[WebDebate #44 summary] Diplomacy in times of COVID-19: The experience of developing countries

Author:

Katharina Höne

This year has posed a tremendous challenge to diplomats. The impact of COVID-19 is felt in almost all areas of international relations. At the same time, there are various challenges to the conduct of diplomacy and how diplomats work. Particularly, in light of lockdowns and social distancing, diplomats had to change the way they worked. For example, how can negotiations be pursued and furthered in times of social distancing? For diplomats from small and developing countries, some of these challenges were exasperated, and additional challenges arose. 

This last month of 2020 presented a good opportunity to look back at what happened, but also to look ahead towards next year and even beyond.

In order to do so, our speakers for the 44th WebDebate included: Ms Asha DeSuza (Second Secretary, Permanent Mission of St Kitts and Nevis to the UN in New York), Ms Maricela Muñoz (Minister Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the UN in Geneva), and Mr Moctar Yedaly (Head,  Information Society Division, Department of Infrastructure and Energy, African Union Commission (AUC)). 

The debate took place in the context of DiploFoundation’s research project ‘The future of (multilateral) diplomacy?: Changes in response to COVID-19 and beyond‘ which was supported by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Ambassador Miia Rainne (Deputy Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission of Finland to the UN) provided the opening remarks and joined the discussion.

Reflecting on 2020, what were the experiences regarding the practice of diplomacy and its adaptations to COVID-19?

Diplomats acquired new skills in navigating and using digitals tools for communication and meetings. New forms and options for meetings – in particular hybrid (blended) forms of meetings, whereby some participants meet in situ while others participate remotely – have been established. Navigating new ways of working, while pushing negotiations ahead has proven to be a herculean effort. Zoom fatigue, working from home, and a proliferation of online meetings added to the pressure. There was, however, a sense that diplomats stepped up to the challenges presented in 2020. DeSuza described this as the ability to find creative and acceptable solutions. The year has also been a testament to the resilience of diplomatic practitioners. Muñoz, for example, stressed that diplomatic practitioners should be proud of what they accomplished in 2020, while Yedaly stressed how diplomats have shown that they are masters of adaptation.

What are some concrete examples of those challenges and adaptations?

  • All speakers agreed that diplomacy is best done face-to-face and that informal spaces for conversations, that push negotiations forward, are indispensable. Yedaly, for example, remarked that the African Union builds largely on making decisions by consensus. However, the absence of informal spaces takes away the important means for reaching consensus.
  • While face-to-face meetings cannot be replaced, Muñoz mentioned  her practice of finding ways to have virtual coffee breaks, and to maintain bilateral contacts, by arranging meetings online.
  • Muñoz and Yedaly gave examples of meetings and summits that were postponed to 2021. This gives rise to concerns about the workload for 2021, and the ability for small and developing countries to take on this load with comparatively smaller delegations and fewer experts.  
  • DeSuza mentioned that many small and developing countries feel the economic impact of the pandemic, and that diplomatic services will experience further budget constraints. Yedaly also stressed that connectivity, Internet shutdowns, and cybersecurity have been key concerns.
  • Rainne highlighted the need for careful planning. It is yet unclear what 2021 will bring, and she described how her mission is planning for alternatives and contingencies – keeping in mind that meetings might be face-to-face, but might also be in hybrid format or held entirely online.

Looking ahead, what will 2021 bring and what are the next steps?

DeSuza highlighted that what we consider as ‘normal’ has been challenged in 2020, and that we have no way of predicting what 2021 will bring. It will be important to learn to live with this uncertainty and adapt to the new normal. Muñoz suggested that trust and confidence-building need to be at the centre. While adapting to the new ways of working, it is crucial to keep inclusivity at the centre of our efforts. For smaller delegations, there are hardware and software limitations that need to be addressed, but the ultimate goal is to ensure meaningful participation. DeSuza highlighted the need for creating greater understanding, listening to each other, and being generous in cases of misunderstandings. Yedaly also pointed to trust as a crucial ingredient for moving ahead. He further stressed that security and privacy will remain important concerns in 2021, but that diplomats need to find ways of navigating these concerns while keeping communication open. Rainne underlined the importance of leaving no one behind. She added that all diplomats adapted to video conferencing tools in 2020, but that perspectives on the use of these tools vary, and that further discussion is needed. Going forward, further dialogue and learning from each other will be of crucial importance.