Sunday, November 6, 2011

Twenty-first Century Statecraft, Sudan and Food Security

This first appeared on Africa in Transition. 

Reuters recently reported that Sudan’s government is unhappy with a blog post written by UK ambassador to Sudan Nicholas Kay calling attention to growing food insecurity in that country.
The episode is significant because it illustrates the use of a relatively new diplomatic tool, social media, by the chief of mission of a major state. Unlike press statements or on-the-record interviews, blogging provides diplomats with an “informal” and individualized space to reflect on issues. Recognizing the utility, the UK Foreign Office has set up a series of blogs for use by its diplomatic staff.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, too, has been a supporter of experimenting with social media. Many embassies have adopted twitter to promote an exchange of ideas and dialogue with host-country nationals as well as with government officials. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria is an especially active tweeter and Facebook user. (Full disclosure: they regularly retweet my writings. Thanks!)

This brings me to my second point. The medium is not only always the message. In this case, UK Ambassador to Sudan Kay’s point that raised the ire of the Khartoum government, that it is “little wonder Khartoum has seen protests in the last few weeks,” highlights the political problems that food insecurity can cause, particularly in weak states like Sudan.

It is unlikely that these pressures will let up any time soon. The World Bank’s Food Price Watch, in its November quarterly report notes “Global food prices remain high and volatile…Domestic food prices also remained volatile in the same period… But domestic price volatility does not follow a clear pattern, making it difficult to predict that direction of future domestic prices.”

Food insecurity is a clear threat to regimes, particularly ones unaccustomed to accommodating their people. Rather than chastising Ambassador Kay, Bashir should turn his attention to improving the food supply.

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