Grassroot Diplomat: The Power of Relationships

In this interview, young policy leader and entrepreneur Talyn Rahman-Figueroa discusses her new project, Grassroot Diplomat, and gives her view on different hot-topics, from gender through to disarmament and UN Reform.

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By David J. Franco, 31 Jan, 2012

InPEC has conducted this interview with Talyn Rahman-Figueroa at Grassroot Diplomat’s office in Central London. Ms Rahman-Figueroa is a young policy leader and enthusiastic entrepreneur with a clear goal: to bridge the existing gap between civil society and leaders. With an impressive academic and practical background in diplomacy, Ms Rahman-Figueroa set up the first Diplomatic Business Consulting firm of its kind. Five months later, Grassroot Diplomat has grown to include a team of six experts in their respective fields as projects proliferate rapidly in all continents. Despite her young age, Ms Rahman-Figueroa is determined to tear down traditional barriers and work towards moving from a culture of national interests to a culture of people interests. ‘Success depends on one thing’, she argues, and that thing is the ‘power of relationships’.

Franco: Good morning Ms Rahman-Figueroa, and welcome to a conversation with InPEC. In a previous interview with The Next Women you stated that what distinguishes your business from other similar agencies is its diplomatic grassroot element. In what sense is Grassroot Diplomat a grassroot agency compared to others?

Rahman-Figueroa: Grassroot Diplomat is the only diplomatic agency in the world that facilitates the work of civil society groups over corporations. Many diplomatic groups tend to favour corporations as clients because it is commercial and their lobbying capacity is greater than that of non-government organisations. We take on board policy-related projects led by retired civil servants, non-government organisations, and foreign institutions that have enough passion to dedicate their life to the cause but lack time, funds and connections that can really make a difference to their work.

We think of civil society projects as a national interest that embassies and governments should pay attention to. Government officials who are at the top of their career tend to be far removed from ordinary citizens which is a problem in today’s social network society. How can diplomats represent their country if citizens back home are not being heard by their own government? That makes little sense to me. The world of diplomacy needs to innovate with the world we live in now. People power has become increasingly effective when compared to government polls. By working with the people and representing policy projects, Grassroot Diplomat hopes to deliver concerns of the people at a national and international level, by connecting grassroots-led projects to civil servants, diplomats and institutions alike.

Franco: Grassroot Diplomat seeks to bridge the existing gap between civil society and political leadership. How can Grassroot Diplomat help promote the voices of civil society in ways that these are incorporated into political debate and policymaking processes?

Rahman-Figueroa: Grassroot Diplomat is the epitome of terms known as “citizen diplomacy” and “public diplomacy”, whereby issues of an international nature are taken upon by members of society who do not necessarily belong to a government. By using diplomatic strategies and connections within diplomatic circles, Grassroot Diplomat aims to connect client projects to prominent political leaders who show an interest to what stakeholders think. We have many programmes that support and promote the voices of civil society. The service that takes up most of our time involves conducting research on policies that national and international governments have or are already working on. We try to find out as much information as possible in relation to our client’s project before providing strategies and recommendations for improvements. We then search for civil servants and diplomats who may be personally interested in our client’s project and build a relationship with them so that the work of our client is being readily supported by someone who can further influence the project.

We also provide media exposure to our client’s work in order to gain support from the public and citizens of other countries, which then helps to strengthen the project and sustain its relevance. The level of support we provide our clients is more than what the clients actually pay us. In the end, it is not about how much money we can make from a project but how successful we are in building and sustaining a relationship between our client and a political decision-maker. Once the project is internally fortified and that relationship is finally established, our client is in a better position to promote a project that makes a stronger impact on debates and policy-making processes.

Franco: Cosmopolitan views that portray civil society as an emerging, global phenomenon often fail to acknowledge particularistic projects. Has Grassroot Diplomat the capacity and resources necessary to address localized claims and political projects?

Rahman-Figueroa: Cross-cultural communication is a huge part of what we do. As an international organisation that tends to the needs of global citizens and missions, Grassroot Diplomat has a team of experts that know the culture, politics and history of several countries in at least one continent. We do not pressure our clients into exclusively using Western schools of thought. Instead, we take into consideration national and international legislations related to our client’s projects and get in touch with relevant embassies to avoid cultural barriers and political implications that may otherwise hinder the project. On top of that, we work with international diplomatic institutions like the European Union and United Nations to cross-examine information reported by their experts, so that we can gain accurate information about policy matters from a neutral point of view. Grassroot Diplomat works with many partners and the number of institutions we are connecting with is growing.

Also, as an independent agency, Grassroot Diplomat shows no allegiance to one particular government and as such, we are careful not to get involved in projects that may be harmful to diplomatic relations. We have a strict policy to reject projects led by political candidates and active members of government so as to remain as apolitical as possible. It would be very difficult to gain the trust of an embassy if we had worked with a controversial political member in the past.

