
The untapped potential of the Seychellois nation is perhaps one of the country’s biggest assets. Our nation’s stellar level of education (one of the highest in Africa), combined with the fact that our country benefits from high global connectivity, a large Diaspora and a high percentage of our population travel abroad every year with one of the world’s most powerful passports, have given rise to a new ecology over the years. Seychelles’ soft power approaches to International Relations may need to rely on the potential of the Seychellois nation to defend and promote the country. During this pandemic, new media technologies have been used to promote Seychelles’ culture and tourism. A culinary Facebook group, Cook and Share, emerged to show Seychellois how to prepare home-made meals during lockdown, it can also serve as platform to promote Seychelles’ culinary secrets to the world; our artists showcased their talent on social media to spread messages of positivity and patriotism; a group, Seychelles Come Visit promoting Seychelles as a tourism destination, also emerged with the aim of encouraging travellers to come to Seychelles when we return to the new normal; a young man announced he is undertaking a research on the sociological impact COVID-19 has on the population; the Seychelles Conservation Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT) published its own analysis of how the Blue Economy can become the next important pillar of our economy and two dynamic gentlemen set up the Entrepreneurship Virtual Mentoring and Training Lab with the aim of giving a boost to the business culture in Seychelles. From those who started to sew and share home-made masks, the volunteers who stepped forward, the frontline workers who never thought twice of going to work to the businesses which contributed unreservedly to the cause, these are so many initiatives being taken by hardworking Seychellois men and women to give a helping hand to preserve our well-being, restore our economy, and to promote our country. COVID-19 is a threat to our humanity, to our way of life, to the world as we know it. Moving forward, we will need to adapt to a new reality which no one could have predicted nor imagined. Our best chance of coming out of this successfully is that we all work together and take a determined approach to defend our country and protect our nation. The new normal may require us to produce and invest more locally, to support our local producers, to import less, to protect our environment even more, to promote our tourism sector and to diversify our economy even more.
Public diplomacy requires public engagements both domestically and abroad, but it begins with a new national consciousness to work towards the same objectives. Through citizen diplomacy, Seychelles has the ability to harness the determination and patriotism of the Seychellois as a resource. If we have invested in human development over the past five decades, now is the time to tap into this potential more than ever before. A practical and pragmatic approach to knowledge management and participatory policy-making may be required but more importantly, the need to maintain our national Creole spirit that will encourage innovation, public participation and positivity. In the Post-COVID world order, we will need to re-evaluate our priorities; re-look at our socio-economic imperatives and very likely chart out a new economic landscape. We will need all hands on deck and more importantly renewed vigour. Defending our interests needs to become our ultimate priority and in this case every citizen will have to become a diplomat.
Sylvestre Radegonde, Seychelles Ambassador in Paris. He is the former chairman and CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board (STB); and
Marie Antoinette Rose-Quatre, Seychelles High Commissioner in Pretoria. She is a former member of Parliament and journalist.
Jeremy Radegonde – Third Secretary, department of Foreign Affairs