Political economy of presidential state visits

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The Namibian political spectrum has been inundated and infested with insinuations that President Hage Geingob short-changed the nation by unduly pocketing N$2,4 million in travel allowances on foreign trips since taking over office, and N$700 00.00 in S&T.

The arguments are presented as if President Geingob is the first Namibian head of state to use S&Ts or to travel abroad. Lazy journalism and arm-chair political activism usually breeds such poor arguments where a good argument on public spending could be made.

Labelling the President’s trips abroad as a sign of opulence and greed is mischievous and misleading. There is no denying that government spending should be streamlined and prioritised in order to direct funds to socio-economic development issues.

The importance of the President’s travels abroad cannot be over-emphasised. Suffice it to say that politicians worldwide travel abroad extensively, primarily to improve bilateral economic relations.

While the general aim of international visits by heads of state are to develop and enhance bilateral relations, the focus may be on various matters including political issues, human rights, environmental protection, cultural ties, economic relations and cooperation, investment and trade issues.

International visits by heads of state are classified in various categories, e.g. state visit, official visit, working visit or a private visit. The number of international visits that a head of state undertakes is determined by the level of engagement required for the country to increase its international trade, influence and cooperation on specific targets.

In 2003, US President George W. Bush made seven international trips, visiting twenty-one countries. The political, diplomatic and socio-economic spin-offs from the visit to the twenty-one countries were massive for USA economy and diplomacy.

President Jacques Chirac of France travelled on average more than two times a month out of France for a total of twenty-seven trips during that year. As of February 2016, President Obama has made 50 international trips to 56 different countries since his inauguration.

Researchers of economic diplomacy and international relations have found that state and official visits are indeed positively correlated with exports. When one applies a gravity model of trade to control for other trade determinants, one would find that state visits are typically associated with higher exports by about 8 to 10 percent.

One visit by President Xi Jinping of China to Britain last year resulted in more than £30 billion worth of trade and investment deals, creating over 3,900 jobs across the United Kingdom.

It is in this context that we need to appreciate that President Geingob’s visits abroad make valuable contribution to our foreign relations, because even though Namibia is represented abroad through our embassies, it is often only through face-to-face talks between leaders that productive outcomes are found and fast-tracked.

Essentially, state visits are the highest form of diplomatic engagement between countries and often add impetus to development in bilateral relations. Whether the objective is coordinating policy, explaining Namibia’s national interests or resolving any bilateral challenges that may arise from time to time, the kind of informal talks that President Geingob has with foreign leaders during his trips abroad substantially increase the marketability of Namibia as an investment destination.

While we moan about the N$2,4 million in travel allowances that President Geingob allegedly unduly pocketed, we need to recognise that within that period of time, and as a result of these state visits, Namibia rose three places on the global competitiveness rankings for 2015/16 from 88th to 85th with a score of 3,99.

Namibia is now the fourth most competitive country in SADC after Mauritius (46th), South Africa (49th) and Botswana (71st). The prophets of doom need to acknowledge that at the start of the Geingob presidency, Namibia was ranked around 95th place.

Instead of policing his international engagements, we need to urge President Geingob to open up more trade missions abroad to enhance our economic diplomacy.

We should do this bearing in mind that economic diplomacy requires the use of the full spectrum of economic tools of the state to achieve the national interest.

Economic diplomacy is credited for China’s remarkable economic rise and has also become a central aspect of Brazil’s foreign policy.

Dr Charles Mubita
Windhoek

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