Franco: Based on slogans such as “politicians do not represent us”, emerging movements in Western Europe and the US (for example, Spain’s group “15-M” or US’s “Occupy Wall Street”) are often portrayed by mainstream media as apolitical or anti-system. However, their agendas are very much political. As a self-proclaimed grassroot diplomat, do you see yourself as a valid intermediary between these movements and political leaders?

Rahman-Figueroa: As an individual who has worked for governments and NGOs, I see a great gap between civil society and governments. During an election campaign, political candidates write up a policy ‘wish-list’ which they pitch to the public to gain support. However, once in power, politicians then have to deal with a different set of power struggle by trying to sway peers to support their policy initiatives and form working groups to start work on it. It is a thorny process. Also, policy priorities can easily shift depending on the climate that the politicians find themselves in. Before his election, President Obama promised to reform national healthcare provisions for his people and fought very hard to see his commitments through, but Republican oppositions made it very difficult for him to pass any legislation through that could possibly win him another term. While he was adamant on working on the healthcare issue, President Obama’s popularity was slipping because not enough attention was paid to solving unemployment and the global economic crisis. This leads me to my next point.

Governments in many countries seem to lack inter-departmental communication. When I was training at the United Nations in New York, I was alarmed to hear many heads of offices complaining about how none of the departments are interlinked. Surely the rise in population has links to refugee issues, climate change and global health risks, so why keep those departments separate? There isn’t a lot of streamlining between government departments and this is why there is that gap between the people and the government. People’s concerns are passed onto one department after another and there is no real result at the end of that long bureaucratic journey. I also believe that many NGOs suffer from ‘tunnel-vision syndrome’ whereby a biased passion for change bypasses logic and neutrality. If NGOs were to ignore opinions and publications from leading well respected think tanks or institutions, it is almost certain that their work will not be taken seriously by government officials.

As the grassroot diplomat, I have taken the views of young people and women to many international summits and conferences and reasoned with officials as a voice of neutrality. Of course I was representing issues that I was deeply passionate about, but matters had to be dealt with a diplomatic demeanour so as to not offend or harm the relationship I was trying to create. Mixing grassroots with diplomacy has rarely been done, but I think it is an effective method when used correctly.

Franco: Not only are you a woman in a world of men but you are also very young in a field, diplomacy, where seniority is traditionally seen as an advantage. Can gender and age be an obstacle to your project?

Rahman-Figueroa: Diplomacy requires an injection of innovation and with enough time perhaps Grassroot Diplomat can flex the rigid diplomatic system that has been in place for centuries. Being a young woman involved in diplomacy may seem daunting to many people, but I hope that being the face of Grassroot Diplomat can break the old stereotype of diplomacy belonging to elder gentlemen. There are many more women entering and representing the diplomatic field. Since 1993, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office committed to achieve 15% female representation in senior-level posts. I predict the number of female British Ambassadors will rise in the next 25 years as this would have provided enough time for female diplomats to climb the ladder. But it is very unusual to see a young person such as myself networking with high-level diplomats.

Where I lack in seniority and wisdom, I make up for with my amazing team of consultants who provide expertise on particular issues not known to me. Former diplomats Hayk Berikyan from Armenia and Charles Crawford from Britain provide much insight into the world of diplomacy, as well as connections to other diplomatic practitioners who may enhance the work and mission of Grassroot Diplomat. Ellee Seymour is a gifted PR practitioner who has done much work with the British government. Christina Mitchell has great practical experience working with grassroots organisations based in Africa and has a rich knowledge of alternative dispute methods when dealing with unstable countries. Syed Ejaz Kabir is an anti-corruption lawyer based in Bangladesh who is vital in providing legal information on how to deal with corrupt governments.

Finally, Adrian Henriques is an expert in corporate responsibility issues and has worked on issues of sustainability with corporations and NGOs alike. With their help and support, I am sure Grassroot Diplomat will go very far.

Franco: Let’s talk a little more about gender. In the past you have been very active in the field of women’s rights –you were for example nominated onto the executive board of the UN-affiliated NGO Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Where do women’s rights fit into your new project? Can you please provide particular examples.

Rahman-Figueroa: The issue of gender and women’s rights is very close to my heart and I am trained to take gender matters into consideration when working on all of my projects. I am very vocal when I notice there is a lack of diversity in an organisation and try to include this analysis into the final outcome. While I was training in diplomacy, I became very aware of Britain’s lack of female Ambassadors. As a young woman aspiring to join the diplomatic service, I felt disheartened by the lack of role models we have in the UK and I made it my mission to learn about the history of women in diplomacy. During that time, I wrote a 15,000 word publication outlining the reasons why women were outcasts in the field and, surprisingly, the Foreign Service enforced very sexist policies that kept women out of this field.

