The work of the ministry of foreign affairs is seldom understood by the citizenry and is often viewed as a reserve for the elite and politicians. However, as the wave of globalization sweeps in and the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the work and services of the ministries of foreign affairs are widely sought. More people are traveling to other countries for business, vacations, health, education, careers and political reasons. Consequently, States are becoming more dependent on one another given that no country in this world is self-sustaining.
The foundation of ministries of foreign affairs is diplomacy and the citizens of a state living in other countries. It is said that diplomacy as an institution is as old as history. Historical records indicate that as early as the 5th century B.C. special envoys were being exchanged between the Greek City states. Nonetheless, the earliest Ministries of foreign affairs are traced back to the 17th and 18th centuries and were predominantly tasked with the management of foreign affairs and the foreign policy. In Kenya, the ministry of foreign affairs was established in 1963 and was recognized as the Department of External Affairs within the office of the President.
Over the years, the structure and outlook of foreign affairs ministries across the globe has evolved to suit the changes experienced in world politics. For example, the end of the Cold war led to more countries seeking to downsize the ministries of foreign affairs as well as the diplomatic missions abroad. Consequently, the wave of information communication technologies has led to more foreign affairs ministries integrating ICTs in their structures. The legitimacy of foreign affairs ministries has been questioned by some as they have ceased to be the direct link with foreign nations. Today, there are more government ministries whose roles extend beyond the national borders such as trade.
Presently, ministries of foreign affairs are operating in a new environment where national borders have been shrunk by the power of information communication technologies and the World Wide Web. According to the internet world stats, as at the end of December 2017, 4,156,932,140 people were using the internet which is more than half of the global population. The pervasive use of the internet by people in their daily lives has led to more corporations, nongovernmental organizations and governments integrating ICTs into their functions. A digital diplomacy conference 2016 report held at Tel Aviv University in Israel indicates that over 200 foreign affairs ministries have adopted online communication platforms in the conduct of their functions. This denotes the growing need to understand and influence internet users across the globe.
This notwithstanding, the use of digital tools by the ministries of foreign affairs is done with a mix of caution due to cyber security risks and resistance. Traditionally, the foreign affairs ministries operated in a clandestine environment that was justified as it safeguarded the states secrets. Therefore, foreign affairs offices were marred with bureaucratic structures that were rigid to change. However, the use of digital tools such as websites and social networking sites necessitates foreign affairs ministries to be more transparent and accountable to the citizenry. The access to information about the ministry empowers more people about the role and functions of the foreign affairs ministries besides makes the ministry more visible to its stakeholders. Moreover, the ministries of foreign affairs cease to be perceived as a reserve of a few as more people are interested in their operations.
Ministries of foreign affairs have also augmented their functions to include the provision of digital services such as the application of travel documents and registration of national citizens living abroad. In Kenya, some of the online services offered by the ministry and its affiliate embassies abroad include the application of visas through www.evisa.go.ke or www.ecitizen.go.ke. Other online services offered include the application of birth certificates, citizen registration, driving licenses and certificates of an impediment to marriage among others. Countries such as Poland and Canada have smartphone applications to notify their citizens of useful information like travel warnings.
Essentially, ministries of foreign affairs cannot afford to ignore the internet simply because it has billions of users utilizing it and second because it acts as a competitive advantage in the quest to persuade more people to align to a country’s values and ideals. Countries such as the United States, Britain, and Canada have mastered the power of the internet and are continuously harnessing it in the promotion of their ideals and values besides winning the support of more foreign publics. Thus, the integration of digital tools provides several opportunities that can be used to enhance the delivery of some of the functions of the ministries of foreign affairs.
There are more international conversations being held online, and thus the internet is currently a primary tool for information gathering. It also serves as a space where diplomats can listen and understand the debates going on in their respective stations and report back to their ministries of foreign affairs back at home. In recent times, the ministries of foreign affairs social media handles have been used to relay consular aid information during times of emergencies. Essentially, most ministries of foreign affairs use online platforms to merely publish information.
Nonetheless, they need to change from passive dissemination of information to active engagement in online platforms. For example, the websites should have a feedback form for purposes of users giving their feedback on whether the website is easy to navigate and whether they got the information they were searching for. In instances, where the users are not able to navigate there should be real-time chat forums where the users can interact with someone at the other end via video or text. Consequently, ministries of foreign affairs should exploit their social media handles to the fullest potential by engaging the public and responding to their questions and comments almost in real time. This is presently done by big corporations and parastatals here in Kenya such as Safaricom, Kenya Commercial Bank, Kenya Power and Lighting Company as well as Kenya Revenue Authority to mention but a few.
Additionally, in the spirit of public participation, such forums should be moved online by having a Q&A session where the public can be given an opportunity to have their questions answered in real time and also give their thoughts on proposed agendas. Such opportunities should be advertised prior to the set day so that more people can participate. Depending on the effectiveness, this kind of interaction between the ministry and the public online can be made a weekly ritual on a given day and at a specified time.
In conclusion, the online presence of ministries of foreign affairs is not enough; there is a need for long-term planning and strategic thinking in its operationalization for purposes of achieving the goals and objectives of the country in respect to international relations.