Women first stepped into the diplomatic world as secretaries and typists. Many were wives of diplomats and played important roles in diplomatic banquets and meetings to support the work of their husbands. A policy commonly known as the ‘marriage bar’ instructed single women to resign from the Foreign Service if they were to marry. As a result, no fewer than 25% of newly-wedded women had to leave the service. It wasn’t until the 1970s when the ridiculous marriage bar was lifted and women were able to join the Foreign Service as diplomats, whether they were single, married, or divorced.

My paper highlighted that it took the UK 191 years to finally appoint the first female Head of Mission, and in 2010, only 21.8% of senior management positions from 260 diplomatic missions are filled by women. This figure is quite alarming considering that I see many female diplomats in London-based embassies. My paper was forwarded to the diversity team at the Foreign Office and I will make sure to share my findings with other institutions.

Franco: Last week I listened to a leading disarmament activist at the School of Oriental and African Studies who exposed the view that current gender structures are an impediment to disarmament. Based on your experience, what can disarmament campaigners do to overcome these?

Rahman-Figueroa: I am pretty sure that the activist was referring to gender structures embedded within society. The social dynamics between men and women underpins why inequality between the two sexes exists to this day. The straddle for equality and empowerment has been confronted by the social power structure, known as patriarchy, which provides context and justification for institutionalised gender discrimination against women. When you look at the male to female ratio at the executive team of the UN Secretariat, you will see that only 26% of the team is represented by women. While this is a vast improvement, it isn’t an equal split and the balance of decision-making power is tipped by male leaders who tend to support hard power initiatives to protect their national interest.

The relationship between gender and disarmament isn’t obvious, but from my experiences it is apparent that women’s organisations are better mobilised in supporting peace and disarmament than male-led institutions. Nuclear weapons have strong associations to power and have better approval ratings amongst male peers particularly from countries that thirst for greater stake in global politics. The ‘power’ identity must be disassociated from nuclear weapons and this vision must be embraced by both male and female world leaders. Non-proliferation and disarmament needs to have some ‘sex appeal’ to it in order for decision-makers to seriously consider those avenues as a viable option for nuclear deterrent.

Franco: You have also been involved in climate change summits. Surely policymakers hear the voices and concerns of world citizens and climate change experts, but do they listen?

Rahman-Figueroa: The biggest climate change event that I was involved in was the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen, which unfortunately was one of the most frustrating moments of my life. World leaders were presented with a valuable opportunity to shape a legally binding treaty that was built upon the Kyoto Protocol agreements. Rather than putting aside national interests in exchange for the well-being of our future generation, the summit simply unveiled the inefficiencies of politics. Diplomats sat at the negotiation table with preconceived plans about their stance on climate change which arrested much progress and actual discussion on the issue.

Frustrations were felt by all parties involved and the lack of progress led to 10,000 demonstrators marching the streets of Copenhagen to make their demand for a legally binding treaty clear to decision-makers. So, did they listen? No! While these people marched the streets grabbing media attention from all over the world, decision-makers were stuck in a conference room reinforcing their own national self-interest. It wasn’t until the arrival of President Obama in the final days of the conference that the negotiations moved forward. No one else was bold enough to make some change happen and I don’t think this will change anytime soon.

Franco: What can you tell us about the prospects for UN reform?

Rahman-Figueroa: Reform of the United Nations is vital if the modern world is to be represented fairly and equally. By default, the victors of war became the principal caretakers of the UN as permanent members of the Security Council.

Primarily, as one of the five main organs of the UN structure, the Security Council plays a powerful role in sustaining international peace. Although non-permanent members of the Security Council are said to have ‘equal footing’ to that of permanent members, the veto sets their level of power apart. The veto can be dangerous because, once again, the national interest of states gets in the way of finding global solutions. Once the veto is raised, no further action can be taken regardless of the level of support shown by member states.

This is problematic. For decades, countries like India, Brazil, Japan, and South Africa have tried to maintain some level of power in the UN but the veto system tips the balance of power in favour of permanent Security Council members, which only serves to protect the interests of China, Russia, USA, UK, and France. This isn’t fair, nor is it fair that all countries – with the exception of China – represent Western values and ideologies. Unfortunately, reform is one of those sticky issues that requires the confidence and support of all member states and full provision for change is unlikely when you take into consideration regional conflicts, history and territorial disputes between countries that would more likely block a new candidacy than support it. Diplomacy shouldn’t always be about national interest but rather the interests of its people. That also means accepting solutions that are likely to benefit all states, but that is quite an idealistic statement that may not happen anytime soon.

Franco: Ms Rahman-Figueroa, thank you for answering our questions.

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3 thoughts on “Grassroot Diplomat: The Power of Relationships

  1. This is very interesting. There is a disconnect not only between diplomats and thepublic they serve, but between our elected representatives sand the public who elect them – think of the unprecedented “million man” march through London to stop the invasion of Iraq – totally ignored!

    How does one join this organisation?

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